With a whirlwind weekend locking up the spots in the playoffs, we can finally begin to look into the cemented matchups for round one. This year is more wide open than expected, especially in the West, where I could see 6 teams potentially making the Stanley Cup Final. With that in mind, every game has become must watch tv, and will make the overlapping of this first round a challenge for diehards like myself. Here, I’ll be taking a look at 3 of the biggest stories to keep an eye out for in this coming race. Please note, after doing a full piece on my pick for the champs in Chicago (which I still believe, but somewhat shaken) I’ll be looking mostly at other teams here. Also, since I want this to be a primer for all fans, there will be very little advanced stats talk here.
The California Trio
For me, the most intriguing story going into the playoffs, and the past month or so, is the crazy competition in the Pacific. All three seeds from the division, The LA Kings, The Anaheim Duck, and The San Jose Sharks, look like elite teams in the league. All year, we’ve been talking about the Kings dominance, coming off the back of Norris candidate Drew Doughty and a solid goalie in Jonathan Quick. I’ll say this, it’s ridiculous to discredit the work of Doughty, hell I’ll even fess up to Quick having a great season, but something with Quick still doesn’t sit with me. He’s clearly one hell of an athlete, which gives him the ability to stand on his head night in and night out; however, I routinely feel like he is forced to make those acrobatic saves due to poor positioning. To specify, when I say poor, I mean in terms of other Vezina like Goalies like Holtby or Crawford. Quick is obviously not erratic in net, that’s not sustainable. Along with that, a strong offensive core led by Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter and an easily top 5 coaching job in the league in Darryl Sutter and company, it’s easy to buy into this team’s hype.
The Ducks are another story. In one of the most unexpectedly bad starts this season, it nearly seemed like they would miss the playoffs. Then, December happened, and the Ducks became the hottest team in hockey for months, and propelled themselves from outside the playoff picture into fighting for and winning the Pacific division title. A lot of credit needs to go to the front office for not giving up on Bruce Boudreau back in November. When you really looked at it, it didn’t make sense that Captain Ryan Getzlaf had barely any goals early in the season, and logic would dictate that he would turn it around. And he, and the rest of the struggling offense, certainly did take a 180. Looking at this roster, there’s a whole lot to love. We know Getzlaf and Perry are excellent, as they continue their dominant careers, but this year also cemented a forward like Rickard Rakell as being an excellent THIRD producing center, after Getzlaf and Kesler. The biggest aspect of this team that really terrifies me is there defense. Between Sami Vatanen, Cam Fowler, and Hampus Lindholm, they are young and extremely deep. When it comes to playoff games, you win and lose on your defense, and this team is probably the best suited in the league. On top of that, they have not one, but TWO elite goalies in Frederick Anderson and Jonathan Gibson. Good luck getting the puck past this team.
While the previous two teams are juggernauts, let’s not count out the San Jose Sharks. Offensively, I would argue that this team might be the strongest with the likes of Joe Thornton (putting in a near MVP year), Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, and Tomas Hertl. While every team has a strong first line, few are as deep offensively as San Jose (I see you Dallas), and with the point producing defensive monster that is Brent Burns helping out, the firepower could come from anywhere. Also, it’s the names that don’t immediately come to mind that give this team a hidden edge. Offensively, there’s Joel Ward and Joonas Donskoi producing well, and defensively we always forget Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who might be the best defensemen on this team, and that’s coming from an unabashed Burns lover. Oh yeah, Patrick Marleau is also still there, putting in significant time on the ice and missing no time at 36 years old. Another piece to keep in mind; there’s a feeling that many dismiss this team, after the celebrity years that the other California teams had this year. On the contrary, under the new direction of Peter DeBoar, the Sharks are quietly one of the best teams in the league. Hell, take a look at their PDO and compare to the other teams (I know, fractions of a point difference, but IT ALWAYS REGRESSES TO THE MEAN).
Even though I’m going to be pulling for the Sharks here, there are some concerns. There’s a mixture of either unproven talent in the playoffs and aging, but still extremely productive, veterans. Seeing these guys under the pressure of the playoffs will be interesting. Additionally, while I’ve really enjoyed the year Martin Jones has had in goal for the Sharks, the playoffs will rest heavily on his ability. While these reasons aren’t sure fire negatives, it’s just very uncertain. The match up I’m most excited for in round one is San Jose vs Kings, as that rivalry is strong, and the teams match up well. For me, it all comes down to defensive depth for LA. With the loss of Matt Greene, and still missing Alec Martinez, Drew Doughty is really going to have to have a crazy playoffs to push this team to the title. Even with another defensive stud like Jake Muzzin, the playoffs requires more, and I just don’t see it jumping out at me from this defense. The advanced stats are not kind to the rest of that defense, and it might take wizardry from Quick or even Darryl Sutter for this team to make it.
Now, The Ducks have another problem, but they are my pick to make it out of the Pacific. The biggest factor for me is injuries. They need to get Kevin Bieksa and Rykell back just for that final edge of depth and attitude. That said, if they can stay healthy, and Kesler and Jakob Silfverberg continue to be annoyances to the opponent on both ends of the ice, this team is deadly. I really like their odds here, riding the wave of superior defense compared to the other teams. Will this be the year that Boudreau’s Cup void is filled? We will have to wait and see (and PRAY TO THE HOCKEY GODS to get a Washington vs Anaheim final).
Can St. Louis get past Chicago?
For the past two years now, The St. Louis Blues have been a dominant force in the regular season. However, as soon as they entered the playoffs, they always struggled, especially in round one. When you look at the team, they appear to be built for a solid playoff run, with a strong offensive and defensive core. This is true especially this year, with the rise of Robby Fabbri offensively and Colton Parayko defensively. It’s been a confusing couple of years for this team with that depth and skill in mind. How much of last year’s playoff exit was due to Minnesota’s epic run on the back of Devan Dubnyk remains to be seen; I guess you can hinge on that whether you believe in momentum or not. This year, however, is a make or break year for the Blues. This core won’t be able to stay in tact much longer, and there’s a good chance that coach Ken Hitchcock’s job depends on it.
Here’s the thing, I have no worries about this team in terms of skill. Tarasenko is a top 5 sniper in the league, and a defense lead by Alex Pietrangelo has the ability to be shut down, and on the level of the Anaheim team I previously mentioned. Their injuries this year have been concerning, having been really snake bitten from start to finish; but going into the playoffs they are looking to be fairly healthy. David Backes and Steve Ott should be back, which will nail down their scoring ability, and the loss of goalie Jake Allen may not be as bad as once thought. Even though Allen is having a really solid year, Brian Elliott has slotted right in, and has been on a tear recently. I am a little concerned about Elliott if he’s exposed early in the series. The Blues need their netminder to be confident; all the other pieces are present. Lastly, Ken Hitchcock’s coaching will be put under a microscope, and it doesn’t help that he’s going to be up against a favorite in Chicago, and one of the best coaches in Joel Quenneville. On a macro sense, it doesn’t make that much sense for his coaching to take such a nosedive in the postseason, which lends me to believe that there’s more at play with the team beyond that. We’re going to know, fairly quickly, how St. Louis will fare.
The biggest turnaround in the West from last season to this is The Dallas Stars, without question. The first line of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Patrick Sharp has been, arguably, the best in hockey all year, and the team has been scoring at will. In a large scale sense, Dallas play the type of hockey you’d want: fast paced, high scoring, really the NHL at it’s most exciting. Due to that, there’s a lot riding on the success of Dallas this postseason. Lord help us if they run into LA or Anaheim in the Western Finals and lose. Those teams are awesome, but their trap like style can sometimes be very boring.
The classic thinking is that defense makes champions, and Dallas is certainly going to look to contest that this year. When the postseason starts, scoring generally goes down. However, if any team is going to break the gridlock of no goals, it’s this high powered Dallas team. For me, Jamie Benn is the most exciting, fairly new player in this year’s postseason, and his ability to get multiple points per game can be a boon for this style of hockey. That said, the defense concerns me, greatly. We all love John Klingberg, but the rest of the defense isn’t jumping out by any means. Sure, Jason Demers is solid, Johnny Oduya has playoff and just overall winning experience, and this team somehow made Kris Russell and that trade look much more logical than I ever thought possible, but compared to almost every other Western Conference team, this defense is toward the bottom. I expected Goligoski to be much stronger on the defensive side of the puck for this team, and for Dallas to push to the cup, I believe he will need to be a factor. Even though they should run over their round one opponent in Minnesota, I don’t see this defense holding up against stronger competition.
There you have it folks, the Western Conference of the NHL is a very large nutshell. There’s still more to be said about the conference, for example, Nashville can be frisky, but these three points are some of the biggest stories. Get ready for the most exciting sports of the year next week, and fill out your brackets!