Yesterday this site took a look at the first round of the Eastern Conference Stanley Cup Playoffs. Tonight, attention turns to the West. This conference (well, really just two of its teams) has hoisted the Cup four years running. While no team in the conference had the kind of season that the Capitals had, or had the type of insane run to end the season that Pittsburgh had, there’s a slew of intriguing match-ups in the first round.
Dallas Stars (C1) vs Minnesota Wild (WC2)
The Stars improved vastly from 2015, where they missed out on the playoffs due to bad goaltending and defense. However, it is still their weakness. The Stars gave up 2.8 goals per game, 19th in the league. Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen essentially split the season as starting goaltenders, a strategy which coach Lindy Ruff plans to continue to use in the playoffs. Individually, neither have been that impressive, but a two-man system could benefit them if one goes cold early in the first round. What is impressive is Dallas’ offense, led by Jamie Benn’s team-high 89 points. The Stars may be without Tyler Seguin who practiced on Monday after missing the final 10 games with a lacerated Achilles’ tendon. The two key players might be Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya, both used to long runs in the playoffs from their time in Chicago.
Minnesota’s defense, which gave up the 9th fewest goals in the season, could be the defense to stop the Stars. But in order to do so, they must stay out of the penalty box. The Wild were 27th on the penalty kill, the worst among all playoff teams. Offensively, there’s not a lot that impresses, especially if they’re going to need to keep pace with a high scoring team. It gets worse, as it appears that leading goal-scorer Zach Parise will not be healthy in time for the start of this series, and Thomas Vanek’s availability is also a question mark. That puts a lot of stress on goalie Devan Dubnyk to play as close to perfect as possible. If he can keep them in games, the Wild have a team filled with enough veterans to make things difficult for Dallas. The only question is can they score enough. Probably not.
Lock It In: Stars in 6
Anaheim Ducks (P1) vs Nashville Predators (WC1)
Looking to improve on last year’s heartbreaking loss in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, the Ducks enter the playoffs as legitimate Cup contending team. Statistically the best goaltending tandem in the league, the Ducks will start with John Gibson in goal over Frederik Anderson (who missed several games late in the season with a concussion). Special teams has been special for Anaheim this season; they rank first in power play and penalty kill percentage. Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf each put up 60+ point seasons, and this group has now made the playoffs in three straight season. Not bad for a team that lost 9 of its first 10 games of the season.
Opposing them will be the Nashville Predators, who gave the Blackhawks a scare in the first round of the 2015 playoffs before yet another early round bow out. The Preds got bad news over the weekend when star prospect Jimmy Vesey opted to pursue free agency in the off-season, rather than accept an offer to play for Nashville, the team who drafted him with their third-round pick in the 2012 Draft. Any team with Pekka Rinne in net has a chance to win a playoff series, although he’ll have to play better than his .909 save percentage in last year’s playoffs. 21 year-old Filip Forsberg leads a relatively young team, and 25 year old defenseman Roman Josi was second on the team (to Forsberg) in points. Obviously, the heart and soul of the team lies within Shea Webber and Rinne, so it is surprising that the Predators were middle-of-the-pack in goals allowed per game. The window might be closing on Nashville’s chances to go on a playoff run with Rinne in net, and Weber, age 30, is not getting younger either. The problem they’re facing is that they’re playing a team that has torn up the league since November. It would be quite a stunner if Nashville upset Anaheim, but if they can, it’ll be because Pekka Rinne shut the door.
Lock It In: Ducks in 5
St. Louis Blues (C2) vs Chicago Blackhawks (C3)
Yet again, St. Louis finds themselves in a familiar position. A very promising season, and yet still questions to answer in the postseason, where they have won only one series since 2002. Brian Elliot and Jake Allen split the season in goal for the Blues, but Elliot will get the start in Game 1 of the series with Allen only factoring in if Ken Hitchcock’s team makes an elongated run.Vladimir Tarasenko team-high 40 goals (nearly double that of David Backes, who was second on the team with 21) certainly will energize this offense that tends to fall asleep in the spring. He needs to show everyone that he can beat an elite team with his pure goal-scoring ability. Other than Tarasenko, it is the usual crew for the Blues, which might be worrisome. Yes, Backes, Kevin Shattenkirk, Alexander Steen, Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo have been a solid core of players, but they have just been unable to prove it when it matters.
In the complete opposite fashion, the Chicago Blackhawks, thrice champions since 2010 (and the reigning champion) have turned the regular season into a warm-up for the playoffs. Patrick Kane led the league with 106 points, and rookie sensation Artemi Panarin scored nearly a point per game. Obviously, they’re led by Johnathan Toews, who simply knows how to win. The one positive that the Blues have going for them is that Duncan Keith will miss the first game of the season as he finishes serving a six-game suspension for whacking Charlie Coyle in the face with his stick. The biggest weakness that Chicago has might be their goalie, Corey Crawford. Crawford struggled mightily in the first round of the playoffs last year, and was benched in favor of Scott Darling before returning in the conference semis and be solid throughout the rest of their title run. Crawford performed well this season with a goals against average of 2.37, and if that’s considered a “weakness”, then you have a solid team. A disappointing team on the penalty kill might be a cause of concern further along in the playoffs, but as long as it’s not a trainwreck, Chicago should have no concerns in this series.
Lock It In: Blackhawks in 5
Los Angeles Kings (P2) vs San Jose Sharks (P3)
The last time these two teams met in the playoffs, the Kings pulled off an improbable 3-0 series comeback to stun the Sharks. Both teams missed out on the playoffs last year, and one team is looking to cement its status as a big-time playoff team, while another is still trying to overcome those postseason struggles. The Kings are led by one of the game’s best goaltenders in Jonathan Quick, and that needs to be their strength in the postseason as well. The Kings allowed the third fewest goals during the season and Quick’s 2.22 GAA helped lead him to his first 40 win season. The Kings are a little banged up, with Marian Gaborik trying to return to the team after spraining his knee in February, and Alec Martinez will not be available for the start of the series. But the Kings still have Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty tolling the blue line, and new-comer Milan Lucic, who won the Cup in 2011 with the Bruins. Even if “Mr. Game 7” Justin Williams is no longer with them, there’s a lot to like about the Kings, who like the Hawks, have tended to treat the regular season as a warm-up (which played to their detriment last season). Well-coached by Darryl Sutter, the Kings are a popular pick to be the kings in 2016.
But first they’ll need to get through the San Jose Sharks, a fierce division rival who greeted the Kings to the 2015-16 season with a 5-1 thrashing on Opening Night. The Sharks ended up winning the season series 3-2, though that should matter very little. Aside from Peter DeBoer, who is in his first season in charge of the Sharks, it’s a familiar cast. Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski each put up roughly a point per game this season, Joel Ward came over from Washington to chip in with 43 points, and the NHL’s third best power play made San Jose constant scoring threat. Martin Jones will be making his first start in the playoffs after an impressive season in goal, and it comes against the team for whom he served as a backup for two seasons. Because of the new coach, it’s perhaps a little unfair to say that the Sharks feel like the same team that could never break through and make it to a Cup Final. But a lot of the players are still the same, for the Sharks and the Kings, and there is just this belief that Los Angeles is better prepared to win these gritty games. And until the Sharks prove that they can, that belief is a reality.
Lock It In: Kings in 7