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Kings eliminate Canucks, Preds to play winner of Chicago and Phoenix…

Fans in beautiful British Columbia held their heads in disbelief while fans in Southern California jumped for joy. On Sunday night, the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings beat the NHL’s best regular season team in the Vancouver Canucks in overtime, giving the Kings their first trip to the second round since 2001.

Because the current NHL playoff format pits the lowest advancing seed against the highest advancing seed, Los Angeles will play the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference Semifinals.

The Blues haven’t been to the Western Conference Final since they were beaten by the Hall of Famer-laden Colorado Avalanche in 2001. The Kings have only been past the second round once in their 44 season franchise history, losing in the Stanley Cup Final to the Montreal Canadiens in 1993.

Coincidentally, that was the last time a franchise in Canada won the Stanley Cup.

But that’s neither here nor there. The point is, with the Kings victory over Vancouver, the Nashville Predators will now face the winner of the Phoenix Coyotes (#3) and Chicago Blackhawks (#6) series. While the Coyotes lead the series 3-2, they are hardly running away with it. All five games have needed overtime, indicating a close series that could go in any direction

For Nashville, there are several pro’s and con’s to each potential opponent.

* Inexperience. If they advance to the second round, it will be the first time the franchise has done so since 1987 when they were the first incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets. The Predators, having lost their second round series to Vancouver last year, have been through the wars and knows what it takes. The Coyotes, on the other hand, will want to win, of course, but may just be happy to have put 25 years of mediocrity behind them.
* No superstars. With a make-up much like that of Preds teams past, the Coyotes don’t boast any bonafide goal scorers or perennial NHL All-Stars. Sure, they have Radim Vrbata who scored 35 goals during the regular season but he doesn’t have a single one when his team needs him most (in the playoffs). And yes, they have the ageless wonder Ray Whitney but is he a game-changer? Not really.

Mike Smith. The Kingston, Ontario native has been unbelievable since the Tampa Bay Lightning let him go last summer. All he’s done since signing with the Coyotes is post a .931 save percentage (3rd in the NHL during the regular season), a 2.21 goals-against average (7th) and eight shutouts (tied for 3rd). He hasn’t missed a beat in the playoffs either and looks primed to lead his team to a first round series victory.
* More travel. Avoiding West Coast travel is key to winning late rounds in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as it helps prevent non-game wear and tear to the body. Case in point: the Canucks came as close as two goals from beating the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Final back in 1994. In Game 7, the Rangers beat the Canucks 3-2 but, before that game, Vancouver had a seven-game series against the Calgary Flames (approx. 600 miles each way), a five-game series against the Dallas Stars (approx. 2,000 miles) and then a five-game series against the Toronto Maple Leafs (approx. 2,700 miles). And that’s not even counting their seven-game series in the Finals against the Rangers (approx. 3,000 miles). And what was the Rangers’ path to the Finals? The Islanders (32 miles), the Washington Capitals (225 miles) and the New Jersey Devils (10 miles). In short, if the Preds have to start traveling out west, it could be a detriment to them in both the second round and in later rounds, should they get that far.

* Shaky goaltending. Corey Crawford is hardly a force to be reckoned with between the pipes. His .903 save percentage during the regular season borders on NHL back-up caliber, despite being the starter. And his .906 playoff save percentage isn’t any better. If the Predators can get inside his head early, it could spell disaster for Chicago. And if Nashville chases Crawford, guess who the back-up is. Ray Emery, the goaltender who lost the first round series (with Anaheim) to Nashville last year.
* Home ice advantage. The only scenario for the Predators to have home ice advantage in the second round is for Chicago to beat Phoenix. If they do, then the fourth-seeded Preds would open the Western Conference Semifinals on Bridgestone Arena ice.

* Offensive firepower. With guys like Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews up front, the Blackhawks boast a potent attack. An attack that, if Pekka Rinne has a bad night, can push double digits in goals. If the Predators can’t find a scoring attack of their own (they never scored more than three goals in any one first round game, after all), Chicago could overwhelm them.
* Experience. The Blackhawks have eight players — including the entire leadership corps — who won the Stanley Cup in 2010. They’ve been there, done that and know how to win. More importantly, they know how not to get down during tough times. Nashville is just learning how to win. Chicago has won and knows what it takes.

So who do you want to face Preds fans? Which is the lesser of two evils? Leave your opinion in the comments section below and get the conversation going.