Second round: Previewing, predicting the West
On to Round 2. Today, we look at the Western Conference; on Friday, we'll dive into the Eastern Conference.
No. 1 San Jose versus No. 5 Detroit
The Sharks have been eliminated in the past three conference semifinals series and are just 1-7 all-time in this round. Their one win came in 2004, when they knocked out the Avalanche in six games. This year, San Jose advanced despite not receiving any production from its three best offensive players. Detroit's top three regular-season scorers were among its best players in its first-round series win over Phoenix. Red Wings rookie goalie Jimmy Howard didn't have a terrific round, but he wasn't bad, either. Dating back to the regular season, Howard has not posted back-to-back losses since Feb. 9-11.
This is a tough series to figure out. San Jose is a much better team than Phoenix. The Sharks have dangerous forwards and veteran defensemen and goalies. Dan Boyle and Rob Blake have won Stanley Cups. Joe Pavelski, the human Swiss Army knife, is really emerging. I think Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau will produce more in this series. If they have a point-per-game series, San Jose will win. Pavelski, Ryane Clowe and Devin Setoguchi all look great so far; Setoguchi is flying right now. The Phoenix players who were dangerous against Detroit were the ones who attacked with speed; that's how the Sharks have to play and that's why Setoguchi can be a difference-maker.
But, in the end, Evgeni Nabokov has to be great in net. Detroit will have a lot of great chances. The Red Wings' power play will get great scoring chances.
The Red Wings struggled against a team they should have handled relatively easily, but that sometimes happens in hockey. Johan Franzen scored only one goal against Phoenix; you would expect him to score 3-5 against the Sharks.
The Wings have played a lot of hockey during the past three years (more than 100 games in each of the past two seasons and approaching that number again in 2009-10). They don't have the scoring depth they used to. They are older. Their defense can be attacked with speed and they have a rookie goaltender who is mentally wearing a little bit.
But the one thing Detroit showed in its series against Phoenix is how competitive it is. The Wings reacted like champions in Game 7, the way the Penguins did in Washington, D.C., last spring. That means a lot. When you have that character to go along with Hall of Fame talent, you have a winner.
The Sharks are in a better position to advance than they've ever been. I believe they can win this series; if they play to their potential, they will. But in a close series, I will take the Red Wings' championship competitiveness by a little bit. Red Wings in seven games.
No. 2 Chicago versus No. 3 Vancouver
If you rated North American cities, Chicago and Vancouver would be in the top 5. This should be an outstanding, nasty series. Chicago had a great prep series against the Nashville Predators in the first round. They beat a real good goalie that plays a lot like Roberto Luongo. I really think Chicago is primed to soar.
Duncan Keith really came on late in the Predators series. He is an unbelievable skater who makes quick decisions. He can take a puck behind the net in traffic, create space and make a sick first pass. The Hawks have deep scoring at forward and limit shots on goal. Led by captain Jonathan Toews, the Hawks have a collective purpose a team like the Capitals just doesn't have. That's an essential ingredient in a championship hockey team. The Hawks are my favorite to win it all right now.
The Canucks match the Blackhawks in a lot of ways. They have grit, skating and scoring up front. Vancouver should be very confident in this area. Defensively, the Canucks are very solid. They aren't quite as dynamic as the Hawks, but they have experience and sturdiness.
That leads us to Luongo. Is he a fraud or the real deal? This is his series. You could argue these two teams are the most complete teams left in the tournament. Luongo will have a bright spotlight on him, as he should. It's been a long season. I'm sure the Olympics were very stressful on him.
A lot can be written and said about this series, but it will all come down to Luongo coming up big. Until he does, I will say Hawks in seven games.
John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or crosschecks -- is firstname.lastname@example.org.