Western Conference Roundup – Playoff Matchups

I hope you did not think I would be gone forever. With the incredible rise of the Penguins, and some personal educational goals, I ended up taking some time away from things. However, there are some incredible matchups in the Western conference that should provide plenty of entertainment to all hockey fans.

Western Conference Standings – 03.02.09
1. San Jose Sharks, 42-10-9, 93 pts.
2. Detroit Red Wings, 41-14-8, 90 pts.
3. Calgary Flames, 37-19-6, 80 pts.
4. Chicago Blackhawks, 35-17-9, 79 pts.
5. Vancouver Canucks, 32-22-8, 72 pts.
6. Columbus Blue Jackets, 31-26-6, 68 pts.
7. Edmonton Oilers, 31-26-5, 67 pts.
8. Anaheim Ducks, 31-28-5, 67 pts.

9. Nashville Predators, 31-28-4, 66 pts.
10. Minnesota Wild, 30-26-5, 65 pts.
11. Dallas Stars, 29-26-7, 65 pts.
12. St. Louis Blues, 28-26-8, 64 pts.
13. Los Angeles Kings, 26-27-9, 61 pts.
14. Phoenix Coyotes, 27-31-5, 59 pts.
15. Colorado Avalanche, 28-36-1, 57 pts.

Western Conference Standings – End of Regular Season
1. San Jose Sharks, 53-18-11, 117 pts.
2. Detroit Red Wings, 51-21-10, 112 pts.
3. Vancouver Canucks, 45-27-10, 100 pts.
4. Chicago Blackhawks, 46-24-12, 104 pts.
5. Calgary Flames, 46-30-6, 98 pts.
6. St. Louis Blues, 41-31-10, 92 pts.
7. Columbus Blue Jackets, 41-31-10, 92 pts.
8. Anaheim Ducks, 42-33-7, 91 pts.
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9. Minnesota Wild, 40-33-9, 89 pts.
10. Nashville Predators, 40-34-8, 88 pts.
11. Edmonton Oilers, 38-35-8, 85 pts.
12. Dallas Stars, 36-35-11, 83 pts.

13. Phoenix Coyotes, 36-39-7, 79 pts.
14. Los Angeles Kings, 34-37-11, 79 pts.
15. Colorado Avalanche, 32-45-5, 69 pts.

Western Conference – Series by series look at the 2008/2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs

8. Anaheim Ducks
1. San Jose Sharks

Not to be out done by the “battle of the Keystone State” in the East (Penguins/Flyers), the San Jose Sharks and the Anaheim Ducks will battle it out for supremacy in The Golden State.

With this battle in mind, Sharks defenseman Rob Blake said to the San Jose official website: “It creates more of a rivalry now that you meet in the playoffs. There’s something very important there to win or to lose.”

Sharks captain Patrick Marleau stated, “Obviously we both know each other really well. We have to go over their tendencies and through videos and meetings, but it really comes down to how we play and how we execute.”

The San Jose Sharks proved to be a juggernaut throughout the season, ending the regular season with a record of 53-18-11, for a total of 117 points and the President’s Trophy. Lead by Joe Thornton (25-61, 86 pts.) and Patrick Marleau (38-33, 71 pts.), the Sharks are 7th in the league in goals per game (3.06 G/G) and 3rd in the league in fewest goals allowed per game (2.43 GA/G). That low GA/G can be attributed to the play of Evgeni Nabokov who backstopped the Sharks with a 41 win season (41-12-8) with 7 shutouts and 2.44 goals against average. The Sharks have a lethal power play, ranking 3rd in the league with a 24.2% conversion rate with the man advantage. On short handed situations, the Sharks were able to kill the penalty 83.3% of the time, ranking them 5th in the league in the PK department.

However, the Anaheim Ducks are not to be ignored, as they have plenty of playoff experience on their roster. The Ducks still ice 2007 Stanley Cup champions Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Scott Niedermayer, Teemu Selanne, Chris Pronger, Rob Niedermayer, Todd Marchant, Francois Beauchemin and J.S. Giguere. Also, in return for forward Chris Kunitz and prospect Alex Tangradi, the Ducks added defenseman Ryan Whitney, who can provide an offensive punch from the blue line and was part of the 2008 Eastern Conference Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, who lost their chance at the ’08 Stanley Cup in 6 games to the Detroit Red Wings.

“Every game we play against them is very physical and a lot of intensity,” said Ducks RW Teemu Selanne to the team’s official website. “It’s going to be like that every game. There are no secrets between the two hockey clubs. We played so many times in the regular season. I’m expecting an unbelievable series. Now, it’s a new season. For sure, we’re going to be underdogs in the paper. But you never know in the playoffs. That is why this is so exciting.”

The wild card will be the play of Jean-Sebastien Giguere. If, and that is a big if, he can return to form, the Ducks stand a chance to be David to San Jose’s Goliath. They can also ask defenseman Chris Pronger about his experience in Edmonton, as an 8th seed knocking off the President’s Cup holders.

7. Columbus Blue Jackets
2. Detroit Red Wings

While not as fiery as an interstate rivalry, there’s been plenty of rivalry between the states of Ohio and Michigan to provide some entertainment.

The defending Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings will begin their title defense against a team that is making its first playoff appearance in its existence. You never really know where to start with the Red Wings, as they are so very talented from top to bottom and coached extremely effectively by Mike Babcock. Detroit was lead by Pavel Datsyuk (32-65, 97 pts.), Henrik Zetterberg (31-42, 73 pts.), and Marian Hossa (40-31, 71 pts.) and received ample points from the blue line tandem of Nicklas Lidstrom (16-43, 59 pts.) and Brian Rafalski (10-49, 59 pts.). Johan Franzen also contributed nearly 60 points in offense (34-25, 59 pts.)

The biggest question mark lies in net, as Detroit goaltender Chris Osgood has had an “interesting” regular season. “I’m not kidding myself, I haven’t played well this year,” Osgood said to reporters for the Detroit Red Wings official website. “This is one of those years where things haven’t gone right; but the one thing that it has taught me is to keep working, dig down deep and keep believing in the same thing you do everyday. If anything, it has made me work harder and it’s going to make me better in the long run. To be totally sincere, I really feel I’m going in the right direction heading into the playoffs. I feel that is going to be my time.”

On the other side of this playoff battle, the Columbus Blue Jackets are the “new kids on the block” as they will be making their first appearance in their short existence (since 2000).

While they may be new to the playoffs, the Columbus Blue Jackets and their head coach, Ken Hichcock, are no strangers to the Detroit Red Wings, as they split their season series with each team winning three games, including one Columbus win in overtime. The Jackets are lead by 40-goal scorer Rick Nash (40-39, 79 pts.), Kristian Huselius (21-35, 56 pts.), Jason Williams (19-28, 47 pts.), former Philadelphia Flyer R.J. Umberger (26-20, 46 pts.) and Antoine Vermette (16-25, 41 pts.). Suffice to say, the Jackets do not have the “star power” that the Red Wings have. However, that does not mean that they are going to lay down against the defending champs.

“This means everything. This is what we play for. This is why we workout all summer and why we play 82 games. It’s for this and it means everything. (This feeling) is great,” said Nash to the team’s official website. “We’ve been here through the low times and now we are going through the high times. It’s exciting for everyone, not only for the players and the fans, but for the front office and the owners.”

Columbus will rely on goaltender Steve Mason to keep Detroit’s firepower in check. Mason played in 61 games this season and had a record of 33-20-7 with 10 shutouts and a goals against average of 2.29. Mason’s star will have to shine brightly if the Blue Jackets have any hopes of dethroning the defending Cup champions.

6. St. Louis Blues
3. Vancouver Canucks

The Vancouver Canucks, losers of 8 straight games in January 2009, ended up going on an incredible 32 game stretch in which they went 23-7-2 and secured 3rd place in the Western Conference by winning the Northwest division.

The Sedin twins, Daniel (31-51, 82 pts.) and Henrik (22-60, 82 pts.) lead the Canucks in scoring, by a wide margin (3rd on the team is Ryan Kesler, with 26 goals, 33 assists for a total of 59 points). Veteran center Mats Sundin, who signed with the Canucks on December 18, 2008, scored 9 goals and notched 19 assists (total of 28 points) in 41 contests.

The Sedin twins want to prove they can lead Vancouver to the “promised land”. Daniel Sedin told the team’s official website, “People see that we had a good chance then and we didn’t come through. We know our last playoff wasn’t good enough. We know there were explanations for it. It was a tough, frustrating experience. We couldn’t do what we wanted to do out there. But that’s the way it is around here. We’re going to have to go out there and show that people are wrong.”

While pressure lies on the shoulders of the Sedins, equal pressure falls on the shoulders of captain and goaltender Roberto Luongo, who had some nagging injuries throughout the season. Still, “Louie” ended the season with a 2.34 goals against average and a record of 33-13-7 with 9 shutouts. Should Luongo be injured, the Canucks will have to depend on journeyman netminder Jason LaBarbera to hold down the fort.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis Blues, who at one point were in last place in the Western Conference, clawed their way out of the cellar with an incredible 25-9-7 run in the second half of the season, earning them their first playoff birth in 5 years as the 6th seed.

“I’ll probably look back on it and realize how difficult it was,” Blues head coach Andy Murray said to the team’s website. “We’ve got more talent than I think people give us credit for, and certainly at the start of the year people didn’t give us any credit. So yeah, it’s gratifying.”

The Blues had many injuries throughout the season, having to ice 31 different players throughout the season, with 4 players playing in all 82 games.

The Blues made a huge choice in sending former All-Star goaltender Manny Legace (13-9-2, 3.18 GAA) to their AHL affiliate and going with Chris Mason in net. Mason rewarded them stellar play and ended the season with a 27-21-7 record with 6 shutouts and a 2.41 GAA.

On the offensive side of things, the blues are lead by 30-goal scorers Brad Boyes (33-39, 72 pts.) and David Backes (31-23, 54 pts.). David Perron chipped in 15 goals and 35 assists (50 points) and veteran LW Keith Tkachuk had a 25-goal, 24 assist season.

With both teams on hot streaks over the last half of the season, the real question is who will come out on top?

5. Calgary Flames
4. Chicago Blackhawks

In this writer’s opinion, this will be the best series in the first round of the Western Conference.

The Chicago Blackhawks are a very well balanced and youthful team, with Martin Havlat (29-48, 77 pts.), Patrick Kane (25-45, 70 pts.) and Jonathan Toews (34-35-69) leading the way on the score sheet. Brian Campbell leads all ‘Hawks blue liners with 7 goals and 45 assists (52 points).

In net, the Blackhawks had a highly contested goaltender battle throughout the season, with veteran Nikolai Khabibulin (25-8-7, 3 shutouts and 2.33 GAA) and Christobal Huet (20-15-4, 3 shutouts and 2.53 GAA) vying for the number 1 spot, which Khabibulin won.

The Blackhawks will have to overcome the “playoff jitters” and adjust to the more physical and “tightly checked” post season play. Patrick Sharp told NHL.com, “Being a young team without a lot of playoff experience, we’re looking at that as a positive, not a negative. We’re going to play exciting hockey. We’re all pumped up to get there and play in the playoffs. “

Chicago has the firepower, but will their youthfulness be their downfall?

Meanwhile, the Calgary Flames are loaded with veteran talent and youthful offensive threats. The Flames have six 20-goal scorers on their playoff roster. Jarome Iginla once again lead the Flames in scoring with 35 goals and 54 assists (89 points), with Mike Cammalleri hot on his tail with a near 40-goal season (39-43, 82 points). Standout blue liner Dion Phaneuf also had a great season, tallying 11 goals and 36 assists (47 points).

Olli Jokinen, who was traded from the Phoenix Coyotes at the deadline, has had great chemistry playing with Iginla before having some issues near the end of the regular season.

Between the pipes, the Calgary Flames have Miikka Kiprusoff, who lead the NHL in wins (45), posted a record of 45-24-5 with 4 shutouts, and had a 2.84 GAA in 76 games this season.

The Calgary Flames could very well be the “dark horse” candidate to come out of the Western Conference. Craig Conroy told NHL.com, “When people write you off, teams come together. And a lot of people are writing us off … to heck with them.”

If Jokinen and Iginla can find their chemistry again, and Cammalleri can continue to light the lamp, there definitely will be a lot to write about when it comes to the Calgary Flames.

This is the time all hockey fans love – PLAYOFF TIME! As always, beware circling sharks, red hot flames, and flying octopi!