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Playoff Primer - The Varsity Conference

umad, NHL? Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-US PRESSWIRE
umad, NHL? Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-US PRESSWIRE

Somehow I ended up volunteering to do a little playoff preview here at MHH but when I sat down to write it, I decided the only games I really cared about were the ones in the Western Conference. I'll definitely watch the East (Pens-Flyers should be a blast, go Caps!) but when it came time to say anything about them, I ended up staring blankly at a screen until my brain said "Screw it, the East sucks anyway". So there you go. A playoff primer for only one conference. Hopefully you guys forgive me for my brain's laziness.

#1 Vancouver vs. #8 Los Angeles

Outlook: For Vancouver, another President's Trophy just means hanging another relatively meaningless banner on Opening Night next year if they don't bring home the only hardware that matters this time of year. The Canucks have a tough opening round opponent in the suddenly resurgent Los Angeles Kings, whose awful offense was ignited with the acquisition of Jeff Carter from Columbus in February. For LA, the matchup with Vancouver is punishment for blowing a golden opportunity to steal the surprisingly winnable Pacific Division as they backed into the playoffs with back-to-back losses to San Jose. Whoops.

Season Series: 2-2

Players to Watch: For Vancouver, most people are going to look towards the pipes and the controversial post-season play of Roberto Luongo as the central story in Vancouver. I see the guy is a headcase but the guy's career playoff numbers are nearly identical to his regular season numbers and when he's staying out of his own way, he's easily a top-notch netminder. For my money, I see the key to Vancouver being F Ryan Kesler. After a breakout year last year that saw Kesler score 41 goals and provide badly needed secondary scoring to the Sedins, Kesler saw his goal total plummet all the way down to 22 goals. If the Canucks are really going to make a Cup run, they're going to need Kesler to re-discover his scoring touch and provide additional scoring to take the pressure off the Sedins.

In Los Angeles, to me the most important player to keep an eye on is easy. G Jonathan Quick produced a Vezina-worthy season and carried the lackluster Kings on his back into the playoffs with a a ridiculous 1.95 GAA and .929 save percentage. Those are crazy numbers, people. Where the big question lies for Quick is whether or not he can maintain that level of play when the lights get brighter. For all the talk of Luongo's playoff failures, Quick is the goalie in this series with the questionable posteason history (albeit in a smaller sample size) as his numbers balloon to 3.32 GAA and a .900 save percentage in 12 playoff games. Those numbers are going to need to see significant improvement if the Kings are planning to see the second round of this year's postseason tournament.

#2 St. Louis vs. #7 San Jose

Outlook: St. Louis start off the year looking like it was going to disappoint a lot of people who were predicting playoff success but a coaching change that saw likely Jack Adams Trophy winner Ken Hitchcock take the reins ignited this Blues team and they slowed only when they lost their footing towards the end of the season and fell to the second seed. Still, winning the league's most intensely competitive division is nothing to scoff at and big things are expected of this Blues team in the postseason. Also, their goalies played at an insanely high level all season. That really helps things. San Jose, on the other hand, was a big disappointment but in the regular season this time! The Sharks are still loaded with plenty of talent and their mid-season acquisition of spare parts from Colorado paid off big for the Avalanche (huehuehue) but provided only a minimal boost for the Sharks. The story in San Jose is the same as previous years: Can this team of perennial playoff disappointments get out of their own way and make their way to the Stanley Cup Finals in the rugged Western Conference?

Season Series: 4-0 Blues

Players to Watch: For St. Louis, the player I think everyone needs to keep an eye on is stud D Alex Pietrangelo. A sleeper Norris Trophy candidate, Pietrangelo excelled on both ends of the ice for St. Louis this year but the 22-year old built upon his first full season in the NHL last year and managed to scrape out a whopping 51 points for St. Louis. Flying mostly under the radar thanks to the explosion of Ottawa's Erik Karlsson, Pietrangelo is one of the next superstar defenders in this league and should St. Louis have legitimate title hopes, the man nicknamed "Petro" is likely going to be leading the way.

In San Jose, the onus always falls on big Joe Thornton to lead the way. I really don't feel the need to say too much about Jumbo Joe and his playoff history because anybody reading this very likely knows all about the posteason failures of San Jose's wide-bodied center. Thornton really needs to step his game up and lead the Sharks offensively in a way he never has in the postseason because there's no Colorado in the cards for Joe Pavelski to light up and carry the offense. This is Thornton's team and as he goes, they likely will, too.

#3 Phoenix vs. #6 Chicago

Outlook: For all the chatter yesterday about Edmonton winning the draft lottery, there has to be a feeling that Chicago won the playoff matchup lottery in the Western Conference as all 6 of the other teams who made the postseason field have the talent on offense to exploit a very shaky Chicago defense. Instead, the Blackhawks landed a first-round series with the dry-as-unbuttered-toast Coyotes who are fresh off winning their first division title in franchise history. Led by a career year from G Mike Smith and a "where the fuck did that come from" season by 39-year old Ray Whitney, Phoenix comes into the postseason as the winner of the division nobody wanted to win and in my eyes as underdogs to a Chicago team that may not be as strong as in recent seasons but certainly should have the upper hand over the Coyotes. If Phoenix is to go anywhere in the postseason, Smith is probably going to need a few more of those 50 save games.

Season Series: 3-1 Coyotes

Players to Watch: For Phoenix, I hope everyone pays especially close attention to precocious defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. A strong two way games drives this 20 year old stalwart and while plenty of attention goes to Keith Yandle for his offensive accolades, Ekman-Larsson is the kind of force that can change a game on any given night in multiple facets of the game. If the Coyotes plan to make a run towards Lord Stanley's Cup this year, Ekman-Larsson is going to need to translate his regular season success to hockey's second season and be one of Smith's personal bodyguards as well as a consistent offensive intiator from the blueline.

In Chicago, I'm going to say Duncan Keith is the man the watch here. While his 40-point season was solid, his overall game has taken a significant dip since winning the Norris Trophy just a few short seasons ago. The Blackhawks are going to need Keith to have a return to that form and hope his defensive buddies follow his lead because this much-maligned defensive corps has very little room for error with the on-the-cheap goaltending management has stuck them with.

#4 Nashville vs. #5 Detroit

Outlook: This series is looks to be the prime series out West as the Central Division rivals square off with each team in unfamiliar territory - Nashville with home ice advantage, Detroit without. The Predators had a fantastic overall season and appear primed to make their deepest run in the playoffs to date. Led by two Norris Trophy candidates in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, Nashville boasts the kind of defensive talent every other team in the NHL is envious of. With All-Star goalie Pekka Rinne manning the pipes, the Preds main concern lies on the offensive end of the ice where they will throw their wide array of skillsets at Detroit netminder and demigod Jimmy Howard. For Detroit, an NHL record home winning streak essentially carried them to the standing they finished in as their poor road record sabotaged the team's quest to avoid startnig the playoffs on the road. As such, the Red Wings will have to overcome their road woes as they enter the postseason with more question marks than they have had in maybe 10 years.

Season Series: 3-3

Players to Watch: For Nashville, the Big Three in Suter, Weber, and Rinne is an obvious choice but so is enigmatic and controversial F Alexander Radulov, whose return stateside caused quite the uproar, namely from the three teams who finished ahead of Nashville and appeared to be looking in their rearview mirror with wider eyes than they anticipated. Already a tough out, Nashville's offense and lethal powerplay was enhanced by the return of the highly-skilled Radulov, whose wide array of offensive talents were on full display when he netted 7 points (3g, 4a) in his 9 regular season games.

In Detroit, I honestly don't want to watch any of those clowns play so I don't really want to pick one but I'll go the cop out route and say D Kyle Quincey, whose loud and abrasive exit from Colorado caused an entire fan base to almost unanimously and instantly turn on the former Avs rearguard. I really don't want that man to do well. I just don't.

BAM. Consider yourself primed.