Coming into tonight’s action, the playoff picture in the Western Conference is a mess! Seeds 1 through 7 are separated by just 3 points. The teams in that mix are the Blackhawks, Sharks, Avalanche, Predators, Kings, Flames, and Coyotes.
Of those seven, there are four surprises. Annual contenders (Detroit, Vancouver, Anaheim, Dallas, etc.) will have to claw out a desired playoff spot. Are some of these surprises pretenders or contenders? Will the power-houses stay on top of their divisions?
We all know how the ‘Hawks have a prolific offense, arguably the best in the West. Their defense is also stacked with youth and talent. But their goaltending is the reason why this team has a legit shot at winning the Cup this season. Cristobal Huet has received a lot of heat, but shrugged it off with stellar play; and Antti Niemi is developing into a solid backup. If Huet can keep it up between the pipes (and ears), the United Center could be buzzing well into May/June.
San Jose Sharks
A question I’ve asked myself the last couple weeks is whether this year’s Sharks are better than last year’s Presidents’ Trophy winners. My consensus answer is no. They rely so heavily on the big three of Thornton, Marleau, and Heatley, that if they play an elite defensive team like Chicago or Calgary in playoff-style hockey, they could be doomed. San Jose isn’t getting the same production on the back end as last year, and the secondary scoring is sporadic. I still wouldn’t get my hopes up in the Bay Area.
Picked by many pundits to finish last in the conference, Colorado has easily been this year’s surprise in the entire league. The Avs currently lead the Northwest, and aren’t going away. The goaltending, though, has been inconsistent over the last month or so. Even though they’ve started so well, it’s only a matter of time before Joe Sacco’s club goes on a late-season swoon.
Nashville has also surprised (mostly) everyone with their early-season success, with most of it coming in the last month. The Preds are an astonishing 19-5-2 since a lackluster 3-6-1 start. Who has been the team’s MVP, you ask? No one. It’s been a total team effort, from Barry Trotz to Martin Erat to Cody Franson; everyone has chipped in. This team is playing at such a high confidence level that missing the playoffs would certainly be a disappointment.
Los Angeles Kings
Hockey is officially back in L.A., and the Kings are treating their fans with exciting hockey. Anze Kopitar is a Hart Trophy candidate, but his production has slowed down since October. Jon Quick is turning his game up a notch, and has excelled in shouldering the load in net. Then you have Terry Murray, who has rallied the troops through recent injuries. Players have been in and out of the lineup, including Ryan Smyth, but it hasn’t slowed down the Kings. Look for this team to stick around all year, and give San Jose a run for their money.
I keep wanting to think Calgary is a big-time Cup contender… but wanting is the key word there. Do they have enough offense to make a run in the postseason?? That’s certainly up in the air. Will Miikka Kiprusoff have enough fuel in the tank come April?? McElhinney isn’t getting a sufficient amount of starts if you ask me. When I look at the big picture, the Sutter brothers will have their hands full in getting this team to advance past round one for the first time since ’04.
The ‘Yotes are more equipped to hang around than the Avs because of their style. Dave Tippett’s grind-it-out defensive style of play has worked wonders so far in the desert. Ilya Bryzgalov is benefitting from his system, but has also improved his game. I think they can make the playoffs, but I doubt they can make any noise once they get there. Just not enough ammo…
My current prediction for the Western Conference…
2. San Jose
4. Los Angeles
13. St. Louis
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