The Stanley Cup Derby opens Wednesday and, if you were to poll hockey fanatics across the globe as to what the three juiciest playoff storylines might be, we'd suggest the runaway winners would be:
1. The Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins in a Battle of Pennsylvania that Flyers' forward Scott Hartnell predicted will be a 'bloodbath.'
2. The Boston Bruins' quest to be the first champion to repeat since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings.
3. And whether John Tortorella, the New York Rangers head coach, can survive a series without the top of his head blowing off in another post-game tirade.
Now, all of this isn't to suggest there aren't some dandy playoff scripts ready to unfold in the West -- because there most certainly are -- it's just that until the puck drops Wednesday many eyes in the hockey world are fixated primarily on Pittsburgh, New York and Philly.
But if fans can stay awake long enough to watch the series unfolding out West, they might find the soon-to-be-answered questions these dramas will provide just as riveting:
-- Can the Vancouver Canucks erase last year's Game 7 nightmare to the Boston Bruins and become the first Canadian club to capture the cup since the 1993 Montreal Canadiens?
-- Are the St. Louis Blues -- a club that posted 49 wins and 109 points -- legit?
-- Do the Red Wings have one more run left?
-- Are the moves the Nashville Predators made at the trading deadline enough to get them into the winner's circle?
Here's a closer look at the Western Conference playoff matchups.
(Colleague Tim Campbell will analyze the Eastern Conference in Wednesday's paper.)
VANCOUVER CANUCKS (1) vs. LOS ANGELES KINGS (8)
Game 1: Wednesday, 9:30 p.m.; CBC; NBCSN
Head-to-head: Season series was tied 2-2.
Why the Canucks will win: The two-time President's Trophy winners aren't without their warts -- the latest issue is second-line scoring concerns, with Ryan Kesler, David Booth and Mason Raymond struggling down the stretch -- but this is a battle-tested playoff squad which is deeper than last year's crew. Daniel Sedin is to return after missing nine games with a concussion and should boost what has been a struggling power play. But the biggest development on the left coast this season may have been this: If Roberto Luongo struggles again the Canucks have less doubt about turning over the net chores to Cory Schneider, and the former Manitoba Moose stopper has proven to be more than ready to step in and lead. It's the Canucks depth -- and the Kings' pop-gun attack (29th in the league) -- that should send them to the second round.
Why the Kings will win: Goaltender Jonathan Quick is capable of stealing more than just one game -- he had a league-leading 10 shutouts -- and the Kings have adapted to their own offensive shortcomings with an attention to detail on defence that can be stifling, especially in the playoffs. The Kings gave up just 2.03 goals per game and, if Mike Richards and Jeff Carter (expected to return from a bone bruise) can rediscover some magic, L.A. could frustrate the Canucks much the same way the Bruins did last June. Consider this as well: three of the last six President's Trophy winners -- Detroit in '06, San Jose in '09 and Washington in '10 -- were eliminated in the first round.
Tim Campbell picks: Vancouver in five.
Gary Lawless picks: Vancouver in six.
Ed Tait picks: Vancouver in six.
ST. LOUIS BLUES (2) vs. SAN JOSE SHARKS (7)
Game 1: Thursday, 6:30 p.m., TSN, CNBC
Head-to-head: St. Louis swept the season series 4-0.
Why the Blues will win: No one should underestimate the work of head coach Ken Hitchcock, who took over a team that was 6-7 and built an identity entirely around defence. The Blues' style is hardly edge-of-your-seat stuff, instead they play a clean defensive game and wait for their opponent to err and then pounce. There are no superstars up front -- David Backes and T.J. Oshie led the team in scoring with 54 points each -- but they have a record-setting goaltender in Brian Elliott (his. 940 save percentage is the new standard) and a gifted but unheralded defensive corps led by Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk. St. Louis lost only six times all season at home and that could be the difference in what many are expecting to be a long series.
Why the Sharks will win: San Jose went 7-3 down the stretch to get into the playoffs and that fight may have them more playoff ready than their regular-season powerhouses that flamed out in past springs. There is also more defensive depth than in years past, thanks to the additions of Brent Burns, Jim Vandermeer and Colin White and that will serve them well here against the Blues and later, should they advance. There's less of a microscope on this team than in the past and that may help an organization that has wilted under those expectations and underachieved for years.
Tim Campbell picks: San Jose in 6.
Gary Lawless picks: San Jose in 6.
Ed Tait picks: St. Louis in 7.
PHOENIX COYOTES (3) vs. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (6)
Game 1: Thursday, 9 p.m.; TSN, NBCSN
Head-to-head: The Coyotes won three of four meetings, one via shootout.
Why the Coyotes will win: It could be said no team understands better who they are and what they are than Dave Tippett's Coyotes. There are no secrets or style points in the desert, just sound defensive hockey that is anchored by netminder Mike Smith. The veteran goalie was dominant all season and especially down the stretch when Phoenix went 7-1-2 to grab the Pacific Division title and third seed. The Coyotes got 81 goals from three players this year -- Radim Vrbata (35), Ray Whitney (24), Shane Doan (22) -- but will need key contributions from No. 1 centre Martin Hanzal, and Antoine Vermette and Mikkel Boedker, who anchor the second line with Doan, to advance. Two concerns: The Coyotes have not won a playoff round since leaving Winnipeg and their power play is brutal, having finished 29th overall.
Why the Blackhawks will win: This news first: Jonathan Toews practised with the Hawks on Monday and his return -- rusty or not -- is positively critical. If he's good to go, he's a difference maker and should help their icky special teams. Interestingly, it's being said in the Windy City that Toews' absence may have actually helped the Hawks in the long run as some roles were clearly defined while he was in sick bay. Viktor Stalberg stepped up to pot 20 goals, rookie Marcus Kruger is centering the No. 2 line and the defensive corps -- believe it or not -- settled with the deal that brought Johnny Oduya from Winnipeg. The concerns about goaltending subsided, albeit temporarily, as Corey Crawford went 3-0-2 in his last five games with a .915 save percentage.
Tim Campbell picks: Phoenix in 7.
Gary Lawless picks: Chicago in 6.
Ed Tait picks: Chicago in 7.
NASHVILLE PREDATORS (4) vs. DETROIT RED WINGS (5)
Game 1: Wednesday, 7 p.m.; CBC, CNBC
Head-to-head: tied 3-3.
Why the Predators will win: Take any combination of defencemen Shea Weber (6-4), Ryan Suter (6-1), Hal Gill (6-7) and plop them in front of 6-5 goaltender Pekka Rinne and that's a whole pile of humanity blocking lanes to the goal. This is another team that understands its blueprint to success and, when followed, are almost impregnable defensively. What the Preds did at the trade deadline by adding Gill, big centre Paul Gaustad and Andrei Kostitsyn -- as well as returning scoring winger Alex Radulov from the KHL -- gives them just that much more depth up front.
Why the Red Wings will win: The collective hockey intelligence and skill set is through the roof, even if the star power is aging: Nik Lidstrom is 41, Tomas Holmstrom is 39, Todd Bertuzzi 37, Pavel Datsyuk and Dan Cleary are 33, Johan Franzen is 32 and Henrik Zetterberg is 31. But if anyone is to solve the Preds' defensive system, it's this deep and talented outfit. A cause for concern: In what is expected to be a long series, the Red Wings were just 17-21-3 on the road -- the only playoff team that didn't finish at least .500 away from home.
Tim Campbell picks: Detroit in 7.
Gary Lawless picks: Nashville in 7.
Ed Tait picks: Detroit in 7.
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One guess as good as any
Odds to win the 2012 Stanley Cup (courtesy Bodog.ca):
Pittsburgh Penguins -- 4/1
New York Rangers -- 11/2
Vancouver Canucks -- 11/2
St. Louis Blues -- 15/2
Boston Bruins -- 8/1
Detroit Red Wings -- 12/1
Nashville Predators -- 14/1
Philadelphia Flyers -- 14/1
Chicago Blackhawks -- 16/1
San Jose Sharks -- 18/1
Los Angeles Kings -- 20/1
New Jersey Devils -- 25/1
Washington Capitals -- 30/1
Florida Panthers -- 35/1
Ottawa Senators -- 40/1
Phoenix Coyotes -- 40/1