Thursday, April 29, 2010

Western Conference semifinals preview

Fun fact: In the West, seeds 1, 2, 3 and 5 advanced. In the East: 4, 6, 7 and 8. Fun fact #2: I predicted all Western winners correctly, nailing three series exactly. I predicted zero of the Eastern winners. Please take that into consideration before placing your bets.

#1 San Jose vs. #5 Detroit

Regular season head-to-head: Detroit 3-0-1 (one SO win, one SO loss)

How they got here: San Jose defeated Colorado in six games. Detroit ousted Phoenix in seven.

Power play: San Jose: 21.0% (regular season, 4th best), 19.2 (playoffs, 8th best.) Detroit: 19.2% (regular season, 9th best), 23.5 (playoffs, 7th best.)

Penalty killing: San Jose 85.0% (regular season, 5th best), 86.7 (playoffs, 5th best.) Detroit 83.9% (regular season, 10th best), 81.8 (playoffs, 7th best.)

Leaders: San Jose: Joe Pavelski five goals, eight points; Ryane Clowe seven assists, eight points; Scott Nichol 28 hits; Dan Boyle 12 blocks. Detroit: Henrik Zetterberg six goals, 11 points; Johan Franzen six assists; Darren Helm 29 hits; Andreas Lilja 13 blocks.

Goalies: San Jose: Evgeni Nabokov (4-2, 1.76 GAA, .926%, 1 shutout); Detroit: Jimmy Howard (4-3, 2.59, .919, 1 shutout)

Outlook: A better team than Colorado might have knocked off the Sharks. It's imperative that Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau show up to play in this series, particularly Thornton and Marleau, who already have weak playoff resumes. That trio has combined for 10 points but just one goal and is a collective minus-7. The one goal was the fifth of a 5-0 win and came late in Game 5. San Jose's second line of Pavelski, Clowe and Devin Setoguchi carried the team into the second round.

In contrast, Detroit's stars showed up for its first round series, and that's what got the Red Wings through to the second round. When Pavel Datsyuk or Zetterberg scored, the Red Wings won. Against Phoenix, particularly in Game 7, Detroit returned to its old form and is going to be a far more competitive team against San Jose than Colorado was.

Prediction: There were questions about Howard and they weren't necessarily answered against the Coyotes. There are still concerns about Nabokov and others on the Sharks. San Jose's top line failed to produce against the Avalanche. It won't produce against Detroit, which owned San Jose even during the regular season, when the Wings struggled and the Sharks didn't. Red Wings in six.

#2 Chicago vs. #3 Vancouver

Regular season head-to-head: Tied 2-2 (all in regulation)

How they got here: Chicago out-lasted Nashville in six games. Vancouver pushed Los Angeles aside in six.

Power play: Chicago: 17.7% (regular season, 16th best), 17.4 (playoffs, 11th best.) Vancouver: 20.9% (regular season, 6th best), 25.0 (playoffs, 6th best.)

Penalty killing: Chicago: 85.3% (regular season, 4th best), 96.3 (playoffs, 3rd best.) Vancouver: 81.9% (regular season, 17th best), 61.5 (playoffs, the worst.)

Leaders: Chicago: Patrick Kane four goals; Jonathan Toews/Marian Hossa six assists; Toews eight points; Brent Seabrook 22 hits; Brent Sopel 21 blocks. Vancouver: Mikael Samuelsson seven goals, 11 points; Henrik Sedin seven assists; Alex Burrows 18 hits; Alexander Edler 15 blocks.

Goalies: Chicago: Antti Niemi (4-2, 2.15, .921, 2 shutouts); Vancouver: Roberto Luongo (4-2, 2.92, .893, 0 shutouts)

Outlook: This has the makings of the most entertaining series and one of the most physical (as long as Philadelphia is alive, the Flyers will always be in the running for most physical series, regardless of who they play.) It's a rematch of last season and there's a growing hatred amongst these teams. Similar to the other series in the West, there remain unsolved questions of whether either goaltender can handle playoff hockey.

The best part is, both opponents for the goalies face a much more potent lineup than the one they played in the first round. The Canucks will try to push around the Blackhawks, who aren't likely to take any crap from the team they ousted last season.

The forwards arguably are on even terms. Toews, Hossa, Kane, Patrick Sharp against the Sedins, Samuelsson, Burrows and Ryan Kesler. The defense in terms of point production might actually favor Vancouver. Defensively there's a slight edge to Chicago.

Prediction: So, as usual, it comes down to the goaltenders. Niemi was hit-or-miss, while Luongo was mainly miss, bailed out by his offense a lot of the time. Neither breeds confidence, but Chicago will provide more support to Niemi than Vancouver will to Luongo. Blackhawks in seven.

We'll do the East on Friday.

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