Western Conference predictions

(1) San Jose Sharks (53-18-11, 1st, Pacific) vs. (8) Anaheim Ducks (42-33-7, 2nd, Pacific)

2008-09 SERIES: San Jose, 4-2-0

LEADERS: San Jose – Dan Boyle (6 GP, 4 A); Jonathan Cheechoo (5 GP, 3G, 2GWG, 1A); Christian Ehrhoff (5 GP, 1G, 3A); Evgeni Nabokov (5 GP, 3-2-0, 2.00 GAA, 2 SO). Anaheim – Ryan Getzlaf (6 GP, 6 A); Rob Niedermayer (6 GP, 1G, 2A); Corey Perry (6 GP, 2G, 1A); Jonas Hiller (4 GP, 1-3-0, 2.04 GAA); Jean-Sebastien Giguere (2 GP, 1-1-0, 2.00 GAA).

THE PICK: San Jose in 5. Since 1994, a No. 8 seed has beaten a
No. 1 seed seven times. However, given the way the Sharks tore through
the regular season, this is one series I expect to end fairly quickly
despite a late surge that pushed the Ducks into the top eight.

San Jose set a franchise points record for the third consecutive
season, moving from 107 to 108 to 117. Each of the last three seasons,
though, the Sharks, then led by Ron Wilson, were ousted in the Western
Conference semifinals. That should change under first-year coach Todd
McLellan, a Stanley Cup winner last season as Mike Babcock’s assistant
in Detroit.

McLellan will likely win the Jack Adams award as the league’s top coach after becoming the fifth rookie bench boss since the 1967-68 expansion era got under way to lead his team to the Presidents’ Trophy for having the league’s best record.

The Sharks can look to the likes of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Devin Setoguchi for scoring, but they also can count points from their blue line. San Jose is just the fourth team in NHL history to have four defensemen with 30 assists – newcomers Dan Boyle (41) and Rob Blake (35), Christian Ehrhoff (34) and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (30).

Of course, the Sharks will go nowhere without Evgeni Nabokov at the top of his game. He led the league with 46 wins a year ago, and still posted 41 this season despite missing 14 games with flu and the ever-enigmatic “lower-body injury.”

Nabokov will have his hands full with the line of Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry. That trio combined for 17 goals and 21 assists over the final eight games. Ryan, selected second behind Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby in 2005, will almost certainly be a Calder Trophy finalist after finishing with 31 goals in 64 games.

The Ducks haven’t won a playoff series since lifting the Stanley Cup in 2007 against Ottawa, and what may ultimately doom them this season is goaltending. I am not sold on Jonas Hiller despite the fact that he tied a franchise record by winning seven straight starts from March 19-April 4. Cup winning goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere finished with only 19 wins, snapping a streak of three straight 30-win seasons.

Do the Ducks have a chance? Of course – at this time of the year, you cannot count anyone out. If Anaheim can continue its late-season mastery on the power play, then they certainly have a shot. The Ducks converted 41.7% of its chances with the man adavantage, going 20 for 48 over the final 13 games.

(2) Detroit Red Wings (51-20-10,
1st, Central) vs. (7) Columbus Blue
(41-31-10, 4th, Central)

2008-09 SERIES: Teams split, 3-3-0

LEADERS: Detroit – Pavel Datsyuk (5 GP, 1G, 7A); Henrik
Zetterberg (6 GP, 3G. 3A); Marian Hossa (5 GP, 5G, 2 GWG); Chris
Osgood (5 GP, 2-2-1, 3.37 GAA); Ty Conklin (2 GP, 1-0-0, 0.79 GAA).
Columbus – Rick Nash (6 GP, 6A); Fedor Tyutin (6 GP, 2G, 2A); R.J.
Umberger (6 GP, 2G, 2A); Jakub Voracek (6 GP, 1G, 3A); Steve Mason (5
GP, 3-2-0, 2.38 GAA).

THE PICK: Detroit in 7. The reigning Stanley Cup champion that
has won it all four times in the last 11 years versus the only NHL
team that has yet to appear in a playoff game.

Screams mistmach, right? Not so fast. Detroit will prevail, but it will not be easy, and perhaps unlike three years ago, they know it now.

“We're taking this seriously,'' Henrik Zetterberg said Tuesday. “The first round is tough.”

In 2006, the Red Wings entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed – and were dispatched in seven games by eighth-seeded Edmonton. This season, Detroit will lean on high-scoring Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk to make up for deficiencies by Chris Osgood and Ty Conklin in goal.

The wild card in all this will be Marian Hossa.

Playing with Pittsburgh last season, he finished third in playoff scoring with 26 points, but watched as the Red Wings won the Cup again. Spurning a more lucrative offer from the Penguins, Hossa inked a one-year deal with the Wings, saying he had a better chance of winning a championship with them – an odd statement considering who’s on that team.

A good start against the Blue Jackets will help. Hossa had five goals in five games against them including two game-winning tallies. The Red Wings are trying to become the first champions to repeat since, well, they did back in 1997 and ’98.

Columbus, meanwhile, is crashing the playoff party for the first time after setting franchise records with 41 wins, 92 points and 226 goals scored.

The key to their breakout season, though, has been goaltender Steve Mason, the likely Calder Trophy winner as rookie of the year. Mason finished with 33 wins, a league-best 10 shutouts and a 2.29 goals-against average that was good for second in the NHL.

On offense, the Blue Jackets will look to captain Rick Nash, who had 40 goals and a career-high 79 points. He had an unassisted hat trick Columbus’ 8-2 rout of the Red Wings in Detroit on March 7.

The addition of second-line center Antoine Vermette also has been a boost. In 17 games after being acquired at the trade deadline from Ottawa, Vermette had seven goals, six assists and was a plus-5. In 62 games with the Senators, he had nine goals, 19 assists and was minus-12.

Columbus also has a Stanley Cup winning coach in Ken Hitchcock, a decade removed from leading Dallas to its only title. But while the Blue Jackets have talent, they don’t have the overall body of experience.

The last team to make their postseason debut was Atlanta in the 2007 Eastern Conference quarterfinals, and they were outscored 17-6 while being swept by the New York Rangers.

(3) Vancouver Canucks (45-27-10,
1st, Northwest) vs. (6) St. Louis Blues
(41-31-10, 3rd, Central)

2008-09 SERIES: Teams split, 2-2-0

LEADERS: Vancouver – Daniel Sedin (4 GP, 1G, 4A); Henrik Sedin
(4 GP, 1G, 4A); Willie Mitchell (4 GP, 2G, 2A); Alex Burrows (4 GP,
3G); Roberto Luongo (3 GP, 2-1-0, 2.67 GAA, 1 SO); Jason LaBarbera (1
GP, 0-1-0, 6.00 GAA). St. Louis – Patrik Berglund (4 GP, 1G, 5A); T.J.
Oshie (4 GP, 2G, 3A); Carlo Coliacovo (4 GP, 4A); Keith Tkachuk (4 GP,
1G, 3A); Chris Mason (3 GP, 1-2-0, 3.43 GAA).

THE PICK: Vancouver in 7. Two of the hottest teams to close out the regular season will square off for the third time in postseason play.

The Canucks and Blues went seven games in the 1995 and 2003 Western Conference quarterfinals, with Vancouver winning each time. This series should be no less entertaining thanks to goaltenders Roberto Luongo and Chris Mason.

In his final 30 games, Luongo was 22-6-2 with a 2.20 goals-against average. He also comes in on a shutout streak of 185 minutes, 16 seconds. Though he missed two months earlier this season with a groin injury, Luongo still totaled 33 wins and was second in the league with nine shutouts.

Mason started his first season with St. Louis as a backup, but took over after Manny Legace was released on Feb. 7, and responded by going 20-7-4 with a 2.26 GAA, and also heads into the postseason off a shutout win, his third in that span.

With Luongo and Mason playing well, a low-scoring series could be on tap.

Twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin were tied for the team lead with 82 points, and they combined for 15 game-winning goals. Mats Sundin, who finished with nine goals and 19 assists in 41 games after joining the club in December, will be making his first playoff appearance since 2004 with Toronto.

That’s also when the Blues made their last postseason appearance, and they could be a little stunned to find themselves there. Defenseman Eric Brewer (back) and high-scoring Paul Kariya (hip) combined to play in only 39 games, and a severe knee injury kept highly touted blueliner Erik Johnson out for the season.

Brad Boyes finished with 33 goals, and David Backes added 31 including four in a late-season win over Detroit. Keith Tkachuk reached 25 goals for the 13th time in his career.

This shapes up at the best first-round matchup in the West

(4) Chicago Blackhawks
(45-24-12, 2nd, Central) vs. (5) Calgary
(46-36-10, 2nd, Northwest)

2008-09 SERIES: Chicago, 4-0-0

LEADERS: Chicago – Martin Havlat (4 GP, 2G, 4A); Andrew Ladd (4
GP, 2G, 4A); Nikolai Khabibulin (3 GP, 3-0-0, 2.00 GAA); Cristobal
Huet (1 GP, 1-0-0, 1.00 GAA). Calgary – Todd Bertuzzi (4 GP, 2G, 1A);
Rene Bourque (4 GP, 1G, 2A); Jarome Iginla (4 GP, 3A); Miikka
Kiprusoff (4 GP, 0-3-1, 4.66 GAA).

THE PICK: Chicago in 6. The continued revival of the Blackhawks made them the feel-good story in the NHL this season.

With Joel Quenneville taking over for the fired Denis Savard four games into the season, Chicago is back in the playoffs for the first time in seven years – the longest drought by any team coming out of the Western Conference.

While youngsters Patrick Kane (70 points) and captain Jonathan Toews (34 goals including seven game-winners) are two driving forces, the Blackhawks have plenty of players with deep playoff experience, including Sammy Pahlsson, Nikolai Khabibulin, Martin Havlat and Brian Campbell.

Khabibulin will be the key. After largely underachieving during his first three seasons, he put it all together in the final year of his contract by going 25-8-7 with a 2.33 goals-against average and three shutouts. At the United Center, he allowed two goals or less 13 times.

At the other end of the ice is Miikka Kiprusoff, the league leader with 45 wins. Though he could be in line for the Vezina Trophy, Kiprusoff hasn’t posted back-to-back wins since March 3-5.

Kiprusoff and the Flames lost to Khabibulin, then with Tampa Bay, in the 2004 Stanley Cup final.

The Flames pulled off the biggest deal at the trade deadline by acquiring Olli Jokinen from Phoenix, but he’s never played a postseason game. He started off with eight goals and two assists in his first six games with his new team, but cooled off considerably after that – five assists in 13 contests.

Calgary, though, does have Jarome Iginla, who became the franchise’s scoring leader this season. A seven-time 35-goal scorer, the Flames’ captain comes into the playoffs averaging nearly a point per game.

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