New look to West shootout

Phoenix Coyotes goalie Mike Smith celebrates defeating the Chicago Blackhawks following Game 6 of...

Phoenix Coyotes goalie Mike Smith celebrates defeating the Chicago Blackhawks following Game 6 of their NHL Western Conference quarter-final playoff hockey game in Chicago, Illinois April 23, 2012. (REUTERS)

Chris Stevenson, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:37 PM ET

PHOENIX - There's new blood in the mix in the Western Conference.

In the words of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who once ruled the West: "Who are those guys?"

For the first time since the 2004-05 lockout, the West final will not have one of the Detroit Red Wings, San Jose Sharks, Chicago Blackhawks or Anaheim Ducks.

Since the lockout, the Wings had made it three times to the West final, the Sharks twice and the Ducks twice.

This spring, they either didn't make the playoffs (Anaheim) or were dusted off in the first round (Detroit, Chicago and San Jose).

It's time for some fresh faces and some fresh storylines in the West.

If you're looking for a theme, it's goaltending.

The Kings and Blues are tied with the lowest goals-against averages in the post-season at 1.60 a game.

The Predators are third at 1.80 and the Coyotes fifth at 2.00.

These two series combined probably will not score as many total goals as the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers scored in their first-round series (56).

These four teams play what we perceive to be "playoff hockey."

Outstanding goaltending.

Gritty, physical play.

Goals that aren't scored as much as chipped out of granite.

At least these series shouldn't hurt workplace productivity in the East.

With the later start times in the East, the fierce, low-scoring action will make it a challenge for fans to stay up to the bitter end of some of these games.

Nashville Predators vs. Phoenix Coyotes

How they got here: Nashville (4) defeated the Detroit Red Wings (5) in five games; Phoenix (3) defeated the Chicago Blackhawks (6) in six games.

History will be made.

One team in this series will make its first trip to the Western Conference final.

In the first of the great goaltending matchups in the West, it will be Mike Smith of Phoenix against Nashville's Pekka Rinne.

Rinne is a Vezina Trophy finalist and Smith could have been.

Smith was the reason the Coyotes put out the Blackhawks, though Rinne was pretty good against the Red Wings. Smith has a .950 save percentage and Rinne, .944 in these playoffs.

"I'm sure both teams will be talking about the same thing, you've got to get pucks on net and you've got to have people in front of the goaltenders and hope you get some second chances," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. "Goals will probably be hard to come by, the way both of these goaltenders have played so far. You've got to find ways to score, that's the reality of the situation."

On the face of it and by reputation, the Predators look to have the edge in talent among their skaters. The late-season addition of Alexander Radulov gives the Preds the type of game-breaking talent they have lacked. He led Nashville against Detroit with one goal and four assists.

The Preds have Norris Trophy favourite Shea Weber and Ryan Suter on the blue line.

The Coyotes got four goals from Antoine Vermette in the opening round and two overtime winners from Mikkel Boedker. They have Keith Yandle and the very smooth youngster Oliver Ekman-Larsson on the blue line.

"We don't have the luxury of having those highly talented players, but we have a group of players ... on board with what we're being taught, what we're being coached, and I think the biggest thing about winning in the playoffs is playing as a group and believing in what we're doing to get us through hockey games," Smith said. "I think that's what has made us successful all season."

The reason the Coyotes beat Chicago was they won the goaltending matchup with Smith outplaying Corey Crawford.

It doesn't look like they will have that kind of edge this time around. If Rinne comes close to matching Smith in goal, the edge in talent for the Preds should be enough for them to overcome the winning-by-committee approach of the gritty Desert Dogs, who are banged up more than some of the other teams at this time of year.

The Pick: Nashville in six.

Los Angeles Kings vs. St. Louis Blues

How they got here: The Kings (8) upset the Vancouver Canucks (1) in five games; the Blues (2) beat the San Jose Sharks (5) in five games.

The inescapable reality in this series is somebody will have to actually score to win it.

Three of the their four regular-season meetings saw shutouts, two by the Blues.

They're tied for the lowest goals-against average in the playoffs.

So, who blinks first as these two teams seem to be looking in a mirror at each other?

The Kings and Blues have a lot in common: Two veteran coaches who came in to replace their fired predecessors part way through the season and stressed a hard, defence-first game in front of outstanding goaltending.

Under coach Ken Hitchcock, the Blues, in their series against the Sharks, picked up where they left off during the season. They dropped the first game and then won four in a row over a club that couldn't match the Blues' willingness to contest every bit of open ice.

Under Darryl Sutter, the Kings became the fourth eighth-seeded team to upset the No. 1 seed since the lockout, joining the 2006 Edmonton Oilers, 2009 Anaheim Ducks and 2010 Montreal Canadiens. The Oilers wound up going to the final, the Habs advanced to the conference final and the Ducks lost in the second round.

The Kings were able to grind out a win over a Vancouver Canucks team that was more talented but never matched the Kings' desperation.

A key to the Kings' success in the opening round was the play of their top line, led by captain Dustin Brown. He had a team-high four goals against Vancouver -- including two short-handed -- and his hit on Henrik Sedin was a big moment in the series. He played with Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams.

The Kings were 29th in offence during the season but found some firepower against Vancouver.

This time around, though, the Kings will be up against a team that will match their physical edge, if not surpass it.

The Blues play as five-man units in each zone and the Kings will need to be patient to earn their chances against goaltender Brian Elliott who is expected to tart the series as Jaroslav Halak recovers from an injury.

Each team has a brilliant young defenceman. Alex Pietrangelo led the Blues in ice time in Round 1 and had three assists. The Kings have Drew Doughty, who has had a bit of a quiet start to these playoffs.

In a series as close as this one looks, you have to look at special teams. The Blues have the edge there with the second-ranked playoff power play (the Kings are 13th) as well as penalty killing that snuffed the Sharks power play, which had been the second-best in the league during the season.

The Pick: Blues in six.

First round record: 3-3 going into Thursday's two Game 7s (I picked the Senators over the Rangers and the New Jersey Devils over the Florida Panthers).


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