The Western Conference playoff field could be wide open this year, with an insanely tight Central Division bracket and a Pacific Division bracket without the Los Angeles Kings, who might have still had the pieces to go on a deep run.
It’s anyone’s guess who will be representing the West in June, so without further ado, let’s break down the matchups before the greatest playoffs in North America begin.
Preface: Whoever wins this division should represent the Western Conference. I don’t just mean the winner of the Central bracket should beat the Pacific bracket winner, but that the Central winner deserves to be in the Stanley Cup Final. The Central produced five playoff teams. Of the two teams in the division that missed the postseason, the Dallas Stars had the second-most goals in the league (one behind the Lightning) and the Colorado Avalanche still had 90 points. It’s a shame the Conference Finals can’t be between two Central teams. End rant.
1 St. Louis Blues vs 4 Minnesota Wild
This is the most competitive matchup in the first round of this year’s postseason. Both teams play stingy defense-first styles, and they tied each other with the fourth-fewest goals allowed this season. The defensive groups are practically equal when compared: the Wild have Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon, while the Blues have Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Jay Bouwmeester and Barret Jackman. The Blues have greater depth on offense, as they scored the fifth-most goals in the league thanks to Vladimir Tarasenko’s breakout 37-goal season.
But the Wild have a big edge at the goalie position, where Devan Dubnyk has been stopping nearly 94 percent of shots and allowing 1.78 goals against on average. Meanwhile, the Blues are involved in a goalie controversy with Jake Allen and Brian Elliot, who were both solid but not spectacular in the regular season.
The Blues have struggled in the last three postseasons, as their great regular season squads all bowed out in the first or second rounds. This looks to be the best Blues team yet, one with the potential to make a deep postseason run, but they might be running into a buzz saw of an opponent. That’s just the luck of the draw sometimes. Dubnyk puts the Wild over the top, and in a razor-close series, he’s the difference. Wild in seven.
2 Nashville Predators vs 3 Chicago Blackhawks
Consider the Predators to be the New York Islanders’ Western Conference counterpart, in that both those teams would have been much better served with the playoffs starting two months ago. On Feb. 17, Nashville was 39-12-6, an absolute juggernaut led by goalie Pekka Rinne, who had a .931 SV% and 1.96 GAA before the All-Star break. But as he worked his way back from injury, he wasn’t the same after the break, and neither were the Predators. Rinne’s posted mediocre marks of .911 SV% and 2.48 after the All-Star game and the Predators went 8-12-3 after Feb. 17, losing out on the division title they were on pace for.
Chicago handled adversity much better, keeping pace after losing Patrick Kane to a broken clavicle. Kane was having a season worthy of Hart Trophy consideration, but after his Feb. 24 injury, the Blackhawks managed to go 12-8-1 the rest of the way, with that record looking less impressive than it really was since they finished the year on a four-game losing streak. Jonathan Toews, being the league’s premier captain, carried the team and had his best month of the year in March, with six goals and 13 points in 13 games, nine of which were wins.
Chicago has absurd depth, enough to make mid-season acquisition Antoine Vermette a healthy scratch for the start of this series. They’re also getting Kane back much earlier than anticipated: he wasn’t supposed to be healthy until the Conference Finals, but he’s scheduled to play Game 1 of this series. Nashville has a good, tough defense that won’t make Kane’s return a walk in the park, but the Blackhawks have enough pieces to ensure they won’t need to lean on Kane too heavily. Blackhawks in six or seven.
Preface: It’s a shame this bracket guarantees one of these four teams a spot in the Conference Finals. Calgary and Vancouver would likely both be first-round exits, but one must move on by nature of their playing each other. Winnipeg would provide a challenge to any team they played, but would likely be a first-round exit as well. Anaheim is not built for deep postseason runs. But one of these teams will be one of the last four NHL teams standing. Sometimes there’s no justice in seeding.
1 Anaheim Ducks vs 4 Winnipeg Jets
The Ducks get average to below-average goaltending out of Frederik Andersen. They have a group of very good defensemen, but no one great at the blue line, and recent Cup champions have almost all sported at least one great defenseman on their roster (Drew Doughty twice, Duncan Keith twice, Zdeno Chara, Nicklas Lidstrom, Scott Niedermayer/Chris Pronger, etc.). Hampus Lindholm, Cam Fowler, Francois Beauchemin and Sami Vatanen don’t exactly fit on the list, not even with the 2009 Penguins, who had Brooks Orpik, Sergei Gonchar, Rob Scuderi and a young Kris Letang.
Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry should perform as well as they always do, but the team expects more out of Ryan Kesler than he seems to be capable of at this point. Since his second consecutive 70+ point season in 2010-11, he’s had three straight seasons below 50 points, excluding his injury- and lockout-shortened 2012-13.
For the Jets, goalie Ondrej Pavelec, a laughingstock the last three years for letting in the most goals in the NHL in each season, has had the best season of his career and is heating up at the right time. His splits of .920 SV% and 2.28 GAA on the year improved to .943 and 1.67 in 10 March games, and .965 and 0.98 in four April games. Not coincidentally, the Jets are entering the playoffs on a 10-3-1 tear. Center Mark Scheifele has also been improving as the season has advanced and carries a hot stick into the first round. The massive defenseman Tyler Myers has been a great trade deadline pickup, and Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler provide consistent play making and point production.
The Jets provide a challenge for the Ducks, and if Anaheim gets bounced this round, there may be a need for some organizational shakeups, as the Ducks have won the last two division titles with only one second-round appearance to show for it. I’ll hesitantly favor the Ducks in seven due to Winnipeg’s youth and inexperience in the postseason.
2 Vancouver Canucks vs 3 Calgary Flames
The Canucks fly under the radar, but they scored the sixth-most goals in the NHL this year. The top line of Henrik and Daniel Sedin and Radim Vrbata get most of the credit for that. They have questions about which goalie to start in the playoffs though, since they gave Ryan Miller a fairly large contract in the offseason, but Miller has been poor and backup Eddie Lack has played fairly well. Lack gets the start Game 1, and should probably remain in net throughout the series, if the Canucks value winning over sunk costs.
The Flames are very young and energetic team, with rookie Johnny Gaudreau and second-year player Sean Monahan both producing 60+ point campaigns. Jiri Hudler may have been the team’s most valuable player, as he scored 31 goals and 76 points in a career year. Mark Giordano’s injured, but the Flames still boast three very good defensemen in Kris Russell, T.J. Brodie and Dennis Wideman, who were all in the top eight of the NHL in blocked shots and all contributed at least 7.4 point shares to the team.
Expect goal totals to soar in the series, as neither Lack nor Jonas Hiller are anything more than average goalies right now, and both teams have been capable of scoring in bunches. The Flames demonstrated a ton of heart down the stretch to keep the Kings out of the playoffs, and their gritty defensemen should make it tough for the Sedins, who are famously contact shy. Grit+heart=series win. Flames in seven.