Now that we’ve examined the field in the East, it’s time to glance at the West, who like the East produced six teams with 100 or more points, including the only wild card entrant to do so. The top dogs are both looking to right some playoff wrongs, with one team eyeing its first-ever Stanley Cup. In as balanced a playoff field as we’ve ever seen, the Western Conference may be even more “up for grabs” than its counterpart. Here now is a look at the four first-round matchups:
Winnipeg (4) vs. Anaheim (1): What a tricky little matchup this is. On paper, it looks easy. The Ducks are the conference’s top seed with 109 points, and won all three regular season meetings with the upstart Jets. Anaheim is making its eighth playoff appearance in 10 years, with a Stanley Cup title in 2007. The Jets, on the other hand, are making just the franchise’s second trip, with the other coming when they were the Atlanta Trashers. And it goes even further for the Ducks: They own the NHL’s best record over the past three seasons, and this year set or tied league records in games decided by one goal (33-1-7), wins when trailing after two periods (12, tied mark), and wins when trailing at any point in the third (18). The Jets, who were just 19-7-13 in one-goal contests, including 0-0-2 against Anaheim, are looking to prove that they’re not just happy to be here, and that’s where the recent stellar play of goalie Ondrej Pavelec could come into play. Pavelec seems like slightly less of a question mark than Ducks’ netminder Frederik Andersen, having gone 4-0-1 to close out the regular season. It’s also worth noting that the Jets did not have forward Jiri Tlusty in any of their three losses to the Ducks. Though Winnipeg is a decided underdog, an upset doesn’t feel far-fetched because the pressure is squarely on a Ducks franchise that, despite all their recent success, has just one playoff series win since 2011 and their penchant for playing tight games could backfire in the playoffs. Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf can always take over, but they need help. Prediction: Jets in 7.
Calgary (3) vs. Vancouver (2): These teams have met six times in the playoffs, most recently during Calgary’s 2004 run to the Stanley Cup finals. The Canucks, who also lost a heartbreaking, seven-game Cup finals set to Boston in 2011, are set to ride the Sedin brothers, who combined to score 149 points this season. But even though Vancouver had a 31-goal scorer in Radim Vrbata, the Flames had two in Jiri Hudler and Sean Monahan. The decided edge could be in net, as the Canucks will likely rely on Eddie Lack in his first-ever postseason with Ryan Miller still not recovered from a knee injury. Lack has been steady if not spectacular, but the Flames have an experienced netminder in former Duck Jonas Hiller. Like Lack, Hiller is not a superstar, but he does have 12 career postseason wins with three shutouts. The Flames have withstood the loss of defenseman Mark Giordano and may be a tad bit scrappier than the Canucks, but ultimately home-ice and a heavy dose of the Sedin brothers could tip the scales in Vancouver’s favor. Predictions: Canucks in 7.
Minnesota (4) vs. St. Louis (1): This is another one of those matchups featuring an upstart team with a limited playoff history against a perennial contender who keeps coming up short. As good as the Blues have been, they have never won a Stanley Cup. Both teams have strong goaltenders, especially the Wild with Devan Dubnyk, who is second in the NHL with a 2.07 goals against average. Dubnyk went 27-9-3 after being acquired from the Arizona Coyotes on January 14. But he will be tested more so than his counterpart Brian Elliott because of how many different players for the Blues that can provide offense. St. Louis led the Western Conference in goal differential (+47) and had nine players score at least 44 points this season, while Minnesota had just four. The Blues have won five of six entering the playoffs, including a win over the Wild in the regular-season finale. But Minnesota has a few things going for it, not to mention that the Blues are the ones expected to win. The Wild were the best penalty-killing team in hockey (86.3%), which offsets their poor numbers on the power play but more importantly could offset the Blues’ fourth-best power-play of 22.3%. And although the Blues led the conference overall in point differential, the Wild’s +43 since acquiring Dubnyk is best in the NHL. This may be the hardest series of the eight to predict, but it seems inevitable that it will go at least six games, if not the full seven. Expect Dubnyk to shine, but the Blues’ depth may be just enough to get them past an extremely tough foe. Prediction: Blues in 7.
Chicago (3) vs. Nashville (2): For all the series featuring teams with recent success against playoff upstarts, in some ways this series is the reverse. The Predators had a great season and have home-ice, but Chicago has been a rock in the postseason of late while the Preds have just two all-time postseason series wins. More importantly, the Blackhawks will be getting back their top goal-scorer in Patrick Kane after holding their own without him for nearly two months. Chicago has won two Stanley Cups in the last five years and very well could have won a third last year if not for the Kings’ epic Game 7 comeback in the conference finals. Pekka Rinne is an elite goaltender, but young Nashville may be in over their heads against the Blackhawks. It’s hard to ever predict a series to only go four games, but if there’s one that might, it’s this one. Prediction: Blackhawks in 4.
Because of how hard it is to pick eight individual first-round series, picking a champion at this point is darn-near impossible. My early hunch is that the Rangers are on a mission after coming up just short last year, while the Blackhawks, who were also victimized by the Kings’ amazing, cardiac run, are as tough an out as anyone this time of year. New York-Chicago is a likely Stanley Cup matchup (and a great one for TV), but don’t sleep on Tampa Bay or St. Louis. Speaking of the former, if Minnesota gets by the Blues in the first round, they too could have a head of steam and make a run at the Cup because of Dubnyk. A number of teams come in with skeletons in their playoff closet, namely Montreal and Washington, while teams like Anaheim, Detroit, and Pittsburgh, although they have all won Cups in the past decade, have developed a habit the past few years of coming up short in the postseason.