NHL Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: Western Conference

Be ready before the first puck drops: The Stanley Cup playoffs begin tonight, so we complete our Stanley Cup preview today by examining the Western Conference teams and matchups.

Above is the final playoff bracket for the 2017 Stanley Cup (NHL)

Chicago Blackhawks vs Nashville Predators

The Blackhakws continued their dominance of the Western Conference this year, again leading the conference and winning the Central division easily. After winning the Stanley Cup two years ago, the Blackhawks had a disappointing first round exit to the Blues last year. This year, the team is back on top of the West, but a lot of the advanced metrics still doubt the Blackhawks’ ability. In the Simple Rating System (SRS), which grades teams based on goal differential, winrate, and stength of schedule, the Hawks are third in the West behind the Wild and Oilers. Star Right Winger Patrik Kane has fallen slightly from his insane 106 point performance last year, “only” scoring 89 this year (tying Sidney Crosby for #2 in the league). Left Winger Artemi Panarin has had matched his amazing rookie year performance, scoring 31 goals and 74 points on the season. Goalie Corey Crawford has had a decent year, with a .918 save percentage and 32 wins on the season, but it’s been the Hawk’s offense that propelled them to where they are now. Expect some fast-paced, exciting hockey from out of Chicago, win or lose.

This year’s Nashville Predators are back in the playoffs for the third straight year, and are looking for their first Stanley Cup victory in team history. The team has been rattled by the loss of Captain Mike Fisher to an undisclosed upper-body injury, and his return in uncertain. Fisher has 18 goals and 42 points on the season, but his veteran leadership and experience will be sorely missed by this Nashville squad. Left Winger Viktor Arvidsson and Center Ryan Johansen have 61 points each on the season, with Arvidsson cashing in on most of the two’s goals. Goalie Pekka Rinne has improved from last year (when he had the most goals allowed in the NHL), but has only had a slightly-above-average .918 save percentage on the season. Nashville will have to find a way to keep Chicago’s shots on goal low or they risk getting outscored by the superior Hawks offense. The Preds will also have to find a way to compensate for Fisher’s missed offensive production if he’s unable to return from injury on time.

Game 1 will be played on Thursday, April 13th, at 8:30 pm EST in Chicago.

Minnesota Wild vs St. Louis Blues

Speaking of teams that haven’t won a Stanley Cup yet, the Minnesota Wild are hunting for their first championship in team history. After a disastrous month of March where the Wild seemingly could not find a single win, Minnesota has mostly recovered to win all but one game in the month of April. Granted, their only loss was also to the only playoff team they fought (the Nashville Predators), so that’s not really high praise. Goalie Devan Dubnyk, who was the principal culprit for the Wild’s defensive woes during March, has not been confirmed to start tonight, though it is highly likely he will be in the net for Minnesota. He has an amazing .923 save percentage and 40 wins on the season despite a huge drop last month. The Wild also have the second highest-scoring offense in hockey, with 266 goals on the season and 5 players above 50 points. For Minnesota, their playoff hopes hinge on whether they can return to their pre-March dominating performances or if they will fall back into their recent slumps.

The Blues, who have also never won a cup, enter this year’s playoffs on a massive hot streak. Since hiring former Wild coach Mike Yeo, the Blues have gone 22-8-2 to finish out the season. Right Winger Vladimir Tarasenko has absolutely done it all for the Blues, scoring 39 goals and 75 points on the season. Tarasenko’s point share, a measure of how many of the team’s points in standings are a direct result of that player’s extraordinary ability, stands at a whopping 10.2. In other words, the team would not have even finished in the playoffs without him. Goalie Jake Allen has has been slightly above average this year, with a .915 save percentage and 33 wins on the season. Allen’s problem is his inconsistency: he has 11 really bad starts (defined as a save percentage below .85) on the season. The Blues will need to ride their hot streak if they want to advance in the playoffs, meaning Tarasenko must continue his amazing performance and Allen must remain consistent throughout the series.

Game 1 will be played on Wednesday, April 12th at 9:30 pm EST in Minnesota.

Anaheim Ducks vs Calgary Flames

The Anaheim Ducks are back in the playoffs for the fifth straight year and the first time under new head coach Randy Carlyle. This is also the fifth straight year the Ducks have finished first in their division, though they have never made it past the Western Conference Finals in that time (hence why they fired head coach Bruce Boudreau). This year’s Ducks are a defensive monster, ranking third in the league in goals against average. This is in large part to spectacular goaltending by John Gibson, who sports a .925 save percentage and 25 wins on the season. Goalie Jonathan Bernier, who serves as a mentor to Gibson and shares many of the starts, also has 21 wins and a .915 save percentage. The Duck’s offense really isn’t anything to write home about, ranking 17th in the NHL overall.  Ryan Getzlaf pushes the team on offense, with 15 goals and a whopping 58 assists, but most other players have been middling to average on the year. Expect the Ducks to rely heavily on their defense and goalies if the series gets tough.

The Flames are back in the playoffs the first time since 2014 and only the second time since the 2009-10, making them another team in this year’s Canadian comeback. And, well, they’re an aggressively OK team.  15th in overall offense, 14th in overall defense, and ever so slightly above average in the Simple Rating System. The Oiler’s playoff run was mostly propelled by their end of season hot streak including a 10 game winstreak from February 21st to March 13th. That stretch was dominated by close games and OT victories, however, so it could easily have just been a fluke. Still, there is reason for Flames fans to have hope: 23 year old Left Winger Johnny Gaudreau and 22 year old Center Sean Monahan lead the team with 61 and 58 points, respectively. In fact, 4 of the top 5 points leaders for Calgary are all under the age of 23. In the net is where Calgary really struggles, as all their goalies are either statistically below average or too young and untested to see playoff starts. No matter how this series goes for the Flames, you can be sure that they’ll continue improving their young talent and can even transform into an aggressive playoff contender in future seasons.

Game 1 will be played Thursday, April 13th at 10:30 pm EST in Anaheim.

Edmonton Oilers vs San Jose Sharks

Completing this year’s round of Canadian teams who missed the playoffs last year is the Edmonton Oilers who, in fact, have not made the playoffs since the 2005-06 season. And it’s all thanks to one man: 20 year old Center Connor McDavid. McDavid is in his first full year with the Oilers, and already leads the entire NHL in points (100) and assists (70). Nobody on the team, except for fellow 21 year old Center Leon Draisaitl (77 points) even comes close to how well McDavid is playing this year. It’s enough to make the Oilers one of the dark horse playoff pics from the Western Conference, and has given many fans hope that the Oilers can dethrone last year’s Western Conference champions, the San Jose Sharks. In fact, the Oilers are ranked a distant second in the Western Conference under Simple Rating Sytem, behind only the Minnesota Wild. It’ll be interesting to see if McDavid and the Oilers have what it takes to survive playoff hockey, but win or lose this is an extremely young team with a bright future for the first time in a long time.

The San Jose Sharks are seemingly the Capitals West in that they have consistently made the playoffs but are always heartbroken at some point in their quest for a Stanley Cup. This year, the Sharks are defending Western Conference champions and are rebounding from their loss in the Stanley Cup finals to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Center Joe Pavelski is still a great player but is showing signs of age, scoring 29 goals and 68 points on the season. Defensemen Brent Burns showed why he’s one of the best in the league, scoring 29 goals and a whopping 49 assists this season to lead all Sharks in points. Center Joe Thorton’s return is questionable after he injured his left knee and had to sit out the Shark’s final three games of the season. His loss would be massive for San Jose, as he scored 50 points in this year’s regular season and was a large part of last year’s deep playoff run.

Game 1 will be played Wednesday, April 13th at 10:00 pm EST in Edmonton.

-Joseph Politano

4th String Sports

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