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Mix’s Picks: On To Round Two

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets
I feel like I should be catching my breath and loading up on more coffee after the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Either I’m still in shock, or that was one of the most entertaining stretches of hockey in a long time (probably a little of both).

So let me get this straight: Vancouver, Detroit, San Jose and Chicago have all been sent packing in the Western Conference. Give me just a moment to wipe away my tears with the remnants of my pool bracket…what a tournament! The top seed is gone, and after last night, the defending Cup champions are toast, too. The Red Wings, thought by many to be the team to beat out of the West, were no match for Pekka Rinne and the Nashville Predators, who open their second-round series with Phoenix tomorrow night in Glendale.

The St. Louis Blues needed six games to dispatch the Sharks, who face another disappointing summer after they fell short of expectations. Even without No. 1 goaltender Jaroslav Halak, the Blues have forged ahead and appear to be just fine in goal with Brian Elliot seeing the puck like a beach ball. Speaking of hot goaltending, how about Mike Smith? We all kept waiting for the guy to come back down to Earth, but it hasn’t happened. He has been spectacular and given the Coyotes a chance every night, and even won a couple of games by himself.

With matters still unsettled in the East (and two Game 7’s on tap tonight!), we will start the second batch of Mix’s Picks with the Western Conference.

GAME 1: Friday, time TBA | Arena, Glendale, AZ

MIXER’S TAKE: This should show how great my first round picks were: I picked against each of those teams to open the playoffs, and here they are going strong. I was surprised at how the Coyotes were able to frustrate the Blackhawks and thought Chicago’s stars would have more of an impact in the series. Yes, the loss of Marian Hossa hurts, but the most clutch source of offense for the Blackhawks came in the form of defenseman Brent Seabrook. Corey Crawford let in a pair of soft goals in overtime and Phoenix played a tidy game in front of Smith – and Dave Tippett’s detailed checking style didn’t allow the Blackhawks time or space to make plays in the offensive zone.

How will these two match up? I think it’s safe to say goaltending will be a prevailing theme, and the scary part is Rinne coming in under the radar. Let’s not forget he was stellar against the Red Wings in the first round and bailed his teammates out when they got ragged at Joe Louis Arena. In the end, my gut feeling is the Predators’ depth on defense is a big asset and their (potentially) game-breaking power play will wake up. They need to get Alex Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn going, and I think this is the series in which they do.

PREDICTION: Predators in seven games.

GAME 1: Saturday, time TBA | Scottrade Center, St. Louis, MO

MIXER’S TAKE: Surprise! We’re going to be talking about goaltenders in this series, too. Who said the NHL is all about offense these days? (I’m just kidding). In true Mix’s Picks fashion, I picked both the Blues and the Kings to be eliminated in the opening round – and for Los Angeles to be swept by the Vancouver Canucks. Now that’s behind us, and we’re looking ahead to what figures to be a close-to-the-vest series by two old-school coaches in Darryl Sutter and Ken Hitchcock. Both of these men took over their teams mid-season and had profound impacts from the day they arrived. The Blues play at a higher tempo than the Kings, but Los Angeles has more “star” players and perhaps the best goaltender remaining in the tournament in Jonathan Quick. In my opinion, this is the most evenly-matched series in quite some time. Who blinks first? It may come down to that, as both teams like to capitalize on mistakes and play a counter-attacking style of game.

The Blues hold the early edge in this series due to home-ice advantage and how well they played at Scottrade Center all season long. Can Elliot continue to shine and out-duel Quick in a long, low-scoring series? I think he can, and the Blues are slowly becoming my revamped pick to come out of the Western Conference this spring.

PREDICTION: Blues in six games.

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