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(1) San Jose Sharks vs. (8) Colorado Avalanche
Could this finally be the Sharks’ year? Probably not, but at least a first-round upset isn’t in the cards for them again this year. This series lacks the upset potential that some of the other quarter-final matchups have, but the young Avs won’t go down without a fight.
It’ll be interesting to see how players like Matt Duchene and Chris Stewart fare in their first NHL playoff series. While Colorado would get an enormous boost from the return of Peter Mueller, he remains out indefinitely recovering from a concussion.
The Sharks on the other hand are healthy and primed for a deep playoff run. Dany Heatley has 35 points in 34 career playoff games and the Sharks will need him to continue that trend if they’re finally going to silence the critics. The Sharks and Avalanche split the season series 2-2.
Prediction: Sharks in 5
Players to Watch:
Evgeni Nabokov, G, SJ—Following years of stalled playoff runs and a recent early elimination from the Olympics, Nabokov has gained the reputation as one of the game’s most notorious chokers. The pressures of playing on powerhouse teams like the Sharks and team Russia could be getting to the former Vezina Trophy finalist, and if he falters against Colorado in the first round, this could be the last we see of him playing for the Sharks. He is an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Chris Stewart, RW, COL—Stewart was the Avs’ trigger man this season and they will need him to score in bunches if they are to advance to the second round. Stewart doesn’t have extensive playoff hockey experience at the pro or even semi-pro levels. He has just 11 postseason matches under his belt at the OHL level, one at the AHL level and until now, no NHL playoff experience.
(2) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (7) Nashville Predators
At the start of the season, the Blackhawks had an excess of skilled defensemen and not enough ice-time to go around. Now they face the opposite dilemma. Defensemen Brian Campbell and Kim Johnsson find themselves sidelined with injuries and are expected to miss the series. Luckily for the Hawks, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are capable of logging big minutes.
While Pekka Rinne might be capable of stealing a game for the Preds, the Hawks from the Windy City should breeze through the quarter-finals. The Blackhawks won the season series 4-2.
Prediction: Blackhawks in 4
Players to Watch:
Marian Hossa, RW, CHI—Could this be Hossa’s third straight season as a Stanley Cup finalist? It’s certainly possible, and with three different teams no less. Cup losses aside, Hossa has an impressive playoff track record the last couple years—41 points in 43 games—and the Hawks will need their $63-million man to start earning that contract with his postseason play.
Shea Weber, D, NAS—The Preds will need Weber to log considerable minutes if they are to contain the ever-dangerous Patrick Kane. Weber had just one assist and a -1 rating in five games against the Hawks this season, so he’ll need to elevate his play if the Predators are to knock off the second seed.
(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (6) Los Angeles Kings
The Kings head to the playoffs for the first time since the 2001-02 season, and hope 24-year-old netminder Jonathan Quick will be able to shut the door on the Canucks’ high-flying offense. While the Kings’ team features a trio of young stars in Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Quick, they’ll likely be overpowered by the Canucks deep roster. Secondary scoring should be the difference in this one. The Canucks won the season series 3-1.
Prediction: Canucks in 5
Players to Watch:
Roberto Luongo, G, VAN—Since his gold medal performance at the Olympics, Luongo has been rather shaky. During the last three weeks of the regular season, Luongo went 3-3-2 and allowed three or more goals in seven of eight starts. He doesn’t need to be spectacular in the quarter-finals for the Canucks to win the series but his recent level of play won’t suffice.
Drew Doughty, D, LA—If it were up to me, Doughty would take home the Norris and Hart Trophies for his outstanding contributions this season. The 20-year-old has been blessed with tremendous skill and hockey sense, and will probably be asked to play around 30 minutes per game in his first series of NHL playoff action.
(4) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings
Many are picking the veteran Red Wings to “upset” the Coyotes during this year’s quarter-finals but I think youth and skill will outweigh age and experience in this one. The Red Wings team features a host of former Stanley Cup winners skating in front of rookie netminder Jimmy Howard. While Howard was nothing short of phenomenal for the Wings during the regular season, he’s never been tested during the playoffs.
Ilya Bryzgalov has a brief but impressive playoff resume with a 9-5 record, a .937 save percentage and a 1.68 goals against average. The Yotes should win this battle of the backstoppers. The Coyotes and Red Wings split the season series 2-2.
Prediction: Coyotes in 7
Players to Watch:
Lee Stempniak, RW, PHO—Stempniak could further cement himself as the smartest acquisition at this year’s trade deadline if he can continue his scoring prowess against the Wings. Like many of the younger Coyotes, Stempniak has no playoff experience.
Johan Franzen, RW, DET—With 25 goals accumulated over the Wings’ past two playoff runs, “The Mule” definitely has a flair for the dramatic. However, he’s scored just three goals in 14 meetings with the Coyotes during his career.