Tuesday April 12th, 2011

The Cup-favorite Canucks must weather their playoff nemesis. (Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

The chase for the Stanley Cup begins on Wednesday and there is often a clear-cut favorite -- or  favorites -- this year's playoff field seems more wide-open than at any time in the last few seasons.

It's hard to say any team can be considered the kind of pre-playoff Cup pick that, for example, the Red Wings or Penguins have been in recent springs. None of the 16 teams come into this tournament without significant strengths or significant questions. The first round is especially fraught with danger for higher-seeded teams. In fact, in the last three seasons, 10 of the 24 first round series were won by the lower seed.

One of our late March posts focused specifically on goaltending for the teams in contention, and now we can take a little broader look at the matchups and offer some brief thoughts -- nothing too comprehensive here -- on how things might play out in the first round. Here's a look at the Western Conference. (CLICK HERE for some thoughts on the Eastern Conference first round.)

Canucks (1) vs. Blackhawks (8)

For a good chunk of this season, the Canucks were the best team in the NHL and they deservedly finished on top of the pile with room to spare. They got stronger as the campaign progressed, contending with a plague of injuries to their defense corps and not wavering. Their depth at every position and determination to succeed has to be the envy of the rest of the league. But there are new challenges ahead and the Blackhawks, who have knocked Vancouver out the last two years, would love to make it a hat trick and derail the Canucks' Stanley Cup run before it gets started.

Just how much the Hawks are in the Canucks' heads is uncertain. Would a split in the first two games shake Vancouver and cause it to upchuck all the confidence it has built over 82 games? That seems unlikely, but some observers think it could happen. Without the fine defensive play, face-off prowess and leadership of Manny Malhotra (not to mention the two games they'll be missing the suspended Raffi Torres), the Canucks have a vulnerability that Chicago will look to exploit.

As we've written elsewhere, these Hawks are a stripped down version of last year's Cup champion. Missing key players due to trades and injuries, they needed an unlikely win by Minnesota in the last game of the regular season  to secure the final playoff spot, and have to be grateful for this chance.

No, Chicago is not as gritty and physical as it was last year with Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager and John Madden, nor are its special teams as strong (the penalty kill fell from fourth best to 25th overall and is 29th at home). Nor is it as deep as last year, when it could boast four strong centers: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Dave Bolland (who was key in shutting down the Sedin twins last spring) and a multiple Cup-winner in Madden.

To get more scoring punch, coach Joel Quenneville moved Sharp to the first line and Bolland to the second. Bolland is now out with a concussion (he's just started skating again and his return is uncertain), so the depth chart at center looks like this: Sharp or Toews on the first line, followed by Michael Frolik, rookie Jake Dowell and journeyman Ryan Johnson. Not quite as imposing, is it?

Still, the Hawks have some high-end skill up front and strong defending led by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, and they have gotten good goaltending from Corey Crawford. They also have lots of Cup experience. So they cannot be counted out. The key is whether they can stop the magical Sedin twins on Vancouver's top line and 41-goal man Ryan Kesler on its second. Without Bolland, that's a big unknown.

Sharks (2) vs. Kings (7)

This may be the series with the most obvious favorite. The Sharks had a stupendous second half (27-6-4 after Jan. 15, climbing from 12th in the West to second). They developed better offensive balance beyond their "Big Three" thanks to the play of rookie Logan Couture, revivals by Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi, the continued underrated contributions of Ryane Clowe, a physical dimension personified by Douglas Murray and Ben Eager, and the second best power play in the league.

The Sharks also found a goalie, Antti Niemi, with whom they are comfortable. Local media named him the team's MVP and, more importantly, Niemi has a Stanley Cup ring. After Dec. 1, he had a .926 save percentage, a 2.16 goals-against average, and started 34 consecutive games from Jan. 15 through April 4, going 25-4-4 with a 2.05 GAA and a .929 save pct.

The Sharks scored 248 goals, sixth best in the league, but 68 of them came on the power play. At full strength, they are just an average club. Their 154 goals scored while playing 5-on-5 tied for 12th best in the league.

The Kings slid up and down the conference standings all season and are one of the NHL's better defensive teams, not a surprise with Terry Murray as coach. But as has been widely noted, they will be without their top scorer and most creative player, Anze Kopitar, while their second-leading scorer, Justi Williams, will try to play with a bum shoulder.

It's not as if the Kings don't have any gifted scorers left. Captain Dustin Brown, Ryan Smith, Dustin Penner and Jarret Stoll are all 20-goal men, but offense is a problem for this club: Its 219 regular season goals tied for the lowest of any Western playoff team. The Kings' power play is in the bottom third of the league after ranking seventh last season. It was lethal in the first round against Vancouver.

The Kings scored the first goal in 50 games this season, best in the NHL. But they lost 12 of them, the second highest number in the league. So they rely on a deep defense corps led by Drew Doughty (who many believe took a step backward this season). Willie Mitchell, Jack Johnson and Rob Scuderi will have to keep the Sharks' shooters to the outside. Goalie Jonathan Quick will have to, as they say, stand on his head when they can't.

The Kings' penalty killing, fourth best in the league, could be a deciding factor against the Sharks' potent power play. If the Kings go on one of their hot streaks in which they don't allow any man-advantage goals for several games while getting timely, opportunistic goals of their own, they could frustrate San Jose and pull off the upset. If they can't hold the Sharks down, the lack of offensive punch could doom the Kings.

Red Wings (3) vs. Coyotes (6)

Detroit was a preseason  Cup pick for many, and many pick them to win this round. If you line up the two rosters and scoring stats, it doesn't look like much of a series. The Red Wings have world-class talent up front and on the blueline, strong role players, and a style of play that often forces opponents to chase the game. The Coyotes are a team of role players, with only one 20-goal scorer (captain Shane Doan). Their fine defenseman Keith Yandle was their points leader for most of the season.

But under coach Dave Tippett, Phoenix has surprised observers for two years running and cannot lightly be dismissed. Plus, this is a rematch of last season's seven-game first round and the Red Wings don't appear to intimidate the Coyotes.

This could be a series where goaltending -- or lack of it -- tells the story. In this corner is Jimmy Howard, the Wings' young netminder who slumped as a sophomore. Although he played the same number of games as last season, he could not be rested when he needed it while veteran Chris Osgood was injured. Howard's rebound control grew questionable and his overall stats -- 2.78 goals-against average, .908 save percentage -- dropped from his 2.26 and .924 of last season.

In the other corner is Ilya Bryzgalov, the veteran who was one of the busiest netminders in the league. He faced an average of 31.3 shots per game (second only to Cam Ward's 32.1), and stopped over 92 percent, posting a 2.48 GAA. Last spring, Howard outdueled Bryzgalov, but that was last year.

A number of things apart from goaltending have Red Wings followers puzzled. Their usually reliable and smothering defensive zone play has not been very Wing-like this season and Detroit seems to be turnover prone. That's one reason Howard has struggled. Some have questioned the Wings' team speed. Their play early in games has been troubling: they've been outscored in first periods 84-76. Then there is the season-long run of injuries that has sidelined many of their elite players. Leading scorer Henrik Zetterberg won't start the series (although with this club, missing its top scorer is not as dire as, say, the Kings missing theirs).

Inconsistency may have characterized Detroit's season, but the Coyotes are nothing if not consistent, although they rarely reach the heights the Wings do. With a deep defense corps led by Yandle, nine forwards who hit double digits in goals, and a team concept that thrives on industry and adversity, the Coyotes somehow manage to get things done. They don't quit and usually get stronger as games go along. (Their 85 third-period goals tied for fifth best in the NHL.) They manage to win games even when they are outshot (only Anaheim among playoff teams won more games that way).

We know what we'll get from Phoenix. We don't know what we'll get from Detroit. If the Wings don't bring their "A" game and if Howard cannot find his, the Coyotes' intrepid character could overcome the talent gap.

Ducks (4) vs. Predators (5)

Few series feature the contrasts of this one. Beyond the SoCal vs. Music City angle, we've got a pair of well-coached clubs, one of which wins with a strong attack, the other by repelling attacks. The series also offers some of the game's top performers and though it won't get the national focus of, say, Canadiens-Bruins or Capitals-Rangers, it deserves wider attention.

Many cheered the Ducks' late-season run, and no players captured the imagination of the hockey world down the stretch more than Anaheim's Corey Perry, the NHL's lone 50 goal scorer who might win the Hart Trophy, and 40-year-old Teemu Selanne. Few cheer the Predators, whose stifling defense and limited offense don't make for exciting hockey. But winning in the playoffs is not about popularity.

Perry is hardly the only potent player on the Ducks. His line with Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan was hailed as the game's best by season's end, and Saku Koivu's second line, with Selanne and Jason Blake on the wings, wasn't shabby, either. Then there's the offense the Ducks get from their defense, starting with Lubomir Visnovsky, the league's top-scoring blueliner, and rookie Cam Fowler. Toni Lydman and Francois Beauchemin give them good balance with their defending.

By comparison, the Preds had only two 20-goal scorers and, statistically at least, their top forward was Sergei Kostitsyn. But they do have six guys who scored 16 goals or more and they are getting one of their leaders, Steve Sullivan, back from injury. Like the Coyotes, the Preds do it by committee.

As for their defensive strength, only the Canucks allowed fewer goals this season than Nashville. It starts in goal with the redoubtable Pekka Rinne, who many tout for the Vezina Trophy. Although it's hard to think he'll get the nod over Tim Thomas, Rinne's excellent .930 save percentage and 2.11 GAA were second- and third-best in the league respectively. And Nashville's blueline corps also is getting some awards buzz. Shea Weber, who has a big shot and makes big hits, is being touted along with Visnovsky for the Norris Trophy, but some think Weber's defense partner, Ryan Suter, may be even better.

The biggest question is this series is the Ducks' goaltending. With both Jonas Hiller and Ray Emery injured, ex-Predator Dan Ellis will get the call. Not usually consistent over a long haul, Ellis can get hot for stretches. He's played well of late, but how long will it last?

Here's the stat to keep in mind: The Ducks got 44 percent of their scoring from the Ryan-Getzlaf-Perry line. If the Preds figure out how shut them down, it will go a long way to deciding the outcome of this series.

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