San Jose and Detroit are really good teams, and are the cream of the crop in the West, but it’s far from a lock that they will meet in the conference finals.
The Canucks and the Flames pose the biggest threats to denying the Sharks or the Red Wings from playing for the Stanley Cup.
After looking invincible during the first half of the season, the Sharks — even though they have righted their ship of late — have shown signs of mortality after the All-Star break. San Jose did not lose three games in a row until early February, and wound up the month with a losing record (5-7).
San Jose has a track record of imploding the deeper it advances in the playoffs so the Sharks have something to prove in the postseason. Could this be the year they win the Stanley Cup? Yes, but they lack past playoff success to act as a foundation to winning a championship.
The Sharks were without their No. 1 goalie, Evgeni Nabokov, for a while in the second half of the season. They have him back, and he is their meal ticket to getting to play for a championship.
The defending Stanley Cup champion Red Wings have plenty going for them, but team defense and goaltending are issues for Detroit, and those issues are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Goalie Chris Osgood is playing better, but there is nothing in his performances that makes one believe he is going to be steady for the length of a long postseason run to defend the Cup. After Osgood had a recent tough night in a loss to Calgary, he didn’t get criticism from coach Mike Babcock, but rather a vote of confidence.
Detroit scores so many goals that its offensive output sometimes disguises some bad goals given up by Osgood. So that’s not talked about as long as the Red Wings win. In the playoffs, it could be a different story.
Osgood’s backup, Ty Conklin, is virtually unproven and untried in the playoffs.
Detroit has been a perennial defensive juggernaut. In seasons past, the most underrated thing about the Red Wings was how few shots they allowed, and how good they were defensively. But Detroit, which has been among the top two or three defensive teams in the West for the last six years, is the 19th-ranked defensive team in the league, and the 10th ranked defensive team in its conference.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
The Canucks play a very stable game, and a good defensive game. They also have the best goalie in the Western Conference in Roberto Luongo, who can win a playoff series by himself.
Luongo did not start the season off well, was up and down in his play, straightened it out, and then was injured. It’s taken a while since his return for him to get back on his game, but over the last month, Luongo has looked like the Luongo of old.
He’s such a competitive leader, and he’s the captain of the team, even though it’s unusual for goalies to be captains. He’s that dominant a player, and has that dominant a personality.
His playoff experience is limited to 12 games with the Canucks in 2007, but in that stretch he posted a 1.77 goals against average, and a .941 save percentage. Don't doubt Luongo’s ability to thrive in the playoffs because of his physical and emotional strength.
Besides Luongo, the Canucks have another huge plus. Their group of defensemen is the second best to Detroit’s in the Western Conference. This unit is more than well manned by Mattias Ohlund, Sami Salo, Willie Mitchell, Kevin Bieksa, Alex Edler, and Shane O’Brien.
While O’Brien is more of a defensive defenseman, the others can all put up points. With just over three weeks left in the season, all but O’Brien had at least 20 points. So the Canucks’ blue liners provide plenty of help at both ends of the ice.
The Canucks are the fourth-best defensive team in their conference. They have a defensive presence on the blue line, and really good offensive support and balance from their rearguards.
Vancouver is not an overpowering offensive team, but it has two lines that can provide enough production for it to win games. The Canucks have some players having breakout seasons, especially Alex Burrows, who plays on the third line, but has over 40 points. Burrows and Ryan Kesler provide so much grit, and so much snarl. They are agitators of the first degree.
Both Vancouver and Calgary added big scoring centers midway through the season. The Canucks brought Mats Sundin back to the NHL, and the Flames traded for Olli Jokinen.
Sundin hasn’t put up extravagant numbers since joining Vancouver, but his resume should indicate that in key situations he can be the big man for his team. He’s a gladiator when it comes to how hard he competes, and he is clutch. Once the playoffs roll around, he’ll certainly be a player to watch for Vancouver.
The Canucks are coached very well by Alain Vigneault, and assistants Rick Bowness and Ryan Walter, but they went through a stretch where they lost nine consecutive home games, the worst in franchise history. In January they won just two games out of 12.
They went from those losing ways to flipping the calendar to February, a month in which things turned around as the Canucks lost only two games. From the end of February through part of March, they won 11 straight home games, also a franchise record.
The fact the coaching staff was not dismissed after January’s debacle was an indication that Canucks general manager Mike Gillis still had faith in them.
PHT: Logan Couture shook off an injury earlier in the game to score an overtime goal that gave San Jose a win in Game 3 and trimmed Los Angeles' series lead to 2-1.
PHT: Detroit scored four unanswered goals to top Chicago 4-1 on Saturday. The Western semifinals are now level at one game apiece. Game 3 is on Monday at 7:30 p.m. ET.
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