Yesterday, I brought you my predictions on the Eastern Conference first round. Today, I bring you the wild, wild, Western Conference. The West may indeed be the most wide open I’ve seen it in years. From top to bottom, every team in the West is dangerous and any single one of them can make the Stanley Cup Final.
So, here are my picks for the wild, wild, Western Conference first round.
Anaheim Ducks vs. Dallas Stars
This one may be my boldest pick yet, but I truly feel that the Dallas Stars are going to knock off the top seed Anaheim Ducks.
Dallas has been successful against the Ducks this season, winning two of three meetings, and Tyler Seguin has resurrected his short career in the Lone Star State. Seguin will have a huge target on his back when he steps onto the ice against the Ducks. Last season with the Bruins, he was ineffective and it was his performance that set the wheels motion for the trade to Dallas. Seguin has been great for Dallas this season in a different scheme than he played in in Boston. He is out to prove that he can indeed play well on the big stage and prove the Bruins wrong.
If Dallas wants to win the series, they have to play smarter with the puck. They were very sloppy all season long with the puck ranking fifth in the league in giveaways and there is zero chance of advancing very far if they don’t get it together.
These Anaheim Ducks though are battle tested. They made a surprising first round exit last year losing to the seventh seed Detroit Red Wings, but this team is better and more experienced than they were last season. The Ducks have three very capable goaltenders in Jonas Hiller, Frederik Andersen, and John Gibson. It’s a good problem to have, I suppose, but it could create some problems as well, i.e. the Luongo-Schneider debate.
This will be a closer series than most expect, but I really do feel that the Dallas Stars can upset the Ducks.
Stars in seven
Colorado Avalanche vs. Minnesota Wild
What Patrick Roy has done in Colorado in just one season is amazing. Roy basically inherited the same Avalanche team that missed out on the playoffs last season. Nobody expected the Avalanche to be competing for the top seed late in the season and they are really becoming serious contenders for the Cup.
The Avalanche have a great defensive corps and great goaltending with Seymon Varlamov, but they are very inexperienced. Outside of Maxime Talbot and Cory Sarich, there really isn’t any one with postseason experience. A lot is made out of postseason experience, but it really does matter. The playoffs are a higher stress situation and until you’ve been there, it is hard to play in if you’ve never been there before.
For the Wild, they are the comeback kids. They have the 21 points when trailing after three periods, the most in the NHL, and they don’t panic, but they are having a difficult time scoring as of late and with Varlamov in net, the Wild need to find some way to find some offense. The Wild only have three 20 goal scorers, Jason Pominville, Zach Parise, and Matt Moulson (split time with the Islanders, Sabres, and Wild).
Even though they are inexperienced, Colorado have a lot of flashy young guys and a true Vezina contender in net. I’ll pick them in a best of seven.
Avalanche in six
St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks
If the Chicago Blackhawks want to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, they have a very tall order in the first round: the St. Louis Blues.
The Blackhawks are squaring off against the St. Louis Blues, a team that was within shouting distance of the top seed in the West. Chicago might just have to face them with a team that is burned out. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are banged up and Chicago sent the most players to Sochi for the Winter Olympics. Simply put, the Blackhawks are a tired and banged up team.
On the flip side, the St. Louis Blues have stumbled into the playoffs like The Shockmaster, losing six in a row and blew their chance at a division title. Ryan Miller was acquired to help shore up between the pipes and now he must stop the bleeding for the Blues. Miller is perhaps the player with the most pressure in this series because he was the missing piece that St. Louis needed to finally win a Cup, if the Blues lose to the Blackhawks then it was all in vain.
Both teams are banged up, so, they cancel each other out, but I don’t see the winner of this series going very far in the playoffs.
Blues in seven
San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings
Some believe that the winner of this series will represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup finals and rightfully so. Both teams are facing off again after a great seven game series last year. Except now the script is flipped and the Sharks have home ice, but this will still prove to be a very tough series.
The Kings’ Drew Doughty injured his shoulder and there is no telling how he’ll play in the series. Doughty is great and both ends of the ice and the Kings absolutely need Doughty on the ice. In a series where goaltending may be the difference, Jonathan Quick can carry Los Angeles to a series win. Quick already beat Niemi last season and has proven he can go toe-to-toe with him. Niemi needs to find some way to outplay Quick and if he can do that, the Sharks will win this series, but I just don’t see that happening.
Los Angeles comes into this series as one of the lowest scoring teams in the league, despite picking up Marian Gaborik, but defense usually wins championships, as the Kings already know from 2012.
If last season’s series told us anything, home ice is important. The home team won every game in the series and the Sharks are hoping that to be the case this time around (however, I’m sure they would love a sweep), but the Kings have always known how to play on the road going 10-1 on the road in the 2012 playoffs. I think you can throw home ice right out the window in this series.
I think this one will go the distance, but ultimately goaltending will win this battle and Jonathan Quick is more talented than Antti Niemi.
Kings in six
Who do you think comes out of the first round in the West? Comment below or send me a Tweet, @MarkWGraham