After going through the East yesterday, today we move on to making picks for the Stanley Cup playoffs in the Western Conference. One thing you’ll notice about the West is that their is far more of a defeatist attitude. That’s what you get when two teams have combined to go to five of the last seven Stanley Cup Finals. Even though the Kings’ reign appears to be over, the powerhouse Blackhawks remain, and the road out of the West figures to go through the Windy City.
Will we see yet another Cup finals appearance for suddenly spoiled Chicago sports fans, or will another team pull a St. Louis and upset the balance? I know it’s the only series you care about, so let’s get to it right off the bat.
The Blackhawks entered the year well rested after their first-round exit last season. It showed as they claimed the one-seed in the Western Conference for the first time in the Joel Quenneville era (in an 82-game season). Chicago usually has to win a few games in a hostile barn to get to Lord Stanley, but not this time around. So perhaps Nashville won’t make a point of keeping Blackhawks fans out of their building this year?
If there is one person the Predators should try to keep out of Bridgestone, it’s Duncan Keith. Not only is the defenseman a beast come playoff time, averaging over 30 minutes a night, but he’s scored more points against Nashville than any other team in the league.
Keith’s durability and high usage in the postseason masks a problem that always plagues Chicago: they only have three D-men they really trust in big games. The play from their defense is important, too, because Corey Crawford is a very up and down goalie. Luckily for the Blackhawks, if a change needs to be made, Scott Darling is an excellent backup option, with a .924 save percentage in 32 games this season.
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw both teams opt for a goalie swap at some point this series. Pekka Rinne hasn’t been anything special in his playoff career, despite the Predators building a great and deep defensive corps in front of him. Juuse Saros has been strong in limited action and could get a chance if Nashville falls behind early.
No matter who’s in net though, you need to score goals to win, and in a series like this, I trust Chicago’s big guns — Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin, Marian Hossa, Richard Panik and Jonathan Toews (if there’s a game seven) — to come through. Smashville has run into Chicago in the playoffs twice before, with both series ending in a six-game Blackhawk victory. Why deviate from tradition?
Pick: Chicago Blackhawks (in 6 games).
Every playoff has that opening series you don’t spend too much time worrying about, because neither team figures to advance past the second round. In case the preamble didn’t tip you off, Wild and Blues, you’re this season’s neglected class hamster.
Being inconsequential in the grand scheme doesn’t mean it won’t be an interesting matchup though, as both teams try to avoid blowing the series in their usual fashion. For the Blues, failure comes whenever they start a goalie not named Brian Elliott in the playoffs. For Wild coach Bruce Boudreau, failure comes whenever a series stretches to game seven (career 1-7 in the decisive game).
The Wild were a popular pick to do some postseason damage after upgrading at the trade deadline, but they finished the year on an 8-11-2 slide and former Vezina frontrunner Devan Dubnyk has struggled, posting just a .904 save percentage and a 2.82 goals against average since the All-Star break. The good news is that Minnesota’s offense has the potential to make up the deficit if Dubnyk continues to struggle, finishing second in the league in scoring.
The Blues were sellers at the deadline, opting to move defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk rather than lose him in free agency for nothing. The move was hardly an admission of defeat for a deep St. Louis squad, but it has hurt the powerplay. Without Shattenkirk manning the point, the Blues have seen their powerplay drop to 18.9-percent, after being over 22-percent for most of the season. They still have a top three penalty kill, though, and a lot of inside information on how the Wild operate.
St. Louis head coach Mike Yeo was fired from Minnesota just last season, so this series is his chance at revenge. The Blues have been substantially better since Yeo took over the team in February, going 22-8-2 with a +33 goal differential. St. Louis is hot heading into this one and look capable of giving the Wild a real problem, as long as goalie Jake Allen can avoid falling on his face this postseason. And if this series does go the distance, we know not to trust the Boudreau’s Wild.
Like I said at the start, it’s not like either team is advancing past Chicago. So rather than stress anymore about this series, I’ll take the extra value with St. Louis.
Pick St. Louis Blues (in 7 games).
Both Pacific Division series share a common theme: old, slow and experienced, versus young, fast and dumb. Calgary’s matchup with Anaheim should make for some thrilling hockey, or it would, if we hadn’t seen this exact series play out less than two years ago.
The 2015 Flames got walloped by the Ducks in the second round of the playoffs, losing in five games by a combined score of 19-9. You can look at the rematch as a chance for a grown-up Calgary team to prove it belongs, but how much has this team changed in two seasons?
For starters, their possession numbers more accurately reflect how good the team is this year. The 2015 bunch was one of the great overachievers in analytics history, and was finally exposed when they ran into a real team. This year’s Flames are middle of the pack in terms of possession, and by not getting grossly outshot, this team is performing well even though their save percentage is down from 2015.
What has gone up for the Flames is the production of their secondary scorers. The 2015 team had no depth, but now with the emergence of rookie Matthew Tkachuk as a future Brad Marchand (great scorer and pain in the ass), as well as veterans like Troy Brouwer, Kris Versteeg and Michael Frolik, the Flames have more options to take on the Ducks.
Anaheim has also undergone a transformation in the past two years, reverting to a more physical, defensive system under once and current coach Randy Carlyle. The Ducks were top three in goals against this season and threw the second most hits. Whether they roll with John Gibson or Jonathan Bernier in net, they’ll have a statistically better goalie than Calgary.
There are some concerns with Anaheim, too. They don’t have a lot of scoring depth, a situation that’s exacerbated by a disappointing season from Corey Perry. They’ll also be without top defenseman Cam Fowler to start the series, and his timeline for return is unknown. But still, this bruising, veteran team should still be to assert its will against the younger Flames.
There will come a time when Calgary is ready to topple the best teams in the West, but that was put on hold the second they drew the Ducks. When you don’t have home-ice advantage and you haven’t won in your opponent’s arena in 25 straight games, it’s tough to see a way you can pull off the upset.
Pick: Anaheim Ducks (in 5 games).
Old vs Young 2: Millennials’ Revenge. This series stacks up a lot differently than Flames/Ducks. Not only do the youthful Oilers have home-ice advantage against a banged-up Sharks team, but they are led by a truly generational talent.
The only 100-point scorer in the NHL this year, Connor McDavid enters his first postseason hot off a surefire MVP season. (Boy did I miss the mark on that one.) Raising Edmonton to the playoffs for the first time in a decade already makes this a fantastic season, but this team isn’t done yet. Edmonton has the team speed to skate circles around the Sharks and workhorse goalie Cam Talbot should keep them in games, even if they get a little too aggressive offensively. (As long as Talbot stays healthy, that is, which is a real concern after logging an NHL-leading 73 starts.)
Part of the reason it’s so difficult to repeat as champs in the NHL is the grind. The Cup finals don’t end until mid to late June; then you get a quick two months off before it’s right back to training camp. Throw in this fall’s World Cup of Hockey and you can understand why San Jose, last year’s bridesmaids, looked so worn out down the stretch. Joe Thornton and Logan Couture are already day-to-day with injuries heading into this series, while Marc Edouard Vlasic is going to become exhausted trying to mark McDavid for a whole series.
For Edmonton, stopping the Sharks’ attack begins with getting out to the point and covering Brent Burns. At one point, it looked like the defenseman would challenge for the Art Ross, but he slumps into the postseason with just 10 points in his last 20 games, a microcosm of a San Jose squad that ended the year on a 4-9 skid.
The Oilers are far from a perfect team. They aren’t even all that deep beyond McDavid’s and Leon Draisaitl’s lines. But with such a special player in what is sure to be a rocking Edmonton arena, I’ll take the kids to put the Sharks out of their misery with a game to spare.
Pick: Edmonton Oilers (in 6 games).
Photo Credit: Tommy LaPorte/Icon Sportswire.
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