Tuesday, April 13, 2010

2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: A Hard Left

If you look at the NHL's Western Conference, you'll find a pretty tough field from top to bottom. This isn't about conference superiority, either. Instead, it's just pointing out the facts.

I mean, be honest. Who would you rather have your favorite team face in the first round ... the West No. 8 seed Colorado (43 wins, 95 points, plus-11 in goals), or the East No. 8 seed Montreal (39 wins, 88 points, minus-six in goals)?

It's not a tough call, really.

The West is loaded. Hell, Montreal would have tied Dallas for 12th in the West, and they were good enough to make the playoffs in the East.

Colorado is dangerous, despite the way they limped into the playoffs. Two full days of rest, and a relatively short road trip, and the Avalanche should be fresh and ready to go against traditional choke-artist San Jose.

Let's take a look at the West.

(Note: These rankings are based on what I feel is the probability of each team making a run at the Stanley Cup Finals. They are not to be considered a locked-in look at my first-round picks. Those are coming on FanHouse Wednesday, if I ever get the whole thing figured out.)

8. Colorado Avalanche
This has been a renaissance of sorts for the Avs, who sent Joe Sakic off into retirement with a great Opening Night ceremony, marked the occasion by beating the hell out of the Sharks, and haven't really looked back much. Yes, they fell from their perch atop the Northwest Division, but people -- like a certain idiot I know pretty well -- thought they would drop off the face of the earth, and that never happened.

That said, they're overmatched in these playoffs. They don't have enough scoring to make a long run, and goalie Craig Anderson has been ordinary too often lately. Not only that, but if you're a believer in experience helping a team this time of year, you're probably not much of a believer in the Avalanche.

7. Los Angeles Kings
Terry Murray had done yeoman's work in Los Angeles, guiding a very young team through some lean years and into the playoffs for the first time in a long time.

However, this is an inexperienced team, outside of Rob Scuderi and Ryan Smyth, and the goaltending hasn't been that good down the stretch. Anyone who watched them lose some of the games they lost in the last ten can attest to this.

Jonathan Quick has a bright future, but this is not his time, and Vancouver is not the type of opponent to be screwing around with when you don't have confidence in the netminder.

6. Nashville Predators
You know what you're going to get out of these guys. They give you a good, hard, honest 60-minute effort virtually every night. They usually don't beat themselves, and they have a very good group of defenseman in front of goaltender Pekka Rinne.

However, can they score enough goals to advance through a rugged tournament?

The Predators need to lean on their veteran types, guys like captain Jason Arnott, who has a Cup-winning goal to his credit back when he was a Devil. Steve Sullivan needs to play well, and they need big performances out of longtime Predators David Legwand and Martin Erat.

It's a franchise that has yet to win a playoff series, and it doesn't look like they're going to start this year.

5. San Jose Sharks
I don't care how many points they accumulated in the regular season. It doesn't matter.

Until the Sharks win in the playoffs, they can't be trusted. Not only that, but what is different about this team that makes you think they can be trusted? Rob Blake has done a nice job as the captain, but is he so much better at it than Patrick Marleau was that the same team that urinated away the top seed last year is going to suddenly figure it out now?

Not only that, but after watching the Olympics, one has to be convinced that Evgeni Nabokov is more of a problem than the numbers would maybe indicate. For some reason, he hasn't led a team to a big playoff run, and maybe it falls more on his shoulders than those of others.

It might take him walking away as a free agent before we'll ever know the problem in San Jose.

4. Phoenix Coyotes
Pretty whiteout aside, this team is more than a playoff gimmick.

While the courts decided their fate, and the fans flocked in droves to other places besides Jobing.com Arena, the Coyotes plugged away and plugged away.

Fans started looking at the team a little more. They kept winning, and more and more fans showed up for games.

Now, the Coyotes are in the playoffs. They have speed (Matthew Lombardi), veteran hunger (Shane Doan, Ed Jovanovski), and goaltending (Ilya Bryzgalov). They are a confident group that earned that No. 4 seed.

They're not experienced, though. They have a lot of veterans, but not a lot of guys have played in these games. They know what to expect because everyone tells them about it, but can they prepare the way that players who have been through the battles can prepare?

3. Vancouver Canucks
I picked these guys to win the West at the start of the year. While the temptation was there to pick them here, I can't.

The Sedins are fantastic. Alex Burrows -- when he's not making an ass of himself by embellishing -- is a great compliment. Guys like Ryan Kesler, Mason Raymond (UMD!), and Christian Ehrhoff have had very good seasons.

Roberto Luongo is Roberto Luongo.

However, there is that Game 6 against Chicago last year. Is that the motivation Luongo needs to maintain focus and have the run of his life these next two months?

Or is it the kryptonite?

He's as capable of a clunker game as any goalie in this field, so the Canucks might want to prepare for another game like that 7-5 loss that doomed them to the golf course last spring.

2. Detroit Red Wings
The two-time West champs started slowly, endured injuries, changed goaltenders to go with a rookie, and still made the playoffs as a No. 5 seed. Not only that, but they managed to scare the living daylights out of everyone in the NHL with their play since the Olympics.

They've won every kind of game since the break, and they've hardened themselves for the playoffs by playing seven straight one-goal games down the stretch. They won five of them and lost just one in regulation, so you know they are ready for what the playoffs bring.

You also know this most experienced group won't be surprised by anything they see, including how white it is in Glendale Wednesday night. They won't be scared, intimidated, or knocked off their focus.

Good luck eliminating this team.

In the end, there appears to only be one team capable of knocking them out, and it's ...

1. Chicago Blackhawks
This time of year, don't get cute. Don't pick upsets for the sake of picking upsets. If you don't see anything there, pick the favorite.

I see something with the Sharks. I see a team that's not tasted playoff success.

Chicago has. They took down Calgary and Vancouver last year before succumbing to Detroit, a team they weren't ready to face.

Despite that fact, they kept virtually every game close. It's a good sign for this year, because one more year of experience, and the addition of Marian Hossa, means Chicago is ready to compete for a Stanley Cup.

Remember, Hossa missed around 30 games this year with his shoulder surgery. He's fresher than guys on Detroit that played all 82 after long runs the previous two seasons. He's also ready to prove he can be the tonic, and not the toxin, for a Cup-winning team.

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