In anticipation of this years playoff dramas unfolding starting tomorrow night, we turn our attention to the Wild West today. A conference that has provided some highly entertaining hockey and some surprising movements from its members.
It was a conference where seven of the eight participants in the playoff derby topped over 100 points on the season, a conference where leaders jockeyed for placements right up until the final week of the season.
For the most part these teams are lost travelers to the eastern media due to the time zone travels. But as followers of the west know, the conference dwellers are but rumours to many of the eastern based squads, who will eventually have to face the survivor of the Western Wars.
Whichever team manages to make the journey to the Stanley Cup final, they will be a bruised, battered and somewhat weary squad. Some of the hardest hitting and entertaining hockey came out of the west this year, hidden to much of the hockey world. That secret is about to be shared with the rest of the league.
Come the end of May and early June, hockey fans will finally discover what they’ve been missing out on.
CALGARY VS DETROIT
The Red Wings once again are the class of the West, a team that many thought might finally be on the decline instead tops the conference. Though they must be wary of their first place finish, for it has not been a particularly good launching place over the last few years for the Red Wings. A first place finish for Detroit seems to be a curse, guaranteed to send them to the Detroit golf courses by the end of April.
The Flames struggled through the season with spotty play at times. Streaks of great success would be stopped by complete breakdowns on the road. There surely can be no team ever to enter a post season playoff round with such a horrid road record as the Flames bring to this second season. But they are very good at home, and in a best of seven series it only takes one road win to swing the pendulum of success.
The key as always will come down to goaltending, which Dom Hasek will show up at game time, the Dominator of hockey legend or the one that far too frequently, mysteriously suffers a key injury that swings a series to the opposition. Last year’s memories from Ottawa may very well haunt the Red Wing dressing room as the playoffs get underway.
Another intangible is the late season pick up of Todd Bertuzzi, who played little in the regular season for Florida and joined the Red Wings at the trading deadline. What his contribution will bring remains to be seen, but he’s no stranger to battles with the Flames and the match up between the two teams certainly gets more interesting with his inclusion to the lineup.
At the Calgary end of the rink a return to form from Mikka Kiprusoff is essential for the Flames to have any hope of toppling the giants of Motown.
Jarome Iginla must have a big series for the Flames and Dion Phaneuf will have to be delivering those bone crushing hits frequently to slow down the conference leaders.
During the season the Flames gave indications that they could be a dominant team, and then came oh so close to not even making the playoffs. The success or failure of their post season experience depends on which team makes the trip to Detroit.
WINNER: RED WINGS OVERPOWER THE FLAMES IN SIX
ANAHEIM VS MINNESOTA
The Ducks are developing a reputation as the Broad Street Bullies with suntans, this past season saw the Ducks brawl and bash their way to victories and vilification. But beyond that hard nosed Brian Burke style of hockey, there’s some pretty talented players making a difference in Southern California.
When Brian Burke managed to take advantage of the Pronger departure from Edmonton in the off season, many in the West all but handed them the conference title. As the season standings testify to, that didn’t happen, though they did come but three points of that lofty goal.
Despite the many well known names on the Duck roster, they enter the playoffs matched up rather evenly with the Wild, both teams having won two games in the four they played against each other this season, the difference in victory but one goal in the four played.
The Wild have proven to be hard to get rid of all season long, they paced the Canucks all the way to the final week in the quest for first in the Northwest and never seem to be out of a game.
They have the ability to frustrate the key players during a game, picking their spot to change the direction of a game and grab a victory.
However, the Ducks have been preparing for the playoffs since last years exit, Burke who is one of the best team architects in the league has many of the pieces he feels he needs to find success. It’s hard to see how the plan is going to get off the rails in the first round.
WINNER: DUCKS LEAVE THE WILD BEHIND IN SIX GAMES
DALLAS AND VANCOUVER
They’re pumped and ready to roar on Robson Street in Vancouver. A team that many thought was in a rebuilding stage, suddenly came alive playing a more complete team game and found success, much to the delight of the faithful that regularly sell out GM Place.
The Canucks claimed first place in the Northwest Division, largely thanks to some remarkable play by Roberto Luongo, who came to the Canucks with high expectations in his gear bag and more than delivered over the regular season.
That one off season move by Dave Nonis has once again sparked hope in Vancouver and most likely guaranteed Nonis his spot in the BC Sports Hall of Fame.
While Luongo was showing just why he’s considered one of the best in the game today, there were other breakouts to be reckoned with on the Canucks line up as well. The Sedin’s came into their own this year, Daniel and Henrik finally reaching that level of play that Brian Burke saw in their future in those early days of their arrival in North America.
More importantly, with the addition of Alain Vigneault as coach, there seemed to be a change in atmosphere around the Canucks. There was more of a focus on team goals, adherence to a system and a dedication to the task, game in and game out. For the most part this year these Canucks provided their coach with a solid sixty minutes of hockey.
The only mysterious trend this year was the ongoing frustrations of Markus Naslund, who had a regular season he would prefer to forget. Should he find a way to shake off that bad karma from the regular season, he could hold the key to playoff longevity for the Canucks.
Even if he doesn’t, there have been enough Canucks’ stepping up their game this year to give many in the West cause to ponder a Stanley Cup final series based out of Vancouver.
Dallas as always seems to hide in the weeds, they have little public image and few in the way of flashy players. They are not the swaggering Stars of a few years ago instead they now offer up a solid team game as their specialty. They feature a veteran line up that has seen much in the way of playoff action in the past.
That however is also an indication of the age of the squad, a team that while still dangerous may find that the younger legs and speed of the Canucks is hard to handle.
They both provide an evenly matched line up, similar styles of play and philosophy for the game. But the Canuck’s have Luongo and at playoff time it’s goaltending that’s always the key to success.
The Canuck’s goaltender is on a mission, to take his team as far as he can in his first appearance in playoff season since his arrival in the league. His ambitions won’t be derailed in the first round
WINNER: CANUCKS IN FIVE GAMES
NASHVILLE AT SAN JOSE
The Sharks were the anticipated favourites last year, a lineup of speed and skill that many thought made for sure fire Stanley Cup participants. As things turned out that wasn’t the case last year and this season started out much the same.
The Sharks were perhaps the biggest surprise of the regular season, they never seemed to take off and dominate the West as it was thought they would. Instead, they struggled at times to find their game frequently alarming their fans with disinterested play.
But, as the season was coming to an end the Sharks began to resemble that team of destiny everyone was talking about last year. A hard skating, hard nosed team that was determined to push their way back to the top of the pack in the west.
They were but six points away from toppling the Red Wings as kings of the West, and yet finished below their competition in the first round the Nashville Predators.
Nashville is the team that few outside of Tennessee follow closely, but still has had another remarkable year. A key acquisition in Peter Forsberg helped to increase their prospects, but like last year, injuries to important players have caused concern in Music City.
The Preds will rely heavily on goaltender Tomas Vokoun and hope that Forsberg can reach back to the level of play he made famous in Colorado. For head coach Barry Trotz this is the pivotal year, he came close last year suffering a disappointing series loss to these same Sharks. Getting the Preds past this constant obstacle is the defining moment in his time with Nashville.
The conference is so tight that team could prevail and move on, all along this year people have been saying keep an eye on the Sharks, they could be the team to watch.
With Thornton, Marleau, Cheechoo and late season addition Guerin in the line up and ready to go, the scoring touch and leadership is there to move the Sharks forward. They indeed could very well be the team to watch!
SAN JOSE OVER NASHVILLE IN SEVEN GAMES