Written by: Keith Ricci
Well that was Quick, wasn’t it?
pun intended. The first round of the Western Conference playoffs didn’t quite
live up to expectations. In three of the series the losing team only managed to
win one game and the other the loser only won 2. The East on the other hand,
where most thought the gap in talent and teams was much wider saw three Game
7’s and a Game 6. This round in the West promises to be different. I think.
Nashville Predators vs. Phoenix Coyotes
Both of these teams have been on the “verge” for the last few years and both have shed some pretty big demons by getting to the second round. Phoenix finally gets out of the first round for the first time ever, vindicating coach Dave Tippett and Nashville breaks through in a big way by dumping long time division bully Detroit. One of these teams is going to the Western Conference Finals and while each would consider that accomplishment a great season neither should be disappointed if they don’t quite make it that far. They have overachieved and will be considered legitimate contenders for the foreseeable future.
Each has a fantastic goalie and their team philosophies start from the net out. Nashville netminder Pekka Rinne was nominated for the Vezina Trophy for his performance in the regular season and continued that strong play in the first round stopping 160 of the 169 shots he saw. On the other end Mike Smith is showing the promise that once saw him traded for New York Rangers All-Star and big money center Brad Richards. There were other pieces to the trade but make no mistake those two were the centerpieces. Tampa needed to unload salary and Dallas had a very talented young goalie stuck behind an entrenched starter in Marty Turco. Smith faded out in Tampa, was put on waivers, sent to the minors and then signed a two-year deal last offseason in Phoenix, reuniting him with Tippett, his coach while in Dallas. The two have found the same mojo they had years ago in the Lone Star State and are rolling. Smith posted better numbers in both Goals Against and Save Percentage than Rinne.
Each was fantastic in the first round and carried their teams for long stretches but Smith was better. Chicago hammered him relentlessly and he never broke, posting a shutout in the final game, on the road, despite facing 39 shots. Rinne was good with a 1.81 GAA but that was identical to Smith. They are both gargantuan, very sound positionally; cover a lot of net and oozing confidence. The matchup is salacious and is only the second best of this round.
The difference in this series is going to be some kind of intangible. A power play is going to get hot or a third line winger will have the best games of his life and find himself in free beer and steak forever after scoring three game winners on the road to the Cup.
Nashville on paper has the better defensive corps and are marginally deeper at forward but Phoenix seems to be a team that just has it together right now. The Pacific Division was brutal this year and they have been playing playoff hockey for months. They were in ninth place two weeks before the end of the season and won the division. Nashville is the more talented team but I just think that Tippett has figured this team out and will know all the right buttons to push. Mike Smith will continue his Zen-like mastery of all things projectile and the ‘Yotes will advance in 6.
Los Angeles Kings vs. St Louis Blues
Big Jon Quick made very short work of the defending Campbell Cup Champions and #1 seeded Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks were a bit banged up but the Kings, much like the Coyotes, have been playing playoff hockey for months and embarrassed the Canucks in 5 games. They were bigger, faster and ran circles around the President’s Trophy winners. I picked Vancouver in 5 or 6 based on the fact that Van needed to switch to Cory Schneider and while they did switch in Game 4, it didn’t matter. Schneider was good but not any better than Sweet Baby Skip to Toronto my Lou. The Canucks didn’t score and while the Kings defense was good Big Quick was the reason they won. LA got timely goals from players up and down the lineup but those chances were generated from quality stops that create even better scoring chances. It was text book shut down hockey and what LA was expected to play all year long. They faltered a bit during the season and then figured it out when it mattered most. Surprising? Maybe. Entertaining? Without a doubt.
The Blues are a machine. Ken Hitchcock has these kids rolling like his old Dallas Stars teams of the late 90’s with one major difference. Those Stars teams were loaded with multiple Hall-of-Famers. This version of the Blues has no Modano, Hull, Belfour, Nieuwendyk or Zubov. They are running out a backup goalie who happened to lead the league in the shutouts. Hitch has conjured up magic. I just can’t pick against them. The Kings are deeper at forward. Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams could run roughshod over David Backes, T.J. Oshie and David Perron. The former led the Kings in points during the first round while St Louis’s front three only had two goals combined. After scoring 64 in the regular season the B.O.P. line should rebound for the Blues and create some serious scoring chances.
On the defensive side the Kings have a couple of big names that will eat up a lot of minutes in Rob Scuderi and Drew Doughty. They played well in the first round but didn’t put a lot of points on the board. Their job was shutting down the Sedin’s and Ryan Kessler. They succeeded. They were more than impressive in neutralizing some of the top point producers in hockey but St Louis will be different. They attack from all four lines and will make the guys who play the other 35 minutes skate twice as hard.
Vancouver failed by not playing a full team and trying to rely on their big guns who ended up being tired and overmatched. St Louis has no big guns, will roll four lines and has a defense that is as unflappable as Ivan Drago’s face in the first 10 rounds of action in Rocky IV. They have no weakness as I see and will win this series. Mr. Quick has a chance to steal the show with the help of Dustin Brown but upsetting the top two seeds in the Western Conference one after the other might be a bit of a stretch.
St. Louis in 6. Let’s all enjoy the ribs afterwards.
Written by: Matthew Blunk
The Philadelphia Flyers aren't the only NHL team keeping busy this summer.
One week after locking up left wing Taylor Hall with a seven-year contract, the Edmonton Oilers signed forward Jordan Eberle to a six-year, $36 million extension. The newly "man-strong" Eberle posted 34 goals and 76 points in 78 during the 2011-12 season, in a breakout campaign for the 22-year-old right wing.
Written by: Matthew Blunk
Amidst the uncertainty of this NHL offseason, with murmurs of a potential lockout to come, the Philadelphia Flyers have signed two more players to long-term deals.
Philadelphia signed forward Wayne Simmonds to a 6-year, near $24 million extension on Aug. 16. On Monday, the Flyers agreed to extend forward Scott Hartnell with a 6-year, $28.5 million deal. …
Written by: Matthew Blunk
1) Evgeni Malkin, C - Pittsburgh Penguins
2) Sidney Crosby, C - Pittsburgh Penguins
3) Claude Giroux, C - Philadelphia Flyers
4) Steven Stamkos, F - Tampa Bay Lightning
5) Jonathan Quick, G - Los Angeles Kings
6) Alexander Ovechkin, F - Washington Capitals
7) Henrik Lundqvist, G - New York Rangers