Western Conference is wide open

More playoffs:

In the wild, wild West, seven of the eight playoff teams reached 100 points. No one would be surprised if a lower seed were to knock off a higher one in the conference quarterfinals, or any round for that matter.

The San Jose Sharks won the Western Conference for the second straight season after the Chicago Blackhawks failed to earn the extra point at home against the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday. The Sharks are once again in the catbird’s seat, and everyone is lining up to throw stones at them. That might be a mistake.

Chicago's Patrick Kane led the Blackhawks in points this season.
(NHLI via Getty Images)

While San Jose has anything but a sterling postseason résumé, its recent past has very little to do with what will happen going forward. And try this analysis on for size: The Sharks are much better equipped for postseason success than last year. That’s what the additions of Dany Heatley(notes), Manny Malhotra(notes), Scott Nichol(notes) and Niclas Wallin(notes) will do for a positive playoff outlook.

That said, it’s hard to suggest that any team is better than Chicago, which closed the season with a 6-0-1 finish. It wasn’t so much the record as the way the Blackhawks went about their business this season. Coming off a conference finals appearance last spring, Chicago didn’t skip a beat in the regular season. The Blackhawks kept the puck away from opponents, scored plenty of goals along the way and displayed a strut in their step, suggesting they are very comfortable and confident in their pursuit of the Stanley Cup.

The rest of the field is rather intriguing. The Vancouver Canucks are more than a dark horse. They’re a team often overlooked in the West that could definitely rise to the occasion. And don’t excuse Detroit’s chances for a three-peat as conference champion, either.

But the real question is how the newcomers will react. Who could have guessed that the Phoenix Coyotes, Los Angeles Kings, Nashville Predators and Colorado Avalanche would all crack the top eight in the West? The three youngest teams – the Coyotes, Kings and Avalanche – all started fast and were able to maintain their level of play, holding off the likes of the surprisingly disappointing Calgary Flames, Anaheim Ducks, Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues.

Thus, with the unlikely field set, let the fun begin: San Jose (1) vs. Colorado (8)

They won’t admit it, but the Sharks have got to like this matchup more than any other one that could have played out Sunday. Detroit, Los Angeles and Nashville were all in play as possible opponents, while San Jose was idle.

Denver is a two-hour flight from San Jose, something a lot more desirable then trekking to Nashville or Detroit. The Avs shouldn’t be able to handle the size and speed of the Sharks’ forwards, and Colorado is very young and lacks postseason experience at key positions.

Fact is, the Avalanche have to be very proud of simply reaching the playoffs. There’s no pressure on them to perform – the exact opposite of what the Sharks will be facing. But Colorado is truly outclassed in almost all facets of this matchup.

San Jose is healthy as it enters the postseason, vastly different from last spring when Patrick Marleau(notes) basically was playing on one leg and long-departed veterans Jeremy Roenick(notes), Mike Grier(notes) and Claude Lemieux(notes) were being rushed back into the lineup.

Evgeni Nabokov(notes) has been up and down following his disappointing Olympics, but he was strong in his last couple appearances and he, like Marleau, wants to atone for last year’s early exit.

Prediction: Sharks in four.

Chicago (2) vs. Nashville (7)

Chicago has to be the prohibitive favorite, but there is an intriguing matchup within the matchup – the Predators’ unheralded defense against the Blackhawks’ ability to possess the puck and apply pressure. That might explain why only once during the six-game regular-season series between the teams did a game feature more than five goals combined.

The Preds will rely on the likes of defensemen Shea Weber(notes), Ryan Suter(notes) and Dan Hamhuis(notes) to first stop the Blackhawks and look for ways to generate offense in transition. Goalie Pekka Rinne(notes) is among several young goalies in the West getting a chance to experience the big stage, and he’ll need to be stellar to give Nashville a shot at making this a competitive series.

The real question is in the opposite goal, where Finnish rookie Antti Niemi(notes) clearly has seized the No. 1 reins from Cristobal Huet(notes) in the second half of the season. Either way, Chicago was going to receive scrutiny for its choice in goal, but Niemi has been solid and deserves the opportunity.

The Blackhawks didn’t seem to skip a beat with Brian Campbell(notes) out of the lineup. He’s expected to remain out until early next month. The Predators are healthy with the exception of defenseman Denis Grebeshkov(notes), but they can survive his absence.

Nashville has appeared in the postseason four times, drawing the Red Wings and Sharks two times apiece. But the Predators have failed to break through for even a single road win in 10 tries. Obviously that has to change, too, if they want to entertain thoughts of a major first-round upset.

Prediction: Blackhawks in five.

Vancouver's Roberto Luongo had 1,748 saves for the Canucks.
(Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

Vancouver (3) vs. Los Angeles (6)

Both teams should like the easy travel and consistent schedule in this series – simple flights up and down the coast without having to cross any time zones and games set up for every other night.

Beyond that, the onus will be on the Kings to see how quickly youngsters Anze Kopitar(notes), Drew Doughty(notes) and Jonathan Quick(notes) can adjust to playoff hockey. They should get plenty of mentoring from the likes of Ryan Smyth(notes) and Rob Scuderi(notes).

Los Angeles didn’t play as well after the Olympics, but the Kings can still be viewed as a dangerous opponent because like the Avs, Preds and Coyotes, they really don’t have any expectations or pressure.

The Canucks will be looking to Daniel and Henrik Sedin(notes), Ryan Kesler(notes) and, most of all, goalie Roberto Luongo(notes) to make the difference. And while the Kings are healthy, the Canucks hope to have several defensemen back in time to start the playoffs.

Sami Salo(notes), Shane O’Brien(notes) and Aaron Rome(notes) all suffered injuries in the final two games of the regular season, but all are expected to be back in time for Game 1. Still, the team’s expected strength – depth on defense – could certainly be tested.

This just has the feel of a long, hard-fought series with sudden death looming at every turn. At the very least, it might be the conference’s most entertaining opening-round series.

Prediction: Canucks in seven.

Phoenix (4) vs. Detroit (5)

While most are interested to see how the upstart Coyotes will perform in their first playoff appearance since 2002, the real question might be how much do the Red Wings have left after a torrid run to fifth in the West coming off of back-to-back Stanley Cup Final showings?

Coach Mike Babcock only hoped he could get his injured troops back on the ice to make a run at it, and that has happened since the start of the calendar year. Detroit’s top players came through as they have so many times, and rookie goalie Jimmy Howard(notes) finally lived up to the expectations of management.

There’s a pretty fine goaltender at the other end of the ice in this series as well, as possible Vezina Trophy favorite Ilya Bryzgalov(notes) gives his teammates plenty of confidence going into this best-of-seven series. In addition, the Coyotes might have taken better advantage of the trade deadline than any team out there.

The moves to add forwards Lee Stempniak(notes) and Wojtek Wolski(notes), along with defensemen Derek Morris(notes) and Mathieu Schneider(notes), have paid instant dividends. What you might like best about Phoenix is behind the bench, where coach Dave Tippett has made the Coyotes a prepared and dangerous opponent on a nightly basis.

Just the same, Detroit closed with a 17-3-2 run and put the fear in everyone’s head that the Red Wings were the one lower-seeded team to try and avoid in the first round.

Prediction: Red Wings in six.

Ross McKeon is an NHL editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Ross a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Apr 12, 2010