NHL Western Conference Playoff PreviewGerry Thomas/NHLI /Getty Images
The NHL playoffs are here, and the consensus in the hockey world can be summed up as this: Holy crap, this year’s bracket is almost impossible to predict.
The playoffs are always tricky, and most years there are at least a few potential upset picks to be had. But generally, you still wind up with maybe six or eight legitimate Cup contenders, with everyone else falling into the “happy to win a round or two” category. Not this season. With nobody emerging as anything close to a clear favorite and at least a dozen teams having a plausible path to the Cup, trying to make predictions is a fool’s game.
Luckily, I am just such a fool, so this year’s preview will include picks for you to bookmark and then laugh at when they’ve all been proven wrong in two weeks. Just don’t pretend yours are any better, because anyone who claims they’ve got this all figured out is a crazy person.
The Western Conference is up first; we’ll dive into the East tomorrow.
It was only a year ago that the Pacific felt like the best division in hockey, powered by the three California teams. Now, the playoffs feature the Ducks and three Canadian underdogs. Things move fast in this league.
No. 2 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 3 Calgary Flames
Series starts: Wednesday in Vancouver
Season series: The teams split four games.
Playoff history: They’ve met six times, most recently in 2004. In the last three of those meetings, the series has gone to overtime of the seventh game. And all three times, the winner went to the Cup final.
Dominant narrative: An aging Canucks core just a few years removed from dominating the league (but never winning it all) makes what could be one last run at the franchise’s first Stanley Cup … but they’ll have to get past the grittiest collection of grits that ever did grit.
In this corner: The Calgary Flames (45-30-7, 97 points, plus-24 goals differential)1
The big question: How the hell did they get here? The Flames just aren’t that good — even their biggest fans would probably concede that — and Mark Giordano’s injury should have torpedoed their season. They didn’t even bother to bring in any reinforcements at the trade deadline, because, really, what was the point? And yet they’re still chugging along, defying the numbers all the way, and they suddenly find themselves in what looks like a very winnable matchup.
One player to watch: Johnny Gaudreau. The rookie is all sorts of fun to watch. He’s also tiny, which makes him the sort of player who conventional wisdom says can sometimes disappear once the playoffs turn into a war of attrition. If that happens, the Flames are probably doomed.
Health watch: Goalie Karri Ramo is day-to-day, meaning Jonas Hiller is the starter for now, and lots of other guys are banged up. And, of course, Giordano has a torn biceps and is out for at least three more months. So, this being the playoffs, expect the rumors of him being mysteriously ahead of schedule to start sometime around Game 4.
Key number: 44.4 percent, the Flames’ score-adjusted Corsi, third-worst in the league. This is one of the most important possession stats for predicting future performance, and the Flames were worse than the Oilers, Coyotes, and Maple Leafs. That’s bad.
Bandwagon potential: Enormous. As we covered a few weeks ago, the Flames may well be the most likable team in the NHL. Their odds of winning the Stanley Cup are bordering on nonexistent, so you’re signing up to have your heart broken eventually, but the ride may be worth it.
They’ll win this series if: Nothing we know about hockey makes sense anymore. Or, as this year’s Flames call it, the status quo.
And in this corner: Vancouver Canucks (48-29-5, 101 points, plus-16 goals differential)
The big question: Who’ll start the series in goal? And who’ll finish it? The Canucks spent big last summer to bring in Ryan Miller as the undisputed starter, but he was just OK before getting hurt in February. Miller returned to action Saturday, and he didn’t look sharp while giving up five goals to the Oilers. Vancouver may start out with backup Eddie Lack, who played well in Miller’s absence. But if either guy has a bad
game period shift, expect the well-oiled Vancouver Goaltending Controversy Machine to fire up.
One player to watch: The Sedins. OK, that’s technically two players, but close enough. Both twins had rebound seasons this year, and at 34 years old they’re still the driving force behind the Canucks offense. They’re also great fun to watch; check out this sick no-look pass from Henrik to Daniel from last week.
Health watch: They’re in relatively good shape; Zack Kassian remains out, but they don’t have any critical players on the shelf.
Key number: Minus-9, the Canucks’ 5-on-5 goals differential, the worst of any playoff team (via Dave Ebner). The next worst: the Flames, at minus-2.
Bandwagon potential: Minimal. These aren’t quite the same Canucks you learned to hate in 2011, but there are still a few familiar names [cough] … Burrows. And they’re facing the Flames, who are basically the Daniel Bryan of the NHL playoffs.
They’ll win this series if: One of the goalies can stand tall long enough for the Sedins to work their magic one more time.
Prediction: The overmatched Flames will refuse to die, but the Canucks will eke out a win in seven games. In overtime, obviously.
No. 1 Anaheim Ducks vs. No. 4 Winnipeg Jets
Series starts: Thursday in Anaheim
Season series: The Ducks won all three games.
Playoff history: None. They’ve never met in the postseason, partly because the Jets aren’t even in the Pacific; they’re a Central team that’s crossing over because of the NHL’s wild-card rules.
Dominant narrative: Two big, mean teams will take turns maiming each other until only one is left standing.
In this corner: Winnipeg Jets (43-26-13, 99 points, plus-19 goals differential)
The big question: Is their goaltending for real? Ondrej Pavelec has been on fire lately, but his career numbers say he’s average at best. Sure, goalies get hot, and maybe it doesn’t matter if Pavelec is just riding a random streak as long as it lasts. But after years of watching Pavelec do stuff like this, how much do you really trust him?
One player to watch: Dustin Byfuglien. The massive defenseman (and sometimes forward) is one of the most fascinating players in the league. He’s big, he’s skilled, and he’ll make plays that nobody else can. He’ll also occasionally crosscheck you in the neck and get himself suspended. He’s honestly just about the last player I’d want to face in the first round.
Health watch: Center Mathieu Perreault is nursing a lower-body injury but could be back soon. A bunch of other players missed the last regular-season weekend as a precaution but should be good to go.
Key number: Zero. That’s how many goals Pavelec has allowed in each of his last three games. Like I said, he’s just a little bit hot.
Bandwagon potential: Excellent. They’re a fun underdog story in their own right, but factor in this being the first playoff appearance for a Winnipeg team since 1996 and it moves to the next level. Who’s ready for a good old-fashioned whiteout?
They’ll win this series if: Pavelec stays hot enough to win the goaltending battle over the Ducks’ unproven tandem, they can keep up with the Ducks physically while staying out of the box, and they can ride the energy of a Winnipeg crowd that should be insane.
And in this corner: Anaheim Ducks (51-24-7, 109 points, plus-7 goals differential)
The big question: Are the Ducks a mirage? That sounds harsh, but let’s take another look at that goals differential. How do you outscore the opposition by a measly seven goals and still finish with 109 points? That sort of stat screams “luck,” and it’s part of the reason the Ducks will be a trendy pick as an early upset victim.
One player to watch: Ryan Kesler. The Ducks acquired the veteran from Vancouver as their major offseason move because he was supposed to be the sort of two-way center you need to win in the West. He was just OK in the regular season, putting up 20 goals and 47 points, but that doesn’t matter. Kesler is the sort of guy you get with an eye on what he’ll do in the playoffs, and now they’re here.
Health watch: Nothing, really, at least that we know about.
Key number: 33-1-7. That’s the Ducks’ record in one-goal games, and it’s ridiculous.2 It also helps explain how they racked up such an impressive record despite that meager plus-7 goals differential — they win small often and lose big occasionally. But is that just good luck, or something more? The Ducks think it’s the latter. The rest of us aren’t so sure.
Bandwagon potential: Just OK. If you’re not secretly rooting for Bruce Boudreau, there’s something wrong with you, but that’s about as far as it goes.
They’ll win this series if: Their big guns keep firing, Frederik Andersen or John Gibson seizes the starter’s job, and they can survive the utter madhouse they’ll walk into in Winnipeg. (Now, about coming out of this matchup with enough healthy bodies to win their next series … )
Prediction: It’ll be a seven-game series in which the home team wins every game … except the last one, as the Jets pull off the upset. Bonus prediction: The winner of this series will head to the conference final after sweeping the second round.
With five 99-plus-point playoff teams, this year’s Central belongs in the discussion of the best divisions of all time. The question may not be who can win it, but whether they’ll have anything left by the time they do.
No. 2 Nashville Predators vs. No. 3 Chicago Blackhawks
Series starts: Wednesday in Nashville
Season series: The Blackhawks won three of four, although the teams haven’t played each other since December.
Playoff history: They met in the first round in 2010; Chicago won in six and went on to win the Cup.
Dominant narrative: The exciting underdog that nobody quite believes in draws a brutal first-round matchup against the quasi-dynasty.
In this corner: Chicago Blackhawks (48-28-6, 102 points, plus-34 goals differential)
The big question: When does fatigue become a factor? Chicago has played seven playoff rounds in the last two years, and it sent a league-leading 10 players to last year’s Olympics. At some point, that has to catch up with you. Maybe it’s not in the first round, but if the Blackhawks are going to have a chance at another Cup, a quick win here could be a necessity.
One player to watch: Antoine Vermette. The Hawks have plenty of star power, and the focus will be on guys like Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, and Duncan Keith. But Vermette is the kind of do-it-all depth guy who can become invaluable over a long playoff run, and the team paid big to get him at the trade deadline. He’s struggled since then, and there’s even talk he could be scratched early, but they’ll need a guy like him to chip in on nights that the big stars aren’t dominating.
Health watch: Veterans Kimmo Timonen and Brad Richards have both missed time lately. But the big one is Patrick Kane, who broke his clavicle in late February and was supposed to miss 12 weeks. This being the playoffs, he’s ahead of schedule and sounds like he’ll play in this series.
Key number: 1.000, the Blackhawks’ winning percentage when leading after two periods. Chicago is the only team in the NHL to post a perfect mark.
Bandwagon potential: None. This core has already won two Cups. Bandwagons are not allowed.
They’ll win this series if: They’re the Blackhawks. They’ve looked off for stretches during the season, but they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt, and there’s been a general feeling that they’re just waiting to flip the switch. That can be dangerous — we all said that about the Kings, too — but if Chicago looks like the team we’ve seen over the last two postseasons, it will take a near-perfect series from someone to beat them.
And in this corner: Nashville Predators (47-25-10, 104 points, plus-24 goals differential)
The big question: Who’s going to score? Rebuilding the offense was the team’s top priority in the offseason, and for the most part it was a success, but it heads into this series with some concerns up front. Rookie Filip Forsberg has gone cold in the second half, and James Neal was pointless in 13 of his last 15 games. And then there’s Mike Ribeiro, a shifty veteran center whose playoff résumé isn’t all that impressive. The Hawks are playoff veterans and they know how to shut opponents down; the Predators need their big forwards to produce if they’re going to have a chance.
One player to watch: Roman Josi. Sure, Pekka Rinne is key to the series, and Shea Weber is the team’s biggest name. But Josi has quietly moved into elite territory while playing with Weber on the blue line. The pairing is solid on both ends and plays a ton of minutes, and their special-teams play will be key with power plays being so valuable during the playoffs.
Health watch: They’re banged up, with several players sitting out the season’s final weekend, but everyone other than Eric Nystrom should be good to go for the opener.
Key number: Six. That’s how many consecutive games the Predators lost to close out the season, coughing up the Central Division title along the way. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the Blues did the exact same thing last year … and then lost in the first round to the Blackhawks.
Bandwagon potential: If you’re looking for a preseason underdog that actually has a chance to go deep, this could be your team.
They’ll win this series if: Rinne is the best player on the ice for either team. One hot goaltender can derail any series, and there may not be a better one in the West than Rinne.
Prediction: Blackhawks in six, in one of those series where a bunch of games go into overtime.
No. 1 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 4 Minnesota Wild
Series starts: Thursday in St. Louis
Season series: They split four games.
Playoff history: This is the first meeting between the Blues and Wild, although the old Minnesota North Stars played St. Louis in the playoffs nine times.
Dominant narrative: Two of the very best teams in the league meet in the first round because the Central Division is insane.
In this corner: Minnesota Wild (46-28-8, 100 points, plus-29 goals differential)
The big question: Is this really one of the best teams in the league, like its second-half record would indicate? Normally you’d prefer to look at the big picture, which says the Wild are merely good. But they really have been a different team since mid-January, and we all know who’s responsible for that (hint: the guy in the next section).
One player to watch: Devan Dubnyk. Picking the starting goalie always feels like a copout, but in the case of the Wild there’s really no other option. The Wild were floundering in January, sitting in 12th place and on the verge of firing coach Mike Yeo. Then they pulled the trigger on a trade with the Coyotes for Dubnyk, and he turned their season around. From that moment on, the Wild were a different team, and they posted one of the best records in the league.
Health watch: Keith Ballard is out; otherwise, they’re pretty healthy.
Key number: One. That’s how many of the Wild’s last 40 games were started by someone other than Dubnyk. And that came last Thursday; before that, Dubnyk started 38 straight games after arriving in Minnesota. That’s impressive, but you have to wonder if and when he’ll start wearing out.
Bandwagon potential: Strong. They’re a 4-seed, so picking them gets you a nice dose of underdog cred even though they’re a clear-cut Stanley Cup contender.
They’ll win this series if: Dubnyk plays like he has for the past three months.
And in this corner: St. Louis Blues (51-24-7, 109 points, plus-42 goals differential)
The big question: Who’s in net? The Blues have a pair of pretty good goaltenders in Jake Allen and All-Star Brian Elliott. But they don’t seem to have much confidence in either — they signed Martin Brodeur during the season and traded for Ryan Miller last year — and it seems unlikely they’ll ride one guy the whole way. Can they at least make it through the first few games without a goaltending controversy? Probably not.
One player to watch: Kevin Shattenkirk. The Blues defense is flat-out amazing, probably the best unit in the league, and Shattenkirk is a big part of that. He was an All-Star this year, then missed two months with an abdominal injury. He returned for the last two weeks of the season and played big minutes, so he should be good to go.
Health watch: They’re basically healthy.
Key number: 22.3 percent, the Blues’ power-play success rate, the best mark in the West. That’s a good sign heading into the playoffs, where 5-on-5 scoring tends to decrease.
Bandwagon potential: Not great, since they were one of the league’s best regular-season teams. But the Blues have never won a Stanley Cup in their almost 50-year history, so if you take a big-picture view, they’d make a decent choice.
Prediction: It’ll be a great series, probably the best of the opening round, with several overtime games and plenty of drama. The winner will come out in great shape to make a deep run.
Oh, right, you’re going to want an actual team. Um … well … damn it. Let’s go with the Blues in seven. I think. Maybe. Put me down as being 51 percent sure.