Spring is in the air, and for many sports fans out there, that means baseball. But for others, like SBz’ very own D & J Klau, springtime means one thing: playoff hockey.
The hard-hitting, bone-crunching, pull-your-own-tooth-out action that is the chase for the Stanley Cup is nothing short of spectacular, and if you aren’t watching, well, you should get your head checked.
Here, the hockey Broz, and blood Broz, present Part 1 of their first round picks for the upcoming playoffs, which start on Wednesday, April 11. This article covers the Western Conference match ups, tomorrow's Part 2 will cover the Eastern match ups.
In the West, we have the defending conference champion Canucks taking on the Kings, the surprising Blues doing battle with the Sharks, the Coyotes playing host to the Blackhawks, and a Central Division match up between the Predators and Red Wings to complete what's looking up to be a magnificent first round of action.
The prediction format goes: match up by match up, Danny will give his and Jason will follow.
And as always, each bro gets one point for picking the series winner, another bonus point for predicting the correct amount of games. Winner winner gets dinner, courtesy of the losing bro. Jason won last year.
(1) Vancouver Canucks vs. (8) Los Angeles Kings
DKlau: Vancouver picked a perfect time to peak, winning eight of their final nine games en route to a second consecutive President's Trophy. While they will be without their leading goal-scorer Daniel Sedin for at least the near future, they haven't seemed to miss him while he's been gone. Vancouver was the fourth highest scoring team in the NHL this year, and they will need to bring everything they have against Jonathan Quick and the LA Kings.
If LA has their way, this will be a low-scoring series. Guys like Drew Doughty and Willie Mitchell are going to have to step it up defensively, as JQ wont be able to do it all himself. If LA can keep Vancouver to 2 goals or less for most of the series, they'll have a chance. LA will also need Roberto Luongo to be his usual inconsistent self in the playoffs.
A lot of things need to fall their way, but right now the Kings just do not score enough goals to make a large impact in these playoffs.
Vancouver in 5.
JKlau: This series has the potential to be a good one. Vancouver on paper is the better team, but keep in mind that it is likely they will be without Daniel Sedin for at least the first round, after he received a concussion from a Duncan Keith hit. The blow will be a hard one to take for the Canucks. Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler are key and will need to play at their best levels. Kevin Bieksa and Alex Edler are also a beasts on D.
The Kings' hopes rest on the man between the pipes. Jonathan Quick has proven himself an elite goalie. His league-leading 10 shutouts along with a sub 2.00 GAA (goals against average) have thrown him into the Vezina Trophy race alongside Henrik Lundqvist and Brian Elliott. Anze Kopitar is the go-to guy on offense. The Kings will need Mike Richards to prove he was worth the investment and so will his bff Jeff Carter. The D is solid and built from the ground up, but after the quality of Drew Doughty, it slides a bit.
Losing Daniel Sedin hurts but not enough for Vancouver to lose this series. Quick has had to bail them out and he'll probably have to do it again if LA has a shot. He will steal some games, but in the end, it will be Vancouver in 6.
(2) St. Louis Blues vs. (7) San Jose Sharks
DKlau: The Blues have been the proverbial feel-good team in the NHL all year, winning their division (arguably the toughest) for the first time since 1999-2000. And they've done it all year behind great defensive play, allowing fewer goals than any other team in the League.
St. Louis dominated the Sharks in their regular season match ups, sweeping all four meetings, including two shutouts. John Davidson has assembled quite an interesting lineup here, borrowing a page from the old New Jersey Devils playbook and enlisting the services of Cup Winners Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott, complimenting that with a good, young defense, including Alex Pietrangleo and Kevin Shattenkirk.
San Jose have a history of playoff disappointment, but this year will be a different story. These are the positives of low expectations.
Blues in 5
JKlau: In the season preview I predicted the Blues would be good, but never did I imagine they would be this good. Ken Hitchcock is more of a savior than he is a coach. After a slow start, the Blues fired their coach and brought Hitchcock on and haven't looked back. A goalie tandem led by Brian Elliot has been superb and their spread-out offense only got better when David Perron returned from a concussion. He tallied 42 points in just 57 games and he'll be as reliable as they come in the playoffs. On D, Alex Pietrangelo has proven he's among the best.
In San Jose, there is a roster full of stars. Joe Thornton leads the way but Logan Couture is the young gun. Dan Boyle is always a great two-way presence on D and goaltender Antii Niemi has won a cup before. Fact is, this Sharks team, on paper, should be higher than a 7 seed. For whatever reason, they couldn't get it done until late.
It's tough to pick a winner here, St. Louis swept the season series with two shutouts in the process. Brian Elliot has been unbeatable in the regular season, but he's still unproven in the playoffs. St. Louis has accomplished a lot this season but I don't know if they have the experience to go far. The Sharks are hungry and if they can draw a bit of blood by stealing a game in St. Louis, they'll pounce. I may be off but I'll go with San Jose in 6.
(3) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (6) Chicago Blackhawks
DKlau: Despite protests from Canadian cities without hockey teams, the team from the dessert continues to play hockey there, and finds themselves back in the playoffs again. This year, simply making it wont be enough. It's time for them to step up and win a series. They'll be happy to know they didn't draw Detroit this year. Either way, they will have a tough time against the offensive firepower of the Chicago Blackhawks.
They are well enough equipped to deal with it, Mike Smith is a top-notch goal-keeper and the difference maker in this series. He finished the year with a .930 Save %, good for 4th in the NHL. By comparison, Chicago's Corey Crawford sports a .903 save %.
In order to win this series, Phoenix will have to contain the likes of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, while managing to get enough pucks on net to beat Crawford a few times a night. They will need secondary scoring from D-men Keith Yandle and Oliver Eckman-Larsson, with primary scoring coming from veterans Radim Vrbata and Ray Whitney. They have home-ice, and one of the best goalies in the league, two major positives in a first round playoff matchup.
Phoenix in 7.
JKlau: Another 3 v 6 matchup where the 6 should be higher than the 3. The Coyotes, while maybe a bit underrated, are simply the best team in a weak division, and definitely benefit from slow starts from division rivals. Still, it's their first division victory since they arrived in the desert and they have a lot to be proud of. Hopefully, it carries in attendance.
Ray Whitney is the timeless wonder who has proven he still has it. If they last long enough, he will turn 40 during his teams playoff run.
Phoenix will have their hands full with the Chicago offense, which can kill you in so many different ways. The D is led by the often-over-looked Keith Yandle, and Mike Smith revived his career in net for Phoenix this year. The focus is always on Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, but when Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa are your secondary guys you are doing something right. Its actually hard to call Sharp a secondary guy when he led the team in goals, but he won't complain about that label. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are stalwarts on the blueline and the trade deadline addition of Johnny Oduya shores up the back end. Corey Crawford is solid in net and he'll get the job done.
Phoenix has some good young players and a good future ahead of them. With that said, their matchup is not a good one and this isn't their year. The Hawks were fourth best in a very strong Central Division and I think the four best teams in the West are in that division. It will be a tough test to go deep in the West this year, as always, but the first round shouldn't be too much trouble for Chicago, who will take this one in 5.
(4) Nashville Predators vs (5) Detroit Red Wings
DKlau: These two division rivals split their season series 3-3, and finished the season separated by just 2 points. This sets up for what should be a fun series.
It is no secret that Detroit has had their struggles on the road this year, finishing 17-21-3 outside of Joe Louis Arena. It is tough to say whether or not this will carry over into the playoffs, and I am inclined to say it will not. This team is too experienced for that to be an issue this time of year. It will be exciting to watch the likes of Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, and Johan Franzen fire away against Pekka Rinne, one of the most athletic goalies in the league.
Shea Weber wants to grow a beard, so you know this series is going to be hard fought and down to the wire. Both of these teams have the work ethic and the talent to make a strong playoff run. It's a shame that one of them will have to leave us so soon. Detroit's experience wins out in this one.
Red Wings in 7
JKlau: Nashville went all in at the trade deadline, and they are a damn good team. But Detroit in the first round is a matchup no Western Conference team ever wants.
The Preds, under coaching mastermind Barry Trotz, managed to build a playoff caliber team regardless of a lack of any real star power, on offense at least. It's scoring by committee in the music city. Patrick Hornqvist lead the team in goals and he didn't eclipse 30. They added the Andrei half of the Kostitsyn brother tandem that worked well together in Montreal, and controversial winger Alexander Radulov returned from a hiatus in Russia for the playoffs. Radulov, whose rights were retained by Nashville, had left the team to go back home. With the Preds ready to push for the playoffs, now he was ready to return. Offense however, isn't as necessary when you have an elite goalie in net. Pekka Rinne has emerged as one of the elite in this league. And with a D in front of him that boasts the likes of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, Nashville has no problem playing low-scoring games.
Detroit, unlike their opponent, has some serious star power. Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk are elite level players and Niklas Lidstrom is the best defenseman of the era. Jimmy Howard in net has also had an amazing year and has been integral to the success of the Red Wings. But Detroit has been killed by injuries this year. Only two players played all 82 games. Niklas Lidstrom, who has gone years without missing a game, missed time. Vets like Johan Franzen and Tomas Holmstrom missed time and even Pavel Datsyuk had to miss over 10 games. Grit guys like Darren Helm and Drew Miller are going to be essential if Detroit wants to win this series.
My prediction, Nashville toughs it out. In a long series, the age of some of Detroit's best might catch up to them. Detroit will be favored. But Nashville is a gritty team that is ready to take the next step. Nasvhille Predators in a tough 7 games.
The games start Wednesday night, tune in tomorrow for D & J Klau's Eastern Confernce first round playoff predictions!