As Baggs touched on in the preview, one of the things that elevates the NHL playoffs over all others is the importance of the play of the goalies. Case in point, the first round of the Western Conference. Jonathan Quick of the LA Kings and Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators are two of the three finalists for the Vezina Trophy given to the leagues best goalie. Brian Elliott of the St. Louis Blues had the league’s best Goals Against Average and Save Percentage and was 2nd in shutouts despite only starting 36 games (less then half of the season). Why did he start so few games? He’s the backup goalie to Jaroslav Halak. Someone Baggs will probably mention is Ilya Bryzgalov, someone who the Phoenix Coyotes didn’t resign last Summer. The ‘Yotes took a chance on Mike Smith, someone who was so inconsistent with the Lightning that he wasn’t resigned. The Yotes reach turned into the biggest signing of the free agency. Phoenix has a young, seemingly talentless team, except for Mike Smith who is capable of having completely dominant stretches in the net.
Western Conference Quarterfinals
#8 Los Angeles Kings defeat #1 Vancouver Canucks in 5
The Kings were able to steal the first two games in Vancouver. Game 1 ended up going to the Kings after the puck took an odd bounce and went straight to Dustin Penner who buried the game winning goal. Dustin Brown would later add an empty netter. I mention that, because that seemingly got Brown on a roll. After two short handed goals game 2 will invariably be known as the Dustin Brown game. Quick led the league in shutouts, so it should come to no surprise that he did so in the pivotal game of this series, game 3. The Canucks were able to win a game in mid death throe with their offensive fire power. Quick and timely scoring for the Kings were able to sent them through to the second round in game 5.
#2 St. Louis Blues defeat #7 San Jose Sharks in 5
One goalie I haven’t mentioned yet is Antti Niemi. Niemi, who plays for the Sharks, won a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks two years ago, in large part due to the play of Niemi. In game 1, Niemi had 40 saves, 14 in OT, to lead San Jose to victory. In game 2, Halak went down with an ankle injury. For any team losing a talent like Halak would be a major deficit, but as noted above, his backup is arguably better then he is. Halak and Elliott combined for the shutout in game two, and while the final score of game 3 was 4-3, it wasn’t close at all. Elliott dominated the last two games setting up a Blues-Kings second round matchup.
#3 Phoenix Coyotes defeat #6 Chicago Blackhawks in 6
As a huge Blackhawks fan, this one hurt. For the 1st time in over 50 years, the first 5 games of a series went into over time. I never heard of a team doing this, but in the first two games, down by 1 and under two minutes to go, Chicago was forced to pull the goalie to try and tie the game. They did so with 15 seconds in game 1, and 5 seconds in game 2. Hanzal was able to get the winner in game 1 for PHX, Bickell for the Hawks in game 2. Chicago was, at the beginning of the season, leading the the league in points. A 9 game losing streak in January/February shined the light on some glaring problems for the ‘Hawks, the biggest being goaltending. Corey Crawford was one of the few bright spots for Hawks last year, but has been terribly inconsistent this year. A perfect example of this was “Crow” in games 3 and 4. He was rock solid during regulation in both games. (it should be noted that the Hawks forced OT in game 4 after having to pull the goalie AGAIN, this time tying in with 1:26 left) The pressure of OT proved to much for Crow as he let in two pilllow soft goals. One of the Hawks big 4 (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marion Hossa) was finally able to assert himself when Toews had one of the sickest wrist shots you will ever see to win in OT of game 5. The Hawks through the kitchen sink at Smith in game 6 but were unable to break through…. ever. Series over.
#4 Nashville Predators defeat # 5 Detroit Red Wings in 5
Not a whole lot to say about this series, while all the games were close, Nashville’s defensive style of play seemingly dominated all of them, dispatching the loathed Red Wings in 5.
Western Conference Semifinals Preview
St Louis Blues vs Los Angeles Kings
With Halak out for at least the first two games of the series, it will be up to Elliott to lead the Blues against Quick and the Kings. Flat out, the Kings aren’t playing well enough offensively to beat the Blues. The Blues can be stifling. I expect the Kings to get nothing easy and actually think the Blues will get going more then they did in the 1st round and dispatch of the Kings in 5. If I’m wrong, it will be because Quick pulled a Greg Jennings du’e.
Phoenix Coyotes vs Nashville Predators
The ‘Yotes have been getting timely goal scoring from all over their roster and the 6′ 5″ Mike Smith has kept them in every game. However, they won’t be playing against swiss cheese Corey Crawford, as the Preds have a 6’ 5″ goalie of their own, the badassly named Pekka Rinne. The Preds play a similar style to the Blues, defensively they won’t give you the offensive zone, and then they will chip in the puck and go on the forecheck to get offensive looks. I would say the Preds should beat the Yotes easily, but after seeing the offensive juggernaut struggle against Smith, I think this is going to be a close one. Coyotes in 7. If its a short series it will be because Shea Weber said to “get off me Chil’s Play!” HOLD MAH DIIIIIICK!!!!