NHL Playoff Predictions 2012: Western Conference First-Round Winners

Gary LlewellinCorrespondent IApril 10, 2012

NHL Playoff Predictions 2012: Western Conference First-Round Winners

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    The NHL playoffs are upon us once again after an exciting end to the regular season.

    As usual, there is no shortage of storylines going into the first round of the playoffs.

    Will the Nashville Predators finally break through and make a run at the cup?

    Who will start in net for the Vancouver Canucks?

    Will the emergence of goaltender Mike Smith be enough to carry the Coyotes to the second round?

    Let’s take a look at which four teams will be moving on to the second round in the Western Conference this spring.

Vancouver Canucks vs. Los Angeles Kings

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    The Canucks are once again the top seed in the West, an impressive feat, but it won’t be enough to appease the restless fans of Vancouver. Anything short of a Stanley Cup victory would be a disappointment to the Vancouver faithful.

    Fortunately, Vancouver has one of the best-rounded teams in the league, starting with a potent offense.

    With the Sedin twins leading the way, the Canucks will have no trouble bulging the twine on any given night.

    Cory Schneider might just be the best goalie on the roster, but Roberto Luongo will likely start in game one.

    While the Kings have a good-looking team on paper, they have not proven to anyone they are a top team in the league.

    Los Angeles has one of the slowest teams in the league, and they have a difficult time scoring goals.

    What they do have is an outstanding goaltender in Jonathan Quick, who may be able to steal a game or two for the Kings.

    The Kings’ defense just will not be able to contain the firepower of the Canucks.

    Prediction: Canucks in five

St. Louis Blues vs. San Jose Sharks

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    As good as St. Louis has been since hiring of Ken Hitchcock as the head coach, do not look passed the San Jose Sharks.

    They may have had their struggles this year, but San Jose has caught fire just at the right time. Let’s also not forget that this team still boasts the likes of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Dan Boyle.

    This team is similar to the ones that made back-to-back trips to the conference finals, and it will test the Blues’ defense.

    The Blues rely on team defense and have the ability to win a lot of games 2-1 and 1-0.

    The Blues’ defense is among the best in the league, but you can only shut down the Sharks’ firepower for so long before it breaks through.

    Prediction: Sharks in six                    

Phoenix Coyotes vs. Chicago Blackhawks

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    Here we have a matchup similar to the St. Louis vs. San Jose series.

    One team plays a stingy defensive style, while the other is full of stars that can score.

    What Phoenix has going for them is a top goaltender in Mike Smith and Ray Whitney, the age-less wonder.

    Smith had eight shutouts this year, while the 39-year-old Ray Whitney had 77 points and 15 points in his last 12 games.

    The Chicago Blackhawks do not have the depth they had two years ago when they won the Stanley Cup, and the goaltending can be iffy at times. But they still have enough all-world talent to get by the Coyotes.

    Prediction: Blackhawks in six

Nashville Predators vs. Detroit Red Wings

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    This may be the toughest series to predict because both of these teams can be considered Cup contenders.

    The Predators do not have the horses up front that the Red Wings have, but they win their games behind one of the best defenses in the league, led by Shea Weber and Ryan Suter.

    On top of that, the Predators have a former Vezina Trophy candidate in goal with Pekka Rinne.

    Detroit has struggled of late, there’s no question. They have a fantastic home record this season, with 31 wins, but haven’t been able to get their game together on the road.

    The Predators hold home-ice advantage, and that will end up being the difference in the series.

    Prediction: Predators in seven