Series breakdown: Canucks (1) vs. Predators (5)
Regular season series: tied 2-2
Snapshot: The challenge for the Canucks is being ready for this series from the outset. The afterglow of satisfaction and relief they felt after finally dispatching the Blackhawks can't linger too long before they realize that they are in a series with the tenacious Predators. Conversely, the Preds have to strive for more, not settling for finally closing out a first round series. Yes, they have to do the traveling for the first two games of the series, but they need to have their hard hats on and work boots laced up from the drop of the puck in Game 1.
OK, that's the mental/group dynamics side of things. Personnel-wise, defensemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter will see a lot of the Sedin twins. In a series that's sure to feature forechecking at its finest, that leaves the trio of Ryan Kesler centering Alex Burrows and Mason Raymond to be the separating element. They were in Game 7 of their first round series and if they carry on in the same manner, the Canucks should flourish. On the back end, Kevin Bieksa and former Predator Dan Hamhuis have to be better than they were against the Blackhawks where the pair's play was uneven at best.
Ultimately, for the Predators to prevail, it will come down to being the frustratingly tenacious foe they've always been. Mike Fisher has to be in top form in the middle against Henrik Sedin and Kesler, especially in the face-off circle. Then the heroes will be the unheralded -- Jordan Tootoo, Jerred Smithson, Cody Franson and company. It won't be easy, but the harder the Predators make it on the Canucks -- frustrate them to distraction -- the better chance they have of pulling off the upset.
Spotlight's On: Roberto Luongo. Isn't it always? His uneven performance in the WCQF and coach Alain Vigneault's cloak and dagger approach to his Game 6 switch to Cory Schneider heightened the drama and turned up the glare of the spotlight. If Luongo starts strong and plays with the consistency he exhibited throughout his Vezina-nominated season, the Canucks have a chance to shorten this series on their way to the Western Conference Final.
X-Factor for Canucks: Ryan Kesler. A Selke nominee who scored 41 goals this season, Kesler is the Canucks' catalyst on both sides of the puck up front. His play in Game 7 vs. Chicago was just what the Canucks needed, as he was the best skater on the ice for either team -- when it mattered most.
X-Factor for Predators: Pekka Rinne. A Vezina finalist, he was inconsistent in the Preds' first-round series win over Anaheim. He couldn't make the big save against the Ducks' top players, and in penalty killing situations he was rather leaky. Maybe he'll feel freer now that the Preds have answered the question of their ability to advance in the playoffs. He'll have to be in top form and outperform counterpart Luongo in at least two games if the Preds are to ascend to the Conference final.
ELIOT: Rinne personifies Predators
The Pick: Canucks in six.
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