I was a little off in one of my recent posts about who the Blackhawks would end up meeting in the first round of the playoffs. I said then that the Red Wings would end up with the 8th seed, and Minnesota would get the 7th seed. As it turns out, those two teams are flip-flopped, and the Blackhawks will play the Wild in round one, with the Wings getting Anaheim.
As I did last year, I will offer up my predictions as to how the first round will play out. First, we’ll start with the Western Conference.
Season series: Blackhawks 2-0-1 against Wild.
Not a lot of people expected to see the Wild finish the season as the 8th seed in the West (many thought they’d be a top 3), but here they are. The Wild actually played the Blackhawks pretty well this year, and were the first team to hand the Hawks a loss this season when they beat Chicago in a shootout on Jan. 30 by a score of 3-2. That game was in Minnesota. In the other two meetings, the Blackhawks won 5-3 in Chicago, and then they won again 1-0 back in Minnesota. There is not a question that the Wild have potential to be dangerous with guys like Parise, Koivu, Suter, and Setoguchi (Dan Heatley is out after having surgery). However, they just haven’t been able to put it all together for long stretches this year, which is why they are the 8 seed. Right now, the Wild are playing arguably their worst hockey of the year and are limping into the playoffs.
Meanwhile, Chicago started the season with 24 straight games with at least a point, and they really haven’t taken their foot off the gas peddle since. From start to finish this season, the Hawks have been the best team in hockey. They will most likely finish with the fewest goals-against per game (GA/G) in the NHL (depending on what Ottawa does today), and they finished second in the league in goals per game (G/G). Their powerplay has looked bad at times, but their PK has made up for it, ranking 4th in the league. Goaltending, which was a major question mark for this team coming into the season, has been one of their biggest strengths this year. Everyone knows that good goaltending can win you the Cup. I think this should be a good, but most likely quick series.
-Chicago wins series, 4-1.
Season series: Red Wings 2-1-0 against Ducks.
I think it’s safe to say that no one predicted the Ducks to finish this high in the standings before the season started. A lot of people probably didn’t even have them making the playoffs. I would also say that many people had the Wings missing the playoffs as well after losing so many assets following last season. However, the Ducks proved us all wrong, and the Red Wings have now made the postseason 22 seasons in a row. While Detroit still has guys like Datsyuk and Zetterberg leading their offense, they are much thinner on their blue line than they used to be. This has hurt them all year long and almost cost them a playoff berth. In goal, Jimmy Howard has really been hot as of late and is a big reason why this team is in the playoffs. I think that Detroit’s lack of experience with so many young guys being in their lineup could hurt them.
The Ducks are one of the biggest teams in the West in terms of size, and they will use that to their advantage in the playoffs. They have two goalies who have played well all season, but Jonas Hiller will get the nod for the postseason. He, much like Jimmy Howard, has the ability to steal a series. The Ducks powerplay ranked 4th in the league this year, and their penalty kill ranked 13th. I’m sure that they would like to see their PK be better in the playoffs, but if they can continue dominating on the PP, they’ll be tough to beat.
-Anaheim wins series, 4-2.
Season series: Sharks 3-0-0 against Canucks (one win in a SO).
Let me start by saying that these two teams don’t like each other. When they met 2 years ago in the playoffs, they played an extremely physical and intense series. Vancouver ultimately won, but the Sharks gave them all they could handle. This year, the Sharks started off as one of the hottest teams in hockey before fizzling off and slipping to the middle of the pack. They have played better down the stretch, which led them to the 6th seed, but they weren’t able to beat L.A. in the final game to jump to the 5th seed. In order to beat Vancouver, the Sharks need production from all lines and not just the top 2. That has been a huge problem all year for them. Antti Niemi has been one of the top goalies all season long, and he’s going to need to continue that trend in this series.
For Vancouver, Corey Schneider will be their number 1 goalie in the playoffs, and this time there’s no doubt about it. Over the past couple of years, the Canucks weren’t really sure who their number 1 goalie was, which I’m sure led to some discomfort among the team. One of Vancouver’s biggest assets is their ability to combine physicality with skill. They are one of the roughest teams in hockey, but they can also score. Having said that, their powerplay ranked 22nd in the league this year, which will need to improve starting now. The Canucks ranked 8th on the PK. I would expect this to be an extremely physical and exhausting series for both sides. This is one of the tougher matchups to try and predict, but in the end, I think which ever team has more success on the powerplay will advance to the next round.
-Vancouver wins series, 4-3.
Season series: Kings 3-0-0 against Blues.
In what will be a rematch of last year’s Western Conference Semifinals, both teams are going to have their hands full. St. Louis and L.A. are both very physical (slight edge to the Blues in that category), and they both have good goaltenders. Last season, the 8th seeded Kings swept the 2nd seeded Blues because of their team defense and goaltending. Jonathan Quick was the MVP of the playoffs last year, and I am expecting him to step up his game again this year as well. Unlike much of last season, this year the Kings offense has been rather consistent. They ranked 10th in the NHL this year in G/G, and 10th on the powerplay. They also ranked 10th on the PK, and 7th in GA/G. For them to eliminate St. Louis for the second year in a row, they’ll need their offense to show up, and they’ll need Jonathan Quick to be good.
St. Louis has to be worried about this matchup. Going back to last year’s playoffs, they are 0-7 against the Kings in their last 7 games against them. They simply have not been able to figure out Jonathan Quick, and at times their own goaltending has let them down. Speaking of that, this year St. Louis (who was a popular pick to go to the Finals before the season started) has had some trouble with their goaltending. Sure, they ranked 8th in GA/G, but that’s only because they turned things around down the stretch. While their recent play has to be a good sign, I am still not sold that this team is as good as they are said to be. They’ll absolutely need their offense to finally wake up against L.A. and Jonathan Quick, and they’ll need Brian Elliot to be very good if they want to win this series.
-L.A. wins series, 4-2.
Check back sometime in the next day or so for my Eastern Conference predictions.