WEST CAPSULES: Beware the Coyotes

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Jim Kelley

It's as simple as this: The Detroit Red Wings are the odds-on favorite not only to emerge from the West as the conference's Stanley Cup finalists, but to win the Cup and to win it going away. If only it were that easy. True, the best team in the National Hockey League's regular season last year, the Colorado Avalanche, hoisted the silver bowl. But they were the first team to do that since the New York Rangers did it in 1994, and both the Rangers and the Avalanche had to survive seven-game series in the Stanley Cup finals. The Red Wings should take note of that, especially in light of the fact they will open the playoffs with the Vancouver Canucks, who are the surprise team of the playoffs again, just as they were when they took the Rangers to seven games in 1994. Upsets are often the norm in the first round where emotion and adrenaline often overcome talent and expectations. The longer the players go on the more likely it is that the favorites advance should they get past that opening series. Detroit and its wise old coach, Scott Bowman, know that. Expect the Red Wings to be focused and ready for anything the Canucks throw at them. After all, Bowman has won eight Stanley Cups as a coach with Montreal, Pittsburgh and Detroit -- he knows a thing or two about winning, even in the first round. When you add it up, the other 15 coaches combined have won two (Marc Crawford and Bob Hartley) so when you're looking for that playoff edge, don't rule out coaching in the Motor City. That said, the West is the best for a reason, with the most important one being no qualifying team had fewer than 40 wins and 94 points. The other good one is that there is a plethora of great coaches and great up-and-comers in the West. Bowman may have the best team and he may well be the best coach the game has ever known, but history shows even the best don't always survive to the end. With that in mind we bring you a capsule look at the very competitive West. All series are best-of-7. The team listed first has home-ice advantage and we do offer up a prediction for each one.

No. 1 Detroit vs. No. 8 Vancouver

Strengths: The Red Wings would seem to have it all, size, speed, scoring, great defense and goaltending, the winningest coach and one of the best coaching staffs ever. Put the winged wheel on the ice and it looks like a living, breathing Hall of Fame with the likes of Bowman (already in the Hall), Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Federov, Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios, Dominik Hasek and maybe even Igor Larionov likely to some day go in. Overall a great offense and quite possibly the league's best defensive team. Whew. Vancouver can't counter that, but it does have some size and speed and two very good scorers in captain Markus Naslund and winger Todd Bertuzzi. There's also a good supporting cast of scorers, a credible defense led by the tough and talented Ed Jovanovski and an up-and-coming goalie in Daniel Cloutier. Weaknesses: The Red Wings have none unless you count age. Father time could work against this elderly collection, there's also maybe not quite enough toughness in the forward ranks for a really bruising series. The Canucks can get pushed around down low and also don't get back on transition as well as they might largely because their defensemen are often up and involved in the offensive play. While there is some concern as to whether or not Hasek is "The Dominator" of old, there is certainly much more concern as to whether or not the still-young Cloutier can keep his oft-times excitable emotions in check. Outlook: Look, a series of heavy-hitting teams could eventually slow the Red Wings down, but it likely won't happen this early. Vancouver will scare the heck out of Red Wings fans with some timely goals, but unless there are injuries galore or Hasek goes south early, there's just too much of everything on the Red Wing side of the line. Prediction: Detroit in five games.

No. 2 Colorado vs. No. 7 Los Angeles

Strengths: The Avs have a fistful of heady players who know how to win and still have the memories of last season's Cup championship fresh in their heads. They play smart on offense and brilliantly tough on defense and have the league's best and most consistent goaltender in Patrick Roy. Power play and penalty killing is excellent, as is Bob Hartley and the rest of the coaching staff. The Kings come back to the playoffs a better team than the one that knocked off Detroit last spring and took the Avs to seven games. Jason Allison is a superb playmaking center and Ziggy Palffy and Adam Deadmarsh round out a top-flight No. 1 line. The No. 2 unit isn't as strong, but Cliff Ronning, acquired from Nashville at the trade deadline, is a nifty little player who can make a difference. L.A.'s special teams are especially good with the power play unit as good as any in the game and the penalty-killing squads consistently in the top five. Coach Andy Murray is solid and always has his team meticulously prepared. Weaknesses: The Avs have a shortage of scorers. Peter Forsberg is expected to play in the opener after foot surgery, but unless he and Milan Hejduk (abdominal pull) recover quickly, the Avs can lose close games that are just a shot away. The Kings are decent defensively, but they can be set to running around in their own end. And the whole system falls apart if goalie Felix Potvin loses just a shred of confidence. Outlook: This is one of the best matchups of the playoffs and close enough that the breaks will decide it. That said, we think the breaks will fall on the side of the Avs who have better goaltending and the mental toughness to get through the things that don't break their way. Prediction: Colorado in seven.

No. 3 San Jose Sharks vs. No. 6 Phoenix Coyotes

Strengths: Strong, deep, fast, experienced. The Sharks were built for this moment and they know it. They can roll out four lines all night long, they forecheck extremely well and they are very adept at creating turnovers in your zone and then capitalizing on them. Vincent Damphousse and Own Nolan are the key scorers. Mike Ricci is a superb defensive forward who can also beat you with the timely goal and is great on faceoffs. Goalie Evgeni Nabokov is no Patrick Roy, but he does have flashes of greatness. The Coyotes counter with four lines of their own but they are built more around hustle than talent. The team plays an aggressive puck pursuit style and is relentless on the forecheck. They also have a great deal of speed and placed five players at or over the 20-goal mark, a tribute to balanced play. The defense is unheralded, but contributes a lot to the offensive attack. Goalie Sean Burke is both a winner and the spiritual leader of the team. Both teams have excellent coaches, although Phoenix's Bobby Francis seems a bit more able to adjust on the fly than Darryl Sutter. Weaknesses: The Sharks have pockets of inexperience, especially on the blueline and have a history of playoff underachievement that seems to weigh on some veterans, especially Nolan. They can get flustered when special teams play doesn't go their way or when teams take to knocking them around in their own end of the rink. The Coyotes are inexperienced in several key areas up front and on defense and have only the aging Claude Lemieux as a proven can-do playoff goal scorer to lean on or rally around. The Coyotes also carry the weight of years of first-round playoff failures. And as good as Burke has been in each of the last two regular seasons, he does not have a solid history of playoff success. Outlook: Should be a swift and sometimes bruising series, but it will be decided by goaltending and special teams. That requires an extra special effort from Burke, but we think he's got it in him. Prediction: Western upset special, Phoenix ends 15-years of first-round frustration with a six-game win.

No. 4 St. Louis vs. No. 5 Chicago

Strengths: The Blues are better than anyone gives them credit for this season. Sure they struggled in goal and when hurt, but they won the same number of games (43) as they did last season when they went on to the conference final. They have scorers up front and a solid defense anchored by All-Stars Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis. The team is gritty and has several players capable of changing momentum with crushing hits. The Blackhawks are darlings because of their climb up the ladder after missing the playoffs for several seasons. The forwards are a good mix of size and speed and this season they played with a passion not evident in previous seasons. Individually, the defense is not noteworthy, but it does play a decent team game and veteran Phil Housley makes a difference carrying the puck out of the zone and on the power play. Coaching for both teams is more than adequate with Chicago's Brian Sutter having a motivational edge over Joel Quenneville because Sutter once worked for and was fired from the Blues. Weaknesses: For all the veteran talent, especially up front, the Blues tend to make big mental mistakes at key points in the game. Power forward Keith Tkachuk is often at the head of that list. The goaltending is very inexperienced. Brent Johnson will get the start, but if he stumbles early, Fred Brathwaite, a former Calgary Flame, gets the call. The Blackhawks piled up the bulk of their points in the first half and faded in the second, indicating there isn't much in the way of depth there. Tony Amonte is quality, but there are too many Hawks with poor playoff reputations. There's also a question of who's the man in goal. Jocelyn Thibault gets the nod from Sutter, but he'll also get a quick hook if he shows he's not the difference in any outing. Outlook: The Blues have flaws, but they are not as major as the critics would have you believe. If injured forward Doug Weight can rebound from pelvic problems to be a factor, the Blues are by far the better, more experienced team. We look for Johnson to give a good showing early which lifts all those blue notes to new highs. Prediction: St. Louis in five games. Jim Kelley can be reached at his e-mail address: jkelley@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Flames, Blackhawks, Red Wings, Kings, Rangers, Avalanche, Sharks, Blues, Canucks, Coyotes, Predators, Jocelyn Thibault, Tony Amonte, Dominik Hasek, Chris Chelios, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan, Luc Robitaille, Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Milan Hejduk, Mike Ricci, Evgeni Nabokov, Keith Tkachuk, Chris Pronger, Doug Weight, Markus Naslund, Ed Jovanovski, Sean Burke

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