This is Part 2 of 2 of The Hockey Writers’ NHL Playoffs predictions for the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Eastern Conference prognostications can be read here.
[Related: Part 1: The Eastern Conference prognostications]
Nashville Predators vs. Chicago Blackhawks
The Chicago Blackhawks completed the season as the best team in the Western Conference with 109 points (50-23-9). As such, they will meet the second wild card seed in the first round, the Nashville Predators. Although they are in a wild card position, the Predators will still play through their division. The Predators earned 94 points this season (41-29-12), finishing fourth in the Central Division.
The Predators and Blackhawks last met in the 2015 Stanley Cup Quarterfinals, which the Blackhawks won in six games before moving on to winning the Stanley Cup. Both teams have kept much of their cores intact since that matchup, but have made a number of key additions.
The Blackhawks have added several young players to keep their team strong, including Artemi Panarin, Ryan Hartman, Nick Schmaltz and Richard Panik. The most significant change the Predators made was trading captain Shea Weber to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for defenseman P.K. Subban. They also added Ryan Johansen and forward Viktor Arvidsson had a breakout season.
This year, the Blackhawks went 4-1 over the Predators in the regular season. Throughout the regular season, however, the Predators have exceeded the Blackhawks in many areas, including expected goals for per 60 (2.49 to 2.42), expected goals against per 60 (2.33 to 2.51), scoring chances against per 60 (7.09 to 8.4), and shots against per 60 (29.77 to 30.61) (all at 5v5). That said, the Blackhawks have been superior to the Predators in a number of aspects, including 5v5 goals against per 60 (2.06 to 2.19) and 5v5 scoring chances for per 60 (7.4 to 7.84).
The Blackhawks starting goaltender Corey Crawford has also been better than the Predators’ Pekka Rinne. Crawford’s expected goals saved above average per 60 of 0.2048 during the regular season was better than Rinne’s -0.09179. Additionally, Crawford has faced more high-danger and medium-danger shots than Rinne, with a higher save percentage on each (83.90 to 78.28 on high-danger shots, 94.38 to 93.55 on medium-danger shots).
In recent seasons, the Blackhawks have been extremely successful in playoffs — winning the Stanley Cup three times since 2010. The Predators did go further than the Blackhawks last season, but did not have to face them in the process. The overwhelming number of us predict that the Blackhawks will likely defeat the Predators in the first round; 20 predictions were in favor of the Blackhawks, while the Predators only garnered 5 votes.
St. Louis Blues vs. Minnesota Wild
For the second time in three seasons, the St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild will meet in the playoffs. The Wild finished ahead of the Blues in the Central Division with 106 points (49-25-8). The Blues were behind their competitor with 99 points (46-29-7).
These teams last matched up in the 2015 Stanley Cup Quarterfinals. The Wild took the series in six games. This season, the Wild and Blues met five times, with the Blues going 3-2-0 against the Wild.
Former Wild head coach Mike Yeo took over in the same capacity with the St. Louis Blues since Ken Hitchcock’s dismissal. This is Bruce Boudreau’s first season as the head coach of the Minnesota Wild.
For the first time since the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Blues escaped a first round elimination last season, making it to the Western Conference Final before being eliminated by the San Jose Sharks in six games. The Wild have appeared in the last four Stanley Cup playoffs, but only made it past the quarterfinals twice and were eliminated in the semifinals both times.
This season, the Wild scored more 5v5 goals per 60 (2.81 to 2.39). The Wild have also generated more 5v5 scoring chances for per 60 (8.16 to 6.95) and overall shots on goal for per 60 (29.9 to 27.93). Additionally, the Wild’s 5v5 expected goals for per 60 of 2.55 exceeds the Blues’ 2.29.
On defense, the Blues’ 5v5 goals allowed per 60 (2.14) bests the Wild’s (2.22). The Blues also had more success limiting 5v5 shots on goal against per 60 (27.93) than the Wild (29.9). However, the Wild have faced fewer 5v5 scoring chances against per 60 (5.89 to 6.59).
Neither the Wild nor the Blues have had particularly impressive goaltending this season, but the Wild’s Devan Dubnyk’s expected goals saved above average of -0.2365 was superior to that of Jake Allen of the Blues (-0.07552).
With all of that considered, 19 of us predicted the Wild will win this series. Only 6 project that the Blues will move on to the semi-finals. Almost half of the total predictions believe the Wild will take this series in six games.
Calgary Flames vs. Anaheim Ducks
The Calgary Flames will play the Anaheim Ducks to begin their playoff journey this season. The Ducks led the Pacific Division with 99 points (46-23-13), while the Flames ended in the first wild card seed with 94 points (45-33-4).
This is the second time since the 2009-10 season that the Flames have qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In their last appearance, the Flames played the Ducks in the second round, with the Ducks winning in five games. This season, the Ducks went 4-1-0 in their regular season matchup against the Flames. The Flames’ finishing in the first wild card seed may have created an unfavorable matchup for them, since the Flames have not won a regular season game in Anaheim in 13 years.
In their final regular season matchup on April 4, Flames captain Mark Giordano injured Ducks’ defenseman Cam Fowler, who is expected to be out six weeks. The teams brawled in their last matchup, and those harsh feeling will likely carry over into the postseason.
The Ducks have relied on John Gibson in net, with Jonathan Bernier excelling in his absence. Unlike last season, Gibson will be able to compete in the playoffs without the threat of losing his starting position to Frederik Andersen, who was dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs last summer. The Flames’ goaltender Brian Elliot has improved in the second half of the season, emerging as a key player for the team.
Continuing the comparative matchups, Calgary’s defense has more flaws than Anaheim’s. The Ducks may face a higher number of shots on goal against per 60 (28.79 to 28.37), but the Flames allow more scoring chances against per 60 (8.18 to 7.79) and subsequently allow more goals against per 60 (2.28 to 2.01) (all at 5v5). Additionally, the Ducks’ expected goals against per 60 is lower than the Flames’ (2.39 to 2.48).
The Flames have also generated less offense than the Ducks this season. The Ducks have more 5v5 shots on goal for per 60 than the Flames (29.42 to 29.09), scoring chances for per 60 (8.92 to 7.36), a higher expected goals for per 60 (2.67 to 2.34), and more goals for per 60 (2.28 to 2.2).
Our predictions for this series reflect the advantage that the Ducks have, with 19 votes in favor of the Ducks and only six in favor of the Flames.
San Jose Sharks vs. Edmonton Oilers
The Edmonton Oilers will return to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since the 2006 Stanley Cup Final. In the first round, they will compete against the San Jose Sharks. The Oilers accumulated 103 points (47-26-9), earning them the second seed in the Pacific Division, while the San Jose Sharks finished in third place in the division with 99 points (46-29-7).
The Oilers and Sharks faced off five times this season, with the Oilers going 3-1-1 in that span. Many of the Oilers’ core has not appeared in the Stanley Cup playoffs before, while the Sharks are experienced in the postseason, as they reached the Stanley Cup Final last season.
Led by Connor McDavid on offense, who accumulated 100 points this season, and Cam Talbot in net, the Oilers have surpassed expectations. One of the biggest concerns for the Oilers should be their fatigue of their goaltender Talbot, since he played 73 games this season. In those 73 games, Talbot has been vital to the Oilers. His expected goals saved above average per 60 is above average at 0.3215. In comparison, Martin Jones of the Sharks, is considered average at -0.0004035.
The Sharks may be missing some of their top forwards in Joe Thornton and Logan Couture to start the playoffs. Without their top two centers, the Sharks may be at a major disadvantage. The Oilers exceeded the Sharks in a number of offensive categories this season (5v5 shots for per 60, scoring chances for per 60, expected goals for per 60), making the potential loss of Couture and Thornton even more detrimental.
Defensively the Sharks have the advantage. They allow fewer shots against per 60 (27.2 to 29.19), scoring chances against per 60 (8.09 59 8.78), goal against per 60 (2.05 to 2.14), and expected goals against per 60 (2.45 to 2.62) (all at 5v5).
The Oilers certainly have momentum going into the postseason, going 12-2-0 in their last 14 games. Meanwhile, the Sharks have gone 5-9-0 in their last 14 games of the season. All of this contributed to our 21-4 predictions in favor of the Oilers defeating the Sharks. However, the consensus from almost half of us (12) is that the Sharks will push this series to seven games.
Based on our Western Conference predictions, the semi-finals of the Stanley Cup Finals in the West will be as follow: Blackhawks vs. Wild and Ducks vs. Oilers.
*All data courtesy of Corsica.hockey.