We are just beginning the most exciting season of the year-Stanley Cup Playoff season. This is the time of the year for superstars, role players, and goaltenders alike to step up their games and take over a series. Last postseason, we saw Tim Thomas’ stellar play between the pipes to lead the Boston Bruins to its first Stanley Cup in 39 years. Which player is going to earn the Conn Smythe Trophy, and help his team lift Lord Stanley’s Cup? Here is the first installment featuring Western Conference players who I think have the potential to make a huge impact on the playoffs.
Roberto Luongo-Vancouver Canucks
Well, the Canucks are right back here they left off last season-President’s Trophy winners for the second straight season.That award may be well and good, but it is not the one that the city of Vancouver wants to bring home. It is up to goaltender Roberto Luongo to end the 40 year Cup-less drought in Vancouver. Luongo has been subject to criticism for his sub par play (At least for his standards) for years now. Canuck fans thought that locking up Luongo to a 12 yr-$64 million contract would solve their goal tending issues and bring the Cup to the Pacific Northwest, but they are yet to reap the benefits of that commitment. Luongo is back playing on a very talented Canucks team and needs to find his focus to lead the Canucks to the Finals. Boston College alum Cory Schneider has shown a lot of promise as the backup to Luongo for 2 seasons now. Despite being locked up for the distant future, his job may not be set in stone for years to come. If Luongo can put together an impressive postseason and Vancouver’s offense shows up, this finally could be the year that the eloquently romantic name of Roberto Luongo is etched on the Cup.
David Backes-St. Louis Blues
This pick was somewhat difficult, which is a tribute to the great depth of the Blues. The goaltending and defense has been stellar all season long and can be counted when they begin their series with the San Jose Sharks. My greatest concern for the Blues is the offensive production. Can they score enough goals to make a deep run? Blues’ captain and leading scorer David Backes is the guy I’m looking for to carry the load. Backes plays with an edge and a certain grit that is crucial for every team in the playoffs. The added bonus is his leadership and scoring ability. Backes is responsible in all 3 zones and is a versatile player. He led all Blues forward in average time on ice with 20 minutes per game and was second in faceoff percentage. There are a lot of talented forwards out West and Backes needs to assert himself as one of them this spring to bring St. Louis its first Stanley Cup.
Mike Smith-Phoenix Coyotes
Let’s face it, Phoenix is not sitting in the 3rd seed without the phenomenal season that Mike Smith had. He rejuvenated his career and turned in a top-5 goalie performance all year. The Coyotes will only go as far Smith takes them. The offense just isn’t there for Phoenix, so they will rely heavily on the young but talented defense corp and Smith between the pipes. The Coyotes are not going to be a team that wins 6-5 games against Chicago. They need to play within their system and rely on Smith to make the easy saves, and occasionally he will steal a game. If the defense can stay strong in front of him and not allow too many chances, Phoenix could advance past Chicago in the first round. The pressure will be on Smith in his first postseason appearance and the fate of the ‘Yotes lies with him.
Shea Weber-Nashville Predators
Weber is going to be a finalist for the Norris Trophy again, and he has to live up to that honor for Nashville here in the playoffs. The Preds took game one last night against the Detroit Red Wings, but the win was overshadowed by the antics of Shea Weber. At the end of regulation Weber threw a punch at Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg and then bashed his head into the glass. Brendan Shanahan fined Weber $2,500, but made what is, in my opinion, a mistake by not suspending him. For Nashville to be successful in the playoffs, Weber has to make headlines for the right reasons. His 10 power play goals led all NHL defencemen, and he was tied for the lead in goals with Erik Karlsson. Weber plays in all situations for the Predators and contributes in all of them. If Weber can keep his physical play between the whistles and contribute on both ends, captain Shea could bring a Cup home to Smashville.
Valtteri Filppula-Detroit Red Wings
Filppula had a breakout season for the ‘Wings this season with 23 goals and 43 assists for 66 points, good for third on the team. That is 26 more points than his previous career high. Filppula provides Detroit with more scoring depth and has found chemistry with Henrik Zetterberg. The ‘Wings are a veteran team that knows its identity, so a Game 1 loss to Nashville isn’t devastating. If Filppula keeps up with his scoring numbers from the regular season, it is going to be hard for opposing defenses to match up with Pavel Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Filppula.
This is the easiest pick in the Western Conference. I feel like a broken record repeating this, but the inconsistency between the pipes for the Blackhawks this season has been frustrating. The ‘Hawks averaged 2.9 goals per game, good for 5th in the league. It’s clear that Chicago is going to score, but the playoffs are a completely different animal and teams cannot rely on scoring 4 or 5 goals per game to be successful. Crawford finished the season 7-1-2 in his last 10 starts which is encouraging for ‘Hawks fans. He needs to provide stability between the pipes, and if he does, that confidence will spread throughout the dressing room. If Crawford plays above-average, Toews returns from injury, and the ‘Hawks score goals, Chicago is as good as any team out West. The fate of the Blackhawks rests on the pads of Corey Crawford.
Joe Thornton-San Jose Sharks
I think I have put enough pressure on goaltenders thus far, so I won’t start on my Antti Niemi rant. The Sharks have made the playoffs for the 7th straight season since Joe Thornton was acquired from Boston in ’05-’06. “Big Joe” is getting up there in age now, and this could be his year to lead San Jose to the Cup. The Sharks always seem to have added pressure on it to win at home to begin a series. Having a veteran team like the Sharks and beginning a series against a young St. Louis Blues team on the road could be the best thing for the Sharks. After dealing Dany Heatley to Minnesota, it was assumed that the Sharks scoring numbers would go down. That has hardly been the case as the Sharks are 8th in the league in scoring and have the 2nd best power play in the league. Much of that success is because of Joe Thornton and his ability to find his teammates in scoring areas. Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, and Logan Couture all had 30 goal campaigns this season so the goals will come for the Sharks in the playoffs. The Sharks captain has been here time and time again. Will this be the year that a Stanley Cup is celebrated in the Shark Tank?
Los Angeles is the exact opposite of the Chicago Blackhawks. The reason the Kings were in the hunt for the Pacific Division during the home stretch has much to do with Vezina nominee Jonathan Quick. The Kings were 2nd in the league in goals allowed per game and had the 4th best penalty killing unit. On the flip side, the Kings were anemic on offense, ranking 29th in goals per game and 17th on the power play. Dean Lombardi made a huge splash this summer acquiring Mike Richards from Philadelphia. Then days before the trade deadline, Lombardi shipped defenseman Jack Johnson to Columbus for another ex-Flyer in sniper Jeff Carter. Both players saw a decline in stats this season, but the playoffs are a new season, and a time to shine. Richards had a great playoff in 2009-2010 when Philadelphia reached the Stanley Cup Finals. He brings a two-way style and a tenacity that can ignite a team. Carter,on the other hand, has never been spectacular in the playoffs. Richards has the ability to impact the game in many ways other than the score sheet, but Carter is going to be relied on to provide goal scoring for the Kings. Los Angeles Stanley Cup aspirations are contingent on whether or not the Kings will score enough for Jonathan Quick.