Starting with the top of the Western Conference, here is each NHL team’s NCAA Tournament counterpart as we enter the Sweet 16 (seed number in parentheses):
Chicago Blackhawks (1)- Kentucky (1)
It is tough to find more talented teams in each sport than these two. In my opinion, it’s impossible. Both have
few flaws, if any, and are perhaps the most complete teams to enter each sport’s postseason. Chicago has the offensive firepower, equipped with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, and Marian Hossa. They also have the defense, although it suffered a major blow with the injury to Brian Campbell. Kentucky, on the other hand, has perhaps the most talent of any team in the country, boasting two All-Americans in John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. The knock that you will hear on both of these teams throughout the postseason is youth and inexperience. Well, I don’t expect either to be a problem. Each one has an excellent opportunity to bring home some hardware; Kentucky in April and Chicago in June. And, after all, both are No. 1 seeds at this point.
San Jose Sharks (2)- Cornell (12)
Both teams are extremely talented offensively. While Cornell has Big Jeff Foote in the middle to pass and score effectively, the Sharks have Jumbo Joe Thornton who can do the same for his club. And just as Cornell possesses great shooters, the Sharks have a pair of snipers in Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau (though Marleau’s offensive outburst this season has come by surprise). Both teams have had success during the regular season lately, though it hasn’t translated into success in the postseason. Each team has gained valuable postseason experience over the past few seasons though and their talent is undeniable. Both teams will have to answer questions about their lack of physicality and toughness if they expect to make some major noise going forward.
Vancouver Canucks (3)- Baylor (3)
Both teams would be No. 3 seeds as it stands and both possess an immense amount of talent. Just as Baylor has an explosive backcourt in Tweety Carter and LaceDarius Dunn, the Canucks have explosive set-up men in the always-efficient Sedin twins. Both teams also have a major road block standing in the way of the goal. Baylor has one of the nation’s more talented shot-blockers in Ekpe Udoh, while the Canucks have a brick wall in Roberto Luongo. The make-up of each team gives you a lot to like and little to dislike. The problems will come if both teams fail to remain disciplined. Baylor has a tendency to sometimes get careless with their shot selection, while the Canucks have the fifth most penalty minutes in the NHL.
Phoenix Coyotes (4)- Kansas State (2)
Both teams suffered a period of mediocrity following some success. Kansas State returned to the NCAA Tournament after the 2007-2008 season for the first time in 12 years. Prior to that drought, they had once been a proud program. As for Phoenix, they’ve missed out on the playoffs the past six seasons, after making it in five of their first six. Now, both are back and have an opportunity to do some damage. Each team is tough and has a distinct personality about it. The problem for each team, like the Vancouver/Baylor combo, could be a lack of discipline. Kansas State has a habit of putting their opponents on the free throw line too many times, while Phoenix has a tendency to have to play shorthanded. They’ve been on the penalty kill 296 times, fourth-worst in the NHL.
Los Angeles Kings (5)- St. Mary’s (10)
Both are young, both are relentless, and most of all, both have nothing to lose. The Kings surprised everyone with the way that they came storming out of the gates to start the season, just as St. Mary’s has surprised everyone with their upset wins over Richmond and, even more so, Villanova. Both teams possess a similar nucleus. St. Mary’s has one of the most talented big men in the nation in Omar Samhan. The Kings have an up-and-coming star in Anze Kopitar. Both are the leaders on teams swirling with talent. The problems for each will come when they each face teams that are more experienced and more physical, two qualities that matter come playoff time.
Colorado Avalanche (6)- Washington (11)
Both may seem like a good-but-not-great team on the surface. However, both have an explosive player surrounded by solid pieces. For Washington, it’s Quincy Pondexter. For the Avalanche, its Paul Stastny. The nucleus that each team possesses gives them the ability to do some damage if they maintain their health and get hot at the right time. So far, Washington has done just that; will the Avs do the same?
Nashville Predators (7)- Northern Iowa (9)
Neither team has a history of going deep into the tournament despite many recent attempts. As a matter of fact, both teams have repeatedly been ousted in the first round of their sport’s postseason and have never gone any further. The Predators were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs in four consecutive seasons (2003-04-2007-08). Northern Iowa has suffered a similar fate, getting knocked out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament the last four times they have been in it before now (2004, 2005, 2006, 2009). It is as if these teams have called each other and agreed to not show up for the first round. Until now. Northern Iowa is proving they are going to be tough to beat and have gotten hot at the right time behind a trio of seniors. The Nashville Predators have also gotten hot at the right time, having won 6 of their last 7. They, themselves, have veteran leadership in Steve Sullivan and Jason Arnott. Both teams may not be there when the final game of the season is played, but neither is a team you want to face right now.
Detroit Red Wings (8)- Duke (1)
The Detroit Red Wings have had a subpar year by their standards, accumulating only 85 points in the standings and clinging to the 8th and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Duke, on the other hand, is a No. 1 seed and seems more poised now than at any other point in the season, making them a force to be reckon with the rest of the way. Despite the differences in the way each team’s respective season has gone, you can’t help but think “success” when you think both Duke Basketball and Red Wings Hockey. It is simply in each team’s pedigree. Detroit has won 11 Stanley Cup Championships and Duke has been to 14 Final Fours. Each year, both teams are a lock for the postseason and regardless of how each fared in the regular season, you simply don’t want to play against them, even though Detroit has enjoyed more postseason success than Duke recently. Experience is the key for both of these teams.
Washington Capitals (1)- Ohio State (2)
Both are elite teams and both have arguably the best player of their sport. Evan Turner is to Ohio State what Alexander Ovechkin is to the Washington Capitals. Both are dynamic and can take over a game. Ovechkin’s 45 goals
and 97 points leads the NHL, while Turner averaged over 20 PPG during the regular season. With Kansas eliminated, Ohio State is regarded as a heavy favorite just like their NHL counterpart. What it will come down to at the end of the day is how far Evan Turner can carry them. The same can be said for Washington in regards to Ovechkin. The Capitals have some great pieces around him, including Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, and Mike Green, but c’mon. We all know Ovechkin’s the one shouldering the load.
Pittsburgh Penguins (2)- Syracuse (1)
Both are complete teams, but both need to get and remain healthy in order to reign supreme in their sport this year. For the Penguins, Malkin and Crosby have both been banged up at times, in addition to the likes of Sergei Gonchar and Craig Kunitz. Syracuse, on the other hand, has played its last two games without its starting center, Arinze Onuaku. If both do get healthy though, watch out! Both are balanced and efficient and can matchup with anyone. As for history, both have been in big games and should handle the stage well.
Buffalo Sabres (3)- Tennessee (6)
Just as Tennessee has had to deal with a rapid turnover in their roster, Buffalo has had to be flexible as well, considering they’ve lost the likes of Daniel Briere, Chris Drury, and Brian Campbell in recent years. Nevertheless, both teams have remained competitive, particularly because of their ability to stop the other team from scoring. The Buffalo Sabres are ranked fourth in the NHL in goals against and have an all-world goalie, Ryan Miller, in net. Both teams are also capable of playing with anyone. The problem for each will come if either fails to generate enough offense. It is also worth mentioning that both are coached by excellent veteran coaches; Buffalo with Lindy Ruff and Tennesse with Bruce Pearl.
New Jersey Devils (4)- West Virginia (2)
West Virginia is a tough team on the defensive end. The Devils are even tougher. Not surprisingly with Martin Brodeur in net, the Devils have allowed the fewest goals of any team in the NHL (169). The problem for them, like West Virginia, will be if they can’t score. Despite the likes of Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Patrik Elias, the Devils have still been mediocre offensively. Nevertheless, both teams possess that “it” factor and the ability to win in close games, which bodes well in postseason play.
Ottawa Senators (5)- Butler (5)
Butler has experience. Ottawa has tons of it. Daniel Alfredsson and Alex Kovalev are both 37-years-old, and Filip Kuba and Matt Cullen are each 33. With players like Jason Spezza and Mike Fisher in the mix, the Senators know how to play together, just like Butler. Brian Elliot’s improving play of late, due in part to his rebound control, parallels Butler’s ability to collect rebounds on the defensive end. Both teams are the type that aren’t necessarily very sexy to start, but could cause you to eventually take notice as they continue to advance.
Montreal Canadiens (6)- Xavier (6)
Aside from both being No. 6 seeds, both have been staples when it comes to the postseason recently. Montreal has its illustrious history, while Xavier is trying to create its own, having made the NCAA Tournament in 9 of its last 10 seasons. Like Xavier, Montreal might not be regarded as an elite team entering the playoffs and may not have the most talented of the teams in contention, but they are an experienced bunch, which makes up for their seemingly middle-of-the-pack potential. Xavier and Montreal have both experienced a major turnover in their rosters over the past couple of seasons, but both possess pedigrees of success that make them even more daunting than they may actually be.
Philadelphia Flyers (7)- Michigan State (5)
Both teams have been bitten by the injury bug this past week, and bitten hard. The Spartans and the Flyers both lost their leading scorers to left foot injuries. For Michigan State, point guard Kalin Lucas went down with a ruptured Achilles tendon in the team’s second-round win Maryland and is expected to miss 4-6 months, which obviously means the rest of the tournament. The Flyers, on the other hand, lost leading-goal scorer and points leader Jeff Carter for 3-4 weeks due to a fractured foot. Though he could potentially return in the playoffs, Philly doesn’t necessarily have stranglehold on a playoff spot, especially since they’ve lost four of their last five games. Nevertheless, though both players are irreplaceable for their respective teams, both teams have been in big postseason situations before. Michigan State advanced to the National Championship last year and the Flyers advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2008. Though both will have a tough time overcoming the adversity that’s been thrown their way, they are still tough, experienced teams who know what it takes to win, and thus cannot be counted out.
Boston Bruins (8)- Purdue (4)
When junior forward Robbie Hummel went down for Purdue, everyone immediately wrote them off. The Siena upset talks became so common that it was almost expected for Purdue to be ousted in the First Round. Not only did the Boilermakers survive, but they took care of business versus a tough Texas A&M team as well. The Bruins face the same predicament after losing their most productive offensive player, Marc Savard. Everyone was already skeptical of the Bruins and the Savard injury seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. The only problem is that the Bruins are still a talented team and could thus be a difficult first-round draw for whoever they end up playing. I’m not sure they are good enough to get by Washington or Pittsburgh, but they could very well overcome the Savard injury and turn some heads just like their NCAA counterparts. At the end of the day though, both teams suffer from the same weakness, the inability to consistently score. Just as Purdue can’t get to the free-throw line, the Bruins lack power play chances. The B’s have only been on the power play 233 times entering Thursday night, second fewest in the NHL.
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