By Sean McCafferty aka 30ranfordfan

With teams having about ten games remaining, now appears to be a great time to look back on my early season predictions, see how badly I called this year’s NHL race to unfold, and make a few bold predictions as to what will happen between now and when Lord Stanley’s Mug is handed out.

My early season predictions for the Western Conference had a nice mix of accuracy, and being totally off base.
Of the five teams I considered to be playoff locks, four of them are looking very good. Vancouver and Detroit are sitting in very comfortable spots, as is Chicago. Los Angeles has pulled into the lead in the Pacific, a spot they should finish in, but are in a dog fight to hold it down and even make the playoffs.

Can the Sedins lead Vancouver back to the finals?

The San Jose Sharks are sitting in tenth place, which has to be a failure for them – no matter how you look at it. They’re only one point out of a playoff spot though, and two from tying those Kings for top of their division.

Two of the three teams I called bubble teams are sitting in playoff spots. St Louis is leading the conference and has all but locked up a spot. Nashville has put together another strong season, and are looking more than capable of sustaining their success in the post season. Anaheim, who I also thought had too much talent to fail, is ten points out and all but finished.

Jeff Carter was a huge dissapointment in Columbus

I never expected Edmonton or Columbus to make the playoffs, but I didn’t expect them to continue to sit in the basement. Their fourteenth and fifteenth places in the standings adds yet another year of misery to the teams’ recent history. I expected Dallas to be just outside the playoff picture, and as of right now they’re just inside it, hanging onto eight place.

Half the teams I picked to have no chance are making me look smart. Minnesota are almost as bad as the Oilers, and the Flames only slightly better. I expected Colorado and Phoenix to be long out of the race by now, but both have played much better than I gave them credit for. The Coyotes are sitting in seventh, and the Avalanche, in ninth, are only a point back of them.

How is it all going to end up? I think very close to what’s in place now, but with a switch in position for a few teams. The playoff bracket is going to look like this:

1. St. Louis Blues
2. Vancouver Canucks
3. Los Angeles Kings
4. Nashville Predators
5. Detroit Red Wings
6. Chicago Blackhawks
7. San Jose Sharks
8. Dallas Stars

This is going to create four interesting matchups.

The St. Louis Blue will be the heavy favorite when they draw the Dallas Stars in the first round. Rightfully so. Since the hiring of Ken Hitchcock, the Blues have been on a tear. They should have no trouble making short work of the Stars, winning the series in five games.

The Vancouver Canucks had been perennial choke artists in the playoffs, and star goalie Roberto Luongo’s mental toughness has often come into question. A march all the way to Game Seven of the finals last year has, at least partially, undone much of those thoughts. A first round matchup with the San Jose Sharks will not be a cake walk for them, but they should be able to come out of this one winning in six games.

Only a couple of years removed from winning the Stanley Cup, the same core of players still remain in Chicago. Lackluster goaltending has prevented them from ever turning into the powerhouse that everyone expected them to become. They’ll match up against the third seed, Pacific winning Los Angeles, who will be where they are on the back of a great goaltender. Jonathan Quick has pushed the Kings back into a spot near the top of the conference, and he should be more than capable of handling the Hawks. Don’t expect this one to be a short series, but expect the Kings to win this one in six.

The four vs. five matchup should be the best of the Western first round. Two dominating home teams (with really good road records too) facing off. Detroit have been Cup Contenders for nearly two decades, and with good reason. The team may be getting a bit older, but a group of players featuring the likes of Zetterberg, Datsyuk, and Lidstrom should not be taken lightly. The Predators possess what is probably the best 1-2-3 combination in the backend. Goalie Pekka Rinne, and defensemen Shea Weber & Ryan Sutter. The recent addition of Russian Winger Alexander Radulov, who returned from Russia after four years in the KHL, gives them a weapon up front that they have never really had. I expect the home team to win each game in this series, and with the Predators having four games in Nashville, expect them to win in seven.

The second round will see the Blues play favorite once again, but this time their spectacular season will come to an end. Expect the fourth place Predators to continue their dominance on home ice, but also get a road win this time around. They’re well coached, highly skilled, and due for a playoff breakthrough. Predators win this matchup in six games.

The Canucks will find themselves in familiar territory, playing favorite in yet another playoff series. This time Vancouver’s ugly playoff history will come back to haunt them. The Kings have enough skill to match the Canucks line-for-line, they just haven’t played like it all year. With a hot run while driving for the playoffs, and a first round victory already under their belts – look for momentum to carry the Kings past a tired looking opponent.

Music City vs Tinsel Town. I’m not sure this would be been my bet at the beginning of the season (I can actually assure you it wouldn’t have been) but Predators vs Kings for the Western finals should be a good one. I expect Jonathan Quick to be in fine form for Los Angeles, but I expect Kopitar & company to be shut down by the Predators. It will be a low scoring, heavy hitting affair, and Shea Weber’s Predators are going to come out on top. Nashville wins the series in six.

Unfortunately for the Predators, that will be the last series they win this year. While nobody will be able to discount the idea that a berth in the Stanley Cup finals should be considered a success, only making it, and not winning it, will be a bitter disappointment to both the players and the fans. I don’t expect to see Nashville lose a home game to a Western Opponent, but I think a trip to the finals means a date with Pittsburgh. The Penguins simply have too much firepower for the Predators to handle. It won’t be a quick series, but it won’t go the distance either. Sidney Crosby and his Pittsburgh Penguins will capture their second Stanley Cup in the last four year.