Blackhawks advance, wait for next opponent

130107_gq_trout_aWell, prior to the Blackhawks-Blues series I had predicted that the Hawks would come away victorious in six games. Turns out I was dead on, but that’s not quite how I expected the series to go. I was thinking more along the lines of each team winning one road game over the first four games, then the Hawks winning games 5 and 6. The latter came true, but I really didn’t think the Hawks would win four straight after going down 0-2 after the first two games. It doesn’t really matter though, a win is a win and I’ll take it.

The first two games of the series were won by the Blues, not lost by the Hawks. The Blues outplayed the Blackhawks in each of the first two games in St. Louis and wound up winning both in overtime (Game 1 in triple OT). With Brent Seabrook beginning his three game suspension, the series shifted to Chicago for games three and four, both won by the Blackhawks. Game 3 saw the Hawks dominate the first ten minutes, and then proceed to get badly outplayed for the remaining fifty. If not for Corey Crawford playing out of his mind, the Blues would have won that game 5-1. Instead, the Hawks won 2-0. Game 4 was more evenly matched, as the Hawks tied the game 3-3 late in regulation and went on to win in overtime, thanks to another memorable Patrick Kane goal. Game 5 was the big one.

139990-330-0Up to this point in the season, Game 5 against St. Louis was the biggest win of the year for the Blackhawks. The really did not want to go down 3-2 in the series and have to win a Game 7 in St. Louis. The Hawks struck first on a Hossa’s first goal of the playoffs, and got their second goal from Ben Smith, also his first of the playoffs. St. Louis tied it early in the third and the game ended up going to overtime for the fourth time in the series. After a good save by Crawford on David Backes, Duncan Keith’s frantic clearing attempt wound up on the tape of Jonathan Toews’ stick, and all that he had in front of him was open ice. Toews’, the one guy the Blues didn’t want on a breakaway in OT, scored to win the game and send the Hawks home up 3-2 in the series.

Game 6 was tied 1-1 going into the third before the Hawks blew it open and won 5-1. There may not be a better team in the NHL at putting teams away when they smell blood in the water. Duncan Keith played what Joel Quenneville called the best game he’s seen him play and recorded four points. Today, Keith was nominated for the Norris Trophy, awarded to the league’s best defenseman.

So now we wait. The Hawks will get the winner of the Avalanche-Wild series in the second round. That series is currently being led by the Avs, 3-2. Tonight is Game 6, and I think all Hawks fans are hoping for a Minnesota victory for two reasons. One, the Wild are a much more desirable second round opponent than Colorado. Two, if the Wild win then there will be a Game 7, meaning each team will have to play that much more hockey before facing the Hawks.

Here’s the problem with facing the Avalanche. They’re fast (maybe the fastest in the league), and they force the Hawks to play a chip-and-chase game whenever the two teams meet. This season especially, Colorado’s speed and quickness up and down the ice has really given the Blackhawks fits, not to mention their incredible skill. While the Hawks have proven at times that they can be a successful team playing the chip-and-chase game, they prefer not to. Add this to the fact that the Avs would have the home-ice advantage, meaning the Hawks would have to play in the high altitude potentially four times, and I see some possible problems. However, the Wild may still win the series. While I would prefer that, the second you wish to play a certain opponent, they beat you.

Quick Hits

  • Duncan Keith, Zdeno Chara, and Shea Weber were named this year’s Norris Trophy finalists today. I think Alex Pietrangelo got ripped off here, as he put together one hell of a season for St. Louis (8G, 43A, 20 +/-). He’s bound to win the Norris in the future.
  • Anaheim, Boston, Chicago, and Montreal have all punched their ticket to the second round. Anaheim’s comeback in Game 6 over Dallas was one for the ages. The Boston-Montreal second round matchup is one to keep a close eye on. I think the Habs have the best shot of anyone in the East at knocking out the Bruins, and that includes the Penguins.
  • St. Louis has now been booted from the postseason in the first round two years in a row by the defending Cup champs in 6 games. Both years they had home-ice advantage, both years they won the first two games, and both years they lost the last four. Talk about back-to-back demoralizing defeats…
  • 18 year-old rookie Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche leads the postseason in points with 10. He is already being compared to Sidney Crosby. Colorado’s top line of MacKinnon, Stastny, and Landeskog has been lethal at times during this first round. Matt Duchene could be back in the lineup any day now.
  • The Sharks, after taking a commanding 3-0 lead over the Kings, have dropped two straight games. Game 6 is tonight in LA. The Sharks are looking to avoid what would be a miraculous comeback by the Kings in that series.

The second round of the playoffs is right around the corner, and I can’t wait.

 

Blackhawks get first win, look to even series

7327531The Blackhawks knew that Game 3 against the Blues at the United Center was a must-win game, and they won it. Going down two games to zero is bad enough against St. Louis, and going down three games to zero would be a death sentence. Now that the Hawks have won their first game of this year’s playoffs, they will be looking to even up this first round series tomorrow night before heading back to St. Louis for Game 5. If they want to walk back into the Scottrade Center with the series tied 2-2, they might want to step up their game come tomorrow night.

The Blackhawks started off Game 2 with more energy than we probably saw from them in either of the first two games of this series. A lot of that was due to the fact that they were on their home ice in front of a deafening crowd, but also because they had to win the game. The first half of the first period was dominated by the Hawks, and Jonathan Toews recorded what would end up being the game-winning goal during that span. After the ten minute mark, however, things evened out and eventually ended up leaning in the Blues’ favor.

The final shot totals in the game were St. Louis 34, and Chicago 25. The Blues outshot the 130107_gq_trout_aHawks in the first and third period, and nearly scored multiple times. Thanks to the incredible play of Corey Crawford, however, the Blues never registered a goal. Once Chicago took the lead, the play evened out. In the second period, both teams traded chances and powerplays (the Hawks had half a minute of 5 on 3), but no one scored. Then the third period happened.

This is where I get frustrated. The entire third period was spent in the Blackhawks’ own end with St. Louis firing shot after shot towards the net. I have never seen a team so obviously resort to strictly protecting a lead than the Blackhawks last night. It was as though they had no desire to get a huge second goal and give themselves some breathing room. Did they not learn anything from the first two games of this series when they tried this same tactic only to have the Blues tie the game in the final minutes/seconds both games?

For the Blackhawks to even up this series in Game 4 and go on to win it, they are going to have to regain that “killer” instinct, among other things. Aside from the final seconds of Game 3 when Kruger scored on the empty net, the Blackhawks have yet to have more than a one goal lead in this series. For obvious reasons, playing with a one goal lead is never safe and never comfortable. Getting even just a two goal lead will make a huge difference in terms of getting momentum in the game and providing themselves with some wiggle room. The third period of Game 3 was literally Chicago holding on for dear life and praying that the puck stayed out of their net, which it did. That can’t happen again if they enter the late stages of a game with a one goal lead.

Aside from building on their leads, the Hawks need to start:

  • Winning more board battles
  • Spending more time in the offensive zone
  • Converting on the powerplay
  • Avoiding dumb penalties

Through the first three games of this series, the Blackhawks are just 1/14 with a man advantage. That is unacceptable. Imagine what this series may look like if they had converted on even a couple of those powerplays. The good news for the Hawks is that the only team worse on the powerplay this postseason is St. Louis, who is just 1/16. Moving forward, both teams are going to have to be better on the PP if they want to start putting games away.

139990-330-0We saw a lot of it in the two games down in St. Louis, and there was a little more in Game 3 as well. The Blackhawks need to stop taking stupid penalties. Whether it’s after the whistle, unnecessary hits behind the play, whatever it may be, it needs to stop. Andrew Shaw took a dumb interference penalty in the first period of Game 3, and it’s the stuff like that that will end up killing the Hawks if it continues. The Blues are the team known for doing this stuff, which they have in this series, so let them be the ones to continue doing it and make them pay on the ensuing powerplay. There’s no need to play down to their level of stupidity.

Basically, the Blackhawks were lucky to get a win in Game 3. This strategy of “protecting the lead” late in games has killed them two out of three games already, and they have to start looking to bury the Blues instead. One way to do so is by converting on the powerplay, which they haven’t done. If it wasn’t for their success on the penalty kill thus far, they could be down 3-0 in this series (this gives me the chance to finally give Michal Handzus credit for the work he’s doing on the PK). They better expect the Blues to come with their best effort in Game 4, so the Hawks will need to at least match it. Let’s hope they do.

 

NHL Eastern Conference Quarterfinals prediction

The East began the season looking like a very weak conference. Its teams seemed far inferior to those out west, and they didn’t help themselves by putting up a bad overall conference record against the Western Conference. However, with the second half of the season came some improved play by the East, and it was Boston that ended up winning the President’s Trophy as the team with the most points during the regular season. Unlike the Western Conference, I can only see two real Stanley Cup contenders in the Eastern Conference: Boston and Pittsburgh. I’m not saying no one else will have a shot, but I wouldn’t bet on anyone else to come out of the East.

So with that, here we go.

1-4 Matchup:

Boston_Bruins_logo vs. DRW Logo

I think this is a great first round series. There’s nothing better than two Original Six teams squaring off against one another in the playoffs. For a while, it was looking like the Red Wings might miss the playoffs for the first time in 23 years, but as usual they found a way into the postseason with 93 points and as the East’s last wild card team. Detroit finished the season ranked sixteenth in both goals per game and goals-against per game, neither of which is good. Right now, they are battling some injuries to key players such as their captain Henrik Zetterberg, who isn’t expected back until possibly late in round one if not later than that. Pavel Datsyuk recently returned to the lineup after a knee injury, and his presence on the ice should be a big uplift for this Wings team. For them to have any chance in this series, they are going to need Datsyuk and Gustav Nyquist to come up big on the offensive end. Nyquist ended the regular season as arguably the hottest player in the league, and the Wings will need him to stay hot for this series. Defensively, Detroit has battled some injuries this year as well. Young replacements such as Ouellet, Sproul, and Lashoff will getting their first real taste of playoff hockey in the NHL. Their age and lack of experience could hurt them big time in this series against an elite and proven team like the Bruins. Jimmy Howard is going to have his hands full in net with a lack of defensive support in front of him, so he will need to be outstanding from the opening puck drop to the final whistle of each game. If the Wings want any chance, they are simply going to have to out-work and want this series more than Boston. They almost knocked off the Blackhawks last season using that same recipe.

The Bruins are coming in to this postseason playing the best hockey of any team in the entire NHL. I don’t think you can even begin to argue that any team had a better second half of the season than Boston. Not only did they win the President’s Trophy, but they finished the season third in goals per game, and second in GA/G. No other team in the league finished the season ranked in the top five in both categories. Their defense is arguably the best in the league (right up there with LA), and their goalie is most likely going to win this year’s Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goalie. Defense wins championships, and Boston has what may be the best defense you’ll find if you take their forwards into consideration. Zdeno Chara is always one of the top d-men in the league, and his partner Dougie Hamilton (when will he switch it to just “Doug?”) is becoming a rather strong defensemen as well at a young age. That brings me to my greatest concern with this team. The youthfulness of their defensive corps. Bartkowski, Hamilton, Krug, and Miller are all rather young, with Hamilton (20) and Krug (23) being the youngest. Both Hamilton and Krug saw action during the Bruins playoff run last year, but I still wonder whether they will crumble under immense pressure this time around. This Bruins team has very few weaknesses, but lack of experience from their young d-men is one of them.

I’m expecting the Bruins to keep on rolling and not have much of a problem on offense or in net this series. It’s their young defensemen that have me a little worried, especially if they advance deeper into the playoffs. Detroit will need to play their best hockey of the year to win this, which I wouldn’t necessarily put past them as long as they still have Mike Babcock behind their bench.

-Boston wins series, 4-2.

2-3 Matchup:

TampaBayLightning_LOGO vs. si34dm1f9jex9eoexq9l1svqk

This is an interesting matchup in that I don’t think many people predicted the Lightning to end up with a 2-seed. More on that in a bit. Montreal enters these playoffs as the only representative from Canada. A lot of pressure on them to win right there alone. They finished out the regular season with 100 points, and ranked twenty first in goals per game, and eighth in GA/G. Goal scoring is their biggest weakness. Max Pacioretty led the team with 60 points (39G, 21A), followed by P.K. Subban with 53 points as a defenseman. If you look at their lineup, you would think that this is a deep team with a lot of scoring potential on all lines, especially now that they have Thomas Vanek on their top line. That just hasn’t been the case however, and they’ll need to start scoring with more frequency beginning now. On defense, Montreal’s top pairing of Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin will need to find a way to slow down Steven Stamkos. These two have been good all year, and they’ll need to be even better this series. P.K. Subban will need to step up his defensive game as well. This is an area in which he has been criticized throughout his career. Carey Price could have his work cut out for him in goal against the Lightning, so he’ll need to start playing like he did during the Olympics. However, he may be the least of my concerns with the Canadiens.

As for the Lightning, you have to give this team an awful lot of credit for playing as well as they did earlier this season when they were without Stamkos. The highest point total by any player on their roster this year was just 59, yet they still ranked ninth in goals per game. That is a testament to the balance in their lineup. The Lightning have been getting contributions from just about everyone in their lineup offensively, so it should be interesting to see how effective their depth players can be in this series. Valtteri Filppula has proven to be a much bigger signing than anyone thought he would be when he inked a deal with Tampa last off-season. He finished the season second on this team in points, with 25 goals and 33 assists. Defensively, the Lightning ranked eleventh in GA/G, thanks in large part to goaltender Ben Bishop. Bishop finished the year with the fourth most wins of any goalie and with a 2.23 GAA. Those are very solid numbers. Unfortunately, he has been ruled out for Game One of this series with an elbow injury. The extent and severity of his injury could determine just how far Tampa goes this postseason. Anders Lindback is going to have to step up big time in Bishop’s absence. The defensive corps for Tampa is a mix of experienced and inexperienced players. Guys like Matt Carle, Sami Salo and Victor Hedman are going to need to carry the young guys until they can get comfortable playing in a playoff atmosphere.

This series is a tough one to predict. For me, the outcome will be determined by Ben Bishop’s injury. If he only misses Game One, I think Tampa Bay can win this series. If Bishop is out for two, three, or more games, the Lightning may be in trouble. I’m going to assume the worst for Bishop and the Lightning, however.

-Montreal wins series, 4-2.

1-4 Matchup:

174 vs. bluejackets07-rgbjpg-8678ad1b3fbe2735

I love this matchup. Columbus comes into this series after a very successful season by their standards (93 points), and they are playing with a ton of confidence. You might not find another team in the NHL that works as hard as the Blue Jackets. This team goes all out every night and lays everything on the line. They make their opponents work for everything. They ranked twelfth is goals per game and thirteenth in goals against this season, neither of which is great or bad. Offensively, Ryan Johansen had a breakout year and led the team with 63 points (33G, 30A). He is the glue to this team’s offense, and hopefully for Columbus he continues playing well into this series. The depth of the Jackets at their forward positions is underrated. Guys like Dubinsky, Anisimov, and Letestu are very solid players who can make a difference on a nightly basis. On defense, Jack Johnson had a bit of a down season, but he is still a strong defenseman who can play some big minutes. Fedor Tyutin and James Wisniewski, the Jackets’ top d-pairing, will have their hands full against Pittsburgh, but their work ethic is what gives them a decent shot at slowing down the Penguins’ offense. Sergei Bobrovsky, last season’s Vezina winner, put together another good season this year with a record of 32-20-5 and a 2.38 GAA. He will need to be great this series. To me, he is one of two keys to this series, with the other being his opposing goalie.

The Penguins ended the regular season with 109 points, which was good for second in the East. The finished fifth in goals per game and tenth in GA/G. They have always been a high scoring team, and that was the case again this year. Their powerplay ranked first in the NHL, thanks to guys like Crosby, Kunitz, and Malkin. For them to win this series, they will need continued success with the man advantage. Their offensive game really needs no further explanation because I think we all know who we’re talking about there. On defense, the Penguins have one of the deeper defensive units in the game, led by their top pairing of Orpik and Martin. Kris Letang just returned after a long absence from the lineup due to a stroke that he suffered earlier this year. His presence on the back end is a huge boost for this team. Now we get to the good stuff: Marc-Andre Fleury. Since winning the Stanley Cup back in ’09, Fleury has been extremely inconsistent in the playoffs. Two years ago, he played horrible in a series against Philadelphia and the Penguins were eliminated earlier than most thought they would be. Last year, Fleury was yanked early in Pittsburgh’s series with the Islanders, and sat on the bench for the remainder of their playoff run. How he plays and deals with this year’s playoff pressure could decide just how far the Penguins will go. If he plays like he did this regular season, Pittsburgh should make it to at least the Conference Finals. If Fleury regresses back to the player he was a year ago, the Pens could be going home really early.

I am anxious for this series to begin because I think it could be one of the better series of the whole first round. Columbus’ work ethic against Pittsburgh’s skill and experience will be fun to watch. Keep an eye on Fleury early in Game One. If he gives up a quick one or two goals, the Penguins may be in trouble.

-Pittsburgh wins series, 4-3.

2-3 Matchup:

144 vs. 161

This has all the makings of a heated first round series. These two teams have never liked each other, and this year has been no different. The Flyers got off to a really slow start to the season, which led to head coach Peter Laviolette getting fired only a few games in. Since then, however, new head coach Peter Berube has turned the team back in the right direction. Philadelphia finished off their season with with 94 points, and team captain Claude Giroux is getting heavy consideration for this year’s Hart Trophy. He led the team with 86 points and was a huge reason for the Flyers’ turnaround back before the Olympic break. Philadelphia ranked eighth if goals per game this year, while finishing twentieth in goals-against per game. That last stat is something this team needs to get better heading into the playoffs. The Flyers defense isn’t necessarily bad, but they haven’t performed very well this season. The ageless Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn make up Philly’s top d-pairing, followed by Mark Streit and Nicklas Grossman, and  Andrew MacDonald and Luke Schenn. On paper that looks good, but they just haven’t performed up to expectations this year on the back end. In goal, it’ll be Steve Mason for the Flyers. He had a decent year this year with a 33-18-7 record while averaging 2.50 goals-against per game. For the Flyers to win this series, they’ll need Mason and their defensemen to perform as well as they have all season.

The Rangers ended the regular season with 96 points, which is actually pretty good considering the start that they got off to back in October/November. They ranked eighteenth in goals per game this year, while ranking fourth in GA/G. They can thank Henrik Lundqvist and Ryan McDonagh for that. McDonagh put together a Norris Trophy-worthy campaign this season, and while he most likely won’t win the trophy, he’s bound to win one sooner or later in his career if he keeps progressing. McDonagh is coming off a recent upper body injury, and the Rangers will need him to be healthy if they want any success this postseason. The same can be said for Martin St. Louis who is also coming off an injury. For obvious reasons, New York needs St. Louis to be healthy and in the lineup for the playoffs. He is a world-class playmaker and goal-scorer, and they can’t afford to have him injured. The key for the Rangers in this series may be their third and especially fourth line. New York’s fourth line has come up big a number of times for them this season, and if they do so in the playoffs, that’ll be a huge plus for this team. I am not too worried about Henrik Lundqvist, as he has played in numerous playoff series and has always performed well.

This is bound to be a bruising series and one that will be very entertaining to watch. If I’m the Flyers, I am hoping and praying that Steve Mason doesn’t crumble under the pressure of playing in the postseason. Their team defense isn’t great, so they’ll need Mason to be very good. As for New York, if they get quality ice time and production from their depth players, they will have a good shot at advancing. This is a tough series to call, but in the end, I have to go with the better goalie.

-New York wins series, 4-3.

NHL Western Conference Quarterfinals prediction

It has been a long time since the Western Conference was once as strong as it currently is. I cannot remember the last time that there were at least three, four, maybe even five teams from one conference who you could consider a serious Stanley Cup contender. Yet that is what we have in the Western Conference this year. I believe there are three sure candidates in the West to win the Cup this year: Anaheim, Chicago, and St. Louis. Teams like San Jose, Los Angeles, and Colorado could easily be considered strong Cup contenders as well, however I wouldn’t place them in the same class as those first three teams.

Having said that, let’s get to the predictions.

1-4 Matchup:

7327531 vs. Minnesota-Wild-Wallpaper-

Let’s start with Minnesota. The Wild finished the regular season with 98 points, good for seventh most in the West. They finished seventh in the entire NHL in GA/G with a 2.42 average. Their defense is the strongest part of their game, and they will need that to be the case against Colorado. It looks like trade deadline acquisition Ilya Bryzgalov will be their starting netminder for Game One, due to injuries to both Backstrom and Harding during the regular season. Since coming to the Wild, Bryzgalov has been very good. He is 7-1-3 with a 2.12 goals-against average and three shutouts. On defense, Ryan Suter led the league for the second year in a row in playing time per game at 29:24. That’s basically half the game that he’s on the ice. While he is without question one of the premier defensmen in the game, you have to wonder if he isn’t just about burnt out. Playing half a game every game this year (he played in all 82), as well as playing for Team USA in the Olympics is a good recipe for exhaustion. The Wild, and Suter, are going to need the rest of their d-men to pick up their play and take some of the weight off of Suter’s shoulders. On offense, this is where the Wild have been challenged. They finished the regular season ranked twenty fourth in goals per game at 2.43, which is not good. Jason Pominville was their leading scorer recording 30 goals and 30 assists (60 points), while guys like Parise, Koivu, and Heatley had down seasons while also battling injuries.

As for Colorado, the Avalanche are coming off their best regular season in franchise history, recording 112 points to finish third overall in the NHL. I think it’s safe to say no one saw that coming in September. Their strongest aspect of their game is their offense, where they finished fourth in the league in goals per game at 2.99. Matt Duchene led the way for the Avs by finishing with 70 points (23G, 47A). Unfortunately for Colorado, however, Duchene has been out with a knee injury for a few weeks now and is not expected to return to the lineup until late in round one, if not later than that. On top of that, Jan Hejda, Tyson Barrie, John Mitchell, Cody McLeod, and Cory Sarich are all injured as well. The severity of Hejda’s injury is still a bit unknown, and he could miss the beginning of this series. Same goes for John Mitchell, who was diagnosed with a concussion. On defense, the Avalanche are young and inexperienced in the postseason (you could say the same about their forwards). If Hejda and Sarich miss any significant playoff time, the Avs could be in trouble on the blue line. Their defensmen are quite talented and quick, especially Erik Johnson, but their lack of experience in the playoffs and pressure-packed games worries me. They finished in the middle of the pack in GA/G, fifteenth overall, at 2.63. Semyon Varlamov, coming off his best season in the NHL, will need to continue his strong play in net. He finished the year 41-14-6 with a 2.41 GAA. If Varlamov stays hot against the Wild, Minnesota and their struggling offense could be in trouble.

I think the biggest factor in this series is going to be the health of the Avalanche. They will be without Duchene for most, if not all of the series, but how soon will the other injured players be able to play? Also, will the lack of experience on the Avalanche come back to haunt them? These things concern me with Colorado, but their skill and speed make me believe they will get by Minnesota despite the injuries. Don’t be surprised though if they lose the first game and begin to panic.

-Colorado wins series, 4-2.

2-3 Matchup:

st-louis-blues-logo vs. 56

Could you ask for a better first round series? Two weeks ago, no one would have thought these two teams would meet in the first round, but thanks to the Blues’ six-game losing streak to finish out the regular season, here we are. The Blackhawks, the defending Stanley Cup champions, have had a very up and down second half to their season. Following the Olympic break, they have been mostly a .500 team. They ended the year with 107 points, but still won’t have home ice advantage in the this first round. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews both missed the last few weeks of the season due to injury, but both are expected back and healthy for Game One in St. Louis. Chicago’s greatest strength is their offense. They were second in goals per game this year with a 3.18 average, and they had five players finish the season with 60 points or more, led by Patrick Sharp with 78. On defense, Duncan Keith was arguably the best defensmen in hockey this season (6G, 55A), and he is considered the favorite to win the Norris Trophy. Brent Seabrook has had a good, but not great year despite what you might hear from TV broadcasters. The unsung hero of the Hawks’ defensive corps is Niklas Hjalmarsson. He and his partner Johnny Oduya get the toughest defensive assignment every game, going up against the opponents best offensive line. These two will need to play like they did one year ago at this time to beat the Blues. In goal, Corey Crawford is coming off of a decent season in which he had a 2.26 GAA. He will be coming into the playoffs following maybe his best stretch of the season. Guys like Bryan Bickell, Brandon Saad, and Kris Versteeg are going to have to produce this postseason for the Hawks to be successful. The depth of the Blackhawks could be what wins or loses them this series.

The Blues are skating backwards into the playoffs as losers of six straight to finish the season. I can guarantee you that the last thing they wanted was to fall to second in the division and have to open the playoffs against the defending champs and longtime rival Blackhawks. The Blues have prided themselves on their defense this year, and rightfully so. They finished the season third in GA/G with a 2.29 average. Alex Pietrangelo has earned himself some consideration for the Norris Trophy, as he leads one of the best blue lines in hockey. He and Jay Bouwmeester have been one of the league’s best pairings all season. In net, the Blues traded for Ryan Miller at the deadline, and he has been both good and bad for them. Since coming to the Blues, he is 10-8-1 with a 2.47 GAA. Backup netminder Brian Elliott finished the year 18-6-2 with a 1.96 GAA, so look for the Blues to turn to him if Miller struggles early in this series. Offensively is where the potential problems begin for this team. They finished the year ranked 7th in goals per game, but are entering the playoffs having scored just TEN goals in their last nine games. In those nine games, they were shutout four times, and lost the final six. That cannot continue if they want any chance at beating Chicago. The Blues did finish the year with five players scoring over 20 goals, but their offense has disappeared lately. Before the season, I said that the Blues’ lack of offensive firepower is what may hold them back against teams like Chicago this year, and now that theory will be put to the test.

This series is hands-down the most intriguing of all first round series this year. Both teams are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, but one will go home early. I’d expect the Blues to try and use their physical and often dirty play to wear down the Hawks in the first couple of games. Chicago has to stick to their style of play and not try and become a more physical team than they really are. If Kane and Toews are in fact 100 percent for this series and can remain healthy, I think the Hawks have the edge. After all, since 2010, no team has been better on the road in the postseason than Chicago, and they’ll need at least one road win to win this series.

-Chicago wins series, 4-2.

1-4 Matchup:

ANAHEIM_DUCKS_LOGO vs. New_Dallas_Stars

I said in my season preview back before the season began that people were underrating the Dallas Stars and that they could be a potential playoff contender. Well look, here they are. Dallas enters the playoffs with fewer regular season points than any other team to qualify for the postseason, but that doesn’t really mean much to them. Surprisingly, or maybe not to some, the Stars finished the season ranked tenth in the entire NHL in goals per game, thanks in large part to Tyler Seguin (37G, 47A) and Jamie Benn (34G, 45A). These two have been one of the league’s best duos all season long, and I would not want to have to try and defend them in a seven game series. Unfortunately for the Stars, there is a major drop off after those two. The next closest player on the team to Benn in points was defenseman Alex Goligoski, who had 42. This is possibly the Stars’ biggest problem. After their top line with Benn and Seguin, their offense really flattens out. Their defensive unit is rather weak. After trading Robidas to the Ducks, ironically, they were left with Goligoski as their top blue liner. Besides him, Trevor Daley is their next best d-man, and after that it’s really a toss up. Going against a potent Ducks offense could spell disaster for the Dallas defense. Kari Lehtonen, who in my opinion is the most underrated goalie in hockey, will have to stay strong in net and single handedly win a couple games for the Stars if they want to advance.

The Ducks come into the postseason having finished first in the West in points (116), and second in the NHL behind the Bruins. They led the league in goals per game (3.21), and finished ninth in GA/G (2.48). They have what many consider to be the best line in hockey, consisting of both Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. Getzlaf, who finished with 87 points, is considered to be a Hart Trophy candidate as the league’s MVP. Perry finished right behind him with 43 goals (second in the NHL) and 82 points. I think it’s safe to say that offense shouldn’t be much of a problem for this team. On defense, the Ducks are led by Cam Fowler, who finished 36 points on the year. The problem with the Anaheim defense is much like the same problem Colorado has. They have a lot of skill, but not very much experience. The Ducks made the playoffs last year, but lost to Detroit in seven games in the first round. The inexperience on their blue line could be a problem, especially in the later rounds. Their goaltender, Jonas Hiller, finished the season with a 2.48 GAA. His backup Frederik Andersen, however, ended the season with a 20-5-0 record and a 2.29 GAA. While Hiller is their definite number one, look for the Ducks to yank him if he stumbles out of the gates. Neither Anaheim goalie has much playoff experience, which may or may not be costly this postseason.

I think the Stars may win a game here, but for the most part I expect Anaheim to win this series rather easily.

-Anaheim wins series, 4-1.

2-3 Matchup:

crestonwht_rgb vs. 940-couture-logan

Next to the Blackhawks-Blues series, I think this is the second best series of the entire first round, and it is sure to be a physical one. The Kings ended the year pretty strong and finished with 100 points. Many, myself included, thought they would have had a better year than this, but 100 points is still 100 points, especially in the Western Conference. The Kings are led by their defense and goalie. LA has what may be the best set of defensemen in hockey, led by Drew Doughty. They finished first in the NHL in fewest GA/G, and allowed the fewest total goals in the league. I’ve always believed that defense wins championships (last year, the Blackhawks allowed the least amount of goals during the regular season and won the Stanley Cup). Jonathan Quick, while injured most of the first half of the season, finished with a 2.07 GAA, which is ridiculously good, but only managed to have a 27-17-4 record. That really doesn’t compute, unless you look at LA’s offense. They finished twenty-sixth in goals per game this year. When you have a defense and goaltending as good as they do, you need to score more goals than this. Anze Kopitar led the Kings with 70 points, followed by Jeff Carter with 50. That’s a twenty-point difference there and something the Kings would have liked to have been better. They added Marian Gaborik at the trade deadline, and since then he has registered 5 goals and 11 assists in 19 games. He should help boost LA’s scoring heading into this series, and they’re going to need it.

San Jose comes into this series after a 111-point regular season. This team always seems to finish near the top of the conference year in and year out, so give credit to their coaching staff and front office. The Sharks ranked sixth this season in goals per game, and fifth in goals-against per game. That’s a very good combination for obvious reasons. Three players on this team finished the year with at least 70 points (Pavelski, Thornton, and Marleau), and I think Logan Couture could have reached the 70-point plateau had he been healthy all year. Their top two lines are extremely dangerous and consist of some of the best players in the league when it comes to winning faceoffs. It’s their bottom two lines that may be troublesome for the Sharks as they often lack offensive production. Their defensive unit is one of the better ones in the West, as all six defensemen are smart, responsible, and possess a lot of playoff experience. Plus, they were a huge reason for the team finishing fifth in GA/G. Dan Boyle (37 years old) was the leading point-getter on the Sharks blue line this year, and I wonder how he will hold up in an extremely physical playoffs series like this one against LA. He already went down with a concussion earlier in the season, and I’m sure he’ll be a primary target of the Kings. In net, Antti Niemi ended the year tied for second in the NHL in wins and had a 2.39 GAA. Yet, many Sharks fans have been critical of Niemi during the second half of the year due to some lackluster performances. Still, Niemi is one of the league’s best goalies and did win a Stanley Cup not too long ago. If the Sharks’ offense can find a way to beat Jonathan Quick, and if Antti Niemi can be even just good in net, I think they’ll win this series.

This series all comes down to goaltending. Will Jonathan Quick return to his annual playoff form and carry the Kings to the second round? Or will he be human like he was in the Conference Finals last season? If Quick shuts down the Sharks like he has so many times before, the Kings will win. However, I think San Jose is better than they were last year when LA knocked them out in seven games and they will find a way to beat Quick this year.

-San Jose wins series, 4-3.

Check back tomorrow for my Eastern Conference predictions.

Blackhawks’ injuries could be blessing in disguise

130107_gq_trout_aA few weeks back, Patrick Kane was injured during the Blackhawks’ tilt with the St. Louis Blues at the United Center. Shortly after, he was ruled out for the remainder of the regular season with a “lower body injury.” A week and a half later, Jonathan Toews was injured during the second period of the Hawks-Penguins game after a bone-crushing hit from Brooks Orpik. Like Kane, Toews was ruled out for the rest of the regular season. Many, myself included, thought the Blackhawks would go into a tailspin and struggle to win games for the remainder of their schedule. That, however, has not been the case.

The Blackhawks are currently riding a three-game winning streak after wins over Minnesota, Columbus, and St. Louis (all playoff teams). They trail the Avalanche in the standings by two points, while Colorado has a game-in-hand. During this three-game winning streak, multiple Blackhawks players have had a chance to step up and make their mark on the team in Kane and Toews’ absence. Guys like Andrew Shaw, Jeremy Morin, Ben Smith, and Peter Regin have stepped up their game lately and are a huge reason for the team’s recent success.

940-couture-loganWhile one would assume having Kane and Toews injured at the same time is never a good thing, it has actually opened the door for Jeremy Morin to prove he belongs on the Blackhawks NHL roster and in the starting lineup heading into the playoffs. All season long, Hawks fans have wondered why Morin has been stuck down in Rockford while players such as Bollig and Handzus have continued to play every night in Chicago. In the coaching staff’s defense, Morin wasn’t showing any signs of improved defensive awareness in his stints with the Blackhawks earlier this season, thus the reason for him spending ample time in Rockford. Now, however, Morin is back in the Blackhawks’ lineup and he looks like a much-improved player in all facets of the game (see, spending time in the AHL can be a positive).

Morin has scored two goals in the last two games and also added an assist against St. Louis in the Hawks’ most recent game this past Sunday. He’s always been a physical player, but now he is playing a smart physical game rather than running around like a chicken with its head cut off. One aspect of Morin’s game that has really stood out to me is his willingness to crash the net in the offensive zone after a shot. This is how he scored against the Blues the other day. Come playoff time, the Blackhawks (and all other playoff teams) will need some ugly goals to help get them victories, and Morin is the type of guy who will get you those.

Here’s the issue. When Kane and Toews do re-enter the lineup for Game One of the playoffs, two players will have to exit. If I could have it my way, I’d like to see Handzus and Bollig be the ones to get scratched for the postseason. My ideal lines would look something like this:

Saad-Toews-Hossa

Sharp-Shaw-Kane

Versteeg-Smith-Bickell

Morin-Kruger-Regin

I think you could flip/flop Shaw and Smith if need be, but for the most part I think those are 139990-330-0the best lines Quenneville could put together. Handzus, while good on the penalty kill, is too slow and not skilled enough to be effective in this lineup. Too often he holds up the rush, makes terrible passes, or gets trapped along the boards due to his lack of quickness and turns the puck over. Bollig, on the other hand, can be a physical presence on the ice, but he has next to zero offensive skill and cannot be trusted in his own end come playoff time. Insert Morin and Regin in place of Handzus and Bollig and you have a lot more skill, a lot more speed, and a much deeper and smarter team.

It is becoming clearer and clearer that Teuvo Teravainen is not in the team’s plans for this postseason as Joel Quenneville continues to not play him. I can’t say I blame the team for not wanting to use up the first year of Teuvo’s contract right now, but I do think he could be a dangerous center on a line with Patrick Kane in the playoffs.

While none of us enjoy having our captain and best playmaker injured at the same time, their injuries have opened the door for guys like Morin, Smith, Regin and Shaw to step up their game leading into the playoffs. I don’t know how much more Jeremy Morin has to do to prove he belongs in the lineup for the postseason, and hopefully Quenneville sees that as well. The Hawks should be healthy come Game One against Colorado, whether it be at home or in Denver, and I think a healthy Blackhawks team can take down the Avs in a seven-game series.