Being an Eastern Conference gal, my uncertainty with the West makes for even more intriguing playoff hockey. The once dormant franchises of the Central and Pacific divisions are now top seeds with their roots firmly planted into the ground, with the Coyotes, Blues and Predators all with home ice advantage. With high expectations from the fans and upper management alike, the pressure is on in the Western Conference cooker.
1. Vancouver Canucks vs. 8. Los Angeles Kings
Two Presidents Trophies don't equal a Stanley Cup, so the Canucks are out to claim what they know should be theirs. Ending the regular season on a high note having gone 8-1-1, Vancouver have another reason to be excited as Daniel Sedin makes his return to the lineup after a bad hit by Duncan Keith took him out over 3 weeks ago. This is a big problem for the Kings who rely largely on the exquisite play of goalie Jonathan Quick, who lead the league with 10 shutouts. He's bailed them out of many low-scoring affairs as the Kings are downright dirty when it comes to producing; with just 194 goals this season, only the Minnesota Wild had fewer goals than them. The season series was split and historically these two teams have become familiar with one another, it'll be the second time in three years they face off in the post season.
Favouring: The Canucks
2. St. Louis Blues vs. 7. San Jose Sharks
The Sharks have had so many opportunities as a top seed to get to the finals, but they've squandered them all and are now on the bottom looking up. Looking up at the Blues, who are playing their best hockey having clinched the Central division for the first time in 11 years. With the best goaltending in the league with Brian Elliot and Jaroslav Halak, the Blues are even better playing at Scottrade Center where they have 30 wins. Although many Blues lack playoff experience, they swept the Sharks in the season series 4-0 and outscored them 11-3. SJ's best bet is on the power play where they ranked 2nd, but the Blues aren't far behind ranking 7th on the PK. Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau all had 30-goal seasons and need their top 2 lines to stay sharp. Despite solid studs between the pipes the Blues need to up their production value; leading scorer and team captain David Backes had 54 points - barely enough to crack the league's Top 75.
Favouring: The Blues
3. Phoenix Coyotes vs. 6. Chicago Blackhawks
The Coyotes may have home ice advantage but the Blackhawks were the better team. Similar to the situation with Florida and New Jersey in the Eastern Conference, the Hawks will have to travel to Glendale, Arizona to face a team that amassed fewer points. The Blackhawks are an offensive powerhouse putting up 248 goals this year, 32 more than the Yotes. Depth will play a key role as the Blackhawks have lines and lines of quality players. Phoenix goalie Mike Smith is also a key component to Coyote success - he's stopped 190 of his last 192 shots to help finish the season with 5 straight wins. Chicago needs to stay away from special teams situations - their power play and penalty kill were among the worst in the league so keeping the game at even strength is a must. Should the return of Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews occur (he's also been out due to concussion), which seems likely, Coyote's captain Shane Doan will have to out-do him in order to move on.
Only because I hate seeing struggling franchises struggle when they finally have success. There's a solid chance Smith could get rattled by the likes of Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa should the tighter Phoenix defense crumble.... but despite Chicago's ability to score, they let in a lot of goals too. The Coyotes took the season series 3-1 but they haven't played each other since early February. Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford laces up but will have to outshine Smith should he maintain his composure, hopefully Dave Bolland doesn't have too many distracting tricks up his sleeve.
4. Nashville Predators vs. 5. Detroit Red Wings
I feel bad for anyone that has to face the Red Wings. Not only do they make it to the playoffs every year (well, for the last 21 years), they make it to the second round almost every time too. Now itty bitty expansion team Nashville get to take on an Original Six Goliath that rarely take no for an answer. While the Preds have made second half acquisitions that have no doubt improved their team, they need to capitalize on their youth to outlast some of Detroit's dinosaurs. Alexander Radulov, the Kostitsyn brothers and franchise star Shea Weber are in tough now that Nik Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and goalie Jimmy Howard are back in tip top shape. Fortunately the Wings are weak on the road (17-21-3), which is a good thing for Preds goalie Pekka Rinne who has been outstanding this season.
Favouring: The Red Wings
Defensive masterminds Shea Weber and Ryan Suter have fallen short in the season series against the Red Wings, which Detroit handled 4-2. With youth comes inexperience, something the Red Wings don't know much about. While this series may prove to be one of the more entertaining ones, the Predators will have to play their best hockey to keep up with the Wings. I see Mike Fisher's wife Carrie Underwood corralling the crowd in Nashville and igniting a serious spark to push the series to 7 games... but Jimmy Howard and the gang will show Nashville who really is the American Idol.