Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Debate: Who will win the West?
By Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun
Who will win the West? Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun know but don't always agree.
BURNSIDE: Well, my friend, you’re in St. Louis to start the playoffs. That’s as good a place as any to begin our discussion about what has to be the most difficult group of series to sort through in one conference in many a year. I took the coward’s way out when making my predictions and called for all four series to go the full seven games. That way I can always point out, hey, I missed by just one game if I happened to have predicted (guessed?) wrong. But seriously, I don’t think it’s overstating it to say you can make a significant case for all eight Western Conference teams to go right to the Stanley Cup finals. That includes 8-seed Los Angeles, which lost its grip on the Pacific Division crown by dropping both ends of a home-and-home with San Jose (one in a shootout, the other in overtime) to close out the regular season, a pair of losses that allowed the Sharks to jump over the Kings into seventh place. But the Kings have lots going for them, including netminder Jonathan Quick, who will get well-deserved consideration for the Vezina Trophy as top goaltender and the Hart Trophy as league MVP. The Kings also found offense under head coach Darryl Sutter in the second half and will face a Canucks team that might be facing its own goaltending dilemma, depending on which Roberto Luongo shows up, and will be waiting to see just how Daniel Sedin responds to trying to get back in playoff form after suffering a concussion last month. Before we get to the nitty-gritty of who wins the wild West, do any of the bottom three seeds have a shot to get out of the first round? I think I already know the answer.
LEBRUN: I think No. 6 Chicago, No. 7 San Jose and No. 8 Los Angeles all have a shot. The Blackhawks are seen by many as the favorite against No. 3 Phoenix because they finished with more regular-season points than the Coyotes. So, it's hardly a stretch to say the Hawks could get out of the first round. I would not sell the Coyotes short, however. They won three out of four games against the Hawks this season, and no NHL goalie is hotter than Mike Smith. And there's the matter of Chicago captain Jonathan Toews. He's been out since Feb. 19 with a concussion, and while he appears set to return for the playoffs, one has to monitor how he fares. He's the straw the stirs the Blackhawks' drink. He's the X factor in the series.
But, wait a minute, you wanted me to talk about my annual September Cup pick, didn’t you? Yes, certainly the Sharks are an interesting team to watch as an upset possibility. Picture it this way: If this were 12 months ago, how would you feel about a Blues-Sharks series? Well, last season St. Louis didn't make the playoffs and San Jose was the No. 2 seed in the West. Obviously, things have changed since then, with the Blues skyrocketing up the standings under new coach Ken Hitchcock, the Sharks struggling with consistency all season. The Blues play the kind of grind-it-out game that's perfectly suited for the playoffs, so they'll be mighty tough to beat. But the Sharks have a chance because of their vast playoff experience. You're talking about a club that's gone to back-to-back conference finals and, perhaps more notably, has eliminated the Detroit Red Wings in consecutive years. The Sharks are certainly the wild card among the bottom bracket teams in the West.
BURNSIDE: Agreed on Phoenix, although there’s always this nagging question about whether the Coyotes will have enough offense. And even if Toews isn’t available or isn’t 100 percent to start the postseason, this Chicago offense is still formidable and finished tied for the lead in the Western Conference in goals scored per game. Weird stat for that series? In spite of all that talent, the Hawks' power play tied for 25th in the league. Phoenix? It was worse, 29th on the power play. Something tells me at least one of these teams will get it right come playoff time, and that could be the difference in the series. The goaltending will be fun to watch in that series as well, given that Smith has virtually no playoff experience and Corey Crawford is coming off an up-and-down season for the Blackhawks. He was excellent, though, in the first-round loss to Vancouver a year ago.
Back to St. Louis, though: I liked the Blues to get past San Jose, although, like you, I was impressed with the way the Sharks really got it going down the stretch. The Blues, meanwhile, wobbled a bit, winning just one of their last five games to give up the top seed in the conference and a shot at the Presidents’ Trophy. I'm curious to see how Hitchcock handles his goaltending, given that Brian Elliott has the superior numbers and Jaroslav Halak has the playoff experience and was so good for Montreal in their run to the Eastern Conference finals in 2010.
As for the best series of the bunch, in my opinion, with Detroit starting in Nashville, has there been a more important series for the Predators? They made important moves at the trade deadline in acquiring Andrei Kostitsyn, Paul Gaustad and Hal Gill, then got Alexander Radulov and now have to get past their old nemesis, the Red Wings, if they want to duplicate last year’s first-ever playoff series victory. The outcome is so important as it relates not just to this spring but also to the team’s ability to lock up Ryan Suter and Shea Weber.
LEBRUN: Oh, not much on the line at all in Nashville. Just the very existence of its franchise. OK, I'm exaggerating. But as you point out, so much is tied to the futures of Suter (slated to be a UFA on July 1) and Weber (RFA on July 1) and the playoff performance of this team this spring as it pertains to whether they decide to commit long-term to the Predators. I think you can't underestimate how much finally winning a playoff series last spring, the first in Nashville franchise history, has helped the team's psyche. I talked to head coach Barry Trotz about this earlier this season, and he couldn't stress enough how beating Anaheim in the playoffs last season kicked a giant elephant out of the Preds' room. Whether they would admit or not before they won, there's self-doubt that creeps into your mind, as players and coaches, when year after year you keep losing in the first round -- even if you were the small-payroll, plucky underdog most of those years. You still want to get one under your belt to build a belief in your room. Now that's there. It's why I picked the Preds to win a difficult series in seven games. They know what it's like to win a series, and that's paramount as they prepare to face the NHL's most consistent, winning franchise of the past two decades.
BURNSIDE: OK, we haven’t really talked about the Presidents’ Trophy winners, last year’s Stanley Cup finalists, the Vancouver Canucks. They look to get Daniel Sedin back, and I think their experiences of a year ago will carry them past a Los Angeles Kings team that looked at times during the last third of the season like it could be capable of a couple of playoff series wins. But who will be tending goal by the end of that series for the Canucks? That’s a toss-up. GM Mike Gillis said earlier that Roberto Luongo will be the team’s starter in Game 1, but you have to believe that coach Alain Vigneault won’t wait long to go to Cory Schneider, who was terrific this season, turning in a sparkling 1.96 GAA and .937 save percentage. So, let’s get down to brass tacks here. The way I have my grid working out in the Western Conference: the Blackhawks and the Canucks in the second round with Nashville and St. Louis battling in the other semifinal. Then, I’ve got Chicago and Nashville in the conference finals, and going back to my preseason prediction for consistency (and because I really had no clue other than that), I have Chicago advancing to the Cup finals. Regardless of how this shakes down, the route through the Western Conference promises to be one hellacious journey. What does your crystal ball tell you, my friend?
LEBRUN: After I conversed with my 3-year-old daughter, Melanie, we decided we’d go with a Vancouver-Nashville Western Conference finals. Because I like to go against the grain of society, I’m going to take the plucky Preds to make it the Cup finals. Of course, now you know that means they’re out in the first round against Detroit. Which wouldn’t surprise me a bit. That’s the West this season for you, eight teams with a real shot at it. But you’re right on the Canucks’ goalie situation. I guarantee you, and so does Melanie, that both Luongo and Schneider will see action in these playoffs. And as much as Luongo is on a short leash, so is Schneider. Vigneault feels he has two 1A netminders to choose from. And it's no different from swapping a player from his power-play unit. I think the Canucks head coach is going to swap netminders without reservation knowing he has full confidence in both of them.
Well, sir, enjoy your playoffs in the East. I think I’ve got my hands full here in the West.