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NHL Western Playoffs: Only One Surprise Here

By Andrew C. Thomas

OPINION COLUMNIST

Westward ho. After picking two numerical upsets in the Eastern Conference, that should leave me with none, statistically speaking (historically, the home-ice team has won roughly 80 percent of best-of-seven series in the NHL). Permit me to break it as I pick just one upset in the West. Incidentally, the section deadline of 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday means that these picks were made without any knowledge of the games. Trust me.

These picks are dedicated to Jason E. Szuminski ’01, the pride of Briggs Field. Welcome to the show, meat.

Red Wings (1) vs. Predators (8)

After being swept last year by the upstart Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Detroit will not underestimate the quality of their opposition this year, even having won the President’s Trophy for first overall position. Their goaltending is, at least in theory, a big question mark, as current No. 1 Curtis Joseph is still waiting for his ankle to mend. That leaves Manny Legace, with little playoff experience but extreme dependability, to have the big burden of carrying this team thrust on his shoulders. The Wings’ success will not depend on him, however; it’s all going to be up to the rest of the team playing like a team and taking the pressure off. As they found out last year, the one possibility that threatens that is a hot goaltender.

Is Tomas Vokoun, the Nashville netminder, that threat? I doubt it; he’s shown himself to be capable following the departure of Mike Dunham to New York last season, and even a number one, but the Preds have been streaky all season long. They define the term “under the radar” just as well as last year’s Minnesota Wild; the recent acquisition of Chicago winger Steve Sullivan proved to be an immediate boom in early March, complementing the team perfectly. But this is the first trip to the playoffs for the Preds, who might just feel content to be invited to the dance.

Detroit won’t be able to deal with anything less than a Cup final appearance, and I don’t think lightning will strike twice with lucky goalies. Detroit to sweep.

Sharks (2) vs. Blues (7)

The Battle of the Saints takes hold once again. The Sharks are way ahead of schedule this year, thought to be in a rebuilding stage but having an incredible run. They would have likely challenged the Red Wings for the top spot in the NHL and have played extremely well after a slow start. Their goaltending is working out well, as both Evgeni Nabokov and backup Vesa Toskala have shown few weaknesses collectively.

St. Louis managed to squeak in for their 25th consecutive playoff appearance, the longest such streak in North American sports, but they did it without their captain Al MacInnis and sophomore sensation Barret Jackman manning the blue line. Longtime skipper Joel Quenneville was fired midseason, to much surprise, and replaced by his assistant Mike Kitchen who has taken charge.

San Jose has played so consistently and so well, and St. Louis goalie Chris Osgood hasn’t been the same since he won his Cup with Detroit. Sharks in six.

Canucks (3) vs. Flames (6)

The entire sports world heard about the Canucks through the worst circumstances; the regrettable attack upon Colorado’s Steve Moore (a Harvard graduate, FYI) by well-respected Vancouver forward Todd Bertuzzi. It brought the venom of the uninformed news world upon the game, even though an incident of this magnitude was isolated. As far as the hockey world was concerned, Vancouver was going to drop out of contention with their star power forward suspended for the rest of the season; while a brief swoon at the beginning gave the naysayers a boost, they quickly turned it around and have played extremely well, clinching the division away from the hated Avalanche.

Don’t let Calgary fool you, however. Their return to the playoffs for the first time since 1996 has been possible due to a strong season from captain Jarome Iginla (getting over his EA sports jinx, which this year hit Atlanta phenom Dany Heatley) and an unbelievable performance from Vezina trophy candidate Miikka Kiprusoff, quietly acquired for a draft pick from San Jose. It was the Kiprusoff pickup that began to drive this team, under coach/GM Darryl Sutter, toward a fine season. And even the expensive backup, former number one goalie Roman Turek, has played in incredible form down the stretch. The quiet yet key addition of enforcer/scorer Chris Simon can only help the Flames.

This Calgary team can outgrit the Canucks, and playoff hockey needs grit. And goaltending, at which Vancouver netminder Dan Cloutier has proven ineffective in the playoffs. Calgary in six.

Avalanche (4) vs. Stars (5)

The biggest question surrounding Colorado these playoffs is -- you guessed it -- goaltending. David Aebischer completed a very successful season in the wake of Patrick Roy’s retirement, but the Swiss Mister will be viewed under the same microscope as any other goalie heading into the first playoffs as a number one. The Avs made ripples when they signed the potent duo of Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne for peanuts last offseason, but the two have played below their capability all year, likely due to the lack of need for them to step up. Of course, when you’re overshadowed by Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk, and the underappreciated Alex Tanguay, you might feel unnecessary, too.

Dallas swooned near the end of the season, but most of the blame for that goes squarely to goalie Marty Turco, who earned himself a four game suspension for excessive stickwork on the face of Edmonton’s Ryan Smyth. Turco’s energy should help the Stars avenge their second-round defeat to the Ducks in last year’s contest, as will good performances from captain Mike Modano and former Bruin Bill Guerin. But the Stars have immense difficulty winning away from Dallas going 15-19-2 in enemy territory, despite an excellent mark at home.

That should fit nicely with Colorado’s spectacular road record. Watch for the Avs to take this to the wire, winning it in Denver in the full seven.