The National Hockey League’s regular season is finally over, and it’s time for the real season to begin. Fourteen of the League’s thirty teams have been eliminated, finally, some of them on the final day of the season (nice work, Dallas). Sixteen teams remain, eight in the West and eight in the East, with the best of each conference playing the eighth-seeded team, and so on, to determine who moves on. The playoffs begin Wednesday, April 13, which means it’s time for some Fully Reconditioned predictions. Today, the Western Conference, tomorrow the East.
(1) Vancouver Canucks vs. (8) Chicago Blackhawks
Last year, the Chicago Blackhawks were the favorites entering the playoffs, and proved everyone right by doing just what they were expected to do. the 2009-2010 Blackhawks were so talent-stacked that even their line-matching, grinder-preferring head coach, Joel Quenneville couldn’t stop them from winning. This year, though, they’ve lost some key pieces from the winning team (goaltender Antti Niemi and clutch scorer Dustin Byfuglien, most notably), Duncan Keith is nowhere near repeating his Norris Trophy performance from last year, and they fell into the playoffs bass-ackwards after losing to Detroit on the final day of the season, only to have the Dallas Stars lose as well.
On the other hand, the Vancouver Canucks are the well-oiled, ridiculously talented team the Hawks were last year. The Canucks, led by the Sedin twins and Gold Medal-winning goalie Roberto Luongo, are looking for revenge on the Blackhawks, who ousted them from the playoffs two years running. This time, the Canucks seem pretty much unstoppable, and the Blackhawks seem like one of Quenneville’s old Blues teams.
Prediction: Vancouver in 5
(2) San Jose Sharks vs. (7) Los Angeles Kings
The Sharks and Kings tied their season series at three games a piece, and are much closer point-wise, due to the pileup of Pacific Division teams this year, than their seeds would normally show. The Sharks have a reputation for excellent regular seasons followed by epic choking in the playoffs, while these Kings don’t have much of a playoff reputation at all, being a fairly young team on the rise. Were the Kings healthy (star scorer and potential Selke trophy winner for best two-way forward Anze Kopitar will miss the playoffs with an ankle injury) this would be the upset to pick, but as it stands now, the Sharks will likely take this series. It’s usually the next round where they choke, anyway.
Prediction: San Jose in 6
(3) Detroit Red Wings vs. (6) Phoenix Coyotes
For the past fifteen years, even longer, the Detroit Red Wings have been a constant fixture in the playoffs; even as older stars like Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov bow out, new ones borne of late-round international draft picks like as Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg step in, and Nicklas Lidstrom is somehow still playing after a century of stoically effective backline service. Their presence in the playoff mix, as a high seed, is probably the least surprising element of the 2010-2011 season.
The Coyotes are less of a fixture, but this year they’ve had a pretty solid season, with excellent goaltending from Ilya Bryzgalov (posting a GAA under 2.50) and a breakout year from two-way defenseman Keith Yandle, who would probably be a Norris Trophy favorite if he didn’t play in such a hockey backwater. If the goalie can get hot, they might have a surprise up their collective sleeve, but these Red Wings are too solid and too experienced to bet against.
Prediction: Detroit in 6
(4) Anaheim Ducks vs. (5) Nashville Predators
As little as a few weeks ago, this matchup would have been a toss-up, but despite the fact that they are platooning two backup goalies with All-Star Jonas Hiller out with symptoms of vertigo, the Anaheim Ducks have been playing some of the best hockey of the year as of late. They have the season’s only fifty-goal scorer (Corey Perry), the highest-scoring defenseman in Lubomir Visnovksy (who would be the Norris trophy favorite if he played somewhere in the East) and plenty of secondary scoring, if one can call Teemu Selanne’s tenth thirty-goal season “secondary.” Despite being the closest-seeded matchup, this will be the first series in the West to end.
Prediction: Ducks in 4
So the top four seeds should advance, if these predictions hold up, which makes these predictions a little bit…predictable. Stay tuned tomorrow to see if the East is predictable too.