1. Vancouver vs. 8. Los Angeles
Oh, those lovable Canucks, back again with the Presidents’ Trophy (most points: 111), and feeling they were shortchanged and smacked around by the Bruins in last year’s Cup Final. Shortchanged, maybe. Smacked around, absolutely. No one in the West has Vancouver’s skill, although the Canucks still struggle when it comes to secondary scoring, especially with first-liner Daniel Sedin sidelined the last nine games with a concussion. A healthy Ryan Kesler this time ultimately could be the difference between winning and losing the Cup. The Kings struggled mightily to score all season, though that improved down the stretch after general manager Dean Lombardi made the bold play to bring in Jeff Carter from Columbus for a Flyer Frere reunion with Mike Richards. LA scored 19 goals in its last six games, impressive for a club that scored but 22 times in the dozen games leading up to the trade deadline. The potential dominant factor for the Kings: ex-UMass standout Jonathan Quick, who posted a club-record 10 shutouts.
Prediction: Canucks in six.
2. St. Louis vs. 7. San Jose
The Sharks flirted with missing the playoffs, which undoubtedly would have led to an organizational housecleaning. But an impressive late kick (7-3-0, including a 2-1 win over the Bruins), saved face at least temporarily for a franchise that has been rubbed out in the Cup semifinals each of the last two years. Meanwhile, the Blues staged an epic reversal after Ken Hitchcock took over the bench from Davis Payne early in the season. With Hitch at the helm, the Blues finished with the second-most points in franchise history and qualified for the postseason for only the second time in seven years. The biggest difference is in net, where the Sharks are backed by an often-shaky Antti Niemi and the Blues have brick-and-mortar brothers Jaroslav Halak (26 wins) and Brian Elliott (23 wins). With expectations so limited, maybe this is the year the Sharks finally break through and make it to the Final and win a Cup. While the Blues can’t match the Sharks for high-end talent or marquee names, they play with that relentless Hitch attitude that helped his Stars win a Cup in 1999.
Prediction: Blues in six.
3. Phoenix vs. 6. Chicago
Oh, about that forgotten team in the desert . . . it’s still in business, and it wouldn’t be a total surprise to see the league-owned Coyotes do more than howl at the moon this postseason. Like a lot of clubs, the Coyotes aren’t deep in offensive riches, but coach Dave Tippett coaxes a lot out of a willing bunch. It helped immensely that ex-Tampa goalie Mike Smith, now 30, logged a career season (38-18-10), especially in the wake of Ilya Bryzgalov being dealt after last season. The Blackhawks posted 100-plus points for the third time in four seasons and should be able to power their way by the Coyotes. But it remains a question how effective captain Jonathan Toews can be after being sidelined with a concussion the last seven weeks. He says he is ready to play and lead. If so, the Hawks won’t have a problem. If he’s less than expected, the Hawks could experience the same fate they faced a year ago when they were bounced by the Canucks in Round 1. As goes Smith, so go the Coyotes. Ditto for Toews and the Hawks.
Prediction: Hawks in six.
4. Nashville vs. 5. Detroit
Like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in the East, it’s too bad these two meet so early, because Motown vs. Tune Town could make for a great conference final. Many of the Red Wings this season had an unusually difficult time putting up points. But overall it’s still a very skilled, well-balanced attack and one with such deep playoff experience that we can expect some guys (Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk) to outperform their regular-season pace. Nashville general manager David Poile was very busy around the trade deadline, importing the likes of Andrei Kostitsyn and Hal Gill from Montreal and Paul Gaustad from Buffalo. Last season, the Predators finally pushed through to the second round, where they lost to the Canucks. Though they still don’t score enough to be considered a top Cup threat, they have enough moxie and experience to make a serious run. Most of all, they have elite stopper Pekka Rinne and a big, smart, talented defensive corps led by Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. Enough fun here to fill a Caddy and a 10-gallon hat.
Prediction: Predators in six.