NHL First Round Preview – Western Conference
Ah, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Flowers are blooming and birds are chirping, and oh yeah, the Stanley Cup Playoffs (the best playoffs in sports), has begun. With the defending champs the Los Angeles Kings eliminated, it is a truly wide-open Western Conference. So who’s going to get hot at just the right time? Is it going to be the usual suspects in Chicago? And what about the regular season machine out in Anaheim? How many #bucciovertimechallanges will I get correct? Read on to find out.
#2 Vancouver Canucks vs. #3 Calgary Flames
Canucks: 48-29-5, 101 points, finished second in Pacific Division
Flames: 45-30-7, 97 points, finished third in Pacific Division
Season Series: The Flames won 3 (one in a shootout)
Key Statistics: Calgary ended up with a superior goal differential at +24, while Vancouver ended with a +16 goal differential. Calgary posted abysmal Corsi numbers this past season, ranking 28th (45.1%), while Vancouver was more towards the middle of the pack at 18th (50.2%). In terms of Fenwick Close, a statistic that measures puck possession by looking at shots + misses when the game is tied or within one goal, this time Vancouver has the advantage, ranking 22nd, two spots higher than Calgary.
Storylines: Star defensemen Mark Giordano was lost for the season back in February for Calgary, and will miss significant time for the fourth year in a row. Center Jiri Hudler has picked up the slack and has a career year with 71 points, leading the Flames. On the other side of the puck, the Sedin twins continue to produce for Vancouver. Both played in all 82 games and led the team with 76 (Daniel) and 73 (Henrik) points apiece. Both teams are pretty even between the pipes, with Flames tendy Jhonas Hiller posting a .918 Save Percentage, very similar to Eddie Lack’s .922 Save Percentage.
Prediction Time: Both teams have not been exceptional controlling the puck and tend to get quite lucky. I’m giving the edge to Calgary in 7 simply because of home ice advantage. Either winner will likely be bounced next round.
#1 Anaheim Ducks vs. #4 Winnipeg Jets (crossover)
Ducks: 51-24-7, 109 points, won Pacific Division and Western Conference’s No. 1 seed
Jets: 43-26-13, 99 points, finished second in wild-card race
Season Series: The Ducks took all 3 of the meetings.
Key Statistics: Anaheim ended the season with a +7 goal differential, while lower-seeded Winnipeg was at +19. In terms of Corsi numbers, Winnipeg once again had the edge at 52.8% (8th), while Anaheim clocked in at 51.0% (17th). Finishing their sweep of the statistics, Winnipeg once again had a slight nod, this time in terms of Fenwick Close, where they ranked 3rd in the league, an edge over the 12th ranked Ducks
Storylines: Will the tandem of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry finally get over the postseason hump? Both physical attackers once again had fantastic years and have led the Ducks to the top seed in the West. But do not sleep on the well-rounded Jets. 7 players on the Jets have been able to top 40 points, with wingers Andrew Ladd (62 points) and Blake Wheeler (61 points) having fantastic campaigns. The duo of monster defensemen Dustin Byfuglien and newly acquired Tyler Myers should also be fun to watch.
Prediction Time: The Ducks played in the much easier Pacific Division, and I believe their seeding is inflated by easier opponents. The Jets have the edge on most major statistics. However, the Jets don’t have Ryan Getzlaf or Corey Perry, and that will be the difference. The Ducks went 3-0 during the regular season, but expect this series to be close. Anaheim will use home-ice advantage to escape by their beaks in 7.
#2 Nashville Predators vs. #3 Chicago Blackhawks
Predators: 47-24-10, 104 points, finished second in Central Division
Blackhawks: 48-28-6, 102 points, finished third in Central Division
Season Series: The Hawks won 3, while the Preds were able to win one in Overtime.
Key Statistics: Despite missing superstar Patrick Kane for two months, the Blackhawks were able to finish with a +34 goal differential, 10 higher than the Predators. The Blackhawks finished the season 2nd in Corsi, higher than the Preds who were ranked 7th. In terms of Fenwick Close, Nashville barely edged Chicago, claiming the 5th spot (53.6%), .6 points higher than the 7th ranked Hawks.
Storylines: Is Patrick Kane ready to go? Can the Hawks become a dynasty? Just how good are the Predators? There are many intriguing storylines coming into this series. For the Preds, the main concern has to be scoring. Center Filip Forsberg has had a sensational rookie year, leading the team with 63 points, but playoff hockey is a completely different animal. Roman Josi and Shea Webber have anchored a very good d that has given Pekke Renne (2.18 GAA) the ability to have a breakout year. In the other bench, Patty Kane was well on his way to the Art Ross Trophy (leader in points) before his injury. If the Hawks are able to escape this tough matchup, he will be the reason why.
Prediction Time: Experience is going to be the key factor here. The Hawks have been there many times before. For many of the Preds, this is their first merry-go-round. Although big-bodied D men have been essential in the Predator’s great possession numbers, the Hawks can counter this with their speed. Hawks in 6.
#1 St. Louis Blues vs. Minnesota Wild
Blues: 51-24-7, 109 points, won Central Division and Western Conference’s No. 2 seed
Wild: 46-28-8, 100 points, finished first in wild-card race
Season Series: Split at 2-2
Key Statistics: St. Louis played good hockey start to finish and accumulated a +42 goal differential, 3rd in the league. Minnesota turned it on late and was able to muster up a +29 goal differential, earning them the 8th highest mark. They were fairly close in terms of Corsi, as the Blues clocked in at 51.8 % (11th highest). The Wild were able to post a 51.0% Corsi (16th) after starting off slow. The Blues swept the statistics category with their 9th ranked Fenwick Close, a tad bit higher than the Wild’s 11th ranking.
Storylines: The Wild have been historically hot as of late. They have are 28-9-3 for 59 points in 40 game (73.8% of possible points), which is very similar to the dominant 2013 Hawks team who earned 80.2% in the lockout year. Netminder Devan Dubnyk has been standing on his head night-in and night-out posting an eye-popping 1.78 GAA. The Blues on the other hand have been very consistent all year. Forwards Vladimir Tarasenko (73 points) and Alexander Steen (64 points) have been reliable all year. The goaltending position is up in the air for the Blues as they cycle through Brian Elliot and Jake Allen.
Prediction Time: This is the toughest series to call in my opinion. The Blues are fantastic top to bottom, while the Wild are streaking. The Wild are 1st (86.3%) on the Penalty Kill this year, while the Blues are 4th (22.3%) on the Powerplay, so the special teams matchups will be key. Give me the red-hot Wild in 7.