NHL Playoff Preview: Fans prepare for Western Conf. match-ups - FOX 35 News Orlando

NHL Playoff Preview: Fans prepare for great Western Conference match-ups

Updated: April 09, 2012 12:52 PM CDT
CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

This has been a highly contested and entertaining NHL season. No one should be shocked if there are a couple of upsets in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. The Blackhawks playoff journey will have a different twist this year as they will open on the road in Phoenix, Thursday evening.

As some might realize the Coyotes play a similar type of game as the Predators who have given the Hawks fits. Nashville and the Coyotes aren't identical, the Predators score more goals. No doubt there are some strong similarities as each team has solid goalkeeping and they play a structured game. Maybe to the surprise of some, the Coyotes have allowed six fewer goals than the Predators this season.

The team which survives and is crowned Western Conference Champion will probably benefit from the following. The club going to represent the West in the Stanley Cup Finals will need to not suffer a significant injury. The match-ups are so close this year that one injury could sway the outcome. Another factor which will play a big role in deciding the Conference representative is they will probably have to play in at least one shorter series.

Playoff hockey is a battle of attrition and often the team that wins the Cup plays in the fewest playoff games. It should also be noted, only two clubs, Nashvilleand Detroit will benefit from an opening round series which will involve short flight times.

Here are my thoughts on Western Conference match-ups. The teams listed first have home ice advantage in the opening round.

Vancouver-Los Angeles

The Canucks are the most balanced team in the Western Conference. They have won the President's Trophy for the best record in the entire NHL for the second consecutive year. It should be noted, since 1986, only seven teams with the highest point total have gone on to win the Stanley
Cup. In that same period, the club with the best overall record has been eliminated five times in the opening round.

Any team with a head coach who is not short on ego, and a starting goalie who often seems to not have enough self confidence, could be vulnerable. Maybe the biggest factor working against the Canucks is they have played in the Cup Finals last season. Now they could face another grueling post-season and that may prove to be too much to handle.

The L.A. Kings do have one of the top goaltenders in the NHL and they will need Jonathan Quick to be at his best. The Canucks come in as the hottest team in the conference going 8-1-1 in their final 10 games. L.A. will look to play tight checking, low scoring games and hope Quick can be the difference.

At the trade deadline, the Kings added a blue chip player in Jeff Carter. Oddly, teams which make first unit acquisitions at the deadline seldom go on to win the Stanley Cup. L.A. will be looking to break that trend.

St. Louis-San Jose

The Blues will be making their first playoff appearance since being swept in 2009. This team is led by head coach Ken Hitchcock who knows how to adapt a club to a particular style to succeed. The Blues have two outstanding goalkeepers and have the lowest team GAA of any club in the NHL.

A big issue is whether the Blues peaked too soon as they finished the season with only a 4-3-3 record in their last 10 games.

I asked Andy Strickland, an old colleague, who has covered the Blues like a blanket for years for his opinion. Andy writes his NHL thoughts on his own website, TrueHockey.com.

In response to if the Blues peaked too soon Andy replied, "I don't view this group as peaking too soon. They earned their way to 109 points and have been as consistent as any team in the NHL."

Another concern for the Blues is whether expectations are too high and they will wilt under playoff pressure. To that issue Strickland commented, "Any young team is vulnerable especially a club who isn't a proven playoff team. There's always a chance of experiencing a letdown when facing more experience."

No doubt the Blues will have a great deal of pressure on them to prove their season wasn't a fluke, but the Sharks will feel some heat also.

San Jose GM Doug Wilson made big changes last summer and now the Sharks will need a long playoff run or else. My take is the Sharks need to go deep into the playoffs or this club will face many more changes this off season. San Jose hasn't been able to put it all together and ownership may be running out of patience. Besides making player changes this off season,Wilson might also be running out of time.

San Jose rallied to win in overtime versus the Kings in the last game of the season. The comeback win means the Sharks will face a club which swept them in the regular season. The Sharks have struggled mightily against the Blues losing all four games, two by shutouts.

Phoenix - Chicago

In some ways, the Blackhawks may have gotten lucky in their first round draw. Before anyone counts this series as a win for Chicago, let me remind you the Coyotes are a well-coached bunch which could give the Hawks fits.

This match-up will be gone over in detail on Wednesday.

Nashville-Detroit

This series will be fun to watch. It features a battle-tested Red Wings team against a fine squad from Nashville. Both clubs have top goaltending. Many might believe the edge would go to the Predators Pekka Rinne, but the Wings Jimmy Howard probably needs to be given more credit. Although Howard played in 16 fewer games, his save percentage is almost identical to Rinne and his GAA is better.

The Predators went out and made some significant additions at the trade deadline. The Preds are still trying to get the respect around the NHL they deserve. A Stanley Cup win will provide the recognition and will also make it easier to sell out games next season. Nashville ownership could benefit a great deal with additional season ticket sales.

The pressure factor shouldn't matter much to the Red Wings as they are a steady, veteran club. This series could be a long battle and that might benefit whichever team faces the winner in the next round.

To say this is a Cup-or-bust year for the Predators might be a bit extreme. Although with the coming contract negotiations this summer for defensemen Ryan Suter and Shea Weber, the Preds may look like a different team come fall.

Even if Suter resigns in Nashville, the complexion of the club would change. Suter will command a salary of close to $7 million, which could mean the Preds will have three very high priced players on their roster. In the salary cap age, three $7 million players represent a big challenge for any general manager constructing a team.

In these parts, the Predators get a lot of respect because they have played so well versus the Hawks this season. Nashville is very good team which is well-coached. That said It could be Nashville's status has been somewhat inflated, especially by Hawk fans.

Although the Blackhawks finished with three fewer points on the season, Chicago played the final 22 games without Jonathan Toews.Nashville also only finished two points ahead of Detroit as the two clubs split their season series.

One thing is certain, the Predators will face a lot of pressure to prove they can make a long playoff run. After the loss to the Blackhawks on Saturday, the Red Wings will have to open on the road. The longer the series goes it likely favorsDetroit, but they haven't been a great road team this season.

On Wednesday the road to the Cup for Chicago will be discussed. By that time the injury status of Toews and others should be better understood.

Follow me on Twitter @AlCimaglia

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