Thursday, May 13, 2010

NHL Playoffs: Western Conference Final Prediction

Since this series is likely going to start Sunday, while the series in Montreal won’t start until Monday (I assume), I wanted to get to the Western Conference Prediction between San Jose and Chicago before the series started. I went one for two in my second round predictions out West – and that is the best I can do out East as well. But before I get to my take on the upcoming series, just a few words on the teams that lost in the second round out west.

Detroit simply looked old and tired against a resilient San Jose team. The ingredients are still there to make this a good team – Datsyuck, Zetterberg and Howard especially – but they need an infusion of young blood to compliment the veterans they do keep. I think, at this point, its safe to say that Detroit’s domination in the West is over, and its time to start a minor rebuild effort.

As for Vancouver, the news is worse, because their series against Chicago was nothing short of a meltdown. The Sedins disappeared for almost the entire series – unless they were taking stupid penalties. Their defense was depleted, and the ones they did have couldn’t handle the Hawks. And in net, Luongo was nowhere near good enough to win – yet no one seemed willing to take any responsibility for their actions. Had the Canucks played this way in Round 1, the Kings would have beat them. What they need is more heart. They relied on their ability to come back in third periods – something that worked all season, and in Round 1, but didn’t happen here. It’s great when you have the ability and confidence to comeback in the third period – awful when you build your strategy around it. The Canucks need some help – and fast – if they are ever really going to contend for the Stanley Cup.

(1) San Jose vs. (2) Chicago
I have so far been impressed with San Jose. I was nervous about picking them in both round 1 and round 2 as they have had a tendency to choke in the past – but I stuck by them in Round 1 thinking Colorado could in no way match them, and in Round 2 thinking Detroit was too old, and was ultimately right. What has impressed me about San Jose these playoffs is their ability to bounce back. They didn’t let the fluke overtime “own goal” effect them in Round 1, and unlike Boston in the East, they were able to respond after going up 3-0 and facing a suddenly resilient Detroit team. They stuck to their game plan. Not only that, but while Joe Pavelski, Devon Setoguchi and Ryan Clowe carried them through the first round, and I think remain their best line, Heatley, Thornton and Marleau (especially the later two) stepped up big time against Detroit. They now have a more balanced offensive unit going – and with Boyle and Blake playing great on defense, San Jose is a confident bunch. Their downfall could be goaltending – Evengi Nabokov has either been great and horrid this playoffs – with little in between. He needs to be more consistent for the Sharks to win.

As for the Blackhawks, they are flying high right now. For the second straight year they eliminated the Vancouver Canucks – and did it by shutting down their big guns the Sedins, and more importantly getting into Luongo’s head. Toews was undoubtedly the star of that series, but they got good efforts from their entire forward core, getting big goals at key teams for their second and third lines as well. We know their defense ranks with the best in the league – Keith, Seabook, Sopel, Campbell and Hlamerson (or however the hell you spell it) have been great. Annti Niemi, after being somewhat shaky in round 1, has found his game and is growing more confident as the playoffs continue – something you would expect from a rookie. Why I think Chicago will end up taking the series is because they are stronger, faster and younger than the Sharks. They have a more complete team in terms of scoring – being able to produce both off the cycle and the rush, whereas the Sharks seem to be more of cycle team. As the playoffs grind on, the older guys on San Jose are going to get more tired, whereas the young guns in Chicago show no signs of slowing down. The Hawks have experience, having been here last year, but coming up short. This year I don’t think they will.

Prediction: Chicago in 6.

Note: Although it would be foolish to make a Stanley Cup prediction at this point, I will say that at this time, I suspect that whoever wins this series will win the Stanley Cup. Not only is the winner of this series guaranteed home ice, but I think that the teams left in the East will have a harder time playing against these bigger, more well balanced teams that they have had so far. At this point, I’ll be cheering for a Philly/Chicago final – as that would be the most physical, most entertaining series I can imagine. Of course, Philly needs to win game 7 against Boston for that to even be possible first.

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