By Brian Willwerth
We continue our previews of the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with a look at the matchups in the Western Conference:
(1) Vancouver Canucks vs. (8) Chicago Blackhawks:
This is a matchup of the defending Stanley Cup Champs, and the team considered the favorite to hoist the Cup this year. The Canucks have never won it all, but they put themselves in a prime position by capturing the Presidents’ Trophy for the first time. Vancouver is loaded offensively, starting with the Sedin brothers, Daniel and Henrik, (198 total points between them.) Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford will be tested. Chicago is the champ until someone proves otherwise. But the ‘Hawks face a tall task by starting out as the #8 seed.
(2) San Jose Sharks vs. (7) Los Angeles Kings:
It’s an all-California matchup, as these two Pacific Division foes meet in the playoffs for the first time. Antti Niemi has been sensational between the pipes for the Sharks. This is the same goaltender who played against San Jose in the Western Conference Finals last year as a member of the Blackhawks. The Kings will be without leading scorer Anze Kopitar for the duration of the playoffs. So, L.A. will be a defensive-minded team for sure. The Kings are solid in that department; only the Canucks and Bruins allowed fewer goals this season.
(3) Detroit Red Wings vs. (6) Phoenix Coyotes:
These two teams face off against each other in the opening round for the second year in a row. The Wings won last year in seven games. In Hockeytown, they don’t settle for anything less than a championship, so the pressure is always on Detroit from the get-go. Keep an eye on the goaltenders in this series: Detroit’s Jimmy Howard and the Coyotes’ Ilya Bryzgalov. Phoenix has not won a playoff series since moving to Arizona from Canada (remember the Winnipeg Jets?)
(4) Anaheim Ducks vs. (5) Nashville Predators:
This is a classic matchup of contrasting styles. The Ducks have a great offense; the Predators are a defensive-minded team. Anaheim has the NHL’s leading scorer, Corey Perry, who netted 50 goals this season. Add veteran Teemu Selanne to the mix, and the Ducks are loaded. But Nashville has one of the best goaltenders in the league in Pekka Rinne. He was second in the league this season in goals against average and save percentage, (Boston’s Tim Thomas is #1.)
So the matchups are set. Let’s drop the puck and get the intensity level boiling.