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Wild West there to be won

Jets should keep eye on new neighbours

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There will be no welcome wagon for the Winnipeg Jets. None of their new Western Conference neighbours will be knocking at their door come next October with homemade pies or cakes.

And, almost certainly, there will be no meet-and-greet over a few pints and a slab of red meat.

So as the Stanley Cup tournament opens this week, it might be wise for the Jets and their faithful to keep an eye on what transpires out West during the post-season, seeing as that will be their new hockey address in the fall.

With that in mind, a few key basic Western Conference questions to be answered over the next couple of months as the NHL crowns a champion:

  • Can the Los Angeles Kings become the first team to win back-to-back titles since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998?
  • Will the Chicago Blackhawks be remembered as a wire-to-wire champion by capturing their second Stanley Cup in four years, or another President's Trophy winner that falls flat when it matters?
  • Do the Vancouver Canucks have one more deep run in them to cash in on all that promise of recent years?
  • Are the Minnesota Wild, who clinched the final spot with a win over Colorado on Saturday, this spring's version of the Kings -- an eighth seed that hoists the Cup come late June?
  • Are the Anaheim Ducks, who quietly posted the third-best record in the NHL behind Chicago and Pittsburgh, for real?

Here's a closer look at the Western Conference playoff matchups, with colleague Tim Campbell analyzing the Eastern Conference Tuesday:

 

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (1) vs. MINNESOTA WILD (8)

Head to head: The Blackhawks went 2-0-1 vs. the Wild; (1-0-0 at home; 1-0-1 on the road).

Why the Blackhawks will win: The Hawks didn't open the season 21-0-3 -- and finish it on a 10-3-2 run in April -- by accident. There is big-time scoring depth up front as Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews both potted 23 goals while Marian Hossa added 17 and Brandon Saad chipped in with 10. But it's the Blackhawks commitment to defence that has been their backbone this year as they allowed a league-low 102 goals against. Key to that has been the work of goaltenders Corey Crawford and Ray Emery who, despite their solid work this season, will remain question marks until they can push the Hawks deep into the postseason. Considering all their skill, their power-play, ranked just 19th, is a concern. But Chicago is deep, big, well coached and seemingly has all the necessary elements of skill and sandpaper for a late run in the playoffs.

Why the Wild will win: Hey, look, there is some big-name talent here, especially after ownership wrote size-large cheques to bring Zach Parise and Ryan Suter aboard last summer in free agency and Jason Pominville was added at the trade deadline from Buffalo. Goaltender Niklas Backstrom will be the key and he handled a ton of work this year after appearing in 42 games for the Wild. All that said, these aren't the Kings of last season and some of the Wild's issues were exposed in down the stretch as they dropped three of their last five, including dreadful performances in 6-1 losses to both San Jose and Edmonton and a 4-1 spanking administered by Calgary. Doesn't help, either, that Dany Heatley dislocated his shoulder this month.

Tim Campbell picks: Chicago in four.

Gary Lawless picks: Chicago in five.

Ed Tait picks: Chicago in five.

 

ANAHEIM DUCKS (2) vs. DETROIT RED WINGS (7)

Head-to-head: The Red Wings went 2-1-0 vs. the Ducks; (0-1 at home and 2-0 on the road).

Why the Ducks will win: Often lost in the considerable shadows cast by the Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins, the Ducks reeled off a stretch of 13 consecutive wins at home while going 14-5-5 on the road. You'd expect there to be bigger point totals from a roster that includes Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan and Teemu Selanne (only Getzlaf, 10th and Perry, 46th, were in the Top 80 of NHL scoring). But the Ducks have a solid goaltending tandem in Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth, a deadly power-play (ranked 4th) and head coach Bruce Boudreau has done a masterful job with this crew.

Why the Wings will win: Detroit banged out four straight wins -- by a combined score of 15-3 -- when it mattered at the end of the season to clinch their 22nd consecutive appearance in the playoffs. There are still the occasional flashes of magic from Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and Jimmy Howard is an excellent last line of defence. Their finish down the stretch, coupled with the Ducks going just 7-5-1 in April, means this match-up could have first-round upset written all over it.

Tim Campbell picks: Anaheim in six.

Gary Lawless picks: Anaheim in six.

Ed Tait picks: Anaheim in five.

 

VANCOUVER CANUCKS (3) vs. SAN JOSE SHARKS (6)

Head-to-head: The Sharks were 3-0 vs the Canucks; (2-0 at home; 1-0 on the road).

Why the Canucks will win: Vancouver isn't nearly as prolific as it once was -- Alex Burrows led the squad with 13 goals -- but many of the same pieces remain from previous years when this club finished in the Top 5 in goals per game. They are healthy now as defensive anchor Kevin Bieksa has returned from injury and for all the distractions the goaltending soap opera may have caused this winter, having both Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo to lean on now is a bonus.

Why the Sharks will win: We know, we know... if you've ever been in a playoff pool and loaded up on San Jose players, buying into them now has to make you cringe. But this is a dominant home team -- 17-2-5 at HP Pavilion -- that never lost more than two games in a row in regulation this season. Head coach Todd McLellan must figure how to translate their success at home to the road, where the Sharks were an atrocious 8-13-2 this year. The Sharks rely heavily on goaltender Antti Niemi, who backstopped Chicago to the Cup in 2010 and tied for the league lead in wins this year with 24.

Tim Campbell picks: San Jose in six.

Gary Lawless picks: San Jose in seven.

Ed Tait picks: Vancouver in seven.

 

ST. LOUIS BLUES (4) vs. LOS ANGELES KINGS (5)

Head-to-head: The Kings were a perfect 3-0 vs. the Blues; (1-0 at home; 2-0 on the road).

Why the Blues will win: The key for the Blues might come from the work of late of goaltender Brian Elliott, who was awful to start the season but has given up just 16 goals in his last 13 games. Head coach Ken Hitchcock is a masterful coach, a fact that shouldn't be overlooked in April-May-June. The Blues score by committee as five players registered 25 points or more this year.

Why the Kings will win: It could be said that the Kings are in the Blues' heads here: they swept St. Louis in the playoffs last year and won all three meetings this season. All told, they are on an eight-game win streak against the Blues. The Kings shouldn't surprise anyone last year, not that they really did last season as the eighth seed, given their talent. This is a big team with a sniper in Jeff Carter (26 goals), a lot of skill and size down the middle -- led by Anze Kopitar -- and a Conn Smythe winner in Jonathan Quick manning the nets.

Tim Campbell picks: St. Louis in six.

Gary Lawless picks: Los Angeles in seven.

Ed Tait picks: Los Angeles in six.

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

One guess is as good as any

 

Odds to win the 2013 Stanley Cup (courtesy Bodog.ca):

Chicago Blackhawks -- 15/4

Pittsburgh Penguins -- 15/4

Boston Bruins -- 17/2

Anaheim Ducks -- 12/1

Montreal Canadiens -- 12/1

Vancouver Canucks -- 12/1

Los Angeles Kings -- 14/1

St. Louis Blues -- 14/1

New York Rangers -- 16/1

San Jose Sharks -- 16/1

Washington Capitals -- 16/1

Toronto Maple Leafs -- 20/1

Minnesota Wild -- 22/1

Detroit Red Wings -- 28/1

Ottawa Senators -- 28/1

New York Islanders -- 33/1

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 29, 2013 C1

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