Playoff predictions - Western Conference

No. 1 Detroit Red Wings (54-21-7, 115 points) vs. No. 8 Nashville Predators (41-32-9, 91 points)

OVERVIEW: The Red Wings really want to forget the last time they had home-ice advantage for the entire playoffs. One late meltdown and they failed to get out of the opening round.

In 2005-06, Detroit was nearly unbeatable, setting franchise records with 58 wins and 124 points. They had a balanced offensive attack with Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Brendan Shanahan and Nicklas Lidstrom all notching at least 80 points. The Red Wings were set to meet eighth seed Edmonton in the quarterfinals – an easy series win.

Except no one told the Oilers. Trailing 2-0 heading into the third period in Game 7, Fernando Pisani scored twice to tie the score. After Johan Franzen gave Detroit the lead once again, Edmonton’s Ales Hemsky had a pair of goals, the second coming with 1:06 to play, ending the Red Wings’ season.

With another division title and Presidents Trophy safely tucked away, the Red Wings now face another upstart in the eighth-seeded Predators.

Much like the Red Wings had two seasons ago, the Predators don’t have one dominant player on their roster. Martin Erat, Alexander Radulov, J.P. Dumont and Jason Arnott all scored at least 23 goals.

Their success on offense was somewhat surprising. When rumors of a move to Kansas City were rampant, the roster was gutted before a sale was completed to local ownership: Paul Kariya signed with St. Louis. Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen off to Philadelphia. Tomas Vokoun shipped to Florida. Peter Forsberg choosing to stay in Sweden for now.

Though they had 10 fewer wins than the franchise-best 51 they put up last season, the Predators were competitive, thanks in large part to rookie goaltender Dan Ellis.

Playing in the NHL for the first time since 2003-04 with Dallas, Ellis was 23-10-3 with a 2.34 goals-against average and a franchise-best six shutouts. He made four starts against the Red Wings, going 1-1-1 with a 1.75 GAA.

If Barry Trotz decides to go with the more veteran presence in Chris Mason, then Nashville may find itself out after the first round for the third consecutive season. Starting on Valentine’s Day, Mason appeared in 11 games – six starts – over the remainder of the season, recording a 1-5-2 record with a 3.80 GAA.

Mason also has lost his last four playoff starts.

HOW DETROIT CAN WIN: It’s simple – forget the regular season. Fifty wins, 110-plus points and all the accolades are wonderful, but mean little at this time of year.

Detroit last won the Stanley Cup in 2002. While they’ve reached the postseason every year since then, the Red Wings have reached the conference finals just once, losing last year to eventual Stanley Cup winner Anaheim.

There is little question the Red Wings’ roster is loaded, including future Hall of Famers Lidstrom and 43-year-old Dominik Hasek. What they need to do is focus on what’s ahead of them instead of what had gotten them there.

HOW NASHVILLE CAN WIN: On paper, it looks as if the Predators are overmatched. But the Red Wings have struggled in quarterfinal play recently – they’ve needed six games to win each of their opening-round series since 2002.

With that in mind, if the Predators play with a sense that they have nothing to lose, they could pull off a stunner. I don’t think it will happen with Ellis or Mason in goal, but stranger things have happened at this time of year.

SEASON SERIES: Detroit, 5-3-0.

THE PICK: Detroit in 6. The memories of 2005-06 should be fresh in the Red Wings’ minds.

No. 2 San Jose Sharks (49-23-10, 108 points) vs. No. 7 Calgary Flames (42-30-10, 94 points)

OVERVIEW: This could be coach Ron Wilson’s last stand as San Jose head coach. He must be asking how much does Evgeni Nabokov have left in the tank.

It’s true Wilson guided San Jose to the most points in franchise history and its second Pacific Division title in four seasons. The Sharks’ shortcomings in the playoffs have been well-documented.

They lost in the conference finals to Calgary in 2004. Each of the last two seasons, San Jose was ousted in the second round first, first to Edmonton in 2006 and Detroit in 2007. Another early exit could mean Wilson’s end in San Jose.

That’s why Wilson will be looking at Nabokov, in part, to help him.

Nabokov, in my opinion, is this season’s Vezina Trophy winner. Playing a career-high 4,561 minutes over 77 games, he led the league with 46 wins and had a 2.14 goals-against average, also a career-best.

Nabokov told the Sharks’ official Web site that he’s looking forward to the matchup.

“I think it will be really physical,” he said. “They’ll probably crowd the net and create as much traffic as possible.”

After the physical and mental beating he endured during the grind of the regular season, perhaps the last thing he’ll want are Dion Phaneuf and Owen Nolan banging away at him.

He also may not to see Jarome Iginla shooting at him. Iginla, one of three 50-goal scorers this season, is the heart and soul of the Flames offense, falling two points short of 100.

Iginla and linemates Kristian Huselius and Daymond Langkow combined for 105 of Calgary’s 226 goals and 124 of its 379 assists. If those three players are not a factor, the Flames don’t have a player with more than 18 goals.

Miikka Kiprusoff struggled this season despite numbers that would indicate otherwise. He was 39-26-10 with a 2.69 GAA, but since winning the Vezina Trophy two seasons ago, Kiprusoff’s win and shutout totals have gone down while his losses and GAA have increased.

Both backup goaltenders could end up seeing time in this series if things get out of hand. Brian Boucher was 3-1-0 with a 1.76 GAA and a shutout for San Jose while 40-year-old Curtis Joseph was 3-2-0 with a 2.55 GAA as Kiprusoff’s backup.

HOW SAN JOSE CAN WIN: Joe Thornton will be a solid playoff contributor. So will Milan Michalek. If Patrick Marleau and Jonathan Cheechoo don’t produce, they won’t advance.

In 2005-06, Marleau and Cheechoo enjoyed career seasons. Marleau set career highs with 34 goals and 52 assists for 86 points. Cheechoo had 56 goals as part of a 93-point season, but neither have duplicated those numbers.

Last season, Marleau had 32 goals and 46 assists. This year, 19 goals and 29 assists in 78 games – one more than in ’06-’07.

After his breakout campaign, Cheechoo slumped to 37 goals and 69 points the following season and 23 goals and 37 points in 2007-08. A poor showing in the playoffs and it may be time for a change of scenery for the Moose Factory, Ontario native.

HOW CALGARY CAN WIN: In 2004, the Flames came within one win of their second Stanley Cup. Following the lockout, they’ve been ousted in the first round each time.

To move on this time, they’ll need more from Kiprusoff and Huselius. Kiprusoff gave up 18 goals last season in a six-game series loss to Detroit while Huselius managed only two assists.

SEASON SERIES: Calgary 3-1-0.

THE PICK: Flames in 7. The edge here comes down to coaching. Much as I may not agree with him, Mike Keenan is a better postseason tactician.


The Girl in Black said...

You called? I'm hoping it was you, as it was a 773 area code.

I didn't feel good today, didn't check my phone. I'll be at EDS tomorrow, though.

The Girl in Black said...

Sorry to get your hopes up, darling.

I used Alta Babelfish to translate my birthday greeting from English to French.

I might not follow hockey, but I can appreciate Canadians!