Now that the matchups are set, it's time to attempt the impossible; predicting how each series will play out. We'll start with the Western Conference.
(1) Vancouver Canucks vs (5) Nashville Predators
Vancouver survived the Chicago Blackhawks in seven games.
Nashville defeated the Anaheim Ducks in six games.
The Canucks are not as good as their regular season record suggests, as they took advantage of a weakened Northwest Division that contained the two worst teams in hockey. This record inflation gives the Canucks a statistical boost over teams like Nashville, that fought all season against very good competition in the Central. With that caveat in place, the Canucks are still a very good team. Daniel Sedin, a Hart Trophy finalist this season, Ryan Kesler, and Henrik Sedin make up an enviable front line. Roberto Luongo is still a top goalie in the league, despite what the Chicago Blackhawks may have done to him in the first round.
Nashville counters with Pekka Rinne, the breakout goalie of this season and a Vezina Trophy finalist. You could make a strong argument that Rinne was the most valuable player in hockey this season, as the Predators are probably not a playoff team without him. Their captain Shea Weber leads a very physical and talented group of defensemen that is the best remaining in the playoffs. Midseason acquisition forward Mike Fisher has been a star for the Predators, and was their first round hero against the Ducks.
This is a perfect example of strength against strength: the Canucks' top rated offense against the Predators' stingy defense.
Roberto Luongo makes a hefty salary, and is considered one of the best goalies in the world. But he struggled at times and looked downright bad in two games against Chicago. Nashville's Pekka Rinne is playing on another level right now. He was a top two goalie this season, and gives Nashville a big edge in this series.
Shea Weber is your archetype for a physical defenseman and is the leader of this team. The Predators' were top three in multiple defensive categories during the regular season, and recently shut down a deadly Ducks offense that was the hottest in the league. They are legitimate. The Canucks are no pushovers either, but they are certainly a step below the Predators.
This is the biggest advantage in this series. The Canucks are loaded on offense, with at least two top lines. The best forwards in Nashville would likely play on the Canucks' third line. Very sizable advantage for Vancouver.
Special Teams: Even
Vancouver had the best power play in the regular season. Nashville had the third best penalty kill. Two strength collide once again. Vancouver also boasted a top ten penalty kill, while the Predators were at the bottom of the league rankings. But if Nashville can score six power play goals in this series like they did against the Ducks, it'll go a long way towards helping them win this series.
The Predators defeated the Ducks because of serious advantages in goaltending and by outworking the Ducks' defense. Timely power play goals and the emergence of Mike Fisher as an offensive threat helped them upset Anaheim. They will not have those advantages against Vancouver. The Canucks are a more rounded team and match up well against the Predators. This series will boil down to the Predators offense versus the Canucks' defense: they simply don't have enough goal scorers to win this series.
Vancouver in six games.
(2) San Jose Sharks vs (3) Detroit Red Wings
San Jose defeated the Los Angeles Kings in six games.
Detroit swept the Phoenix Coyotes in four games.
The San Jose Sharks were the best team in the league for the second half of the season, after recovering from a slow start. They handily won a very tight Pacific division and boast some of the best forwards in the league. Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Ryan Clowe and Patrick Marleau is an embarrassment of riches. They faced a very physical Kings team in the first round and only advanced on the basis of three overtime victories as they were repeatedly stonewalled by Kings goalie Jonathan Quick.
The Red Wings faced adversity of their own, with the losses of top forwards Danny Cleary and Henrik Zetterberg for extended periods of time. Still, this veteran team won the Central Division despite these injuries and multiple questions in goal. In his second season, goalie Jimmy Howard faced a series of bumps and finished with a .908 SV%, the lowest regular season percentage for a Red Wings goalie since Chris Osgood in 2000-2001. Still, even with these concerns, Detroit was able to complete the only sweep of the first round against a distracted Phoenix Coyotes team. The Red Wings completely overwhelmed the Coyotes normally solid defense and peppered Ilya Bryzgalov with shots.
These two teams are built in similar manners; overwhelming offensive firepower in front of average goaltending.
Goaltending: San Jose
This isn't really an advantage for either team, but Niemi was the Stanley Cup winning goalie last season with Chicago. He gives the Sharks the slightest of edges. Neither goalie faced offensive teams in the first round, and the waves in this series could come as a shock to both netminders. Expect a high scoring series.
Defense: San Jose
The Sharks allowed 28 less goals than the Red Wings this season, despite their slow start. Dan Boyle and Ian White are both very solid defenders that can lock down a top line. The Wings defense isn't terrible, but their depth was tested this season and they experienced a down year.That being said, Nicklas Lindstrom is still one of the best players in the game and will have his blueliners ready to play. Slight advantage to San Jose for their regular season stats, but this is close to a draw as well.
The Red Wings dominated even without Zetterberg on the ice. Pavel Datsyuk continues to be a magician with the puck, and the Wings puck-control offense is difficult to break when it's flowing right. The Sharks can also throw three talented lines at you, and their younger players should be able to keep up with Cleary, Johan Franzen, and the rest of the Red Wings forwards. Both offenses are elite; expect the lamp to be constantly lit in this series.
Special Teams: Even
Both teams have devastating power play units filled with all-stars. The Red Wings penalty kill was average this season, which gives them the edge over the Sharks. But in the playoffs, Phoenix scored six power plays in only 18 opportunities, despite their weak unit. Detroit will have to tighten up their defensive kills if they want to keep the advantage over the Sharks.
These are two evenly matched, offensively minded veteran teams with question marks at the blue line and in net. This should be an extremely fast, high scoring series that will likely go the distance. In the end, the Sharks slight advantage behind the blue line should help them in a very tight series that could go either way. Expect this one to go the distance.