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Round One Counterpoint: Western Conference
by Colin Van Osch (NHL)
Posted on April 28, 2009, 11:41 AM

Counterpoint: Round One

I didnít get to post my first round predictions, but you can just take away from how poorly I did that I didnít go out of my way to doctor them to inflate my sense of worth. Before I post Round 2, I want to look at my predictions from Round 1, see where I hit, where I missed, and what we learnt about our advancing teams. Join me! As we reflect on...

Western Conference

San Jose (1) vs Anaheim (8):

Frighteningly deceptive and has the outside chance of a major upset. I personally would not bet on it, but considering the factors, there's the possibility out there.

To begin, let me make a comparison. We're now leaving the era where Detroit is winning the Presidents trophy on an annual basis. However, in all of those years, I never considered them a major threat and was never really surprised when they ended up losing early in the playoffs. The reason is not because I think Detroit has a bad team. Far from it, I respect the talent that they have and consider them a team to be reckoned with, but also a team that CAN be reckoned with. Detroit and their grand Regular Season records have always been a misleading stat. They are a product of their environment. In all of the years that Detroit was dominant in the West, it was because the teams that they played 32 times a year were ferociously substandard. Now, to bring this back around, there is a close similarity between Detroit and Boston/San Jose in that respect. Boston and San Jose are both coming from weak divisions. Of 10 eligible teams, 6 missed the playoffs by considerable amounts, 2 snuck in only to face their division champions, and the other 2 won their conferences. Is it a mass of talent that allowed Boston and San Jose to climb to the top, or is it that the quality of their competition was, part and parcel, laughable? It's important that this be considered, and in coming previews I will use the same barometer to measure the worth of other teams, as well.

Back to the task at hand though. Anaheim has done some wonderful things to go from an 11th place team before the deadline to where they are now. Also, without making too much of a hullabaloo about it, they went ahead and activated Francois Beachemin to play in the playoffs. Even as someone who has an impressive distaste for Chris Pronger, I can say that between him/Scottie/Beauchemin/Whitney - Anaheims blueline is scary good. Maybe second-to-none in the NHL right now. Add in that this team is only a few years removed from being Stanley Cup Champions and that the team has that experience from top to bottom, and Anaheim can only be considered a scary first round threat. Downside is the goaltending issue. I have no faith in a goalie who loses his job perennially to his backup, only to maintain control of it just lost enough to create the illusion that he was the teams anchor. Anaheim has been a masterful team down the stretch, and I think they have a chance to make San Jose run the ropes long enough to tire them out for the second round.

On the San Jose side of things, what else can you say? They've been odds-on favorites to win the Cup for years now. Every year they show the right amount of energy and top tier play during the regular season to get people buzzing. And then, come playoff time, everyone forgets to tell Thorton that the season is still going on, he stops playing, and everything goes to Hell. The weird enigma that is Milan Michalek also goes through several transformations during the playoffs - He's being lazy! No, wait, he's playing like an All-Star! He's a butterfly!~~ and Cheechoo does his very best to help you forget he was once a 50 goal man. That being said, Marleau is one of the best producing players on any team come playoff time and there is really no reason to expect he'll stray from that. The defensive groupings in San Jose are second-to-one (see above) but their goaltending is going to be the difference. Nabokov is simply too good to not drag this team kicking and screaming into the second round. San Jose got this far into the year manhandling teams like Anaheim. I expect that it won't be easy, but they will take the series in 6.


Counterpoint: I suppose my folly was that, despite it being the playoffs when Thorton leaves the team, and despite San Jose 'slumping' their way into the playoffs, and despite Anaheim coming in red-red hot, I still believed that San Jose would squeek out the win in this series.

Despite getting my prediction wrong, I feel I was accurate in many areas. Hiller replacing Giguere made all the difference in this series, and if there is any justice, Hiller will do what Bryzgalov couldn't do a few years ago - Take his opportunity and run with it next year. Frankly, and this might be some personal prejudice speaking, but I have nothing positive to say about Giguere. He simply doesn't show up to play every game. However, that's not the task at hand. Hiller played outstanding. The Anaheim defensive corps made it happen and shut down what San Jose called 'pressure' for the 6 minutes a game when it happened. Getzlaf, Perry and Ryan owned this series, and Andrew Ebbett played well enough to earn a nod.

On the other end, San Jose played pitiful. Especially Thorton. When he was on the ice, he was avoiding everything, not just after the whistle but during it. Until he gets criticized for his embarrassing performance in Game 4, and he decides to try and pick a fight in the next 2 games. Because, if you're San Jose, and you need to get goals on the board to stop this team, you know where Thorton should be? In the box for 5. Actually, considering how piss poorly he played during the series, I'd be alright with that outcome. Especially if it means he's taking Getzlaf off the ice for 5 too. Just embarrassing. I'd say to expect wholesale changes, but they already tried it with the coaching staff this year and it didn't work. Move Thorton for whatever his value is and get Logan Couture in. Oh, and Marleau, thanks for making me look like a jackass for calling you a good playoff performer. Make me look like an idiot again, and you're dead to me.

Detroit (2) vs Columbus (7):

So many conflicting feelings. Breaking it down:

PROS:

Columbus Blue Jackets
- Rick Nash is an absolute beast.
- Might get Derrick Brassard back in the first round!!~~!
- Steve Mason is a pretty ok goaltender, which I understand is an important position
- Riding the emotional wave of playing Hockey in April
- Ken Hitchcock.

Detroit Red Wings
- Won the Stanley Cup last year.
- Then gained Marian Hossa.
- Holmstrom and Franzen are beasts who will ensure that Steve Mason doesn't see a puck
- A smart bet every year for a reason
- Mike Babcock isn't a slouch either, don't kid yourself

CONS:
Columbus Blue Jackets
- Defensive corps is headlined by MIKE COMMODORE. Let that sink in.
- Playoff virgins
- Didn't invest in a reputable backup goalie for the playoffs in case Mason cracks, Price-style.

Detroit Red Wings
- Edmonton Oilered the place up by refusing to admit that the goalie who led them to the promised land isn't that good; continued playing him
- Defense average age: 33. Columbus' average forward age: 25.
- Have played exceptionally poorly down the stretch
- Kris Draper to miss first 2 games.

Summing this up as clearly as I can, it's hard not to buy into the Columbus hype. The most common reply I get from Red Wings fans is 'Detroit won it all last year, and they added Hossa and Conklin! How can they lose?!?"

To start, fanboys, don't ever try and use Conklin for the win.

However, the argument has merit. How can you bet against a team that kept it's core after a Stanley Cup winning season, and added a bonafide scoring machine. I argue, however, that the Red Wings have gotten so lost in the idea that they are untouchable that they refused to improve their team enough. It's admirable that you kept the core of your team. Every other team in the league got younger, faster, stronger and better this year, and you stood pat. You're living or dying with what you have, and that's admirable, but it's also going to be your downfall.

The Red Wings defense is going to look foolish near the end of this. Granted, in my hurry to make light of how old the defensive corps is, I put Chelios in, who will likely see an excessively limited amount of ice time, if any at all. I simply do not believe that in a league who is in the midst of the first real 'changing of the guard' I've lived through, you can have Brian Rafalski and Niklas Lidstrom, with a combined age of 72, hold their own against a line that includes Rick Nash, Derrick Brassard, and Jakob Voracek who have a combined age of 62. Detroit has made a policy of making their young kids pay their dues before being promoted to the big club, but every year their team gets older by a year and every other team finds a way to stay the same age.

Columbus has youth. They have passion. They have a wonderful defensive system that is going to have the ability to lock down Detroit and they have what appears to be a marquee goaltender. If they get Brassard back, if they can keep Holmstrom from getting under Masons skin and if they can get their few playoff veteran to step up and provide guidance, this team is going to be fine. This series, in my opinion, is going to turn into a straight rope-and-dope kind of series. I fully expect Detroit to win Game 1, but for Columbus to really run them ragged and then get back into control. I'm sorry, Detroit has played around 190 games in the last 2 seasons. The only person they acquired worth a damn in the offseason has played the exact same amount. They are a veteran team who is going to lose to the quick young legs in the end.

It's far from a lock, but if Detroit were to manage to pull this series out, it would be time to bet the farm against them in Round 2, no matter their opponents. You can't keep up this level of play for this long. They looked human during the end stretch of the season, and I don't expect that they're going to magically find their game as soon as this series starts. If Columbus does things right, they will win this series. If they will is another question. There is a lot of room for error on the Blue Jackets, and Detroit is a team you can offer no quarter to. I'm going on a limb and saying Columbus lays out an upset. 6 games.


Counterpoint: How about those Wings, huh? Thereís very little to say about this one. I maintain that Detroit has to be running out of gas and theyíve got to be near ragged. I was expecting more from Columbus, and frankly less from Detroit. Columbus will be back and hopefully next time they bring their spirits. The only other thing you can say about Columbus is shame on you for not dressing Filatov. You bring him up to soak in the playoff experience, by which you mean, to sit in the Press Box. Game 4 comes, and youíve been beaten mercilessly, and you donít even let the kid dress? Poor form.

Detroit will face a new group of challenges in Round Two, but weíll preview that in the next few days.

Vancouver (3) vs St. Louis (6):

Very excited to see this series. I began the season proclaiming that St. Louis would be 'the worst team in the West' and that was quickly followed with the season-ending, freak, golf related ACL injury of their marquee defenceman, which did nothing to change my opinion of how this team would fare. Add into the equation that they began the year with Manny Legace as their goaltending, and all signs were pointing to them being possibly the worst team in existence. Vancouver started the year rife with rumor of this 'Sundin' player coming to join, which many speculated would lead them to the Holy Grail. Months passed, and the Canucks, despite suffering an injury to their faux-captain, did nothing to improve their team and silently waited for the day when Mats would, at minimum, grace them with a decision.

Fast forward to today. A number of Blues had breakout seasons - Boyes, Backes, Perron, Berglund, and the masterful, Calder Trophy neglected TJ Oshie - while one had an epic resurgence. With the damning of Manny Legace to Peoria, Chris Mason was asked to do the expected: Come finish the season and be a cheap alternative to Legace. That's it. Just to clarify, there is no expectation that you are going to take this team to the playoffs. There is no expectation that you will back the strongest team in the second half. Just, you know, perform the basic function of being a goaltender.

Vancouver, on the other hand, have not been slouches. Along with St. Louis, they have been one of the hottest teams in the West since Luongo returned to the fold and Sundin finally found some semblance of his game.

What could be finer than a meeting of 2 of the hottest teams in the West?

How will this end? As a soft hearted fan, you've got to want it for the Blues. This team has been through a lot this year. Erik Johnson before the season gets underway. Paul Kariya down for a substantial period of time. Losing their leading scorer for a significant portion of the season in Andy McDonald. Giving up on your starting goalie only to let someone who lost his job to a rookie (who, in turn, lost his job to a rookie) lead the team to...above averageness? The story is great. It's hard to want them to falter in this series, and considering their second half against a strong Western Conference, it's hard to imagine that they will falter.

But Vancouver. Show me a weakness. You have, debatably, the second or third best active goalie in the world. Your defensive groupings are outstanding, save for Shane O'Brien. You have a glitzy first line that is capable of driving any defense mad, and 2 of the NHLs finest energy players in Kesler and Burrows. You have scoring literally all over your team. It's also hard to ignore that Vancouver closed a 13 point gap to gain their division. Now, naturally, Calgary had a pretty fair hand in that, but it's impressive nonetheless.

I wanted to save this preview for last, but the game is literally starting right now. St. Louis has a place in my heart as the underdog, but my legitimate feelings are that Vancouver is coming out of the West. As in, to the Finals. On paper, they're going to be impossible to stop. Their first line is a constant threat and you will have to play your best players against them, which opens things up for your second line, which is equally threatening. The third line will outwork your main lines, they will create scoring chances while taking the food out of your mouth. The defense wants for nothing, and if Luongo retains his post-injury form, it's inconceivable that the Canucks don't make it out of the Conference. I'm being gracious and thinking that St. Louis might sneak out Game 3 and Game 5, because I kind of like them. Officially, it's Vancouver in 6.


Counterpoint: Excitement wise, it was everything I expected. A great series, a very passionate series, and a real stage for TJ Oshie and Jay McClement, who were far and away the stars for the Blues. They deserved better than a sweep, in every way except for the way they played. Game 3 especially I thought they played very sloppy and without passion. Every team gets one and thatís fine, but in a game that pivotal, in the first home game in the playoffs in years, your fans deserve better. I highly disapproved of putting TJ Oshie on the powerplay and I credit that poor decision with their inability to do anything on it, which was the real story of this series. 5 minutes of 5-on-3 hockey with no goals? Even if I hadnít seen the series, and even if I hadnít known the story, if you told me a team got 5 minutes of 5-on-3 hockey in a series and hadnít scored, then asked me to bet on who won, I would have bet against them. Thatís unforgivable. Considering the booming shots St. Louis has on the blueline, I donít know why you had Oshie manning the tip of your PP. He never shot the puck, and as such, was frequently left uncovered. Rightfully so. I donít want to take St. Louis to task too much. They played hard to get here and as a young player, Iím sure there was immense pressure on Oshie not to rush and take every available shot. There was just some inability to recognize a weakness that disturbed me.

Vancouver? Looking great. Hopefully Sundin is back for the next series, because while they did fine without him here, they WILL need him in the next series. If for no other reason, to take Keith and Seabrook off the ice when their secondary scoring is on. That will be his biggest asset to the team in the next round. Once again, not a preview column though. The role players did phenomenal. This series was won equally by Ryan Johnson, Ryan Kesler, Alexandre Burrows, Rick Rypien and Kyle Wellwood as it was by the Sedin twins, Mats Sundin and Mattias Ohlund. What a well rounded team. The penalty troubles bothered me. It seemed to take them a few games to realize that penalties exist in the playoffs in the same way they do in the regular season, which is, to be fair, a previously unknown concept. I was very impressed with them though, and right now, they look unstoppable.

Chicago (4) vs Calgary (5):

No less an authority than myself claimed that the moves that Calgary made at the Trade Deadline made them a front runner for the cup. What a difference a little over a month makes. The Flames are still a very appealing team - on paper. The reality of the situation is a lot bleaker.

Calgarys recent troubles have been well documented. Due to guidelines in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, you cannot put someone on the Long Term IR (thus removing their salary from your cap hit) with less than 9 games left. The Flames ran into some late season injury problems and had to shuffle a few things around. Every team has run into this situation at some point.

Unfortunately for the Flames, they were literally so pressed up against the salary cap as a result of the Jokinen trade that they had to do significant shuffling. Significant shuffling that led to them putting out the best team they could...with only 15 players on the ice. Now that the playoffs are here, the Flames are free to replenish their team, but their core players have been playing 3 line hockey for the last 2 weeks. Their only goaltender has, again, played 70 games this year. Their #2 defenceman is gone for the foreseeable future. This team is beat up and ready to insert players who aren't 100% just to get some rested players on the ice.

This isn't to say they are done for. They've definitely got an uphill battle to fight. The Blackhawks are the youngest, most exuberant team in the playoffs. They have understatedly good goaltending with Khabibulin, and should he fail somewhere down the line, they have Huet in the wings who needs to prove to this team that he's worth keeping next year. The Blackhawks are stars on the rise and this is their coming out party. If they have a weakness, naturally, it's going to be that they have next to no experience in the playoffs, except for Brian Campbell (will he disappoint again this year? Almost certainly when you consider his paycheque) and Khabibulin (sure, he won a Cup, but how will he do without Torts telling him he sucks?).

The Flames are a formidable team. Kipprusoff is a man who is used to a heavy workload and is a goalie who can keep games together even when everything is going wrong. The Flames enter the post-season on a major slide, having literally handed the Canucks the Northwest Division title on a silver platter. They're going to come into this series exhausted and playing a team who doesn't need an opening to rip you apart. The way I see it, this series is going to go Chicago in Games 1 & 2, with Calgary getting their game back in Game 3 once they've gotten used to playing a full squad again. Going forward though, that requires Calgary to go 4 of 5 to take the series, and I just don't think they're going to have it in them against a team like Chicago. If Calgary has any hope to do anything in this series, they will need to steal one kicking and screaming in Chitown before going home. Is it possible? Through Kipper, all things are possible. Is it likely? I wouldn't gamble on it. Calgarys best chance is going to be Game 1, when Kane and Toews were up all night writing in their dream journals and come out jittery and out of sorts. Calgary needs to win Game 1 and get their game by Game 3 to contend in this series. All things considered, I'm compelled to call Chicago in 5. Calgary makes the last few competitive, but it will be too little, too late.


Counterpoint: I didnít want to make this column about all the right things I said. Mostly because they were few and far between, and would draw attention to all of the wrong things I said (see: Columbus, 6) but this was my money call. I called Chicago winning the first 2 games. I called Calgary getting their game back in Game 3. I called that if Calgary only got their game by Game 3, they couldnít win. I even called Brian Campbell being disappointing, although I didnít need to look into a crystal ball to do it.

Chicago doesnít need more props. A well fought, well played series. Serious man points goes out to Matt Walker for playing through a serious case of ďDisgusting HandĒ after blocking a Phaneuf slapshot. A great series by Khabibulin, where he reminds you that when he has even a decent team in front of him, he can work miracles. The mass congratulations goes out to the defensive tandem of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook for immasculating Jarome Iginla for the entire series. The matchups were brilliant and Joel Quenvilles determination to ensure that his shutdown duo would play against the captain was outstanding. There were countless times that Matt Walker took an 8 second shift to get off to allow Keith and Seabrook on. Just a great matchup by Quenville and great commitment by the team to make sure that it was always working.

Calgary deserves to have a do-over due to their injury problems, but thatís just the way things work out. This is the playoffs. Iím sorry if you have a boo-boo. Get on the ice. Nothing else to say. Iginla looked like a lost child in 2 of the games. Cammalerri didnít deserve to play in 2 games in the series after the cheapshot. Luckily, he didnít show up to play anyways, so that was kind of a win. They could have replaced him with someone competent. Iíll offer condolences to the few warriors from that team. Jamie Lundmark played a hell of a series, and if you have the luck to watch a lot of Flames games, he had a wonderful breakout year as an energy line player. Eric Nystrom was magical when he was on the ice. David Moss as well. Outside of that, I didnít see anything special on that team and it doesnít surprise me that they were taken to task almost every game.
*****

Thanks for showing up. Eastern Conference ends up tonight, so the Counterpoint should be in tomorrow or so. The West has a lot of excitement left in it and thereís a lot to look forward to over the next 5 weeks. Tune in over the next few days for way too much writing on hockey and an unforgivable amount of commas.




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