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.
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.
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.
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.
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.