NHL Playoff Predictions: Western Conference
There are 16 teams remaining entering the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The journey to the Stanley Cup Finals will begin on Tuesday. Every year there are Cinderella stories in each conference. We’ll analyze what teams will be upset and what teams will move on to the Promised Land. If your team has a weakness, that weakness will be exposed. Put all the goals, dangles, and pretty plays aside, the playoffs are a different breed as only the strong survive.
The Los Angeles Kings will attempt to defend their crown this playoff season. They showed last season that if a team gets hot at the right time anything is possible. As some hockey minds are picking the Kings to repeat, the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins are heavy favorites in their respective conferences. Let’s take a look at who will be going home and who is moving on to the second round.
(1) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (8) Minnesota Wild
The Wild barely squeaked into the playoffs by capturing a victory in their final game of the regular season. Earlier in the year, the Wild looked as though they would have no problem qualifying for the playoffs. The Wild had the opportunity to clinch a playoff berth and could not immediately do so against the Edmonton Oilers where the Wild were embarrassed 6-1. The Wilds’ prize for qualifying is having to face the Blackhawks who were the President’s Trophy winners. Even if Niklas Backstrom stands on his head, this more than likely will not be enough to shut down the Blackhawks. The Wild may be able to inch out a win at home as they have a decent home record. The Wild haven’t participated in the playoffs for five seasons and will be experiencing growing pains in the first round.
The Blackhawks have much more talent on paper than the Wild. Their superstar core is playoff battle tested and have won Stanley Cup rings. The Blackhawks proved they can win a hockey game by playing any style. Winning is nearly automatic for the Blackhawks at home this season going 18-3-3. In addition, Joel Quenneville is much more experienced coaching playoff hockey than the raw Mike Yeo. The Blackhawks have every advantage imaginable, but that’s why they play the games.
Prediction: Blackhawks win in 4 games
Keys to the Series: The Wild can win this series is if the Blackhawks have a complete goaltending malfunction, or injuries to more than one of their superstars. There is also the chance that Zach Parise steals a game for the Wild. The Blackhawks will have to completely lay an egg for the Wild to win this series. The Wild are lucky to be in the playoffs and probably don’t have enough to out-duel the Blackhawks.
(2) Anaheim Ducks vs. (7) Detroit Red Wings
When everyone was about to count the Red Wings out as an old washed-up bunch, they ran off four straight wins in clutch fashion to qualify for a playoff berth. The Red Wing are clicking on all cylinders at the exact right time. They have one of the most underrated goaltenders in the league with Jimmy Howard. The Red Wings won two games at Anaheim this year and will be a confident bunch playing on the road. This series could go the distance if the Red Wings carry their late regular season success into the second season.
We think of the Red Wings as having all the playoff experience since they have qualified for a berth for over two straight decades. The Ducks have a fair share of veterans in their locker room who know what it takes to win a playoff series and a Stanley Cup ring. This will be one of the more intriguing match-ups in the first round. Bruce Boudreau was at the helm of some disappointing playoff performances when he coached the Washington Capitals. The Ducks give off a different feeling this season as they’ve showed they can beat anyone in the West.
Prediction: Ducks win in 6 games
Keys to the Series: Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Howard will have to play amazing hockey. The Red Wings will also have to show much more toughness. Howard does represent one advantage the Red Wings have in this series. Howard is better than Jonas Hiller, and Viktor Fasth is making his his first post-season appearance. The Ducks are a physical bunch who will definitely take a bite out of the Red Wings before the series is finished. This will be a tough battle and the Red Wings may eventually run out of gas. The Ducks have more talent at both ends of the ice.
(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (6) San Jose Sharks
The Sharks seem to have lost too many key pieces this season to be a factor in the playoffs. They have never been able to obtain much post-season success in year’s past. They’re slipping in the wrong direction. The Sharks usually finish much higher in the Western Conference before faltering in the playoffs. Don’t forget their fantastic start to the season as well. The Sharks are not a great hockey team and stars like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau do not always show up come playoff time. They are great at home but only won eight games on the road this season.
The Canucks are not a favorite in anyone’s mind. They are flying under the radar but seem to carry the same roster as they have in previous playoff seasons. No one is really talking about the Canucks and they could sneak up on a few favorites out West. The goaltending situation in Vancouver is the same as it has been. Alain Vigneault will play whatever goaltender is performing at a higher level with Cory Schneider more than likely starting between the pipes.
Prediction: Canucks win in 6 games
Keys to the Series: Both teams are riding a two game slide coming into the playoffs. The Sharks will have to win on the road when the stakes are at their highest and roads wins have been few and far between for the Sharks. The Canucks are tougher and possess more overall experience than the Sharks when comparing rosters. Whoever steals a game or two on the road will prevail in this series. If Antti Niemi can bring Stanley Cup caliber play and pose controversy in Vancouver, the Sharks may also come out the winner. The Canucks seem to have more overall talent on paper.
(4) St Louis Blues vs. (5) Los Angeles Kings
The Blues have one of the best coaches in the league. Ken Hitchcock gets more out of his teams than anyone usually expects. He’s taught the young Blues how to win and to learn how to deal with success over the past few years. The Blues bolstered their defensive core at the deadline and surrendered the second fewest shots in the league. They play a very similar game to the Kings. Defense is their top priority and they struggle to score. There were only three Blues players to have 10 goals or more.
The Kings also struggle to score at times, but they have more scoring talent than the Blues. They are experienced in the playoff struggle. The Kings are the defending champs and while they may not be the overwhelming favorite to defend their Cup, they are the defending champs. What it takes to win is freshly ingrained in the back of the Kings’ minds. They have confidence knowing that they won the Stanley Cup a season ago. While Jonathan Quick was not as brilliant this year as he was last season, if he gets hot the Blues will not score.
Prediction: Kings win in 5 games
Keys to the Series: This series will be a goal-scoring struggle. The Kings are no strangers to having goal-scoring problems and neither are the Blues. The difference will come down to who can score more goals as cliché as it may sound. If the Blues have an unsung hero who can light the lamp at an alarming rate they can win. The Kings have Jeff Carter who scored 26 goals this season and a cast of other characters who can light the lamp. Defensively they are pretty equal.