Get ready for some more Wild, Wild West action in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, 2014 edition.
A Lot Of Sports Talk continues our coverage of the 2014 NHL playoffs by previewing the first round match-ups in the Western Conference. Unlike our Eastern Conference preview, where longtime sports writer Mike Shalin broke down each series, we shared the wealth with sports fans and professionals in other fields breaking down each series. Yours truly broke down the Dallas-Anaheim series, game developer and crossword puzzle contest champion Tyler Hinman previewed the much anticipated Chicago-St. Louis series, web expert Matt Gitchell took an in-depth look at the Minnesota-Colorado match-up and former sports media professional and current consultant Joe Fugarino sized up the all-California affair between Los Angeles and San Jose. (Bios on each writer are at the end of the previews.)
Here are our predictions for the first-round series out West.
(Series previews are in chronological order of the beginning of each series.)
The Anaheim Ducks are the West’s best team, beating out juggernauts Chicago and St. Louis for the regular-season throne. The Dallas Stars needed a collapse by a team ahead of them (Phoenix Coyotes) just to make the playoffs. So this is going to be a first-round mismatch, right? To quote from the old Hertz commercials, “Not exactly.”
Dallas is led by two of the most dynamic players in the game in forwards Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Benn, who scored the lone goal in Team Canada’s 1-0 win over the United States in the semifinals of the Sochi Olympics, scored 16 more points this season (79 total) than his previous career high. He’s a power forward who can create havoc both in front of the net as well as with his shot. The talent was always there for Benn, but it didn’t emerge fully until he started playing with front-line center Tyler Seguin, whom the Stars traded for in a blockbuster deal with the Boston Bruins this offseason. Seguin causes matchup nightmares with his speed and quickness, and this season, he tapped into the potential many projected for him when he was the second overall pick by the Bruins in the 2010 draft. He led the team in goals (37), assists (47) power play goals (11) and shooting percentage (12.6).
Both Benn (24 years old) and Seguin (22) are the leaders of a youth movement in Big D. Each of the top five scoring forwards on the Stars are aged 24 or younger, which could be a cause for concern when going up against the much more experienced Ducks. The other three fledglings I’m referring to – Alex Chaisson (23), Cody Eakin (22) and Valeri Nichuskin (19) – all provide pace and energy, something the Ducks need to match, or they’ll be in for a long series. Dallas isn’t totally devoid of veteran leadership, as 41-year-old Ray Whitney, the second-leading playoff goal scorer on the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes Stanley Cup team, is due back from a lower body injury to play in Game 1 of the series.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown, and Anaheim has had the title of one of the best teams in the West in the past few seasons. Last season, being the West’s second-best team did them no good, as they were surprised in the first round by the Detroit Red Wings. This run towards the Cup will also be the final one for Teemu Selanne (yes, finally), so there will be a lot of emotion carried by the Ducks to get Selanne as deep into the playoffs as possible in his last ride in the NHL.
Like Benn and Seguin, the Ducks also have a potent tag team at forward that rival anyone in the league in Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. Getzlaf, in particular, had an MVP-type season and would be the Hart Trophy favorite if a certain Sidney Crosby wasn’t in the league. Getzlaf was second in the league in scoring, and was able to set up a number of Perry’s 43 goals, which were good for second in the league behind Alexander Ovechkin’s 51.
One of the most interesting story lines going into this series – probably the most interesting – is the goaltender situation for the Ducks, which is akin to having two evenly-matched quarterbacks competing for the starting job. If the adage holds true that if you have two quarterbacks then you really have no quarterback, how does Anaheim describe having three capable goaltenders? Head coach Bruce Boudreau announced that rookie Frederick Andersen will start Game 1 of the first-round series. Boudreau cited the fact that Andersen has responded well in tough road environments for the club, and that gave the rookie the edge over veteran Jonas Hiller and top prospect John Gibson, who won each of his first three NHL starts and posted a .954 save percentage. All of that is well and good, but if Andersen were to stumble in the opener, the questions in net will persist all series long, and that distraction of who plays in net might be the most unwanted for any team looking to make a Stanley Cup run.
Adesina’s Prediction: Despite the gap in age and playoff experience, both the Stars and Ducks are of equal talent. There seems to always be a top-two seed falling in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and although Anaheim is looking to erase the memories of that happening to them a season ago, something tells me Lindy Ruff’s charges grow up fast and pull off the shocker.
The NHL playoff season hasn’t even started and it has already delivered a surprise. A shocking rally by the Colorado Avalanche to claim the Central Division title left us with a mouth-watering Blackhawks-Blues matchup to open the postseason. The teams from Chicago and St. Louis need no introduction to each other, as their rivalry stretches back decades. Between 1980 and 1993, the Blackhawks and Blues met in the playoffs on eight different occasions, with the Blackhawks winning six of the eight series. However, the most memorable of those series probably came in 1993, when the Norris Division champion Blackhawks were swept by the Blues, with Chicago goaltender Ed Belfour remembered for going into an epic rampage inside the St. Louis Arena locker room after the game which included breaking a hot tub. The players may change, but the mutual dislike remains palpable. It’s even intensified in recent years, as the Blackhawks have claimed two championships while the Blues have built a team they believe is ready to contend for Lord Stanley’s Cup right now. The Blues will be eager to dethrone the defending champions and take the first step towards at last bring that elusive first title to St. Louis.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this series is that both teams are entering it rather cold. The Blues closed the season on a six-game losing skid and lost nine of their last 14 games to surrender the top seed to Colorado, leaving many fans with many doubts about their ability to survive a suddenly more difficult first-round series. Meanwhile, Chicago closed their season with a meek 4-0 loss in Washington followed by surrendering seven goals in a defeat to Nashville. Certainly, the loss of big-time playmakers Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane hasn’t helped; both took the last part of the regular season off to get over injuries. It remains to be seen how close to 100 percent those guys will be, and in any case, will they help their sometimes leaky defense, even with the brand names on the back line (Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, etc.)? It also doesn’t help that the Blackhawks, along with playing a lot of hockey over the past few seasons with their deep playoff runs, sent a league-high 10 players to the Sochi Olympics. How much more quality hockey is in this team’s gas tank?
Looking at the head-to-head matchup, the Blues took the first three meetings of the season, two in shootouts. The Blackhawks turned the tide in the last two, winning by a combined score of 8-2. Signs seem to be pointing to a Chicago triumph, but keep in mind that St. Louis did finish with a better record and thus get that precious home-ice advantage. Facing a big-time rival on the big stage, expect both teams to elevate their game. St. Louis also got bit by the injury bug, a main reason they went on their late-season swoon. Including in the MASH unit over the last few games were T.J. Oshie (concussion), Brenden Morrow (foot), Alex Pietrangelo (undisclosed), Barret Jackman (lower body, Patrik Berglund (shoulder) and David Backes (lower body).
On the goaltending front, Corey Crawford put all doubts of his big-game ability with his run to help the ‘Hawks win their second Cup in four seasons. Ryan Miller was acquired (rescued?) by the Blues from Buffalo to fortify the net for St. Louis. Miller started out hot with his new team, but has cooled down the stretch as his team has battled inconsistency and injury. Miller has had playoff success, leading the Sabres to the Eastern Conference Finals in both 2006 and 2007. However, those are the only two occasions where he was able to lead his team out of the first round of the playoffs in his career.
Tyler’s Prediction: It will be a hard-nosed, contentious series, one in which I predict the Blackhawks will give St. Louis the blues in Game 7 on the road.
The last time the Colorado Avalanche won a division title, in 2003, Hall-of-Fame netminder Patrick Roy backstopped a team that met the Minnesota Wild in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Roy, now the team’s rookie head coach, engineered the Avs’ improbable worst-to-first run to recapture the division title in 2014, leading them to a surprising second-place overall finish out West. Minnesota, the top wild card team under the new playoff format, is looking to improve on last year’s eighth seed playoff performance, when they were ousted by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the first round in five games. The series presents an interesting matchup, pitting All-Star defenseman Ryan Suter and the league’s seventh-best defense in the Wild going against the Avs’ five 20-goal scorers and the fourth-ranked offense in the NHL.
Colorado, will likely dance with the girl that brought it, so to speak, relying on the speed of its skilled young forward corps consisting of Calder Trophy frontrunner Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, skilled two-way forward Ryan O’Reilly, and Paul Stastny. It took a long time for this Avalanche team to gain any respect in league circles this season, despite their record, due to the fact that the team’s advanced stats (and Corsi specifically) are a genuine anomaly. Historically speaking, the Avalanche shouldn’t have done so well this year. Compared statistically to teams with their record, they possess the puck less and let their opponents take more shots on goal, while shooting at an unsustainably high shooting percentage (second in NHL with a team 10.12 shooting %). Semyon Varlamov, who could reasonably be called a Hart Trophy contender due to those same stats being stacked against him, has kept the Avs in things by maintaining a .927 save percentage.
(Toronto was famously derided last season, and rightly so, for cherry-picking these stats and essentially making a shot-quality-over-shot-quantity argument before their inevitable collapse against the Bruins in the playoffs. Many of the hockey stat intelligentsia have been waiting for Colorado to regress to more normal numbers in similar fashion, but the team stubbornly refuses to do so thus far.)
Colorado as a team communicates well with its goaltender, and will allow perimeter shots on Varlamov all game long, often capitalizing on breakaways when those perimeter shots go wide or are kicked out. As unremarkable as the Avs’ team defense is (ranked 15th in the league), their defensive corps have been contributing points, taking a back line that contributed all of 5 goals (FIVE) in last year’s shortened season to scoring almost a fifth of the team’s 250 goals this season.
Minnesota’s case is best made from a hockey traditionalist’s standpoint, that being the old saw that “defense wins championships,” despite being fairly thin in defensive personnel. Wild head coach Mike Yeo has the team playing an effective neutral zone trap (the same Jacques Lemaire-spawned defensive philosophy that ousted Roy’s 2003 Avs in seven games), making up for the fact that despite having a solid and talented forward corps including Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Mikko Koivu, Matt Moulson and Dany Heatley, there simply hasn’t been much offensive production.
Offensively the Wild will likely resort to a dump-and-forecheck strategy, as the Colorado blueline lacks depth beyond their top pair, hoping to drive possession deep in the Avs’ zone and grinding some of that useful energy into the boards as well as clogging the middle of the ice to prevent Colorado from leveraging its breakout speed. With two excellent goaltenders on the shelf – Niklas Backstrom (abdomen) and Josh Harding (who had a league-leading 1.51 GAA when he was put on IR while making an adjustment to his multiple sclerosis treatment) – the Wild relied on Ilya Bryzgalov to close out the season, a challenge he was equal to.
Matt’s Prediction: Both of these teams are riding a hot streak into the playoffs, with Minnesota going 6-1-1 in the final eight games and Colorado 8-1-2 in their last 11. Colorado will the series without leading scorer Matt Duchene, who will miss most, if not all of the series with a knee injury. Even without Duchene, as well as injured center John Mitchell and defenseman Jan Hejda, the Avalanche should have enough to pull through.
If familiarity breeds contempt, then saying there’s no love lost between these two squads would be a severe understatement. The Kings and Sharks will lock horns in the playoffs for the third time in four years. It’s been asked over and over, but will this be the year San Jose takes the leap from being regular-season heroes to a Stanley Cup Champion? Los Angeles has been Shark killers in the past, but it limps into this first round match-up losing four out of their final five regular season games. A 3-1-1 record against the Sharks this season should give them optimism heading into this series.
The starting goalie match-up is arguably the best in the playoffs, a battle between two Olympians – Jonathan Quick (USA) and Antti Niemi (Finland) – who faced off against each other in the Sochi Bronze Medal game. Niemi got the better of the two, shutting out a deflated USA squad 5-0. Quick has had a better time of it against Niemi and the Sharks stateside, going 2-0-0, including one shutout, a .930 save percentage and a 1.46 goals-against average in two appearances. Niemi ran into some problems with bad play towards the end of the season, leaving coach Todd McLellan with a crazy idea: What if we gave Alex Stalock a shot? Despite that, Niemi will be in goal for Game 1 and probably for the Sharks’ entire playoff stretch, barring a major collapse.
San Jose possesses big and fast top forward lines, something the Kings D must be able to contain in order to have a chance. Robyn Regehr has been the unsung hero on the Kings blue line. He and the squad’s catalyst, Drew Doughty, will both be ready for Game 1 after injuries that kept them both out of a few regular-season games down the stretch. Add in the talent and physical play of Matt Greene and Willie Mithcell and you have yourself crew worthy of royal status. And don’t forget Anze Kopitar in the conversation about defense. He may be a center, but he has been one of the best defensive forwards in the past few years, and this season, he placed fourth in the NHL with a plus-34 rating.
On the Sharks blue line, Marc-Édouard Vlasic has been a driving force. He’s one of the best multi-dimensonal defenders in the game, in that he can move the puck in both zones. Joined by Justin Braun, Brad Stuart, Jason Demers, and Scott Hannan, Vlasic heads a strong hard-hitting core with an added flair for offense. The Sharks led the NHL in shots on goal this season, averaging a shade under 35 per game. Their seven defensemen combined for almost 800 shots on goal. Conversely, the Kings allowed the second-fewest shots per game (26.2).
San Jose is stacked at the forward position, led by Joe Pavelski. “Little Joe” ranked fourth in the league with 41 goals and is a beast on the power play. Not far behind him is Patrick Marleau, who chipped in with 33 goals. Joined by key setup man Joe Thornton, along with Brent Burns and Logan Couture, the group makes up one of the most well-rounded, skilled offensive casts in the NHL.
Joe’s Prediction: You can never count out the Kings. They can explode at anytime and have one of the grittiest teams in the league. However, this is the year of the Shark. The Joes – Pavelski and Thornton – and Co. will be too much for Doughty, Regehr and the Kings D to handle. Also, look for Niemi to repeat his stellar Olympic performance and outshine Quick once more on the big stage. San Jose can get to that elusive first Stanley Cup Final, but first things first, taking care of their SoCal rivals.
[About our authors: Matt Gitchell is self-described web nerd, expectant father and Center Ice addict since he lives in a city with no NHL team. He lives in the beautiful city of Portland. Tyler Hinman is a five-time winner of the prestigious American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, as well as the first person to win five consecutive titles at the ACPT (2005-09). He currently is a game developer at Lumosity, an online brain training and neuroscience research company based in San Francisco. Joe Fugarino is a Phillly native and Penn State graduate with over 15 years experience in sports, entertainment, media, marketing, and business development. He is a freelance consultant currently residing in Los Angeles.]