Pacific: Trio of teams begin journey to Cup

By Andrew Knoll

 

Photo: Three Pacific Division players that could play key roles for their respective clubs include Oliver Ekman-Larsson (L) and Mike Smith (R) of the Phoenix Coyotes, and Patrick Marleau (C) of the San Jose Sharks (courtesy of

Bob Stanton/Icon Smi)

Three Pacific Division teams enter the 2012 NHL Playoffs after a wild race at season's end that left another Pacific team (Dallas) out in the cold. Below is a look at the three series involving the three Pacific teams that made the postseason – the Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose Sharks, and Los Angeles Kings.

(1) Vancouver Canucks vs. (8) Los Angeles Kings

Season Series 2-2.

Leading Scorers

Henrik Sedin, 81 points, Daniel Sedin, 30 goals
Anze Kopitar, 76 points, 25 goals

Goalies:

Roberto Luongo, 31-14-8, .919 SV%, 2.41 GAA.
Jonathan Quick, 35-21-13, .929 SV%, 1.95 GAA.

The Kings have won a good number of games on the consistency of their defensive play and the strength of their structure. For them to beat Vancouver, they will need some dynamic play from their star players. Anze Kopitar snapped a five-game, 11-point streak in game No. 82 while Jeff Carter remains on the mend from an ankle injury. Carter has been limited by injury during the last three postseasons but seems to be pushing toward a return. Perhaps even more key are Mike Richards and Drew Doughty. In runs to the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Finals with Philadelphia, Richards was a point-per-game player. Doughty has been brilliant in the two first-round exits for the Kings, scoring 11 points in 12 games from the blue line. The Kings have also gotten big goals from rookie defenseman Slava Voynov, a trend that will need to continue if they want to match the scoring depth of the Canucks.

Prediction: Canucks in six, the Kings have made strides in some areas but the sensation of running in place seems inescapable. Like last year, a home-and-home set to close the season produced two losses and a stretch of home losses dug a deep hole for the Kings earlier in the season.

(2) St Louis Blues vs. (7) San Jose Sharks

Season Series STL 4-0

Leading Scorers:

David Backes, 24 goals, 54 points
Joe Thornton, 77 points, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski, 31 goals

Goalies:

Jaroslav Halak/Brian Elliot 49-22-11 .932 SV%, 1.78 GAA
Antti Niemi, 34-22-9, .910 SV%, 2.42 GAA

San Jose possesses an advantage in top-six scoring punch as it boasts three 30-goal scorers and former Art Ross Trophy winner Joe Thornton. Martin Havlat notched 12 points in 13 games since his return from a hamstring injury and Ryane Clowe has come up with timely plays as well. What’s more, the Sharks’ stars have shown signs of coalescing in recent games and, tellingly, won a pair of huge road games after a stretch in which they lost 17 of 21 away from HP Pavilion. They will be tested in St Louis, where the Blues lost just six times in regulation this year. If San Jose’s core players remain on the same page, they could quickly re-assert themselves as a contender. Contrasts abound in this series, such as that of the star power of the Sharks to the strong identity of the Blues. In net, former Stanley-Cup-winning starter Antti Niemi has had consistency issues while the only regret the Blues have may be that only one member of their rock solid goaltending platoon can fit in their net.

Prediction: St. Louis in 7, the Sharks will make this look more like a 4-5 matchup than a 2-7 but the Blues will minimize their errors and win the series shift by shift thanks to physical, selfless play.

(3) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (6) Chicago Blackhawks

Season Series Coyotes 3-1.

Leading Scorers:

Ray Whitney, 77 points, Radim Vrbata, 35 goals
Marian Hossa, 77 points, Patrick Sharp 33 goals

Goalies:

Mike Smith, 38-18-10, 930 SV%, 2.21 GAA.
Corey Crawford, 30-17-7, .900 SV%, 2.72 GAA.

The Coyotes have been a little loose for Dave Tippett’s liking of late but they have been bailed out repeatedly by Mike Smith. Smith enters the playoffs with the hottest hand of any goaltender in the league, a status that often portends a deep playoff run. Phoenix will need secondary scoring as they have continued to lean heavily on the tandem of Ray Whitney and Ray Vrbata, who flank Martin Hanzal on their top line. Chicago is likely to throw plenty of top defenseman Duncan Keith and disruptive center Dave Bolland at Phoenix’s first scoring line. The matchup in net favors the Coyotes with the resurgent Smith facing the at times wobbly tandem of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery. The Phoenix power play may make or break their series as they will need to be opportunistic to hang with a potent mix of Chicago scorers.

Prediction: Chicago in 7, the Blackhawks’ mix of dynamism and playoff experience will overcome some weaknesses against Phoenix, who has been in playoff mode for over two months.

Pacific Division Notes

San Jose’s Douglas Murray made his presence felt in his return from injury Saturday, delivering 10 hits in a win over Los Angeles … L.A. forward Jeff Carter will likely be ready to go for Game 1 in Vancouver, an ankle injury sidelined him down the stretch … Anaheim has the fifth and final position in Tuesday's NHL Draft Lottery, which will take place at 5pm PST.

 

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