The Western Conference was a dogfight this season, with as many as 11 teams fighting for eight playoff spots. The race went down the wire, and the reigning champion Blackhawks will get their chance to defend their title. While teams are seeded 1-8, there are only two total points separating the non-division winners. That's how close the conference was this season. Here are your playoff matchups and predictions for the first round of action out west.
(1) Vancouver Canucks vs (8) Chicago Blackhawks -- The President's Trophy-winning Canucks certainly wanted to see the Dallas Star sneak into the playoffs. Instead, they get the defending champions who boast top line talent and stud defensemen. Still, it's tough to argue against a focused and seemingly invincible Vancouver team loaded with Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, and Hart Trophy candidate Ryan Kessler and with Roberto Luongo in goal. The Blackhawks may have Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, but their defense has taken a substantial step back from the squad that won the Cup last season. Goalie Corey Crawford is solid, but has a grand total of 16 career minutes of playoff experience. Still, they will provide Vancouver with a solid early test.
Canucks in 6
(2) San Jose Sharks vs (7) Los Angeles Kings -- The streaking Sharks face off against a proud -- but wounded -- Kings team that will enter the playoffs without their best player, Anze Kopitar (broken ankle). Still, the Kings are armed with Jonathan Quick, one of the better goalies in the NHL this season. Statistically speaking, Los Angeles was not an impressive team this year, but the numbers are deceiving. They boast a solid defense and special teams, and would have provided an excellent matchup against most teams in the West. Except for San Jose. The Sharks are the hottest team in the league, and have been nearly unstoppable the past three months. Goalie Antti Niemi (the goalie for last year's championship Blackhawks) has finally found his stride, and the Sharks' vaunted offense has been electric. Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Devin Setoguchi, and Joe Thornton are just a few weapons in a stocked offensive front that is three lines deep. The Sharks are simply too good for the Los Angeles Kings as currently constructed. Quick will steal two games, but the Kings don't have the players to match San Jose.
Sharks in 6.
(3) Detroit Red Wings vs (6) Phoenix Coyotes -- The Coyotes are a solid defensive team built around star goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. They slow down the game and attempt to beat you in one goal games. This strategy plays very well in the playoffs, where solid defense and superior goaltending usually gives you an advantage over your opponent. Unfortunately for Phoenix, they draw an unfavorable matchup and play a Red Wings team that -- while in a down year -- still boasts overwhelming offensive talent. Detroit's puck possession game is methodical and deliberate, and not at a pace that Phoenix is comfortable playing. The Red Wings have Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, and Daniel Cleary. The Coyotes have Shane Doan, Radim Vrbata and Keith Yandle. Advantage: Detroit. These two teams met in a memorable playoff series last season, with Detroit emerging as the victor. Even with all the questions surrounding Detroit's goalie situation (Jimmy Howard doesn't appear to be the answer in Hockeytown), it's difficult to see this year's version ending any different unless Bryzgalov plays completely out of his mind and steals three games.
Red Wings in 5.
(4) Anaheim Ducks vs (5) Nashville Predators -- This is the most difficult matchup topredict. The Ducks have a dynamic offense, led by Hart candidate Corey Perry (who has been the best player in hockey the past three months), Ryan Getzlaf, and Bobby Ryan. They also have question marks in net, as top goalie Jonas Hiller has been unable to overcome the vertigo issues that have plagued him since December. On the other side,Nashville is built around the blue line. Goalie Pekka Rinne will be the likely runner up for the Vezina Trophy this year -- and would have won it in any other season. Defenseman Shea Weber is a physical presence that can dominate the game. These two teams are built in completely manners, and represent two contrary team philosophies. Can Nashville's edge in goal negate the Ducks' superior firepower? Will Nashville be able to score control the pace of play and score enough goals to remain competitive in this series? So many questions surround this fascinating series, but the overall edge falls to the red-hot Ducks. Even a team as solidly built as Nashville may not be able to completely stop the Perry line, and it's tough to pick the team with a defenseman as their leading scorer.
Ducks in 7.
Stay tuned for a preview of the Eastern Conference playoffs.