Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Western Conference Preview

NHL Playoffs Preview 2012

The most exciting part of the year has arrived, the quest for Lord Stanley's Cup. Sixteen teams remain in the hunt including the defending champion Boston Bruins. Let's have a closer look at this year's opening round match-ups and see if we can find a bit of value to have a punt, or something silly to bet with your mates. We'll finish with the West.


#1 Vancouver Canucks (H: 27-10-4, A: 24-12-5, 111pts)
#8 Los Angeles Kings (H: 22-14-5, A: 18-13-10, 95pts)

What do you do when your team loses Game 7 of a Stanley Cup Finals on home ice? Riot? No, but that's Vancouver's usual answer. Complain about the referees and the other team cheating? No, that's Montreal. The answer is you rebuild, you salvage the good parts from last season and you get rid of the dead weight and find some new parts to make your hockey team work. Credit to them, that's what the Canucks have done, their success has been built on an abundance of skill and a good Power Play, 3rd best amongst the playoff teams. They've also added a bit more grit, something they lacked as the Bruins dismantled them in Game 7. They added Sami Pahlsson, Steven Reinprecht and Zack Kassian and won another President's Trophy, the game plan seems to be the same as last year, but the goaltending has a slight change as Cory Schneider has stepped up and has a better winning percentage, goals against average and save percentage, so barring any Luongo moments, the Canucks are built to go deep.
Key Man: Henrik Sedin, the captain was anonymous in the Finals last year with 1 point, and after leasing the league in assists with 67, he has to be more involved if Vancouver are going to go the distance.

Emerging from the tightest division in the West are the Kings, they were only 2 points off the #3 seed, and as a reward they get to face the reigning Western champs. It's a tough ask and if they're going to have any chance, they have to be disciplined and keep Vancouver off the PP. That said, their penalty killing unit is the 3rd best of the remaining teams, but if you give the Canucks enough opportunities, they'll bury you. Anze Kopitar was the stand out King this season amassing 25 goals and 51 assists. In order to beat Vancouver, LA will need to have their goalie at his best, and he has been outstanding this year. Jonathan Quick leads the league in shutouts with 10 and has a 1.95 GAA and .929 save percentage. He will need to bring those numbers into the postseason, otherwise there could be a slaughter in this series.
Key Man: Jonathan Quick, needs to maintain his regular season form and allow his team-mates to beat Vancouver the same way Tim Thomas did last season.

FIRST GAME: Wednesday 10.30pm ET, NBC
PREDICTION: Progress as usual, Vancouver win in four games. (17/2 @ Bet365)
EXOTIC BET: Vancouver to score over 6.5 Power Play goals

#2 St. Louis Blues (H: 30-6-5, A: 19-16-6, 109pts)
#7 San Jose Sharks (H: 26-12-3, A: 17-17-7, 96pts)

St. Louis rely on a stellar home record and some mean goaltending, good for success in the playoffs usually, but they struggle at times for offense. In David Backes they have a player being talked about in the Selke Trophy reckoning (that Trophy is Bergeron's, so don't even think about it) and he's also led them in goals and points. The only thing I have against St. Louis is the fact that they have two excellent goaltenders, yes I know, pretty counter-intuitive, but stick with me. This time of the season is all about consistency and Jaroslav Halak has only played 45 games, Brian Elliott has played the other 37, and although both goalies have a sub 2.00 GAA the question remains, who is the number 1 goalie? The last  Cup-winning team to have a similar 2 goalie problem was the 2008 Red Wings, and this Blues team just isn't as good. They do however have in their favour Ken Hitchcock as coach, who has steadied the ship this season and turned St. Louis into contenders and he already has a Cup to his name, so he knows how to win this thing.
Key Man: Kevin Shattenkirk, last year he was an All-Star in Colorado, this year he's been a big part of the Blues' success, he needs to shut down the Sharks attacking threat and provide some offense at the other end.

San Jose scrapped their way into the playoffs despite trading Devon Setoguchi and Dany Heatley, they still had Joe Thornton and Logan Couture to drag them to the big show. Joe Pavelski was 3rd in the league in faceoff percentage which becomes important at this time of year, and Antti Niemi was solid in goal with his experience as a Cup winner priceless on this team along with Dan Boyle who came the other way in the Setoguchi trade with Minnesota. Can they go deep, maybe. Will they go deep, probably not. They'll be scrappy and try to nick games by the odd goal, but their dead last penalty kill worries me, and even although they have a strong PP, it's the PK that wins championships, just ask Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand.
Key Man: Joe Thornton: captain fantastic has seen his old side win the Cup last year, so he'd love to succeed them, and this is one of his last chances.

FIRST GAME: Thursday 7.30pm ET, CNBC
PREDICTION: Stingy defenses, probably rivalling Florida v New Jersey for the most boring first round series, Blues win in five games (4/1 @ Bet365)
EXOTIC BET: Total Power Play goals in the series under 4.5

#3 Phoenix Coyotes (H: 22-13-6, A: 20-14-7, 97pts)
#6 Chicago Blackhawks (H: 27-8-6, A: 18-18-5, 101 pts)

The Coyotes got over the trade of Ilya Bryzgalov by adding Mike Smith from the Lightning and he's been excellent for one of the worst offensive teams left in the West. They had a stellar February going 11-0-1 and they won their last 5 games to win the Pacific division. Ray Whitney, despite being part of almost every trade rumour at the deadline, stayed in Phoenix and led them in points, assists and plus/minus. This is a strong team, with the emphasis on the team, and they'll need to be that to beat the Hawks. This is likely Phoenix's last season before hopefully moving to Quebec.
Key Man: Shane Doan, has to prove why he's considered in everybody's Norris Trophy shortlists and deal with Chicago's multitude of attacking talents.

The Blackhawks are two years removed from their Cup triumph and have kept intact a large part of that team. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa are the star names, and although Toews missed some of the season he led the league in faceoff percentage at 59.4%. As the Hawks play in the toughest division in the East, they are the #6 seed despite finishing the season 11-2-4 and decent goaltending from Corey Crawford gives them a chance this year. The main issue Chicago has is their woeful special teams. They are 15th of the playoff teams in Power Play efficiency and 15th on the PK. The 78.1% kill could be their killer and they will need to find a way to shut the back door, or keep it 5 on 5. If not this team may struggle to put together another championship run before Toews, Kane and Duncan Keith have to re-sign.
Key Man: Patrick Sharp, at the heart of everything good Chicago does offensively, he has to put his stamp on the series for Chicago to progress.

FIRST GAME: Thursday 10pm ET, NBC
PREDICTION: A back and forth series, the pick of the West first-round, Chicago win in seven games (9/2 @ Bet365)
EXOTIC BET: Coyotes to score more total goals in the series

#4 Nashville Predators (H: 26-10-5, A: 22-16-3, 104 pts)
#5 Detroit Red Wings (H: 31-7-3, A: 17-21-3, 102pts)

Nashville are built on strong goaltending from Pekka Rinne who led the league with 43 wins, an excellent Power Play at 21.6% and a strong record on their own rink. Add to that Patric Hornqvist's 27 goals and 5 other 15+ goalscorers, they have a pretty balanced offense, able to cause problems for most teams. They have a previous Cup winner in Hal Gill and they should be good to go. What's stopping them, well they don't have a great deal of playoff experience as a group. Last season's win over Anaheim was Nashville's first series win in franchise history, and their opponents are the most successful US team in playoff history, tough task, but I think they can raise their intensity to play with the big boys.
Key Man: Pekka Rinne, has to keep them in the series, especially with Detroit's talent laden line-up.

Detroit is arguably the most talented team in all of hockey. Pavel Datsyuk is a magician, Henrik Zetterberg is also capable of magic, and Valtteri Filppula can change the focus of a game in an instant. So why are the only the #5 seed if they're so good, i hear you ask? They stink away from the Joe, that's why, they have a losing record away from their fortress. So while the octopuses will be flying onto the ice at home, Jimmy Howard will most likely be sprawled in a similar fashion during games in Nashville. They've got a chance, but they will have to nick at least one game away from Detroit and they haven't looked likely to do that so far this season.
Key Man: Valterri Filppula, he's a 23-43-66 man this season and having tasted Cup triumph in 2008, he  needs to step up and join Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Lidstrom as a Detroit hero, before the latter turns into a pumpkin (not really, Nick just has to retire this summer, he may think it, but he's not Gordie Howe)

FIRST GAME: Wednesday 8pm ET, CNBC
PREDICTION: Predictable home team dominance, Nashville win in seven games (4/1 @ Bet365)
EXOTIC BET: Total goals scored in the series under 30.5

That's us for the first round, hopefully there'll be plenty of talking points, and I'll see you back here for a Round 2 playoff in a couple of weeks.

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