Welcome to the wild, wild West. That's what it has been the past several seasons as Calgary, Edmonton, Anaheim and Detroit, respectively, marched through three rounds to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.
And now there's a new kid on the block: the San Jose Sharks. Maybe they're not so new to this, considering they were mentioned in the Stanley Cup conversation during the runs of all those aforementioned teams. But the Sharks have always found a way to mess it up.
This time, they enter the postseason tourney as the No. 1 seed, having earned the Presidents' Trophy for the first time in club history. They have a tremendous home-ice advantage and a roster built with size, speed and Cup experience.
All that means is they and defending Stanley Cup champion (and second Western seed) Detroit are the teams to beat.
Two years ago, this was seen as a potential marquee matchup in the West, but the teams never met. The Ducks rolled to their first Stanley Cup and the Sharks fell short, keeping their annual date with the psychologist's couch. This year, it's still a potential monster matchup, but the roles are reversed.
While San Jose is often seen as the best bet to replace Detroit as king in the West, many view Anaheim's inclusion in these playoffs as almost a bonus. The Ducks made a midseason change in the general manager's seat and had to maneuver to make the salary cap work.
This series may start slow, but it will eventually come to a boil. The Ducks play on the edge, and they cross it at times. San Jose is wearing a target, not only as the Presidents' Trophy winner, but also because when push has come to shove in recent postseasons, the Sharks have shriveled.
The problem is that if the Ducks want to make it a physical series, they'll have to find a way to match San Jose's speed – or they'll never line up the Sharks to hit them, at least not legally. The Pacific champs aren't small, either.
Anaheim is thrilled to welcome back Francois Beauchemin on a defense already anchored by Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger. Throw in Ryan Whitney and James Wisniewski, and Anaheim is as deep on the blue line as anyone in the playoffs.
That defense will do its best to make it a smooth ride – at least early in the series – for goalie Jonas Hiller, who has quietly replaced Jean-Sebastien Giguere as the team's starting goalie. Don't be surprised, however, to see head coach Randy Carlyle go to Giguere at some point if he feels it will give his team a lift.
Up front, the big matchup will be Ryan Getzlaf against Joe Thornton. What could hurt Anaheim, however, is the fact that its great shutdown line (Travis Moen-Samuel Pahlsson-Rob Niedermayer) is no longer intact. Moen is now a Shark and Pahlsson a Blackhawk. Only Niedermayer remains.
The Sharks appear to be healthy enough after battling injuries for most of the second half. Coach Todd McLellan must choose which personnel to play on the third and fourth lines, but if top-six forwards Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Thornton – along with defensemen Dan Boyle and Rob Blake and goalie Evgeni Nabokov – don't hold their own, the favorites will be in trouble.
Key player for Ducks: Scott Niedermayer. You could choose Hiller in goal or Teemu Selanne for his power-play prowess, but the veteran defenseman piles up big minutes, provides tremendous leadership and exudes confidence.
Key player for Sharks: Dan Boyle. He's a wild card in the offensive zone, often drifting toward the right dot and causing matchup confusion in front. He's important on the power play, too – a distributor first and a shooter second.
Key stat for Ducks: 41.7 percent. That's the power-play conversion rate (20-for-48) in the last 13 games of the season. Everybody now: Special teams are critical in the postseason.
Key stat for Sharks: 5. That's the number of regulation losses at home all season. The Shark Tank is a loud and difficult place to play, mostly because the home team is big, fast and physical, which has a lot more to do with the phenomenon of winning at home than anything else.
Prediction: Sharks in six.
Blue Jackets-Red Wings
Some reward for finally reaching the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time – a series against the most dominant franchise over the past 10 years. But you won't hear Columbus complaining. The travel is short and this sure beats vying for early tee times in still-chilly Ohio.
But the Red Wings are advised not to get too far ahead of themselves. Detroit has never shown signs of taking winning for granted, but Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock will have his team plenty prepared to take on the defending Cup champs.
There's certainly no blueprint for beating Detroit. A team would love to take the Red Wings out of their comfort zone, which means denying them to opportunity to possess the puck at least 65 percent of the game. It also could put pressure on beleaguered starting goalie Chris Osgood, who could be looking over his shoulder at backup Ty Conklin if he gets off to a slow start in the series.
Columbus doesn't figure to score a lot of goals, so playing a physical brand that doesn't include a march to the penalty box is probably a logical place to start. Speaking of goaltending, the Blue Jackets wouldn't be in this position if not for the emergence of 20-year-old Steve Mason. The playoffs, however, are a different animal. That's not to suggest Mason can't excel here, too, but he can expect more traffic in the crease and the presence of one Tomas Holmstrom in his way on every Detroit power play.
The key to the series will be if Columbus can effectively frustrate the Red Wings into neutral-zone turnovers. The Blue Jackets are not going to run and gun with Detroit, so if they can find a way to slow the pace and get the favorites out of a rhythm, an upset could loom.
Key player for Blue Jackets: Rick Nash. We're just going to assume Mason will at least adequate. But Nash has to score big goals and provide leadership for a team that is really learning on the fly.
Key player for Red Wings: Osgood. It's funny, Ozzie replaced Dominik Hasek as the starter in Game 5 of last year's opening-round series against Nashville, after the Wings blew a 2-0 lead and Nashville tied things up. Now Osgood could face a benching if he doesn't come out strong.
Key stat for Blue Jackets: Two. That's the number of teams who have reached the Stanley Cup Finals during their first trip to the postseason – St. Louis in 1968 and Florida in 1996.
Key stat for Red Wings: 1,793. That's the combined number of playoff games Detroit has in its locker room. That experience is invaluable, especially for a team looking to repeat.
Prediction: Red Wings in five.
As proud as the Blues are for surprising everyone by not only qualifying for the playoffs but finishing sixth, they would just as soon stop having everyone pat them on their backs. The slate is wiped clean and there's nothing fun about losing in the opening round.
That said, the Canucks want to prove they won the Northwest Division and didn't back into it because Calgary fell prey to the injury bug late. Vancouver doesn't get a lot of recognition for what it has done, but some are suggesting the Canucks are a sleeper in the West.
Either way, neither wants to let this opportunity slip away.
St. Louis will want to get physical with Vancouver. The Canucks' lack of depth has been exposed in recent playoff runs. Two years ago, they were decimated on defense and almost had trouble finishing a series against Anaheim. The onus will be on the Blues to take it to the Canucks.
Vancouver clearly will have the advantage in goal, where Roberto Luongo comes into the postseason hot. Chris Mason held his own, especially down the stretch, but he better have a short memory because he wasn't very good in the playoffs with Nashville.
The Blues can look at Keith Tkachuk for postseason leadership and savvy and hope that youngsters Brad Boyes, David Backes, David Perron and T.J. Oshie continue to bolster the attack. There really isn't any pressure on St. Louis.
Vancouver has to avoid depending too much on Luongo. The Sedin twins – Daniel and Henrik – lead the offense, but they will need support from Alex Burrows, Mats Sundin, Pavol Demitra and Ryan Kesler for a longer ride.
Key player for Blues: Paul Kariya. He missed the final 71 games of the season with multiple hip injuries. Now, we don't expect him to come back and save the Blues, but the inspiration he can provide by simply getting back on the ice would signify things can work out in the end.
Key player for Canucks: Luongo. The team captain doesn't have to be spectacular, but if he's at least pretty good, the Canucks probably don't have a lot to worry about.
Key stat for Blues: 25-9-7. That's how St. Louis fared in the second half, with merely the best record in hockey to move from dead last in the West to sixth. Amazing.
Key stat for Canucks: 82. That's the number of points Daniel and Henrik Sedin each each scored to lead the offense. They'll have to carry the offensive load in the series if the Canucks hope to advance.
Prediction: Canucks in six.
This could be the best matchup in the West – two fast teams which don't want their seasons to end after one round. If people think Chicago is just happy to be here, forget it. And there is pressure on the Flames to go deep. Something has to give.
Calgary is facing two problems. Late injuries not only cost them a higher seed but eventually series home ice as well. Dion Phaneuf, Robyn Regehr, Cory Sarich, Mark Giordano and Rhett Warrener are all banged up on defense. Curtis Glencross, Rene Bourque, Wayne Primeau and Andre Roy are injured up front. That's a lot of moving pieces – some who will get into the series and others who will hope for Round 2.
Then there's the psychological barrier that must be overcome: Calgary lost to Chicago in all four regular-season meetings. The one area where the Flames are confident is in goal, where Miikka Kiprusoff can help cover up deficiencies in other areas.
Chicago is going through the playoff wars for the first time, at least with this young roster. The group is confident, however, even bordering on cocky. It doesn't seem to hurt the 'Hawks, giving them a bit of a swagger, no matter whether they really deserve one.
Still, it will be up to veterans such as Brian Campbell, Nikolai Khabibulin and maybe Martin Havlat to show the uninitiated the way. One thing to keep in mind about the puck-moving Campbell, however: The Flames really targeted him in the opening round last year against San Jose and took the slick-skating defenseman off his game. Calgary will certainly have its targets in Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp – assuming the latter is healthy enough to suit up – and Campbell will be atop that list.
Key player for Flames: Phaneuf. He's the one injured player Calgary has to have in its lineup. He's big, tough and physical, and an offensive threat. Take away Phaneuf and you're removing the team's identity.
Key player for Blackhawks: Khabibulin. He has to basically match Kiprusoff in what could become a goaltending duel. Khabibulin has won a Cup, and has been very good during a season in which there were a lot of trade rumors. He could definitely get the last laugh now.
Key stat for Flames: 9. The number of potential regulars either out or barely ready to return to the lineup for the series because of injury.
Key stat for Blackhawks: 4-0 and 19-7. Respectively, that's the regular-season tally (a four-game sweep by Chicago) and the combined score. Something suggests it will be much closer, if not reversed, in terms of the ultimate winner here.
Prediction: Flames in seven.