Here's the West!
DALLAS STARS (C1) vs MINNESOTA WILD (WC2)
An interesting match up, this is first time these two teams have met in the playoffs. The Dallas Stars were relocated from Minneapolis to Dallas back in the 1993 and though I doubt any fans in Minnesota have mixed feelings who to cheer for, it does make it intriguing series.
- The Stars were at top or near the top of the division for much of the season with their high scoring offense led by the dynamic dual of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin and a decent supporting cast of forwards such as, Jason Spezza and Patrick Sharp. Their defence is more staple than last year and John Klingberg provides plenty of offense from the backend. In net it remains their weakest link, though Niemi and Lehtonen have plenty of playoff experience between them.
- The Wild have never been a huge offensive threat. They rely on speed and a hard forecheck to make opportunities. They have always played a solid defensive game and defending especially with Devan Dubnyk in goal. The Wild's speed was what helped beat St.Louis last year, but their lack of goal scoring caught up with them against Chicago.
Stars in 6
These two teams and their fans hate each other. The thought that the Blues might beat the Hawks boils my blood. The last time they met two years ago, the Blues led 2-0 at home before the Hawks recovered and took the next 4. There was only four points separating the two teams in the regular season and between the Blues, Hawks and Stars, they sat in the top five teams in the league. The Central Division is truly the most competitive with the top three definite contenders for the cup and it's shame one of these teams will be eliminated first round.
- When healthy, the Blues are as solid a team as there is in the league. In the regular season, they have been consistently near the top of the league, but in the playoffs they have a hard time getting out of the first round. This might be Hitchcock's last chance to prove he can lead this team deeper into the playoffs.
- The Blackhawks are the defending Stanley Cup champs. They had a pretty good season, considering how much roster changes took place over the summer. They accomplished a record team winning streak, a team point streak record from Art Ross winner, Patrick Kane and an amazing rookie season from Artemi Panarin. The team limped towards the playoff with no wins against playoff bound teams during March and April and Vezina Trophy candidate, Cory Crawford was out with a head injury. Defensively, the Blackhawks are giving up way too many chances, but at least in recent games their offensive has waken up with goals coming more often. Can Kane and Panarin carry the offense in the playoffs like the regular season? Will the new players added at the trade deadline contribute more (Ladd, Weiss, Erhoff, Fleischmann)? Other than the top 3 D (Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson), will someone step up and prevent Rozival from logging too much ice time?
Blackhawks in 6
ANAHEIM DUCKS (P1) vs NASHVILLE PREDATORS (WC1)
An interesting cross-divisional matchup between two teams I don't think I've seen play each other. The Ducks handicapped themselves by starting the season playing like crap. I thought for sure Coach Bruce Boudreau would be fired before November, but they turned around their season and possessed one of the best records since Christmas. So good in fact they snuck ahead of LA to take the Pacific division title.
- The Ducks were top of the league in some key categories. They allowed the fewest goals against per game and they have the #1 powerplay and penalty kill % in the league. The goaltending is solid with both Gibson and Anderson very capable of backstopping the Ducks deep into the playoffs. And once thought of as a one line team, with Perry and Getzlof, they have plenty of depth up front.
- A big difference between Nashville this year and last year is they finally found a #1 centre. Ryan Johansson acquired from Columbus for Seth Jones is a very important piece. This team's offense has so long relied on their defenseman to score, they were hard to take seriously as contenders. The Preds were streaky all season and they're a hard read coming into the playoffs.
Ducks in 6
LOS ANGELES KINGS (P2) vs SAN JOSE SHARKS (P3)
The battle of California is a live and well. Since the top three teams in the Pacific are all from Cali, it was guarantee two of teams would meet, probably in round two too. Short travel and hot sunny weather seems kind of cushy for the playoffs, but all three Cali teams could go far. There were only 4 points separating the Kings and Sharks, so no team is an overwhelming favourite.
- Besides Chicago and probably Washington, the LA Kings are a feared playoff team you don't want to play. They have two cups in this decade so far and the bitterness of not making the playoffs last year will be still in their minds. They have a goalie any team would love to have on their team in the playoffs with Jonathan Quick and this year he's closer to the form he displayed two years ago. They are big, strong, quick and scary good, with not many weaknesses.
- The Sharks are enjoying a revival with the play of Joe Thornton who has proven this year he's not over the hill yet. This has bolstered their powerplay to the league top 5, with big Brent Burns anchoring the point with a career season. Their netminding has been a pleasant surprise, but the real telling story will be in the playoffs. The team's performance in last seasons playoffs (and last season in general) cost their coach his job.
Kings in 7