NHL Playoff Preview Round 1: Western Conference
by Mike Sawaryn(NHL)
Posted on April 21, 2006, 12:10 PM
NHL Group Playoff Preview: Round 1
Sawaryn: Hello Oratory hockey fans, and welcome to the first ever group NHL column, the first ever playoff preview column, the first ever...well, I guess I can get carried away with all these firsts since we’re such a new site. Anyways, I’ll be your “host” of sorts for this column, name is Mike Sawaryn. Yes, I’m one of the editors for the NHL section of this site and yes, I haven’t written anything yet. Why? I’m a busy man, what can I say? Unfortunately our other editor and resident Rangers fan Adam Rifkin was booked up this week and couldn’t get something done for us, but we wish him well in his future endeavours. With me tonight though are two excellent writers you may have been reading right here on the Sports Oratory, Bob Davis and Matt Ederer!
Davis: With the playoffs just a few short hours away, all 16 teams have a legitimate chance of going all the way to the playoffs. After the next 2 weeks, only 8 teams will have any shot, legitimate or not, at having their names engraved onto Lord Stanley’s mug. Hometown biases aside, let’s take a look at which teams are contenders, and which are pretenders:
Sawaryn: Let’s get to the predictions, shall we? (Props to tsn.ca by the way for all the pictures here)
#1 Detroit vs. #8 Edmonton
Sawaryn: Talk about excitement for me! Entire city of Edmonton is just rocking for this series already. At last it’s not Edmonton and Dallas in the first round, and that’s a relief. I’ve been calling this all year, but I think Detroit is the most overrated team in the league this year. Mainly from the division they’re in. I wish Edmonton could have played Columbus, Chicago and St. Louis 24 times this year. Anyways, this should be an entertaining series, as it usually is with the Oil in the playoffs. And honestly I can see an upset in this series happening more than I could if it was Edmonton/Dallas or even Edmonton/Calgary. Will it happen? Chances are no, even though we played very well against the Wings. This season has really made me realize how much I’ve missed Tommy Salo. At least with him we knew we would get steady goaltending every game. Now, who knows. Roloson is an upgrade over the three headed monster of Conklin/Morrison/Markkanen and he’s actually been solid for the most part, but it seems every game he lets in that one bad goal. Maybe not huge in the regular season, but not so good in the playoffs. This series should be very good and interesting with the youth vs. age dynamic between the teams. To avoid looking like a total homer, I’ll take Detroit in 6 but I hope I’m wrong.
Davis: On paper, it looks like this one will be a whitewash. The #8 seeded Oilers face off against the best team that the NHL has seen in a long time, the Red Wings. At least, on paper, this Detroit team is one of the best. What that paper doesn’t tell you is that the Red Wings earned 54 of their 124 points by beating up the hapless Central division. What that paper doesn’t tell you is that the Wings have a pair of goaltenders, in Manny Legace and Chris Osgood, who can best be described as good, and at worst, mediocre to awful. What you can’t find anywhere on that paper is that 17 members of the Red Wings roster are well over 30 years old, including both goalies and all but 1 member of the defensive core.
Going the other way, the Oilers have a lot more youth and a lot more speed on offence, which will challenge the experienced Wings’ defence. With Ryan Smyth, Michael Peca, Ales Hemsky, and Sergei Samsonov leading the way, the Oilers have both great speed and excellent marksmanship on offence. The major concern for the Oilers is in net. Edmonton appeared to solidify that position by trading for Dwayne Roloson at the trade deadline, but Roloson has been anything but superb for the Oilers. On the depth chart behind Roloson, the Oilers have Jussi Markkanen and Ty Conklin, neither of whom inspire a great deal of confidence.
The Oilers are at a disadvantage on offence, when compared to the likes of Yzerman, Shanahan and Datsyuk. With a virtual saw-off in net, the winning team in this series is going to be the team that plays smarter, and stronger, on the defensive end. The Oilers have Chris Pronger, Jason Smith and Dick Tarnstrom, whereas the Wings will counter with Niklas Lidstrom, Mathieu Schneider and Chris Chelios. In that match-up, the Wings have a definite edge. This one won’t be quick, but Sawaryn won’t be happy at the end of it.
PREDICTION: Detroit over Edmonton in 7.
Ederer: This one has the makings of an all time classic in my opinion, with both teams hungry to prove their respective detractors wrong.
The Red Wings come into the series as the undisputed champion of the NHL’s regular season, with 124 points and the President’s Trophy on the mantle. But some would suggest that the stellar record of the Wings is almost befitting of an asterisk, as they’ve played 24 of their games against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues, who finished third-to-last, second-to-last, and dead last in the conference respectively. Meanwhile, many think that the Oilers are in the playoffs more because of the failures of the Vancouver Canucks, rather than on the strength of their own successes. The Oilers have the fewest wins of any team that qualified for the big show, and coupled with their reputation for early elimination from the playoffs, it makes most people think the Oilers will simply roll over and die.
The way I see it, nothing could be further from the truth. Pretty much the entire Edmonton team comes in with something to prove, starting in net with Dwayne Roloson. Finally, Rolly the goalie has his chance to lead a team into the postseason as it’s definite number one starter. Also, Chris Pronger, after failing to do so in St. Louis, has a chance to make some serious noise in the post-season, and solidify his place in the upper echelon of defencemen all-time. Mike Peca also had a tremendously sub-standard season, and he will be looking to rebound strongly. For the Wings, the goaltender is also the player who most needs to step up and prove he belongs. After an excellent regular season, Manny Legace looks to show the masses that he can in fact continue his hot play in the playoffs. Legace has to watch his back, because the Wings have a proven playoff winner in backup goalie Chris Osgood.
Having two teams with all of these added pressures, on top of the atmosphere that comes with the Stanley Cup Playoffs, is a recipe for great hockey. I expect this series to be hard checking, well-played on both sides of the puck, and very exciting. At the end of the day, it’s really hard to pick against the best team in the league, no matter how unproven their star goalie is. I predict that the Oilers will split the first two games with Detroit, proving why they’ve amassed such a great road record this year with a win in the Joe Louis arena, before Detroit responds strongly, taking the series in 6.
Pick: Detroit in 6
#2 Dallas vs. #7 Colorado
Sawaryn: When the Avs traded for Jose Theodore, I think they took a chance on this season. Theodore wasn’t good in Montreal and has been pretty average since he came back from injury. The move will probably pay off in the long run, but this is going to be a tough run for Colorado. Dallas on the other hand I’d say is the best team in the West. They haven’t missed a beat. The older guys are still playing like they always have, and some of their younger players have stepped up and helped this team out as well. When it comes to forwards and defensemen, the two teams are pretty equal I think. But goaltending the edge has to go to Turco quite easily here. Any other year this might have made for a good Western final, so it’s kind of weird seeing these guys in the first round of all things. Next year the Avs will be tough if Theodore can round into form and Svatos stays healthy, but I think Dallas will take this pretty easily. Could be a very entertaining series with all the skill involved though. Dallas in 5 says I.
Davis: WHOA! Stop the show! This one is a FIRST round match-up? Who scripted this one?
This is the first time in a decade that the Avalanche do not have home ice advantage in round 1; and the first time in nearly as long that they enter a first round series as underdogs. There’s one major reason for the struggles in Colorado this season: goaltending. The Avalanche relied on the tandem of Peter Budaj and David Aebischer for most of the season, neither of whom exhibited the stellar play necessary to lead the team up to the top of the standings. At the deadline, Colorado acquired Jose Theodore, who had struggled all season long with Montreal. Theodore just came back from a serious ankle injury and looked decent in the final couple of games of the season, but has Jose returned to the form he had when he led the Habs into round 2 in 2004?
Dallas has the offensive talent to answer that question in a big hurry. With Modano, Jokinen, Morrow, Arnott, Barnes and Lehtinen leading the charge, any shaky goaltending from the Avalanche is going to be exposed very quickly. Meanwhile, Dallas has a strong defensive core that will prevent the likes of Sakic, Tanguay and Hejduk from taking advantage of any skating room. If the defence does allow the opportunities, Marty Turco should be there to shut the door. I’m guessing you can tell where I’m leaning in this one.
PREDICTION: Dallas over Colorado in 6.
Ederer: This is a “what if” series for me. If Jose Theodore had shown the capacity to play at a high level this year, and if the Avalanche were healthy, this would be a much closer series. In this state however, the series is not so. Joe Sakic is still as sure a bet as you can have in the postseason, and I would not hesitate to put him on the list for your playoff pool. But the Avs will sorely miss the presence of Marek Svatos (they’ll hope that Wojtek Wolski can fill the void), and I’m not sure if Alex Tanguay is healthy enough to trust in these playoffs, at least not yet. Theodore, for his part, has played almost identically in Colorado as he did in Montreal, and in no way will that be good enough to bring home Lord Stanley’s mug.
Conversely, the Stars come in having romped to the division title, with a rejuvenated Mike Modano leading the charge. Dallas’ 12 wins in shootouts proves that they can do it in the clutch (though there are no shootouts in the playoffs, it still speaks to the character of the team), and their goaltending is up there with the league’s best.
I expect Joe Sakic to be the hall-of-famer that he is, and keep this series closer than it has any right to be. Still, the Stars will prevail, if for no other reason than Colorado’s weaknesses.
Pick: Stars in 6
#3 Calgary vs. #6 Anaheim
Sawaryn: This is a very interesting series. The Ducks have been on fire the second half of the season, at one point they had 7 regulation losses in 32 games. Unreal. They went from way out of the playoff race to 6th in the West. Calgary on the other hand has been steady all season for the most part, thanks to Mikka Kipprusoff. That’s the problem with the Flames though, they are pretty much a one man team. With their lack of scoring, if it wasn’t for Kipper stealing them a lot of games, they would be nowhere near where they are now. In the playoffs it’s going to be damn hard to beat him in 4 of 7 games, no matter who you are. If Giguere can step up like he did 3 years ago and match Kiprusoff, I think Anaheim takes this pretty easily. That’s going to be hard to do though. I expect a long series here, and either team winning wouldn’t surprise me. I think the first round always needs at least one big upset and I’ll take my chances on this one, partly from the roll Anaheim has been on, and ok. Maybe a little from me loathing the Godless Flames. Give me Anaheim in 7.
Davis: I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this one, as a lot of people already know who I think will win it. However, when I stated my pick, I took some heat from people thinking that the Mighty Ducks have a lot better team than I give them credit for. The Ducks had an excellent run after the Olympic break, winning 16 out of 25 outings to propel them into the #6 seed. I was also told that the Ducks have a playoff calibre goaltender in Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who has stolen playoff series for the Ducks before; and excellent scoring with Teemu Selanne and Jeff Friesen.
I will counter with a couple of points. First, Miikka Kiprusoff. Let’s face it, Kiprusoff is a major reason why the Flames won the Northwest, with 42 wins, a 2.07 goals against average and 8 shutouts on the season. Secondly, the stingy defence. The Flames’ defence played well enough to propel the team into the Stanley Cup Finals 2 years ago, and they only got better when they added rookie Dion Phaneuf to the mix. The third point comes from a game between the Oilers and the Mighty Ducks during the regular season, when Ryan Smyth parked in the Anaheim crease, causing Giguere to go ballistic. If you don’t think that the Flames watched that tape, took notes and prepared a game plan to mess up Giguere, then you’ll be very surprised in this series.
PREDICTION: Calgary over Anaheim in 5.
Ederer: If all that matters in the NHL playoffs is defence, we can officially call the whole thing off and award the Stanley Cup to the Calgary Flames, who apparently missed the memo that the new NHL was supposed to be more high-scoring. The Flames play a plumber style to perfection. They look to beat you and beat you up, all the while making scoring incredibly difficult for both teams. The Flames have the best goalie in the league in Miika Kiprusoff, the least goals against in the league (200 against on the season), and a style of play that nobody wants to have to face.
The Flames will not have it easy however, against a Mighty Ducks team that has played superbly since the Olympic Break, riding the hot play of Silver medalist Teemu Selanne, who finished with 90 points on the year, exceeding all expectations. The Ducks are a simple team –– they’re fast, good on both ends of the ice, and have a bonafide star both scoring the puck, in Selanne, and defending the net, in Scott Niedermayer. The Ducks also boast Goaltender JS Giguere, and perhaps the most compelling storyline of this entire series is that we’re seeing the last two “cinderella” goaltenders face each other, as both Kiprusoff and Giguere rose from obscurity to lead their teams within a game of the Stanley Cup in their first playoff runs.
The winner of this series will be the team whose goalie continues to work his playoff magic. And I’m not about to pick against the future Vezina trophy winner and Hart Trophy candidate. Both have similar pedigrees, but Kiprusoff has played better this year, the Flames have better team defence, and while their lack of scoring may be cause for concern, I believe that they’ll be successful in their bid to beat the Ducks 1-0 every game. I expect it to be close, and the Ducks will steal a couple, but Calgary will advance by playing the style of hockey that lit the Red Mile on fire in 03-04.
Pick : Calgary in 6
#4 Nashville vs. #5 San Jose
Sawaryn: For me I think this might be the easiest series to predict in either conference. Like Detroit, I think Nashville has more points than they should from their crappy division. They’ve got injury problems on defence, one of their top forwards, and worst of all their starting goalie. Not to mention they’re a horrible road team. San Jose on the other hand has been on a ROLL since they got Big Joe. I think the Sharks are going to be one of the toughest teams to beat in the West, and they should make quick work of the Preds. As of right now I think the best series in the west would be San Jose and Dallas. If the Preds even make this close, I’ll be really shocked to be honest. I can see Nashville maybe taking one, but that’s it. Sharks in 5.
Davis: Going into this series, the Predators are the higher ranked team, thus, the favourites to advance to round 2. However, the Predators will fight through this post-season without their top goaltender, Tomas Vokoun; and their top defenceman, Marek Zidlicky. In addition, not less than 5 other starters are playing through various aches and pains, which will severely limit the effectiveness of the Predators as a team. On the plus side, Chris Mason has been proving that he can lead this team with solid goaltending.
Nashville is going to need strong goaltending to stop the Sharks’ top tandem of Jonathon Cheechoo and Joe Thornton. Cheechoo led the NHL with 56 goals this season, while Thornton took the Art Ross scoring title with 125 points. This scoring tandem is likely going to have a field day against a battered and bruised Predator team.
Nashville’s only chance to win this series is if they handcuff Cheechoo and Thornton to the bed before game 1, throw away all the keys, lock the doors to the hotel, and drop the puck before the Sharks notice. Failing that, this series is San Jose’s for the taking.
PREDICTION: San Jose over Nashville in 5.
Ederer: It’s really unfortunate for the Nashville Predators that Tomas Vokoun’s blood disorder is keeping him out of the playoffs, because the Preds were a bonafide Stanley Cup contender with him in net. Paul Kariya is reborn as a near point-per-game player, and Steve Sullivan has showed the world why he’s in the top 5 most underrated players in all of professional sports. Now however, Nashville is facing the Art Ross trophy winning Joe Thornton and the Rocket Richard trophy winning Jonathan Cheechoo with unproven backup goalie Chris Mason in net, and regardless of their own offensive proficiency, the Preds are all but done.
If you think about it, Vesa Toskala is a virtual clone of Miika Kiprusoff -- a Finnish career backup goalie in the San Jose system who has been given the reigns to a team who are a trendy pick to do some serious damage in their conference. Time will tell if Toskala can play up to these standards, but if he even approaches a Kiprusoff level of play, the Sharks will be incredibly hard to beat.
To me, this is the easiest of the first round matchups. The Preds have a sparkling home record and will win a few at the Gaylord Entertainment Centre (lolz). Regardless, It will be the Sharks handily.
Pick: San Jose in 5
Sawaryn: Well, that wraps up the Western Conference preview. Be sure to check out the East preview as well, because really, this is just half the story!