NHL First Round Preview Western Conference

Posted: 04/16/2014 by levcohen in Hockey

Time for the Western Conference preview, which could be even better than in the East. There are all kinds of storylines, and I wouldn’t be surprised if any of six teams made the Stanley Cup Finals. Let’s get to it.

St. Louis Blues (111 points) vs Chicago Blackhawks (107):
Chicago is definitely going to be ready for this series. They are the defending champs, and are probably the deepest team in hockey, or at least in the Western Conference. They have plenty of star players offensively, which explains their 267 goals, tops in the NHL. They have Duncan Keith, who is likely to win the award for best defensive player, and he is joined by plenty of offensive power: Patrick Sharp, captain Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, etc. They have been here before, performed well throughout the season, and have depth to go along with their star power. They’ll be ready to go. But will the Blues? After holding the best record in the NHL for most of the season, the Blues slumped at the end of the season, losing their last six games. They ended the season by coughing up not just the best record in the West, but also the #1 seed in the Central division. That’s huge, as they now have to play the defending champs, whereas had they finished with more points than the Avalanche they would be playing Wild, which would still be a tough matchup, but nowhere near as difficult. The Blues love low scoring games. They are one of only four teams who have given up fewer than 200 goals this season. What people don’t realize about St. Louis, though, is how good they are offensively. They finished the season sixth in goals per game at 2.9, and were also eighth on the power play. So although the Blues don’t exactly play an exciting or fast paced game, they do manage to score a lot of goals. Again, though, their main strength is their defense, which is probably the best in the NHL. Alex Pietrangelo, a Norris trophy candidate, and Jay Boumeester give the Blues a shutdown pair; they should be able to slow down Chicago’s top line. The key for the Blues is the goalie, Ryan Miller. Miller, who was acquired in the middle of the season, has struggled mightily recently, and has given up a few soft goals. The Blues have a lot of advantages, including on the power play and on the penalty kill, but they are getting cold at the wrong time and the Blackhawks are going to play well. They should also be able to win on the road. I like the Blackhawks in 6.

Colorado Avalanche (112) vs Minnesota Wild (98):
The analytic crowd believes that the Avalanche are playing at an unsustainable level right now, and I tend to agree. Remember, this is the team that picked #1 overall last year, so they have had quite a turnaround. Often, these amazing turnarounds don’t continue into the playoffs. Colorado is a terrible possession team who give the puck over a ton and play a high flying style of hockey. Their goal differential, +30, is good, but not as good as their point total would indicate. They have the second most points in the West, but just the sixth best goal differential in the conference. Patrick Roy, one of the best goalies of all time, is doing a heck of a job as a first year coach. The Avalanche do have some good players. They have the #1 overall pick and likely Calder Trophy winner Nathan MacKinnon. Although MacKinnon obviously has no playoff experience (which is a common thing on this upstart team), he has a boatload of talent, and could be a difference maker. They also have a possible Vezina (best goalie) trophy winner in Semyon Varlamov, and Varlamov is no upstart; he has been a solid goalie throughout his career. This year, as the team has blossomed, so has Varlamov. He has two more wins than any other goalie, and is also third in save percentage. When the defense has allowed shots, Varlamov has been there to stop them. The Avs struggle on the penalty kill, which could be something to watch for, but they are a good power play team. The Wild are solid, but I’m not sure they have enough to expose the Avs’ weaknesses. Their goalie, Josh Harding, was a Vezina candidate until he got hurt in December. Now, Ilya Bryzgalov, who is erratic to say the least, will be behind the pipes. That is worrying. Also worrying is the fact that Ryan Suter, who led the NHL in minutes played by a wide margin, will likely have to be on the ice for more than half the game against the fast Avalanche. Suter is used to a heavy workload, but a 30 minute plus game is never a good thing. I like the upstart Avalanche in 5 over the mediocre Wild.

San Jose Sharks (111) vs Los Angeles Kings (100):
This is probably the premier matchup of the first round, and I think it is likely to go seven games. These two teams are two of the best in all of hockey, and the winner will probably be favored to make it out of the West. The Sharks win games by their even strength scoring and good defense. Along with the Blues and Bruins, this was one of the most well rounded teams in the NHL in the regular season. The problem is that they’ve been here before- year after year after year, in fact-, and they almost always go out in the first or second round. This is the best Sharks team in recent memory, so it could be different, but they don’t have the playoff success that the Kings, who won the Stanley Cup two years ago, do. The Kings are much worse on the offensive side of things than the Sharks, but they are the best defensive team in the NHL. Led by Drew Doughty, this was the best defensive team in hockey this year, giving up the second fewest shots and the fewest goals among any NHL team. The goalie, Jonathan Quick, has done it before, most recently in the Olympics, and could have the advantage over San Jose’s goalie, Anti Niemi, who has been prone to playoff lapses in the past. In a series that will probably be lower scoring than any other, the Sharks’ offensive weapons could be the difference. San Jose had three players with 70+ points, while Los Angeles had just one in Anze Kopitar. And their next best scorer was Jeff Carter at 50 points. The Kings struggle to score goals, and the Sharks do not. That, along with the Sharks’ home ice advantage and 29-7-5 home record are the main reasons I’m picking the Sharks to push aside some of their playoff demons and win the series in 7.

Anaheim Ducks (114) vs Dallas Stars (91):
This is the trendy upset pick, and I understand why. The Ducks, the second best offensive team throughout the season, got lucky, as they were about average at keeping the puck. Their goalie, Jonas Hiller, struggled at the end of the season, starting just two of the final nine games (and losing 5-2 and 4-2) after being in net for 48 of the first 73 games. Meanwhile, the Stars are led by two star players in Jaime Benn and Tyler Seguin who probably won’t be stopped by the Ducks. They won eight of their last 13 games. They are rolling right now, and the Ducks overperformed throughout the season. I get it. But I also think that Anaheim has the talent to withstand a good series by the Stars. I think their “big two” of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are just as good as Dallas’s. In a high scoring series, I think it’ll come down to which team draws more penalties and which team does more on the power play. The Ducks scored a lot of goals, but still struggled on the power play. Meanwhile, the Stars have been bad on both the power play and penalty kill throughout the year. The Ducks are the slightly better power play team, which is why I think the Ducks will win the series in 5. Their home record, 29-8-4, could be the difference against a Stars team that has struggled on the road throughout the season. In fact, the Stars are the only playoff team with more regulation losses on the road than wins. They are 17-20-4 on the road.  That, along with the power play, is the difference for the Ducks, who will avoid the big upset.


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