Welcome to the Wild Wild West

Updated: April 28, 2011 at 11:18 am by Braden Hill

The first round of the playoffs out west was full of teams overcoming great obstacles in dramatic fashion. Each series was fast, hard hitting and just downright entertaining. I hope that you guys have enjoyed the first round as much as I have, capping it off with a series for the history books with Vancouver and Chicago.

The second round appears to be able to provide the high intensity hockey we all love to see at this time of year.

So here is some insight, key contributors to watch out for and hopefully some fantasy pointers if you can edit your playoff roster each round.

Nashville Predators vs. Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks may come into the next round a little flat. The series against the Blackhawks last round was psychologically demanding, so anticipate the effects to linger. The Chicago curse was in the back of all the Canucksplayers and fans minds the whole series with the headlines ʻchokeʼ looming in the mediaʼs mind. Roberto Luongo said after the series win that it might be better than winning the Olympics. Granted, beating your all time rivals that ended your hopes for the previous two years is a huge accomplishment, but hopefully for Vancouver fans, a hangover doesnʼt set in.

All things considered, as the saying goes ʻYou have to beat the man to be the manʼ and the longer this series goes, the more I expect to see Vancouver recover and re-focus.

Goaltending

Luongo put up a 2.97 GAA and .903 SV%. These are decent numbers considering the 7-2 loss against Chicago where he let up five goals in two periods. Expect him to settle down as he stops thinking about mullets with side steps as the puck is being shot at him.

Pekka Rinne had a 3.29 GAA and .876 SV% in the first round which are not normal Rinne numbers. However, he did face one of the hottest offenses going into the playoffs highlighted by Corey Perryʼs 50 goal campaign.

Forwards

Henrik Sedin finished the first round with five assists. If the Chicago curse struck again, a lot would have been on this brotherʼs shoulders. For Vancouverʼs sake he needs to shoot the puck. His brother more than doubled his shot total with 27 to Henrikʼs 12.

On the other hand, Mike Fisher was a great addition for the Predators this year. Fisher has the ability to contribute offensively as he had three goals and three assists in the first round. He is going to have to find a way to help lead his team past a hard nosed defense if Nashville is going to win this round.

Defense

Kevin Bieksa and Ryan Suter have the same story: longevity- clocking in at 25.05 and 27.28 TOI/G respectively. Again, the team is going to lean on these guys heavily to clear rebounds, take bodies and help their tenders improve their GAAʼs.

The theme of choke artists continues in the other series of the West.

Detroit Red Wings vs. San Jose Sharks

The Sharks enter yet another playoff round with the monkey on their back. Last year they beat the Wings in five games, yet the Wings are still considered by many as the favorites. Why? Because San Jose chokes. Well this year San Jose is considered by some as the underdog again as Detroit looked like an offensive wrecking ball in their four-game sweep of the Phoenix Coyotes. Furthermore, Detroit is expecting the return of Henrik Zetterberg.

That being said, San Jose does have some new additions that has made them considerably deeper.

Goaltending

Last season the Sharks were able to blame the play of Evgeni Nabokov on their shortcomings. As he now represents Team Russia in the Worlds, the team turns to last year’s winner in Antti Niemi to lead them to the promised land. Niemi was able to get the three wins out of his six starts but only Ilya Bryzgalov finished with a worse GAA amongst starting goalies. By contrast, Jimmy Howard stepped up his game, finishing his four-game route with a 2.50 GAA and .915 SV% — both totals significantly higher than his regular season peripherals.

Forwards

Logan Couture was part of San Jose’s success last year, but only averaged roughly 11 minutes per game. He has a much more influential role this year averaging 19.21 TOI/G and has two goals and five points so far. Kyle Wellwood is showing that he is an improvement over Manny Malhotra from lastyear. Malhotra averaged almost 17 TOI/G last year and mustered up one goal in 15 games.  Wellwood is averaging about 14 minutes a game this year and already has a goal and four points in six games. This guy has terrific vision offensively and is a nice addition to deepen the Sharks.

The Detroit Red Wings have the ever consistent Pavel Datsyuk though and this will be a daunting task for the Sharks to contain and overcome. He already has two goals and six points in the first four games.  With Zetterberg back, the Red Wings become even more of a threat as he scored seven goals to go along with 15 points in 12 games.

These two Wings will lead this offensive juggernaut into the deep San Jose roster. This is going to be an incredible series as these two teams are starting to put together a decent rivalry themselves.

Defense

With Nicklas Lidstrom nominated yet again for the Norris Trophy, the Red Wings continue to be in good hands. He leads a strong core which includes veterans Niklas Kronwall, Brian Rafalski, Ruslan Salei and Brad Stuart and youngsters Jonathan Ericsson and Jakub Kindl. Altogether they allowed only 10 markers to pass Howard over the first four games.

On the other end of the ice, the Sharks need improvement from leader Dan Boyle — who finished with a sub-par first round. It was bad enough that David Pollack at The Mercury News reached out to Boyle to find out his strategy in preventing the same thing from happening against the Red Wings:

“It wasn’t very good at all. I felt real good Game 1 and never after that. It was a poor series,” Boyle said this morning. “The good news is I get to turn the page on it and hopefully be better.”

His improved play should be a difference maker in what should be an even closer series than last year.

Although the hate between Chicago and Vancouver is over, our “Man Soaps” are not done. The wild Western Conference will produce great hockey in this round again. Man I love reality TV.

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Braden Hill

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