My thoughts on the outstanding defense and goaltending we’ve seen during the Western Conference playoffs.
The Western Conference semifinals are set. The four teams that will duke it out for the right to play in the conference finals are the St. Louis Blues, Phoenix Coyotes, Nashville Predators, and Los Angeles Kings. If you can’t name three all-stars who aren’t goalies between those four teams, you’re likely not alone.
With 77 points, Ray Whitney was the leading scorer in the regular season between the teams. That’s less than a point per game for those keeping track. In fact, of all the players on each team, only three players scored over 60 points. Stars are considered to be point producers and there weren’t many point producer on the four teams in the western semis. In the regular season, Phoenix, St. Louis, and Los Angeles all finished in the bottom 15 of goals per game. Only Nashville, who finished 8th, scored over 225 goals as a team in 82 games. Los Angeles failed to crack the 200 goal plateau while St. Louis was only six goals over 200.
To say these teams don’t score a lot would be an understatement.
So when you don’t score goals, you need a good defense and even better goaltending. That’s something you can expect in the west semis. St. Louis and Los Angeles were the top two teams in goals allowed while Phoenix was 5th and Nashville was tied for 8th. Only Nashville gave up more than 200 goals, and they were only 5 over the line.
That trend continued in the playoffs as all four teams won thanks to their defense. Nashville’s Pekka Rinne and Los Angeles’s Jonathan Quick were by far the MVPs of the first round in the West while the duo of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott fueled St. Louis and Mike Smith carried Phoenix to their first ever playoff series win in team history. All four teams shutdown very potent offenses in the process.
The Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, and Vancouver Canucks were all top 10 in scoring during the season at nearly three goals per game while the San Jose Sharks were right behind them at 13th. All four teams average 2 goals or less per game in the first round. In fact, in the 21 first round games the four aforementioned offensive powerhouses managed to score 3 goals or more just 5 times. It’s pretty easy to see why those four teams have plenty of time to read this column while the other four teams are too busy figuring out how they’re going to score more than two goals a game in order to advance.
A goaltender is only as good as the team in front of him though, and these four teams have bought into what the coaches are selling. Once again, there aren’t too many stars between the four teams. I’m pretty sure Carrie Underwood and her new CD will get more publicity on the day it’s released than the entire semifinals. All of the stars are on the blue line. Drew Doughty for the Kings, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter for the Predators, Alex Pietrangelo for the Blues, and Keith Yandle for the Coyotes. All of those players are well-rounded defensemen and are another big reason why their teams don’t allow many goals and advanced past the first round.
Up front, Andy McDonald of the Blues and Dustin Brown from the Kings have stepped up during the playoffs while the Coyotes and Predators have been getting things done by committee. None of these teams rely on one player to take over the game, which can be a good thing as it means having to focus on everyone rather than one player, but it can also hinder a team who needs a guy to step up in a big moment. In that scenario, someone has to take it upon themselves to step up, which may or may not happen. If you have that star player, you can hopefully count on him to make the clutch play that leads the team.
In just about every game in the west semis, it’s going to be the first team to three wins. I’d be shocked if any of these goalies give up four goals per game with the way they’re playing and how the team stands tall in front of them. This round will be the anti-Penguins vs. Flyers series, where those two teams were better off putting a pylon in front of the net instead of using goalies. I expect every game in the west semis to be closely contested, one goal games, with the possibility of multiple games going to overtime in both series.
If you like hard-nosed hockey where every scoring chance could be your last to score and every goal means something, then you’ll like the Western Conference semifinals. If you love playoff hockey, then you’ll love the Western Conference semifinals.