NHL fans have heard all season how great the Western Conference is, and that will be on display starting Wednesday night when the Stanley Cup playoffs get underway.
The Western Conference slate is expected to be a grueling test for all eight teams involved, and there certainly are some very interesting matchups.
Some of the league’s upstart teams, like the Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars, are returning to the second season after lengthy absences. The Avs do so as favorites in their series against the Minnesota Wild, and the Stars are heavy underdogs against an Anaheim Ducks team that many predict will hoist the Cup in a couple of months.
The other two series feature just what the NHL wanted when it realigned and changed its playoff format: divisional matchups between bitter rivals. The Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks will meet again, while Central Division powers St. Louis and Chicago tangle in the other first-round divisional showdown.
Here are NESN’s Western Conference first-round predictions from Bruins/NHL editor Mike Cole and assistant editor Nicholas Goss:
Anaheim Ducks vs. Dallas Stars
Goss: The Ducks will make quick work of the Stars with their superior goaltending, depth on the blue line and a huge advantage in playoff experience. Expect Dallas to have trouble keeping possession of the puck — it had the fifth-most turnovers in the NHL during the regular season — against a physical, smart group of Anaheim defensemen who turn good defense into offense with quick and accurate passes through the neutral zone.
One of the Ducks’ few weaknesses is special teams, specifically their 22nd-ranked power play. If Anaheim wins the special teams battle, this series will be over quickly because only the Boston Bruins had a better even-strength goals for/against ratio during the regular season. The only way the Stars win this series is if starting goalie Kari Lehtonen plays like Montreal Canadiens legend Ken Dryden did in 1971, which will be difficult against a Ducks team that led the league in goals scored.
Pick: Anaheim wins 4-0
Cole: This is a classic first-round mismatch. The Ducks have been one of the most consistent teams all season, and they have far too much at stake to have any sort of slip-up in the first round. For the Stars to have any chance in this series, they’ll need Kari Lehtonen to stand on his head in net, in addition to getting huge series from top-end talents such as Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. Is it possible? Sure, in the way that anything technically is possible. Because of that, the Stars might steal a game but not much else.
Pick: Anaheim wins 4-1
San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings
Goss: The Kings are a team built for the playoff grind. They have a deep, physical and experienced team that excels in all three zones and receives quality goaltending from former Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Quick. San Jose struggled to end the season, and there are concerns about starting goaltender Antti Niemi, who finished the regular season with three or more goals against in four of his last six appearances.
Los Angeles had trouble scoring throughout the season (26th in goals, 27th in power-play success), and it lacks the offensive firepower to win high-scoring games against a talented San Jose forward group. With that said, if Quick plays well and Selke Trophy candidate Anze Kopitar shuts down the Joe Thornton line, the Kings will eliminate the Sharks for the second consecutive season.
Pick: Los Angeles wins 4-2
Cole: This should be the best series of the first round. You have two deep teams with plenty of playoff experience and high-end talent. There’s also plenty on the line for both teams, especially a San Jose club that was a trendy pick earlier in the season to make a deep playoff run but never seems to live up to expectations this time of year.
That being said, the Sharks drew a pretty awful first-round matchup. The Kings are as stingy as stingy gets, and that’s before you even consider they have Jonathan Quick in net. No one allowed fewer goals than Los Angeles this season, and the Kings had the Sharks’ number all season, going 3-1-1 in their five games and allowing just eight goals in those contests. As long as they can generate any sort of offense — which has been no small task for this team at points this season — the Kings should advance.
Pick: Los Angeles wins 4-2
St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks
Goss: The Blues lost six in a row to end the regular season, and goaltender Ryan Miller hasn’t played well over the last month (3-8 record, sub-.900 save percentage). St. Louis doesn’t have enough offense to beat a Chicago team that ranked second in goals scored, and it doesn’t help that key Blues forwards such as David Backes, Brenden Morrow, Vladimir Tarasenko and T.J. Oshie all are battling injuries.
In addition to having a huge advantage in playoff experience as the defending Stanley Cup champs, the Blackhawks also have more bottom-six scoring, a deeper blue line and a goaltender in Corey Crawford with a proven record of playoff excellence. Chicago dominated St. Louis during the regular season, and that success won’t end anytime soon.
Pick: Chicago wins 4-1
Cole: There’s not a colder team entering the Stanley Cup playoffs than the St. Louis Blues. Once the front-runner for the Western Conference’s top spot and even the Presidents’ Trophy, Ken Hitchcock’s bunch doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence as it entered the playoffs on a six-game skid. The Blues already have problems finding the back of the net, but with the aforementioned injuries, that task gets even more difficult.
The silver lining for the Blues is that the Blackhawks aren’t exactly healthy either. The status and effectiveness of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews as the series goes on certainly bears watching. However, if the Hawks are able to get any sort of offense from the back end, and the complementary players step up like they did during last year’s Stanley Cup run, Chicago should have no problems reaching the second round.
Pick: Chicago wins 4-2
Colorado Avalanche vs. Minnesota Wild
Goss: This is a difficult series to predict because both teams are well-balanced and receive good goaltending on a consistent basis. The Avalanche boast a deep, talented offense that features top Calder Trophy candidate Nathan MacKinnon, and starting goaltender Semyon Varlamov — who won 41 games and likely will be a Vezina Trophy finalist — gives them an advantage in net. The Wild have a more skilled and deeper blue line, as well as an edge in playoff experience, but starting goalie Ilya Bryzgalov’s previous playoff struggles (17-19, 2.08 GAA, .908 SV%) are a concern.
Colorado was the fourth-worst possession team in the league during the regular season, but if it can protect the puck and prevent Varlamov from facing too many quality scoring chances, the Central Division champs will survive what should be a close series.
Pick: Colorado wins 4-3
Cole: This series feels like it’ll come down to the goaltending. Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov is a Vezina front-runner in the minds of many, and there’s really no reason to believe he can’t keep that going in the playoffs. The Avs will need to do a better job of being tight in front of him, though, as no one even came close to facing as many shots as Varlamov, who faced 125 more shots in two fewer games than the next goalie (Lehtonen). However, with Ilya Bryzgalov at the other end, the Wild’s defensive situation is even more up in the air. It’ll take a team-wide defensive effort for the Wild to pull off the upset, but the Avalanche appear to have everything going in the right direction — for this round at least.
Cole: Colorado wins 4-1