Welcome back to 4 on 4! Four prominent hockey writers; John Hoven of The Mayor's Manor, Bryan Reynolds and Nathan Eide formerly of Hockey Wilderness, Cheryl Bradley of Mile High Hockey, and Cheryl Adams of Hockey Broad preview the Western Conference Quarterfinals.
Anaheim vs Dallas
Even though the Ducks are facing one of the two Wild Card teams in the Western Conference, they certainly don’t have an easy task in front of them. In fact, this may the most difficult series to pick a winner from in the opening round.
Dallas has been a mixed bag all season, as the organization works their way through a bit of a transitional period. They’ve looked very good at times, pretty lousy at other moments, and overall just plain inconsistent. If they can string enough good games together, Anaheim could be ripe for an upset – especially if the Stars older vets (Whitney, Horcoff, Gonchar, and Cole) and younger players (Chiasson, Garbutt, and Roussel) can contain Anaheim’s depth and speed.
Up front, Dallas can certainly match Anaheim’s star duo of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry with Benn-a-guin (Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin). Neither team has a true stud on defense, but both have pieced together groups that have shown they’re more than capable of shutting down top teams in the league at various times. Even so, keep an eye on the Stars blueliners. The patchwork group, led by veterans Trevor Daley and Sergei Gonchar, and supplemented with a mix of younger players (including Goligoski, Dillon, Benn and Connauton), has a tendency to turn the puck over and rely on goaltender Kari Lehtonen to bail them out.
When the series comes down to goaltending, as it almost always does in the NHL, that’s also where the Ducks become a bit of a wild card (yes, pun intended).
In somewhat of a surprise move, Jonas Hiller won't be the starter for Game 1. While Frederik Andersen and John Gibson have put up great numbers, conventional wisdom suggested that was over too small of a sample size to give most bench bosses much confidence. Not here. Anderson will start the series in the Anaheim crease, but can he keep it? If he falters by letting in a bad goal or loses a game early, how long of a leash will he be given? Could we even see the Ducks become one of those rare teams to actually use three goaltenders in a single series? If so, take that as strong indication play isn’t going their way.
Also, lurking in the background is coach Bruce Boudreau’s questionable playoff record, combined with the ghost of losing to the 7th seeded Detroit Red Wings in the opening round of last year’s playoffs – a series they entered as the Pacific Division champs, just like this year. From a glass half-full perspective, that experience from last spring should help the team this year, as their younger core players (Bonino, Palmieri, Beleskey, and Fowler) have now had a taste of what it takes to win a series in the playoffs.
Even if Anderson can’t hold the net until the clincher, look for the Anaheim’s offense to be there in the end, and for the Ducks to close out the Stars in six games.
Boston vs Detroit
The Red Wings found a way to claw and fight their way into the playoffs for the 23rd consecutive time and this has to be one of the most impressive coaching performances by Mike Babcock given all the all the key injuries he has had to deal with over the last six months. Although they took the regular season series from the Bruins 3-1, even the most casual hockey fan knows the playoffs are a completely different beast. Despite using an impressive push from a myriad of players without much NHL experience to make it this far, it just won’t be enough against the big bad Bruins in the post-season.
Even if Henrik Zetterberg comes back, how effective will he be after being out since before the Olympics? For the most part, the Bruins can focus on Pavel Datsyuk’s line, and more specifically, shutting him down. Can Gustav Nyquist or Tomas Tatar keep potting key goals? Niklas Kronwall is the only true shutdown defenseman on the blueline who has been battle tested, so he will have to log a lot of minutes against the Bruins top lines. Can Danny DeKeyser or Brandan Smith become breakout players, and be not only relied upon, but play become difference makers in key situations? All in all, there are just too many questions surrounding a Detroit lineup filled with gaping holes.
Perhaps the only thing capable of slowing down the heavily favored Bruins are the Bruins themselves. From top to bottom, Boston is built for the long run and they should be back in the Stanley Cup Final. Kudos to the Red Wings for making do all year with a mish-mash lineup, but it’s a tall order to expect those kids to take out the mighty Bruins in round one. Take Boston in five games.
We haven't seen or heard from Bryan or Nathan since the posting of this article.
St. Louis vs Chicago
This could possibly be the most exciting series in the first round. Much of that depends on the physical health and mental strength of the Blues, however. Until wrecked by injuries, St. Louis looked like the team to beat. While the team is expected to see pivotal players like David Backes (foot) and TJ Oshie (upper body) return for Game 1, indefinite losses of Patrik Berglund (upper body), Brenden Morrow (broken foot), and Vladimir Tarasenko (fractured hand) create major holes in the team's offense. The Blues will have to get scoring elsewhere in order to stay with the Blackhawks. Fortunately, St. Louis has arguably the best defense in the league, and the combination of hard, physical play and offensive production will go a long way to lessening the blow of the injuries. Two key things must happen in order for St. Louis to be competitive against Chicago, though. First, Ryan Miller needs to up his game and be the goaltender Ken Hitchcock thought he was getting. Closing out the season with a dismal record of 3-7 and a save percentage of .899 suggests a performance that simply won't get it done. Second, Miller and the rest of the team need to put the free fall of the past two weeks behind them and find that winning mentality once again. If they don't, this could end up being a very short series.
Chicago also struggled down the stretch, but they will be getting back two game changers in Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane for Round 1. The franchise players are integral to a successful playoff run for the Hawks, despite the team's strong forward depth. The two-way play of Toews and the point-per-game scoring of Kane create a formidable offense and allow for the lower lines to put up numbers as Toews and Kane will pull the toughest competition. Special teams will be key for Chicago. The regular season saw middling numbers for both the power play and penalty kill. Without a strong improvement—and return to what we saw in last season's championship run—the Blackhawks will struggle to keep up with the Blues. Going for them is the fact that they are one of the teams that match up well physically with St. Louis. They give as good as they get. Also a benefit is a proven ability to face adversity and triumph; the team came from behind to win each round of the 2013 playoffs, showing a mental fortitude that made all the difference.
The best part of this series is the rivalry that goes back to the Norris Conference days. Every game is physical and chippy, and you can expect to see an aggressive forecheck from each team, as well as hard battles along the boards. The animosity is only going to escalate, especially if the series is close and lengthy. In the end, though, the once favored St. Louis Blues have so many challenges to overcome, the Chicago Blackhawks has to be the favorite of this match up. Hawks in 5.
New York vs. Philadelphia
This is a series that could go either way. While the Flyers tended to score more in the regular season, the Rangers were better defensively. Philly's power play ranked higher, but New York's penalty kill was stellar. The key to this match up will come down to which team's spotlight players step up and which go cold.
The Rangers will need both Rick Nash and trade acquisition Martin St. Louis to produce. There's no way around it. While the team has been getting scoring from Brad Richards and Derek Stepan, it's all for nothing if the team's star players don't play like star players. Setting a bad precedent, Nash all but disappeared in the playoffs last season, and if the team wants to win, that cannot happen this year. St. Louis has had difficulty adjusting to his new surroundings and put up only 8 points in 19 games since the trade. On the other hand, defensively and in net, New York is set. Backstopped by Vezina winner Henrik Lundqvist (2.36 GAA and .920 save percentage), New York will force the Flyers to work hard for every goal. The Rangers's depth at the blueline is exceptional, boasting a top-four that can match up against the top lines of any team. Critical to their success though is Ryan McDonagh who missed the final games of the regular season due to an upper body injury. He is set to play in Game 1, but how long can his bruised body hold up against the notoriously physical Philadelphia Flyers? To be successful, the Rangers will need McDonagh's offense (14g, 29a) to stay afloat.
The Flyers finished out the season on fire. Team captain Claude Giroux may have started out slowly, but he ended the season with 86 points in 82 games. Giroux isn't the only one with a scoring touch, however. In fact, Philly had seven forwards reach the 20-goal mark this season. Vincent LeCavelier, playing on the fourth line, racked up 37 points (20g, 17a) averaging only 15 minutes of ice time per game. Scott Hartnell also scored 20 goals while maintaining his physical play that netted him 103 penalty minutes. The Flyers are built for offense and filled with players that up their game in the postseason. They struggle in their end of the ice, though. While his stats aren't terrible, Steve Mason (2.50 GAA, .917 save percentage) didn't turn heads, either. He managed to keep his team in the playoff hunt all season, but like McDonagh, a late upper-body injury may negatively affect his play going into the first round. Moreover, his one previous playoff appearance (Columbus Blue Jackets, 2009) ended in a first-round sweep courtesy of the Detroit Red Wings. The defensive corps for Philadelphia is more about offense than defense. There's plenty of scoring going on with Mark Streit putting up 10 goals and 34 assists and Kimmo Timonen adding in 6 goals and 29 assists of his own. But the porous back end will need to be stronger in front of the net and better at clearing the zone if the team wants to stay in games.
The series will be hard fought. It will be filled with hate. These are teams with a rivalry that spans decades, and there's little doubt that blood will be shed. It's said, though, that defense wins championships, and the Rangers have that in spades, giving them the edge in this match up. Rangers in 7.
Colorado vs. Minnesota
On paper, everything about this series looks like a potential first-round sweep. The young and hungry Colorado Avalanche, after a coming-out season under freshman coach Patrick Roy, is backed by Semyon Varlamov, who had a career year (41-14-6, .927 sv%, 2.41 GAA). Meanwhile, the Wild started five different goalies this year, including late-season acquisition Ilyz Bryzgalov. The Avs took the regular season series 4-0-1; the two games that went to overtime both went to shootouts.
Bryzgalov has turned out to be good for the Wild: he's gone 7-1-3 (.911 sv%, 2.12 GAA) - including 3 shutouts - since being traded to Minnesota. His performance helped the Wild lock in their second straight playoff appearance, but can he transition that into playoff wins? Bryzgalov's stats have traditionally gotten worse in the post-season; and he will need to outplay his stellar Russian counterpart in Varlamov. The Wild has developed better depth this year, and the pieces really began to come together at the end of the season. Veteran Matt Moulson, acquired at the trade deadline, has been a solid addition for the team; and Mikael Granlund is beginning to grow into the playmaker that Minnesota has needed. Unfortunately for the team, the Wild still has to rely heavily on its top forward lines and its top two defensive pairings. They have to stay out of the penalty box - their PK lingers among the league's worst - continue the team's buy-in to Mike Yeo's systems.
The Avalanche lost their leading scorer, Matt Duchene, to a knee injury on March 29th; he is expected to be out through at least the first round. But Colorado is not without firepower in his absence: Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan O'Reilly, and Calder Trophy-worthy rookie Nathan MacKinnon will continue to carry the bulk of the team's offense. And they will need to, because the Avs have the worst Corsi/Fenwick among all playoff teams, so producing more goals to compensate for the team's defensive liabilities will be important. While the Wild doesn't fare much better on the statistical front, they at least have a solid, reliable D core.
These two teams haven't seen each other since January 30th. Despite consistently being on the losing end, the Wild's possession numbers were better in all five regular season games between these teams. They also outshot the Avs in all but one game - which Colorado won 5-4. The Avs hopes for a lengthy playoff run are going to rely quite heavily upon the shoulders of Varlamov - if he is injured or falters, it could be a game-changer for Colorado.
I'm going to buck the popular trend, and say Wild in seven. First-round surprises have to come from somewhere, so #WhyNotTheWild?
Tampa Bay vs. Montreal
Ah, yes, the battle of Floranada. The narrative here is simple: the NHL's most storied Original Six franchise, chasing hopes of Canada's first Cup since 1993; versus the darlings of the Sunshine State, hoping to repeat their Stanley Cup success on the 10th anniversary of their first Cup win.
Like Colorado, the X-factor for the Lightning this year has been their goalie: in this case, big Ben Bishop (37-14-7, .924 sv%, 2.23 GAA, w/5 SO), who, in playing in his first full season as an NHL starter, has been a Hart- and Vezina-worthy candidate for the Bolts. Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, Bishop sustained an elbow injury in one of the last games of the season, and will miss part of, or the entire first round. Anders Lindback - the other half of the Lightning's 13' worth of goaltending - has not had a great season thus far. If he falters, Latvian sensation Kristers Gudlevskis might get his chance at the role. Fortunately for Tampa Bay, however, Lindback closed out his last five games of the season 3-1-1, including 2 shutouts - so don't count the Bolts out quite yet, especially when bolstered by Tampa Bay's solid defensive corps.
This year should have been Steven Stamkos' season to shine - and still could be. His early season scoring pace put him on a trajectory towards a blistering 67 goals and 110 points. (By comparison: Alex Ovechkin collected the 'Rocket' Richard with 51 goals, and Sidney Crosby picked up the Art Ross with 104.) A broken leg in the November 11 game vs. the Bruins derailed his season and made him miss the Olympics. Upon his return to the team, the Lightning traded Martin St. Louis to the Rangers, and Stamkos finally assumed the role that everyone assumed would eventually be his when he was drafted back in 2008: team captain. So, in his first year wearing the 'C', can he lead his team deep into the playoffs? There's no reason he shouldn't be able to: the team has gone 13-4-4 since St. Louis' departure. If anybody wants to claim the team is too young or inexperienced to go too deep - well, somebody should've told that to the 2010 Blackhawks.
Meanwhile, in Montréal, the Canadiens have had a solid season, going neck-and-neck with the Bolts all year. The trade deadline acquisition of Thomas Vanek gave the Habs a sizzling top production line. Although Montréal will be without Alex Galchenyuk for the first round, the effects of Vanek's arrival have rippled through the Habs' lines in a positive fashion.
Like their new division rivals, the Canadiens' best asset stands between the goalposts: Carey Price (34-20-5, .927 sv%, 2.32 GAA, 6 SO). Price, like Bishop, is likely to have his name mentioned as a potential Vezina finalist - although that award will undoubtedly go to Boston's Tuukka Rask this year. Price is experienced both in the playoffs, and helped Canada win gold at the Olympics this year. The time he spent recovering from a lower-body injury sustained in Sochi means that he will be going into the playoffs a bit more rested that some of his league counterparts. But if he is injured or falters, backup goalie Peter Budaj has struggled as of late. Top Montréal defenseman P.K. Subban also needs to find his game again after a rough ending to the regular season.
The Lightning holds the edge in puck possession, and they won the season series 3-0-1. Three of the five regular series games went to shootouts - without that option in the playoffs, and these teams so closely matched, we could see some of the same epic overtime games that marked the Chicago-Boston series last year. Lightning coach Jon Cooper has guided his team through a rough season and kept them in playoff contention; he will need to out-maneuver Michel Therrien, who needs to prove he learned from last year's abbreviated playoff run.
John Hoven is the founder and editor of MayorsManor.com - selected as 2012's Best Hockey Blog by Yahoo Sports. As a member of the Professional Hockey Writer's Association, his insights and information have been featured on several well known websites, magazines and in print for the LA Newspaper Group. He can also be heard over the airwaves, as he's a regularly featured guest on sports radio stations across North America. Be sure to follow along at www.twitter.com/MayorNHL for his daily notes and inside scoop.
Bryan Reynolds is the former editor of Hockey Wilderness, retiring in June 2013 to get a real job, smoke cigars, and spend time with family. He now can be found giving sarcastic commentary about the NHL and Minnesota Wild on Twitter @BReynoldsMN, while continuing his quest to become the Senate confirmed Director of Vengeful Beatings.
Nathan Eide is a recovering hockey blogger. After 6 years on the job, he's spending the year relearning how to be a fan. In addition, Nathan likes long walks on the beach, spending time with his family and enjoys the schadenfreude associated with the Edmonton Oilers.
Cheryl Bradley is currently the managing editor for Mile High Hockey. You can follow her on twitter at @cherylcbradley.
Cheryl Adams is a featured writer and the Blackhawks team leader for TheCheckingLine.com. She also writes for her own website, HockeyBroad.com, and can generally be found at the rink, camera in hand.