Anything can happen in the NHL post-season. The most surprising occurrence in 2012 is how well the underdog teams are performing.
The Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, Vancouver Canucks, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Boston Bruins all went out in the first round. Wait… what!? Yes, it is true. As NHL.com correspondent Louie Korac said so well, “Detroit, winner of the Stanley Cup 11 times- most recently in 2008- is gone. Vancouver, last year’s Western Conference champion and two-time Presidents’ Trophy winner- gone. Chicago, the Stanley Cup champs in 2010- they’re out.” And let me tell you from a personal standpoint having attended the Boston Bruins Game 7 last night, the Stanley Cup Champions and their fans were more than flabbergasted at the OT loss to the Washington Capitals.
So as we move into the second round in the quest for the Cup (and yes, I will always capitalize that word), we’re left with a number of teams who have yet to earn the title of Champs. The final four teams in the Western Conference this year are the St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators, Los Angeles Kings, and Phoenix Coyotes, none of whom have ever raised the Cup.
Let’s focus here on the matchup between the Phoenix Coyotes and the Nashville Predators.
The Phoenix Coyotes pulled out a big win over the Chicago Blackhawks for their first Pacific Division championship. The first five games of the series were extremely close, with all five games going to overtime (only the second time that has happened in NHL history). Game 6 broke the OT streak, and did so with a bang. The Coyotes earned a 4-0 shutout victory with the help of (hockey) household name Mike Smith and go forward into what will be their first Western Conference Semifinals appearance since moving to the Valley in 1996.
Last Friday the Nashville Predators dominated their Western Conference Quarterfinal series with a 2-1 victory over Detroit Red Wings. Nashville became the first team this season to advance to the second playoff round, securing their series victory in just five games. What is interesting is that when looking for a recap, so that I may regurgitate my facts accurately, all I am able to find are articles explaining why the Red Wings lost and what a shame it is that Detroit’s beloved team was bumped out so soon. Trying to be unbiased as they begin a series against my hometown team and give some credit where credit is due, let me go ahead and give the Predators the congratulations they deserve.
The first thing that comes to mind when preparing for this Phoenix/Nashville series is the guy in net. There is no lack of goalie star power in either Mike Smith or Pekka Rinne. Rinne, who was drafted by the Predators in 2004 and nominated last year for the Vezina Trophy, has the largest contract in Nashville Predators team history. Coyotes’ Mike Smith has had a banner season and has proven just as strong in the playoffs thus far. See what Smith said about the Vezina nominations and the upcoming series here http://video.coyotes.nhl.com/videocenter/console?catid=-6&id=174784
Additionally, each team has recognizable quantities up front. The Coyotes’ Radim Vrbata, Ray Whitney, Shane Doan, and surprise OT hero Mikkel Boedker all are capable of big things with the puck, as are the Predators’ Mike Fisher, Sergei Kostitsyn, and Alexander Radulov.
The big strength for Nashville is defense, and having Norris Trophy finalist Shea Weber bringing up the rear has played a major part in the Predators success thus far. The workhorse and team captain tied fellow nominee Erik Karlsson (Ottawa) for the League lead among defensemen with 19 goals, and his career-best 49 points tied for sixth in the League. Weber’s 10 power-play goals were the most among NHL defensemen this season. This is the second straight year Weber is a Norris finalist; he finished second in 2011 to Lidstrom.
This is going to be a tough series for both teams, and the Phoenix Coyotes will need everyone to continue stepping up, especially defenseman Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson who have been key this season.
Although Phoenix comes into this series as the 3rd seed, Nashville 4th, I think it is Nashville who has the upper hand. Either way it is great to see new blood advancing towards the Cup.
“There are new teams here in the West right now. I think it’s great for the NHL. I think there’s a wide, vast group of hockey people that don’t know a lot about the four teams that are going to be playing and hopefully we’re able to draw in more fans from across the country,” said Blues GM Doug Armstrong.
I certainly hope Armstrong is correct, and maybe hockey fans can see that Western Conference teams do in fact have some incredible talent. And, because in the playoffs anything can happen, maybe 2012 is the year for one small fry franchise to raise the Cup for the first time.
The Phoenix/Nashville series begins tomorrow night at Jobing.com Arena in Glendale, AZ.