Yesterday, I gave my predictions for the Eastern Conference first round playoff matchups. Today, I’ll preview the four Western Conference series, three of which begin tonight.
#1 Chicago Blackhawks vs. #8 Minnesota Wild: There was no team better from beginning to end during the regular season than the Blackhawks. They opened up by posting at least one point in 24 consecutive games. While their best players are regularly their best players – Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, etc. – they’ve also gotten terrific production from youngsters like Andrew Shaw and Brandon Saad. The ‘Hawks can light up the scoreboard, finishing second only to Pittsburgh in goals scored this year. But they’re good in the defensive zone, too. On a team this star-laden, it’s easy to forget about goaltender Corey Crawford, who posted a 1.94 goals against average and .926 save percentage. In short, Chicago enters the playoffs as a team with seemingly no weaknesses.
The Wild made big news last summer when free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signed long-term contracts. Up until about three weeks ago, the Wild were challenging Vancouver for the Northwest Division lead. Minnesota closed out March winning eight of nine games and seemed poised to easily clinch a playoff spot. Then things got dicey. The Wild went 3-7-1 over their next 11 games and nearly fell out of the top eight. In their second-to-last game of the regular season, they just needed a win at home over Edmonton to clinch a spot. Instead, they suffered an embarrassing 7-1 loss. That forced them to win the next night at Colorado, which they did, setting up the first round matchup with the ‘Hawks.
It’s hard to see how Chicago loses this series. The Blackhawks are a better overall team than the Wild – and they are playing better hockey entering the playoffs. Prediction: Chicago in Five.
#2 Anaheim Ducks vs. #7 Detroit Red Wings: Amidst all the noise the Blackhawks made with their season-opening run, the Ducks flew under the radar a bit. But their start was also impressive. Through their first 29 games, the Ducks were 22-3-4. They finished 8-9-2, however, a dip that began with two home losses to Detroit. The Red Wings hovered around the eighth seed for most of the season and needed a win over Dallas in their final game to secure their 22nd consecutive post-season berth.
I don’t know if I’m in the minority with this pick, but I like the Red Wings. The reason? Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard. Howard is playing his best hockey of the season right now. He won his last four starts, allowing only three total goals and posting two shutouts. He had three whitewashings in his last seven and yielded more than two goals only once in his final 11 games played.
It almost seems as if, now that the Red Wings can no longer rely on Nick Lidstrom, Howard has emerged with a more prominent footprint. If he can maintain the high level, he exhibited in the final month of the regular season, the Red Wings will be very difficult to beat. Prediction: Detroit in Six.
#3 Vancouver Canucks vs. #6 San Jose Sharks: This is a matchup between two teams well-stocked with playoff veterans. They also have questions to answer. Will goalie Cory Schneider be healthy enough to play? And will he be capable of carrying the mantle as the Canucks’ number one goalie (and all the playoff pressure that comes with the job)? Which Sharks team will we see? In the shortened season, the Sharks were one of the league’s streakiest teams. They had two separate seven-game winning streaks and also endured a stretch of 10 games in which they won only once.
I picking the Sharks – and for a similar reason as in the Anaheim-Detroit series. San Jose goalie Antti Niemi had a terrific season. He tied for the league lead with 24 wins. He posted a 2.16 goals against average and a .924 save percentage.
For what it’s worth, the Sharks also won all three games in the season series against the Canucks. San Jose lost only two games in regulation at home all year. So if the Canucks lose even one game in Vancouver, they’ll have a tough task getting home ice advantage back. Prediction: San Jose in Six.
#4 St. Louis Blues vs. #5 Los Angeles Kings: This is a rematch from last year’s second round series. The eighth-seeded Kings swept the Blues, who were the second seed.
Statistically, both these teams are similar. They allowed the same number of goals during the regular season (114) and they both wrapped up the year with long home winning streaks (Blues – six, Kings – seven). They were separated by only one point in the standings.
Are the Kings playing now as well as they were entering the playoffs last year? No. Did the Blues have as good a season as they did last year? Also no. But St. Louis is playing its best hockey of the year now. The Blues won 12 of 15 games in April. That run helped them move from 9th in the West at the end of March into the fourth seed. Goaltender Brian Elliott won 11 of those April games and set a record by posting shutouts in three straight road games during the month.
The Kings won all three games from the Blues during the season series and bring back virtually the entire team from last year’s championship. But it’s hard to repeat. Last year, the Kings went 16-4 in the postseason and Jonathan Quick posted an incredible 1.41 GAA and .946% over those 20 games. Los Angeles also was 4-0 in playoff overtime games. Those are hard numbers to replicate. The Blues feel they’ve learned from last year’s defeat and will be primed for revenge. Unlike last year, I think this time around the Blues get off to a good start in the series and, thanks to Elliott, manage to win some close games. That’ll help them dethrone the champs. Prediction: St. Louis in Six.