Before the season started, if you had asked anyone to list the top five teams in the Western Conference, you’d get the same five teams in varying order:
Vancouver, Chicago, Detroit, Nashville, San Jose
Maybe a Los Angeles thrown in occasionally, but you get the idea.
Now the first round of the NHL playoffs have each series sitting at 4 games, and every Western Conference series shows a 3-1 score. While that in itself is kind of odd (no ties, no sweeps), the odd part is the teams you’d think would be looking to close things out are the teams trying to avoid polishing their irons and booking tee times.
Sure, when you’ve got five teams and only four spots, somebody’s got to be left out. But as it stands now there needs to be an epic comeback or three to prevent four of the “powerhouses” in the West from having an earlier-than-expected vacation.
Does this mean the teams we thought were the top teams were really paper tigers? Is there just an odd outbreak of luck? What’s going on here?
Let’s look at where we stand:
NASHVILLE LEADS DETROIT, 3-1: Not much mystery here. The 4-5 matchup usually means one decent team is going home. Pekka Rinne has been good, and Shea Weber wasn’t suspended. Barry Trotz has been very successful in having the Preds play a defense-based system, where scoring happens off the other team’s mistakes. On the other side, the Wings are a pretty banged-up bunch. One thing that we have to start accepting here is that the Red Wings just aren’t a Cup contender any more. It’s the harsh reality of the Cap era finally catching up with them. Huge long-term deals to Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen and Pavel Datsyuk three elite players, but some of the old standbys are, well, old. Niklas Lidstrom is still making $6.2 million a year, which is a significant number. We’re getting to that time of the year when people are starting to ask, “Is this Lidstrom’s last year?” Personally, even once they have a ceremony and hang his number in the rafters I’ll still believe he’s going to play. But after two years of second-round eliminations, and dark clouds on this year’s first round, Holland and coach Mike Babcock need to start thinking the transition this team needs to make, and some gold watches will have to be given out.
LOS ANGELES LEADS VANCOUVER, 3-1: Jonathan Quick, Jonathan Quick, Jonathan Quick. The Canucks have scored goals by the bushel all season, and now they can’t get anything past Quick. Sure, a big part of it is Daniel Sedin’s injury courtesy of a Duncan Keith cheap shot. But there should be enough depth to make up for any injury, even one to an elite player like Daniel. One thing we’ve seen is that the referees’ arms aren’t going up quite as quickly as they have in the past. As long as Ryan Kesler keeps looking like an acrobat every time anyone looks at him funny, it’s only going to get worse. A year from now, nothing short of on-ice evisceration will get the Canucks a power play. Oh, and Alain Vigneualt has pretty much punched his ticket out of town by sitting his untradeable goaltender in two straight elimination games.
ST. LOUIS LEADS SAN JOSE, 3-1: What we’re seeing here is what we’ve seen all season. You keep thinking, “The Blues can’t be that good” and “The Sharks can’t be that bad”. If anyone other than Ken Hitchcock wins the Jack Adams Trophy, they should play his walkout music while he tunes up the winner with a folding chair. He took a team that had some nice players who had no discipline at all, and adopted a Trotz-style defense-first system. The players all bought in, and they wound up winning the Central Division. San Jose made a couple surprising moves this offseason, sending Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi to Minnesota in separate deals for Martin Havlat and Brent Burns, respectively. You look at the Sharks’ stat sheet, and they really don’t look that bad. 3 guys with 30 goals, Joe Thornton a hair under a point a game, Antti Niemi solid in goal. Now that they’re in the postseason, Niemi’s playing about the same, but they have 7 goals in 4 games. That win’t getting it done, regardless of who you’re playing.
PHOENIX LEADS CHICAGO, 3-1: The weirdest of the weird. all four games have gone into overtime, so the reality is that the pendulum could have stopped anywhere from Phoenix sweep to Chicago sweep. But here we are. The Coyotes hold the third seed, by virtue of their Pacific Division championship. The Blackhawks actually had more points, though. Again, both teams’ strengths and weaknesses are on display here. Phoenix’s lack of scoring depth has been exploited by the defensive play of Dave Bolland and the Hawks’ third line. The Hawks’ lack of grit means they haven’t been able to get into the tough areas to grab the center-cut rebounds that Mike Smith has been leaving. The power play, as it was in the regular season, is a real head-scratcher, given the amount of firepower the Hawks possess.In fact, the only time the Hawks have shown any hustle on offense has been in the last minute or two of regulation, when they’re sending the student body into the crease. They’ve scored tying goals in three of the four games with Corey Crawford out of his net. Unfortunately, Crawford has let in two game winners in a row that are softer than marshmallows. Of course, we can sit here and debate the suspensions of Andrew Shaw and Raffi Torres, as well as the injury to Marian Hossa as the result of Torres’ hit. But injuries happen in playoffs, whether by clean play or not. This is why winning the Stanley Cup is as much a test of endurance as it os a test of skill.
So let’s just say these series all get closed out in the next game or two. That means the Blackhawks, Red Wings, Sharks and Canucks all go home. Whether this is a fluke year or a genuine shift in the balance of power will depend on what these teams do between now and Opening Night in October, starting with Game Five.
About the Author: Spent my formative years breathing in the rarified air of the second balcony at Chicago Stadium. Refined my flair for colorful euphemisms in the blue seats at Madison Square Garden. Now a curmudgeon in the 300 level in the United Center. My musings can also be found at Hockeenight.com...and yes, I muse.