It’s all over for the Dallas Stars and the Anaheim Ducks, but San Jose, Los Angeles, and Phoenix will soldier on into the playoffs. In the final Around The Pacific of the year, we’ll look at how the regular season went for the Pacific Division teams*, where they’re headed and who were the MVPs for each team. *NOTE: This Around The Pacific WILL NOT include the Dallas Stars. Blackout Dallas plans to do an extended and complete season review for the Stars separately. This article will only focus on the other four teams.
Were it not for a last minute pledge of funding from the City of Glendale, True North would have purchased the Phoenix Coyotes and brought them back to Winnipeg. As it were, Glendale ponied up the money, True North purchased the Atlanta Thrashers, and the Phoenix Coyotes were to live for at least another year. Led by coach Dave Tippett and penultimate captain Shane Doan, the Coyotes were once again a mystery when it came to expectations for the year. They lost their star goaltender in Ilya Bryzgalov, they were still without a bona fide star to be the face of the franchise, and no one expected them to be where they finished. As you know by now, the Phoenix Coyotes have secured the first Pacific Division title in franchise history. To call this anything else but an incredible achievement would be an understatement. They were led by players that most ignored, played in a city where attendance was dismal on most nights, and succeeded despite the constant and consistent rumors that the team is once again on the verge of relocation. Once again, it’s an incredible achievement, and I’m sure every single Coyotes fan is swelling with pride, and rightfully so.
When trying to identify the MVP for this team, you can’t just look at one player. Phoenix is a conglomerate of talent and grit and it’s that system that has allowed them to succeed. First up is Shane Doan, the long time Coyotes captain hasn’t put up flashy numbers (he produced a modest 22-28-50 this season), but leadership is the kind of thing that takes teams to greatness. Doan has been a constant for fans and teammates alike, and his importance to the franchise can’t be understated. Next up is the most obvious, and arguably the number one reason for the Coyotes taking the division championship. Mike Smith was signed as a free agent by the Coyotes, hoping to produce a spirited competition for the number one job between himself and Jason Labarbera after Bryzgalov’s departure. Smith ran away with the job and has become a revelation around the NHL. He has thrived in Dave Tippett’s system, putting together a 38-18-10 record and put up 8 shutouts, good for third in the NHL. He ended the season with five straight wins, including three straight shutouts, helping the Coyotes secure the Pacific Division and the #3 seed in the Western Conference. Last but certainly not least is a pair of players who have led the way on offense, Ray Whitney and Radim Vrbata. Whitney is 39 years old and his production has been remarkably consistent throughout his waning playing days, but this year he took it to another level. Playing with Vrbata has created a perfect storm. Whitney put up 53 assists and 77 points this season, becoming a constant offensive threat on the ice and earning his spot on Phoenix’s top line. His play making abilities also contributed to Vrbata’s career year, in which he put up 35 goals, good for 11th in the league. These players have brought the Coyotes to playoff prominence and given them the first legitimate shot to escape the first round. They’re a team to keep an eye on.
The Phoenix Coyotes will meet the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round, with Game 1 taking place on April 12th. Chicago has been hampered with the recent loss of captain Jonathan Toews and plagued by goaltending inconsistency all year. Toews is eyeing a return in time for this match up, but with concussions nothing is concrete. If Toews can’t get back in the lineup, the Hawks are going to be in real trouble. Phoenix has a chance to get into the semifinals for the first time and with home ice advantage on their side, things are looking up for the desert dogs.
For much of the year, things were business as usual for the San Jose Sharks. They were sitting pretty on top of the Pacific, looking destined to grab another division title and make another deep run into the playoffs. Then came February 12th, the first night of a nine game road trip that saw the Sharks go 2-6-1, the beginning of a free fall in the standings and a wild race for to grab a playoff spot. The faltering of the Sharks created chaos in the Pacific and eventually led to a revolving door of teams who claimed first place for the briefest of times. With the rise of the Stars there was a very real possibility that the Sharks would miss the playoffs, but the Sharks were resilient and defeated the Stars two games in a row near the end of the season to secure their spot in the playoffs. They were not able to take back what some would call their rightful division crown, but they nestled in the #7 seed in the Western Conference, disappointing many, but avoiding complete disaster.
It’s really hard to pinpoint an MVP on this team given they collapsed so horribly in the final months of the season, but one must be named and the obvious choice is the captain, Joe Thornton. Despite the failures, the team held together and made it into the playoffs, and Thornton was an instrumental part of that in the final games of the season, putting up 5 points in 4 games. He finished 3rd in assists in the NHL, and his line with Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau is simply one of the most dangerous offensive combinations in the NHL. Thornton will probably never return to the days where he puts up 90+ points, but he’s still one of smartest players on the ice. Some say he lacks the “clutch” factor in the playoffs, but the Sharks have never, and should never be a team to take for granted in the playoffs.
San Jose’s #7 seed has set them against the #2 seed St. Louis Blues, home of the Jennings Trophy winning goaltender duo of Brian Elliot and Jaroslav Halak. St. Louis has been one of the biggest surprises of the year, dominating with all star goaltending and young talent on both offense and defense under the tutelage of Ken Hitchcock. Hitchcock, who is considered the front runner for the Jack Adams Award, took over control of the team when the Blues Started the season 6-7, and it’s been complete domination since then. They fell just short of the President’s Trophy, but are a potent threat for any team they face. San Jose has a tall task in front of them and getting past the Blues won’t be easy, but like I said, don’t ever count them out.
The Kings entered the 2011-2012 season with lofty expectations, and fell short on just about all of them. They made major trades to acquire Mike Richards, and later Jeff Carter, they were backed by stud defenseman Drew Doughty and goaltender Jonathan Quick, and ownership and the fan base alike had aspirations of Stanley Cup glory. Well, now they sit in the #8 seed, having barely squeaked into the playoffs (also barely having missed the Pacific Division crown, but that’s life in this division). The Los Angeles season was an absurd ride of ups and downs, scoring inconsistency, a coaching change mid season, all while being given some of the finest goaltending in the league. An odd combination that has them in the playoffs, but far short of their own expectations.
Jonathan Quick, obviously. The man led the league in shutouts with 10, was behind only Brian Elliot in GAA with 1.95, and placed fifth in the league in save percentage at .929%. Those are Vezina worthy numbers and you have to believe the frustration for Quick only built as he continued to lose games thanks to his team’s inability to score. In the end, Quick’s play rarely faltered and the Kings slowly improved and the combination was enough to grab a playoff spot. Jonathan Quick deserved better throughout the season and he’s going to be an important part of this team if they plan to make a run. Unfortunately, drawing the #8 seed means you have to play the #1 seed and that’s not going to be a cake walk.
And that #1 seed is the President’s Trophy winning Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks are one of the best in the league and having made it to Game 7 of the finals last season, they know how to win. The odds aren’t in Los Angeles’ favor and it’s no secret this entire series is going to come down to the goaltending. Can Jonathan Quick shut down the dynamic Vancouver offense? Can Roberto Luongo take the reigns of the Canucks and lead them to the finals again? Can Corey Schneider have success in the playoffs if Luongo falters? These are the questions that will hang over the series and whoever eventually takes the series will look at their goalie as the reason why.
The Anaheim Ducks season can clearly be defined in two halves. The first is from the beginning of the season to the firing of coach Randy Carlyle, an inexplicable stretch of hockey where the team collapsed down the standings and had management threatening to trade anyone and everyone not named Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu. The team’s fall was an unfortunate combination of the waning effectiveness of head coach Randy Carlyle, the mounting frustration of the young stars, and every loss representing another domino in a chain reaction. It was truly bewildering given that the team was almost identical to the one who made it to the playoffs last season, but in hockey these things happen and management knew something must be done. Enter Bruce Boudreau, the recently fired bench boss of the Washington Capitals. Boudreau experienced just a few days of unemployment before being snatched by the Ducks, and thus began the Boudreau era in Anaheim. Things were a bit rough for the first couple weeks of his tenure, but then the Ducks began a meteoric rise through the standings that had many Western Conference teams sweating. There was a brief period where the Ducks looked poised to claim a playoff spot, but they stumbled and eventually fell out of contention. Despite missing the playoffs, no one could have expected the amount of success Boudreau would have in just half a season and things are looking bright for the Ducks come next season. The only real question is, will Teemu Selanne still be around?
I’m going to have to give this award to Bruce Boudreau. He took the fledgling team packed with talent under his wing and did what he’s done for years in Washington, milked them so every ounce of their talent so that night in and night out, they would be the best players under the ice. The first half of the season doomed the Ducks and made the playoffs a near impossible feat, but under Boudreau, they almost pulled it off. Led by players like Bobby Ryan, Corey Perry, and Ryan Getzlaf, the Ducks are a dangerous offensive team and with Boudreau specializing in turning offensive players into offensive dynamos, the Ducks are going to be a scary team next year.
The Playoffs: The Offseason:
No playoffs for the Ducks this year, so instead we’ll look at what needs to be done in the offseason. I see their most glaring need as a better supporting cast around that core of Getzlaf, Ryan, and Perry. They have some promising young prospects, most notably Devante Smith-Pelly, who are ready to make their mark in the NHL, and Jonas Hiller began to finally look like his old self for stretches at the end of the season. There might be a need for a solid back up goaltender, unless the organization feels that one of Jeff Deslauriers and Iiro Tarkki is ready to make the jump to the NHL as a full time back up. The Ducks surely have some holes to fill, but they’re in a great spot to return to the playoffs.
Tags: Anaheim Ducks Brian Elliot Bruce Boudreau Dave Tippett Jaroslav Halak Joe Pavelski Joe Thornton Mike Smith Patrick Marleau Phoenix Coyotes Radim Vrbata Randy Carlyle Ray Whitney Saku Koivu San Jose Sharks Shane Doan Teemu Selanne