Once again the Stanley Cup playoffs are upon us. Leading up to the last day of the season, only one playoff matchup was carved in stone, as the parity in the NHL is as evident as its ever been.
The Boston Bruins look to become the first back-to-back champions since the Detroit Red Wings were able to accomplish the rare feat in the late 90s. Their road ahead is filled with difficult obstacles as there always are.
We’ve already provided Round 1 Eastern Conference previews and predictions. Now we’ll take a look at the first-round matchups for the Western Conference.
No. 1 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 8 Los Angeles Kings
This is a truly unfortunate draw for the Kings who would match up far better against the Blues or the Blackhawks, but it was in their hands where they finished in the conference. They lost both games of a home-and-home with San Jose and drew the President’s Trophy-winning and defending Western Conference Champion Canucks. Vancouver ranks highly in almost all statistical categories. They have solid defence, elite scorers, and high caliber goaltending.
Keys to the Vancouver Canucks’ Success:
The biggest key for the Canucks is playing their game. They’ve had success all through the year doing what they do best. As long as they don’t make glaring errors in judgement they should be fine to breeze through the eighth-seeded Kings.
Keys to the Los Angeles Kings’ Success:
The Kings have had a problem lighting the lamp all year. They may have resolved some of those issues through the acquisition of Jeff Carter from Columbus, but they need to give their goalie Jonathan Quick more room for error against a potent Vancouver lineup. They need to score early since Vancouver wins only 34% of games in which the opposition scores first. With Quick emerging as an elite goalie in the NHL, more goal support would greatly increase their chances of upsetting the league’s best regular season team.
Who Will Win and Why:
Obviously you’d have to be pretty ballsy to predict a first-round upset in this series. Quick will most likely be able to steal a game or two, but the Canucks team is so much deeper and more well rounded than the Kings. All their defencemen move the puck well, Vancouver’s special teams are stellar, (PK-6th, PP-4th) and they’re just as good at scoring goals as they are at preventing them.
Vancouver-Los Angeles Prediction: CANUCKS IN 5.
No. 2 St. Louis Blues vs No. 7 San Jose Sharks
This is a very intriguing matchup between two teams, that at the beginning of the season, would have been projected to be in opposite places come playoff time. St. Louis has been the biggest surprise in the NHL this year. They have the best-rated goaltending in the league, great young talent, and the veteran presence needed to be able to go the distance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This franchise is very much on the upswing after years in the basement.
The Sharks are the complete opposite. They have aging stars whose best years are behind them, and their window is getting smaller and smaller to indulge in Stanley Cup glory.
Keys to the St. Louis Blues’ Success:
The Blues live and die with their goaltending. Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot have combined to lead the league in GAA this season. St. Louis has relied on them heavily all year, and those two are the biggest reason why the Blues were competing for the President’s Trophy this year.
Their scoring, however, has been hit or miss. The Blues’ highest scorer is David Backes with 24 goals and 54 points. They need their goalies to be on their game if they have any chance at making a deep run.
Keys to the San Jose Sharks’ Success:
The Sharks need their top two lines and power play to be effective if they have any chance to beat St. Louis. Their depth has been questionable all season, and they’ve lived and died with the man advantage. Their power play is currently ranked second in the league, and they will need that to continue if their going to crack the stingy St. Louis netminders.
Who Will Win and Why:
The Blues had a stranglehold in this year’s season series, keeping the Sharks to just three goals in four games and taking the series 4-0. They are also extremely dominant on home ice and match up well against the aging Sharks team.
St. Louis-San Jose Prediction: ST LOUIS IN 5.
No. 3 Phoenix Coyotes vs. No. 6 Chicago Blackhawks
This is one of the most intriguing matchups in this year’s playoffs. Nobody forecast the Coyotes to be their division winner and to be holding home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. They have achieved success through balanced scoring led by Radim Vrbata’s breakout season and veteran Ray Whitney’s leadership. Mike Smith has also been a great story, emerging as one of the top goalies in the West.
The Blackhawks are an interesting team. They have a ton of talent up front with Toews, Hossa, Kane, and Sharp amongst others, but are sparse of the blue line past Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Their goaltending has been suspect with Corey Crawford suffering from a sophomore slump and Ray Emery playing sub-par at best.
Keys to the Phoenix Coyotes’ Success:
The Coyotes need to limit the Hawks’ top two lines and power-play units. Goal-scoring hash’t been their fortay and defence has, so that will need to continue in order for Phoenix to have a chance against Chicago. Smith will be the catalyst in the series. If he performs as he has all season, the desert dogs may see the second round. If not, then they will have to find a way to put the puck in the net more than they have been able to all season in order to outscore a potent Hawks offence.
Keys to the Chicago Blackhawks’ Success:
The biggest factor for the Hawks is going to be special teams. They haven’t had trouble scoring all season, but their PP has been anemic and ranks 26th in the league. That doesn’t really make sense given how talented they are up front. Phoenix doesn’t give teams a lot to work with so they will need to take advantage of their chances with the extra man. The Hawks’ PK has been atrocious this year and ranks 27th in the league, second worst amongst playoff teams. They will have to sort that out and not give any freebies to the Yotes if they intend on advancing to Round 2.
Who Will Win and Why:
As much as I want to say Chicago will lose in Round 1, they drew the only team that I feel they can beat. The Coyotes just don’t have the firepower to take advantage of Chicago’s defence or lack thereof . The Hawks’ goaltending should be able to hold up for at least one round until their exploited for what they really are.
Phoenix-Chicago Prediction: CHICAGO IN 7.
No. 4 Nashville Predators vs. No. 5 Detroit Red Wings
This is another matchup that will be a great series but for different reasons than the four/five matchup in the East. It’s another case of how unfortunate it is to lose one of these teams in the first round. Detroit got off to a great start to this season and set the record for consecutive home wins, but the team’s play outside of Joe Louis Arena is simply atrocious. They are 31-7-3 at home and 17-21-3 on the road. Those numbers aren’t sustainable, and the Wings are at risk of their first opening round defeat since 2005-06.
Keys for the Nashville Predators’ Success:
The key to Nashville’s success this season has been defence. They have the best defensive pairing in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter and also have some of the best two way centres in the game in Mike Fisher, David Legwand, and Paul Gaustad. Their stellar defence combined with Vezina candidate Pekka Rinne should give the Red Wings headaches all series. Winning their games on home ice is also very key for the club considering how lethal Detroit is on their home rink.
Keys for the Detroit Red Wings’ Success:
The Wings’ biggest strength is their top two lines, or line 1a and 1b as I like to call them. No team in the league can match these two lines’ overall talent. For the Wings to be successful, these lines will have to be super productive, which hasn’t been a problem all season. They also need to stay out of the penalty box as much as possible since the Preds have the most efficient PP in the league.
Who Will Win and Why:
This will be the first year I’ve taken the Preds to advance to Round 2 in a playoff series. The basis for this prediction is home-ice advantage. If it were the other way around, I would take Detroit. The Wings have limped into the playoffs and look like their age is catching up with them. Nashville has a narrow window to make a run at a Cup, and this is their year. They have solid defence, outstanding goaltending, and an opportunistic offence that can make you pay for your mistakes. This series will be one of the better ones all season.
Nashville-Detroit Prediction: NASHVILLE IN 7.
For the Round 1 Eastern Conference previews and predictions, click here.