Western Conference playoff match-ups and predictions
The shortened NHL season came with the caveat of no inter-conference play. If you’re a fan of an Eastern Conference team, you likely haven’t caught more than a few Western Conference games all season. Many of these teams are virtual strangers, and the eventual Eastern Conference champion will be playing for the Cup against a team they haven’t played in over a year. Let’s get an idea of how the teams match up with each other and get re-acquainted with the big names of the West.
No. 1 Chicago Blackhawks vs. No. 8 Minnesota Wild
Chicago’s best-in league record versus the Minnesota Wild, a team that barely scraped into the playoffs? It sounds like an open-and shut case, and it probably is for the most part. The Wild’s defense probably won’t be enough to stifle Chicago’s potent offense even with Niklas Backstrom’s always-serviceable goaltending. The Wild defense, while still boasting Ryan Suter, frankly doesn’t have much else going on back on the blue line aside from rookie Jonas Brodin, who is impressive for a 19-year-old but may not be ready for the challenge of holding back the likes of Patrick Kane in a playoff series.
The Wild’s Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, and Dany Heatley are still offensive threats but less so up against the Blackhawks’ defensemen, whose toughness and play-making prowess makes it easy for Chicago forwards to move up ice. Much like the Penguins in the East, Chicago’s offense is unparalleled in the Western Conference, and Minnesota has neither the firepower nor the personnel on defense to match them.
Prediction: Blackhawks in 4
No. 2 Anaheim Ducks vs. No. 7 Detroit Red Wings
Detroit pretty much always makes the playoffs, but this is easily the lowest they have finished since the early ’90s. So it’s been awhile since the Red Wings were an underdog, and in fact, they very nearly didn’t make the playoffs at all.
While the Wings have big names at forward in Pavel Datsyuk, Valtteri Filppula, Henrik Zetterberg, and Johan Franzen, the Ducks have the edge this season in goal scoring and it shows. They’re getting points from up and down their lineup, from 42-year-old Teemu Selanne to 22-year old Kyle Palmieri, whereas the Wings’ production drops off sharply after you get past the big names on the roster.
The Wings do, however, perhaps possess the defensive advantage, with Nik Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson, and Jakub Kindl showing strong two-way play all year. Francois Beauchemin and Cam Fowler are excellent for the Ducks, but beyond that, their defensive depth is somewhat thin. The Wings’ middling record of the season might conceal the fact that Jimmy Howard is playing unbelievably well, and the goaltending battle could decide the series.
In net, the Ducks have both Jonas Hiller, a known factor in Anaheim, and Viktor Fasth, a virtually unknown Swedish goalie who came into the NHL quite suddenly and won his first eight starts. The Ducks’ coaches have split the load pretty evenly between Hiller and Fasth this season, and depending on how the series goes, either one of them could get a nod to start on any given day. The Wings, as always, are a tougher opponent than anyone wants to believe, but the Ducks will probably battle it out in the end.
Prediction: Ducks in 6
No. 3 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 6 San Jose Sharks
Both teams are strong at forward, but with different personalities. The Sharks have more snarl and grit up and down their forward lines (Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Martin Havlat), while the Canucks bring more pure offensive prowess (Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Alexandre Burrows, Jannik Hansen).
The Canucks’ defense is where they might struggle. Despite veteran names on the roster, none apart from Dan Hamhuis has truly provided steadiness throughout the season, and the Canucks have given up almost as many goals as they have scored. Give the Sharks a slight advantage on defense, with Dan Boyle, Brad Stuart, Brent Burns, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic holding down the fort. Boyle and Stuart are old hands at playoff hockey who have more offensive potential than they’ve shown this year, and could contribute more if they find their confidence.
With the goaltending situation up in the air in Vancouver (will Roberto Luongo be reliable? Is Cory Schneider going to be healthy?), Antti Niemi’s performance in goal for the Sharks will be crucial, and he has proven he can carry the load as his 24 wins on the season are tied for league-best. This series is a lot different than it might look in the standings; the Canucks weren’t much better than the 8th-seed Wild in the Northwest Division, and a mere handful of points separated them from 3rd seed with home ice advantage and not making the playoffs at all.
Prediction: Sharks in 6
No. 4 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 5 Los Angeles Kings
Possibly the most even match of the whole playoffs. The reigning Stanley Cup Champions face a team they eliminated last season, though the Blues are off to the postseason on a better foot. They went 11-2-0 in April and have the stat sheet that shows why: nine of their players have 20 or more points, led by Chris Stewart and David Backes. Everyone else seems to be scoring, too.
The Kings can say the same, though. They have a 26-goal-scorer in Jeff Carter and brilliant playmakers in Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams. Slava Voynov and Drew Doughty are forces on the blue line who can pitch in timely goals. Similarly, the Blues have Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo. The Kings’ offense seems more potent overall, but every other aspect of the two clubs is fairly evenly matched, and the Kings had a few games down the stretch go awry against teams they should have been able to beat. The Blues’ netminder, Brian Elliott, is also finding his legs again after a somewhat disappointing season, especially considering his .940 save percentage from last year. Jonathan Quick is in a similar boat, having slipped a bit since his stellar 2011-12 season and Cup run. This one might get down to the wire.