Sadly, we have to talk about things like officiating. In every sport, it's the zebra in the room...pun intended.
This year, the officiating in the NHL has undergone a bit of an adjustment. The league has been adamant about opening the game back up after years of empty promises about obstruction crackdowns. New officiating head Steven Walkom got things off on the right foot early, making it clear that the obstruction, hooking, holding, etc. (heretofore referred to as "crap") was going to be called and that no letup on that crackdown would be tolerated.
Walkom also did something that officials hardly ever do in hockey or any other sport. He made it clear that he didn't care if his men had to call 15 penalties on one team and three on the other. He didn't want calls to "even up", and he wanted teams called for penalties they committed. It was rare because of the candor - Walkom was basically admitting that officials had spent years trying to even up the power play distribution in games, and he wanted it to stop (are you reading this, Greg Shepherd?).
That said, here comes the test. Now, we get to see how serious these officials are about cleaning up the crap in the game. Will they call 20 hooking penalties in a playoff game if they have to? Or will they let it all go as they used to? Obviously, the company line is that the crackdown will continue. We will have to wait and see starting Friday.
We've already previewed the East. Now, let's see who will make it out of the West.
8. Edmonton Oilers (41-28-13, 95 points)
The Oilers were beaten decisively in the Battle of Alberta, losing the season series to Calgary 5-3, and losing out to the Flames in the Northwest Division by eight points. The Oilers should be thanked, however, for sending The Canadian Scourge to the golf course early this year. I hear that Todd Bertuzzi got enough practice hacking during the season that he actually broke par yesterday. Congratulations, Todd.
Why the Oilers will go far: Edmonton has plenty of speed, and they can hit people, too. Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff both topped 70 points, and Sergei Samsonov was a nice addition at the trade deadline. Ryan Smyth developed into a top goal-scorer, and Jarrett Stoll had a nice season. Chris Pronger got a lot of money from the Oilers for this time of year. He scored 56 points this year and was a great presence on the power play (42 points). The Oilers gave up a first-round draft pick to bring in veteran goaltender Dwayne Roloson, and while the results were somewhat mixed early, Rolie played well down the stretch. With Edmonton's depth and athleticism, they have to hope they can wear down the older Red Wings in the first round.
Why the Oilers will go away: This isn't so much about the Oil. Edmonton can score, and they can defend. While Roloson got a little better, he was only 8-7 with a 2.42 GAA in Edmonton, and that's not going to strike fear in the Red Wings. Edmonton's solid on special teams (8th on the power play, 12th on the penalty kill), but they need to play a more disciplined style against Detroit. The Wings are just too good on the power play for the Oilers to be constantly killing off penalties. Edmonton is a solid eighth seed, but they don't match up well with the Wings in a first-round series because they don't have the defense and goaltending to sufficiently slow the Wings down.
Bottom line: Most people know what I think of the Red Wings. And most people know what I think of Edmonton. So this hurts. I don't see Edmonton being terribly competitive in this series, unless Roloson invokes memories of his play during Minnesota's 2003 playoff run while Detroit experiences a goaltending meltdown. Detroit is too strong for Edmonton, and they'll finish off the Oil in five games.
7. Colorado Avalanche (43-30-9, 95 points)
Even with some veterans who struggled early, and season-long problems in goal, the Avalanche are back in the playoffs. They are, however, a pretty heavy underdog in their opening-round series against Dallas. The Avalanche could be a tough out if they get goaltending, because you know their forwards can score, and they won't back down from a hard-hitting game.
That said, "if they get goaltending" is a pretty big IF for Colorado right now.
Why the Avalanche will go far: Jose Theodore may have fallen off a bit this year, but he's done this before, and he's been able to rebound and produce in the playoffs. If he doesn't, the Avs also have Peter Budaj, and who would have thought Budaj could do what he did in the Olympics? Joe Sakic can still score with the best of them, and Alex Tanguay and Milan Hejduk are a nice supporting cast. Andrew Brunette, a veteran free agent who was let go by Minnesota, produced nearly 70 points. Rob Blake and John-Michael Liles both put up some nice offensive numbers, and Blake rebounded from a rough start to play well defensively after the Olympics.
Why the Avalanche will go away: Theodore and Budaj are inconsistent. The Avalanche aren't particularly strong up front outside of Sakic, Tanguay, and Hejduk. As long as young star Marek Svatos is out, the Avs will suffer up front. Also missing in round one will be Steve Konowalchuk, who could add some experience to the lineup if he were healthy. The defensive corps is very shaky, and that doesn't bode well for the Avs if the goaltending can't come through.
Bottom line: Dallas has a balanced, hard-working team, and they have an elite goaltender in Marty Turco. The Stars present matchup nightmares, especially in goal, for the Avalanche, who haven't yet come close to replacing Patrick Roy. If Theodore can step up, the Avs might be able to hang around for seven games, and they might spring the upset. But the more realistic scenario has Colorado bowing out to Dallas in five games.
6. Anaheim Mighty Ducks (43-27-12, 98 points)
If only the season had started after the Olympics. If that were the case, the Ducks could easily find themselves in the top four of the West. And that way, they'd be able to have home-ice advantage. One of the best moves the Ducks made looked strange at the time. They traded Sergei Fedorov to Columbus, and they did it after Fedorov had played just five games. While the Ducks didn't get much in return, they did open the door for some of their younger players to take over.
And did they ever take over.
Why the Ducks will go far: While free-agent acquisition Teemu Selanne was good for 40 goals and 90 points, the story was the youth in Anaheim. Joffrey Lupul scored 28 goals. Andy McDonald was good for 34 goals and 85 points. Former Ferris State hack Chris Kunitz picked up 41 points. And while the youngsters were learning, steady veteran defenseman Scott Niedermayer proved himself worth every penny the Ducks paid him to sign. He picked up 50 assists and 63 points, and Niedermayer scored 36 points on the power play this season for Anaheim. The Ducks went 11-4-1 in March, and started 4-1 in April, so they really made their playoff charge after the Olympic break.
Why the Ducks will go away: It's not a deal-breaker, but the Ducks did lose three of their last four. While Jean-Sebastien Giguere has played better since the break, the Ducks' netminder doesn't match up well with the Flames in the first round, and Giguere will have a hard time matching what Miikka Kiprusoff can do in goal. Niedermayer is great, but the rest of Anaheim's defense is leaky and not playoff-hardened. Niedermayer will have to log some serious minutes, which he can do, but it won't be easy for him to hold up this ship against the hard, intense forecheck of Calgary.
Bottom line: The Anaheim story is a nice one. They rallied and stormed into the playoffs after a lackluster first 45 games. But they don't match up well with the Flames, and Calgary will end Anaheim's season in six games.
5. Nashville Predators (49-25-8, 106 points)
When this franchise started up, everyone - even the locals - seemed to be skeptical. And those folks got even more skeptical when the Predators struggled early in their history. Before the lockout that cancelled the 2004-2005 season, we started to sense some life in Nashville. The Preds made the playoffs, and they were very competitive before losing a six-game series to Detroit. After the lockout, the Predators almost immediately showed their willingness to compete, as they signed free-agent star Paul Kariya. That move came after they traded for former Blackhawk Steve Sullivan during their run to the playoffs in 2003-2004 and retained Sullivan in free agency.
Now, the Predators have veteran leadership in Sullivan and Kariya, and they have complimented them with some solid young talent. Unfortunately for Nashville, their playoff chances were dealt a huge blow last week, when it was learned that starting goaltender Tomas Vokoun would miss the postseason with blood clot issues. Now, the fourth-seeded Predators have gone from being a favorite to being an underdog, home ice notwithstanding.
Why the Predators will go far: Sullivan and Kariya are an impressive one-two punch. 62 goals and 153 points combined, with 80 of those points coming on the power play. Martin Erat and Scott Hartnell are nice complimentary players, and the Predators have some good defensemen with guys like Kimmo Timonen and Marek Zidlicky. The team has faith in backup goalie Chris Mason, whose role certainly became more significant with the announcement about Vokoun.
Why the Predators will go away: Sullivan and Zidlicky are banged up, and neither may be 100 percent for the playoffs. The Vokoun situation is a bad one for Nashville. The Predators rode Vokoun all season for a reason. They may say they have faith in Mason, and they may really have faith in Mason, but the Predators know this is a problem. They're not as deep, and they're not playing as well as first-round opponent San Jose, whose hard-checking forwards could present a matchup issue for Nashville's top line.
Bottom line: Nashville would be a great story if they could make a run, but that is unlikely. Sullivan and Zidlicky are question marks, and no one knows what Mason is going to do. San Jose won't put Nashville away easily, but the Sharks will eliminate the Predators in six games.
4. San Jose Sharks (44-27-11, 99 points)
When San Jose started making their run towards the playoffs, they were fighting with the likes of Minnesota, Edmonton, and Colorado for positioning. While the Wild fell off the map, the Sharks got hot and blew past everyone at the bottom of the West playoff race. San Jose ended up fifth thanks to a 16-4-2 run since the trade deadline. Included in that is an eight-game winning streak that was only broken up by a loss to Los Angeles in a meaningless game at the end of the regular season.
Why the Sharks will go far: They're hot, and their top players are hitting on all cylinders. Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo combined for 76 goals and 185 points, as Thornton went from Boston outcast to San Jose superstar. Cheechoo doubled his previous single-season high with 56 goals this season. Patrick Marleau also topped 80 points, and Nils Eckman scored 20+ goals while also posting a +20 on the season. The Sharks have a great combination of goaltenders with Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskela. Toskela is the likely starter, as he played very well late in the season when Nabokov struggled a bit.
Why the Sharks will go away: They're a one-line team. While Thornton and Cheechoo are playing at another level right now, San Jose is extremely susceptible to a team that can slow down that top line. There's no way to say that the second or third lines are good enough to beat a team that shuts down that top line. The Sharks aren't terrible defensively, but they're not outstanding, either. It's a group that lacks a lot of experience, but they have some good, physical players on the blue line.
Bottom line: San Jose is good enough to get by Nashville, who has been decimated by injuries and the loss of their starting goaltender due to a blood problem. The Sharks will meet their match in the second round, though, as Detroit will knock them out in six games.
3. Dallas Stars (53-23-6, 112 points)
Like Colorado (Dallas' first-round opponent), the Stars weren't expected to be here. The older and hideously expensive Stars were going to lose a few top players because of the salary cap, and the Stars weren't going to have the young bodies ready to take charge and keep the team on top.
Dallas won 53 games, ran away with the Pacific Division, and were the best team in the West not named "Detroit" this season. Now, they have to be considered a major threat in the West playoffs, because while they have adjusted well to the new-age NHL, the Stars still play quality defense and they have one of the best goaltenders in the world in Marty Turco.
Why the Stars will go far: The Stars have plenty of reasons to be confident. Jere Lehtinen, best known as a defensive forward, has 33 goals (!). Mike Modano has 77 points and is +23. Sergei Zubov is the top-scoring defenseman with 71 points. Youngsters Jussi Jokinen and Phillippe Boucher have held their own, though one has to wonder how well Jokinen will perform in the playoffs, where there won't be any shootouts. The Stars have a stud in goal in Turco, who may have slipped a bit (.898 save percentage suggests it's possible), but is still equal parts fundamentally sound and scintillating.
Why the Stars will go away: The Stars' penalty kill was pretty good, but the power play wasn't. It ranked 20th in the NHL this season. They still rely on their defense and Turco to win games, as they just don't score a ton of goals. They are vulnerable to hard-charging, athletic teams who have deep lines and tough skill players. Dallas simply isn't as potentially explosive offensively as other West contenders Detroit and Calgary, and both teams play as well defensively as Dallas does.
Bottom line: The Stars are good enough to move past Colorado in the first round, and they could make it look easy. However, the conference semifinals bring a likely matchup with Calgary, and the Flames will oust the Stars in one of the best series of the playoffs.
2. Detroit Red Wings (58-16-8, 124 points)
To a lesser extent than Dallas and Colorado, there were serious questions being asked about the ability of the Red Wings to compete with the top teams in the NHL. The answer? Emphatic.
There isn't much that Detroit doesn't do well, and many people seem to think that the best hope for everyone else is that the Wings get worn down on their way to the Finals.
Why the Wings will go far: Let's see. Top power play. Third-best penalty kill. Top road record in the NHL. Can score in bunches. Can defend against anyone. What doesn't Detroit do well? Captain Steve Yzerman had an 11-game point streak down the stretch. The Wings have gotten at least one point in 20 straight games between March 9 and April 17. Detroit's only regulation loss since March 7 came in the season finale against Nashville, a meaningless game. Seven Detroit players (including ageless defenseman Chris Chelios) are +20 or better (!). Four Detroit players (Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Brendan Shanahan, Niklas Lidstrom) are at 80 or more points. Eight Detroit players scored 20 or more goals. Oh, and Manny Legace posted a save percentage of .915 while winning 37 games. They're not bad.
Why the Wings will go away: Excuse any typos. I'm busy reaching for the straws over there. OK. I got my mitts on a few of these. The Wings still aren't getting any younger. After Calgary wore them down two years ago, the possibility still exists that Detroit could be worn down by younger, more physical teams with quality goaltending. Unfortunately for the Wings, there are at least two other teams in the West (Calgary, Dallas) that fit that mold, and one other team (San Jose) that thinks they fit that mold. Finally, goaltending will be a question mark for this team until Manny Legace gets to touch the Cup.
Bottom line: For Detroit, it's all about staying the course and taking advantage of opportunities. The Wings probably can't afford to allow early-round series to be extended, as it's not a cakewalk for this team to move on to the Finals. Detroit skates past Edmonton, has a harder time with San Jose, and then the Wings fall in a seven-game West final series to...
1. Calgary Flames (46-25-11, 103 points)
After the improbable run of 2004, coach/GM Darryl Sutter decided not to stand pat post-lockout. The Flames brought in Tony Amonte, Daymond Langkow, and Roman Hamrlik. Sutter also traded for Kristian Huselius during the season. Results? The Flames won the tight Northwest Division race, and Calgary appears primed for another long playoff run.
The red-clad, rabid fans of Calgary have fastened their seat belts. Here we go.
Why the Flames will go far: They have it all. Jarome Iginla scored 35 goals and was the offensive catalyst. Langkow fit in perfectly, posting almost 60 points. Amonte was a non-factor for much of the season, but he managed to contribute a 40-point season and he played well down the stretch. Besides star goaltender Kiprusoff, who tied for the league lead in wins and posted a .923 save percentage, the Flames are very good on defense. Rookie Dion Phaneuf doesn't play like a rookie, and Robyn Regehr, Jordan Leopold, Andrew Ference, and Hamrlik have all been strong on the blue line. With how strong the Flames' penalty kill is, you're probably better off just declining penalties. There might not be a harder-working team in the league.
Why the Flames will go away: The Flames aren't deep offensively. If a team can shut down Iginla (a pretty big "if"), then they're probably going to shut down the Flames. They don't have a lot of speed outside of Iginla, though their grit usually makes up for it. Can this team handle expectations? They didn't have any in 2004, and now they're considered one of the favorites in the NHL. If the weight becomes too much, the Flames may be prone for an upset.
Bottom line: The top three here is very good. But the Flames' defense, goaltending, and work ethic are superior, and the Flames will oust Anaheim, Dallas, and Detroit on their way to play the Buffalo Sabres in the Stanley Cup Finals.
WESTERN CONFERENCE FIRST ROUND SCHEDULE (courtesy NHL.com)
Detroit vs Edmonton
Game 1: Friday at Detroit, 7pm ET (OLN, CBC)
Game 2: Sunday at Detroit, 1pm ET (NBC, CBC)
Game 3: Tuesday at Edmonton, 10pm ET (OLN, CBC)
Game 4: April 27 at Edmonton, 9:30pm ET (OLN, CBC)
Game 5: April 29 at Detroit, 3pm ET (NBC, CBC)
Game 6: May 1 at Edmonton, TBA (OLN, CBC)
Game 7: May 3 at Detroit, 7pm ET (OLN, CBC)
Dallas vs Colorado
Game 1: Saturday at Dallas, 3pm ET (NBC)
Game 2: Monday at Dallas, 9pm ET (OLN, TSN)
Game 3: Wednesday at Colorado, 9:30pm ET (OLN, TSN)
Game 4: April 28 at Colorado, 10pm ET (OLN, TSN)
Game 5: April 30 at Dallas, 2pm ET (NBC)
Game 6: May 2 at Colorado, TBA (OLN, TSN)
Game 7: May 4 at Dallas, TBA (OLN, TSN)
Calgary vs Anaheim
Game 1: Friday at Calgary, 10pm ET (OLN, CBC)
Game 2: Sunday at Calgary, 9pm ET (OLN, CBC)
Game 3: Tuesday at Anaheim, 10pm ET (CBC)
Game 4: April 27 at Anaheim, 10pm ET (CBC)
Game 5: April 29 at Calgary, 10pm ET (OLN, CBC)
Game 6: May 1 at Anaheim, TBA (OLN, CBC)
Game 7: May 3 at Calgary, TBA (OLN, CBC)
Nashville vs San Jose
Game 1: Friday at Nashville, 8pm ET (TSN)
Game 2: Sunday at Nashville, 1pm ET (NBC, TSN)
Game 3: Tuesday at San Jose, 10:30pm ET (TSN)
Game 4: April 27 at San Jose, 10:30pm ET (TSN)
Game 5: April 30 at Nashville, 8:30pm ET (OLN, TSN)
Game 6: May 2 at San Jose, 10:30pm (TBA)
Game 7: May 4 at Nashville, TBA (TBA)