The Show Must Go On: A Western Conference Playoff Preview

Yes, the Nashville Predator’s 2013 season is over, but the best hockey has yet to begin. While Preds fans ponder over the 2nd highest draft spot in franchise history, there are still 16 teams continuing on for the holy grail of hockey.

It’s only appropriate that the playoffs be just as special as the season itself. For the first time in seventeen years, all original six teams (Boston, Montreal, NY Rangers, Toronto, Detroit, and Chicago) will see postseason time. It will be the first time that the Montreal Canadiens have faced the Ottawa Senators since the Montreal Maroons played the original Ottawa Senators in 1928. The Toronto Maple Leafs made the playoffs, and it wasn’t a headline on The Onion website.

But quite possibly the most special component of this season comes by how well these teams know each other. Because of the lockout, this was the first time in the modern NHL period that teams performed in a single-conference format. These teams have inevitably become rivals without really even trying. Statistically, many of these teams are performing at freakishly identical levels, which will likely lead to several series seeing six or seven games. This will all lead up to a cold series against the opposite conference in the Stanley Cup Finals—adding a great deal of excitement and uncertainty.

Since we’re all familiar with the Western Conference this season, here’s a little comprehensive preview of the next two weeks of hockey. Prepare your social life accordingly:

The Western Conference Quarterfinals:

(1) Chicago Blackhawks (36-7-5, 77 pts) vs. (8) Minnesota Wild (26-19-3, 55 pts)
Season Series: 2-0-1 Chicago

The Main Story: The Presidents Trophy-winning Chicago Blackhawks have already had one of the most impressive NHL seasons this year, and finalizing that with a follow-up Stanley Cup would make everything perfect. But Minnesota, and “the curse of the Presidents Trophy” have their number. After barely squeezing into the playoffs past the Columbus Blue Jackets (and, let’s face it, everyone is disappointed CBJ didn’t make it), the Minnesota Wild are making their first appearance in the playoffs since 2008. The Wild are probably one of the only teams who could really give the Blackhawks a run for their money. Out of the three games in the season series, two of them were won by one goal. This will be the first time the teams have faced each other in the playoffs.

What to look for: Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane will have to be just as successful in the postseason as he was in the regular season in the points category. The Blackhawks will have to rely solely on Corey Crawford until the day-to-day Ray Emery is back to 100% for the Jennings Trophy tandem. For the Wild, the team will rely heavily on goaltender Niklas Backstrom, who tied for the league lead in wins (24). Also, with one of the less-productive offenses, there will also be a heavy defensive component in order to take the series… Yet… I can’t seem to remember who their main defenseman is, though…

Predators Connection? Do I really have to put his name?

Prediction: Expect a lot of one-goal games and maybe even a couple overtimes. Blackhawks in 6.

(2) Anaheim Ducks (30-12-6, 66 pts) vs. (7) Detroit Red Wings (24-16-8, 57 pts)
Season Series: 2-1 Anaheim

The Main Story: The Anaheim Ducks have been the silent sniper of the Western Conference this year. Had the Blackhawks not started without a regulation loss for 24 games, the Ducks would have been the talk of the town. The team, who didn’t even make the playoffs last year, posted 30 wins this season—a feat some teams don’t even see in an 82-game season. I seriously am not sure there is anything that can stop the Detroit Red Wings from going to the Playoffs. With an impressive 4-game victory to push the team to seventh, the Red Wings are making their 22nd consecutive playoff appearance this postseason. Even with a struggling season after the retirement of Niklas Lidstrom, the Red Wings have proven that they can still do it.

What to look for: For the Ducks, 30-year old rookie Viktor Fasth will be playing in his first NHL playoff series, while veteran forward Teemu Selanne, at age 42, prepares for his eleventh. The Ducks had one of the best home records of the NHL season, but they are just as dangerous on the road. Even though the Red Wings have not performed to the highest of their ability this season, the team has found their offensive scoring in the final 10 games of the season. As much as we love to hate the Red Wings, forwards Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are just flat out fun to watch, even when they’re not at their best. But right now… they may be playoff ready.

Predators Connection? Matthew Lombardi, who played approximately 2 shifts before injury cut his time with the Predators short, was able to post 8 points in 28 games for the Ducks. Jordin Tootoo, who fans still haven’t decided whether or not to boo or cheer him, has actually been somewhat important to the Red Wings roster.

Prediction: This is probably going to be one of the most exciting series of the quarterfinals. Detroit may be coming in hot, but Anaheim’s home advantage will come in handy. Ducks in 7.

(3) Vancouver Canucks (26-15-7, 59 pts) vs (6) San Jose Sharks (25-16-7, 57 pts)
Season Series: 3-0 San Jose

The Main Story: For a 3 and 6 series, this will look more like a 4 and 5 seed series. These teams have almost identical records, and, in turn, have both faced significant struggles. Nevertheless, both of these teams have found their grooves enough to make it to the playoffs. The Vancouver Canucks secured the Northwest Division for the fifth time in six seasons. However, the team, in respect to points, has a lower ROW statistic than the 5th place LA Kings. The San Jose Sharks had one of the best home records on the season, going 17-2-5 at the HP Pavilion Center. However, the team struggled on the road, only winning 8 total away games.

What to look for: There has been much buzz around Shark’s goaltender Antti Niemi, who tied the Wild’s Niklas Backstrom for most goaltender wins, including several Vezina mentions. This isn’t Niemi’s first go-around in the playoffs, either—he was the starting goaltender for the 2010 Stanley Cup Blackhawks team. As for Vancouver, an undisclosed injury has potentially sidelined goaltender Cory Schneider, therefore placing the still-not-traded Roberto Luongo back in net. Though he has significant playoff experience, it truly depends on which Luongo shows up to play that determines the series record. Vancouver has Ryan Kesler back and healthy, which will definitely help the struggling offense of the Canucks, who only posted 127 goals this season (only 3 more than opponent San Jose).

Predators Connection? Vancouver defenseman Dan Hamhuis is seeing his third consecutive postseason appearance since leaving the Preds in summer 2010. San Jose’s Scott Hannan, who was traded from the Preds while on IR just earlier this season, will be making a healthy appearance this postseason.

Prediction: San Jose may struggle away from home, but they have proven that they can post a win in Vancouver. Sharks in 7.

(4) St. Louis Blues (29-17-2, 60 pts) vs. (5) Los Angeles Kings (27-16-5, 59 pts)
Season Series: 3-0 Los Angeles

The Main Story: The LA Kings have defended their Stanley Cup in good fashion so far this season. The team has pretty much stayed the same in construct, and, even with their impressive 16-4 run last postseason, they have not fallen to the “Cup Hangover” thus far. It’s baffling, even to the TSN Panel of experts, who deemed it necessary to make a Hangover spoof of it last night (This is why I love Canada, by the way). The St. Louis Blues, who were swept by the LA Kings in the second round last year, are hoping that they can find a win against the Kings for the first time since February 3, 2012. It will be a pretty even series, as there is very little difference between EVERY statistic. Their special teams percentages are comparable within one percent. Their goals against per game are identical, with 2.38.

What to look for: This is going to be the quintessential goalie throwdown. Jonathan Quick will have to perform like the Conn Smythe winner of last season, even though the team is ranked 5th. Blues goaltender Brian Elliot, who started the season struggling, will have to make sure to perform like the Jennings winner he was (along with Halak) last year. To go along with the throwdown mentality, both of these teams are significantly physical, which will likely lead to one of the grittier playoff series in the quarterfinals.

Predators Connection? While former Predator Scott Nichol does play for the Blues, he is sidelined with a lower body injury that may leave him out of this series.

Prediction: The Blues may finally find that win, but LA will still prevail. Kings in 6.

All of the NHL Playoffs will be televised on NBC, NBC Sports Network, and CNBC. The playoffs begin tonight with the Blackhawks vs. Wild (7 PM on NBC Sports Network), Blues vs. Kings (7 PM on CNBC), and Ducks vs. Red Wings (9 PM on NBC Sports Network). The Eastern Conference Quarterfinals will begin on Wednesday, May 1.

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