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Handicapping the 2010 NHL Playoffs - Western Conference...By Hartley Henderson

San Jose vs. Colorado

San Jose once again enters the playoffs with the best record in the Western conference and like every year, experts aren't sure if they can get past the first round. So far those who opposed San Jose have been right. San Jose has yet to get past the 2nd round in any playoff series and were eliminated by the #8 team in each of the last 2 years. The team excels in the regular season but struggles come during playoff time. It has also been suggested that unless San Jose can make it past the 2nd round, Evgeni Nabokov's time with the Sharks could be over.

San Jose probably has the best 3 scorers in all of hockey with Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau. The trio combined for 254 points in the season and Dan Boyle is among the best offensive defensemen in the league. Devin Setoguchi, who is also a potent scorer, is healthy for the playoffs.

Colorado has one offensive star in Paul Stastny but lost a lot of scoring punch when they traded Wojtek Wolski to Phoenix at the trade deadline. Chris Stewart and a healthy Milan Hejduk have offensive abilities as well. Defensively the team has struggled which will be troublesome against San Jose's offense.

As mentioned, Evgeni Nabokov is San Jose's starting goalie and while he has looked brilliant at times, at other times he has been awful. He also has demonstrated nerves since he has struggled every playoff series of late and was terrible for Russia at the Olympics. Still, he may not have to play well if San Jose's offense can perform as they are capable of. Most importantly, Nabokov enters the playoffs on a winning streak, including some great saves to beat Phoenix in the last game of the year. Colorado will rely on Craig Anderson who has been up and down all year. Colorado, like Montreal, started off strong but tapered off and could only hang on to a playoff spot thanks to their early success.

San Jose is the hottest team entering the playoffs with 8 wins in the last 10 games, while Colorado has only 3 wins over the same period. The teams played each other 4 times in the season with each team winning twice and a fair amount of goals scored in each game.

Prediction: San Jose gets the monkey off their back as Evgeni Nabokov plays to potential and San Jose sweeps Colorado in 4 straight.

Chicago vs. Nashville

Chicago was expected to do well in the season and haven't disappointed. They were among the best all year and only finished 1 point back of San Jose for the top seed in the West. Nashville was expected to do little and have been a pleasant surprise.

On paper this series looks like a blowout. Chicago has a potent offense with Marion Hossa, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Johnathan Toews and others and one of the best defenses while Nashville has some useful players like Jason Arnott, JP Dumont and Martin Erat but no stars. In fact the leading scorer on Nashville only has 51 points. Furthermore, their starting goalie, Pekka Rinne, has been great at times and awful at other times. Nevertheless, Nashville was able to accumulate 100 points thanks to good play by Rinne when the team struggled offensively and the players played well when Rinne struggled.

Chicago, on the other hand, has a solid team all around and 2 good goaltenders in Christobal Huet and Antti Niemi. Niemi has played better in the season than Huet although it appears Huet will get the starting job.

Both teams enter the playoffs with 6 wins in the last 10 games. The teams played each other 6 times in the year with Chicago winning 4 of the games including the last 2.

Prediction: If Rinne plays like he is capable of Nashville could give Chicago a run for the money but Chicago's superiority should prevail in the playoffs. Furthermore, Chicago has more playoff experience. Look for Chicago to win in 5 or 6 games.

Vancouver vs. Los Angeles

This again is another series that pits a team that was expected to do well against one that was supposed to struggle. Vancouver has the complete package. They have outstanding offense with the likes of the Sedin twins, Ryan Kessler and Mikael Samuelsson; good defense with Alexander Edler, Kevin Bieska and Christian Ehrhoff and one of the best goalies in the game in Roberto Luongo. Los Angeles was expected to have little success but was surprising as Anze Kopitar has proven to be among the best offensive players in the game and Alexander Frolov, Ryan Smyth, Dustin Brown and others have offensive punch as well. Furthermore, Drew Dougherty and Jack Johnson have been defensive surprises in their young careers

Where the 2 teams differ is in net. While Luongo has struggled of late he is still among the best goalies in the league whereas Johnathan Quick has no playoff experience. Quick has been terrific all year but whether he can make it show in the playoffs as well is questionable.

Both teams enter the playoffs struggling a bit with records just over .500 in their last 10 games. Head to head the teams played 4 games in 2009-2010. Vancouver won the first 4 games by scores of 2-1, 4-1 and 3-1 before losing the last game 8-3. Luongo played terrible that game although to anyone who watched it, it was evident Vancouver was playing with little interest. Nevertheless it does make some wonder whether Luongo is mentally ready for the playoffs. It is notable that Quick didn't start for Los Angeles in that game.

Prediction: As is the case with New Jersey, the first game will be a tell tale sign of whether Luongo is playoff ready. If he is, then it's difficult to see Vancouver losing but if he struggles the Canucks could be there for the taking. I expect Luongo to play well and put any question to rest. Vancouver should win the series in 6 games.

Detroit vs. Phoenix

This series pits a perennial powerhouse in the Red Wings against a team that had to be bought out by the league and in fairness probably should be playing in Hamilton, Canada. Phoenix was almost unanimously picked to be the worst team in hockey and instead they are hosting the Red Wings in the first round of the playoffs.

Detroit has a star studded offense with Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Thomas Holmstrom and others, the best defenseman in the league with Nicklas Lidstrom and a very good goaltender in Jimmy Howard. Chris Osgood was supposed to be the Red Wings starting goalie but was terrible at the beginning of the year and put Detroit in a position where they could miss the playoffs so a switch to Howard was inevitable and consequently the Red Wings were one of the hottest teams at the end of the year.

Phoenix has no offensive stars but many useful players like Shane Doan, Matthew Lombardi, Radim Vrbata and Robert Lang. Furthermore they have a terrific defense and one of the best goalies in the game with Ilya Bryzgalov. In fact Bryzgalov probably won a handful of games solely on his own.

Detroit struggled at the beginning of the year but are healthy now and are playing some of the best hockey in the league. They won 8 of the last 10 games and are winning by comfortable margins. Phoenix enters the playoffs with only 5 wins in their last 10 games, severe offensive struggles and have many wondering if they are for real.

Head to head in the season the teams played each other 4 times with each team winning twice.

Prediction: The Cinderella story ends as Detroit with their playoff experience and offensive prowess show Phoenix which team is best. Detroit will win the series in 5 games.

Hartley Henderson

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