The Western Conference has been the superior conference over the past few years, and 2014 has been no different. When I initially looked at all four match-ups I would have taken three of the four lower seeds. To give you a little taste of the first round competition, the defending champions start on the road against a team that ruled the west all year until a 6-game losing streak to end the regular season.
Let’s skip the intro and get right into ranking the match-ups…
4. Dallas Stars @ Anaheim Ducks The Dallas Stars start on the road, somewhere they have struggled all year. They are the only team with a losing record on the road that made the playoffs, and they have to play a Ducks team that was 3rd best in the NHL at home this year. The style of both teams is quite similar as both like to play a fast pace game of hockey and love to skate. I’ve seen a few other writers pick the Stars to upset the Ducks in the first round, and I can see why. For one, head coach Bruce Boudreau is notorious for getting knocked out the playoffs early (remember his time with the Capitals?), and that didn’t change last year when they were upset by the Red Wings in 7 games in round 1. Also, this Dallas Stars team lives on creating offense with their speed, and the Ducks have been known to be a little ‘skinny’ in terms of depth on their back-end. Also, Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen is one of the best goalies in the league that doesn’t seem to get the recognition he deserves, so this may be the spotlight for him to shine.
Even though the history of Boudreau suggests an upset is lurking for the Ducks, I just don’t see the Stars being able to be much of a problem for the top team in the west. The Ducks have arguably the best duo of forwards in the game in Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, and I expect them to carry their team past a Stars team that doesn’t have much depth (just like the Ducks). They are very similar teams, but the Ducks’ best players are better than the Stars’ best players right now, so I’ll take the Ducks in 6.
3. Minnesota Wild @ Colorado Avalanche What an amazing year for rookie head coach Patrick Roy and his young Avalanche team. With the St. Louis Blues losing 6 straight to end their regular season, they also coughed up the #1 seed in their division to Colorado, so this young squad avoids playing the Blackhawks in the first round.
The Minnesota Wild are about to begin their 2nd attempt in the playoffs since Ryan Suter and Zach Parise signed on in the 2012 offseason. Jason Pominville led the team in goal scoring with 30, and they have multiple other forwards that have been known to bury the biscuit. With that said, this year was a struggle to find any consistency from their offense, but the potential is there. It’s a team that has been responsible with the puck all year and have defended well, but they may need to force the issue and open up the floodgates a little to stick with this Avalanche team. An Avalanche fan will dominate you if one were to begin to suggest the Wild have an advantage in the net for this series. Semyon Varlamov is a sneaky candidate to win the Vezina trophy this year, and for good reason. He was clearly the best goaltender in the Western Conference this year, posting a save percentage of .927 and only allowing 2.41 goals per game in 63 games. The Wild goalie right now is the one and only Ilya Bryzgalov who has actually played well as of late. He is a complete head case if you don’t remember from his time in Philadelphia, but he also has shown he can be a star if the defensive system is solid (his time in Phoenix). Taking all of this into account, I feel that this will be an upset special. With star forward Matt Duchene out for the series, I feel the Avalanche will greatly miss his production. It’s a young roster with very little playoff experience, and I just don’t see Varlamov being able to stand on his head and steal games for this team. Watch the Wild surprise a lot of people, and I’ll take them in 6.
2. Chicago Blackhawks @ St. Louis Blues
Oh boy. There couldn’t be a worse time for the Blues to go into a slump. On a horrendous 6 game losing streak, St. Louis choked up their #1 seed to the Avalanche and now have the honor of trying to dethrone the Chicago Blackhawks. The defending champs are getting healthy at the perfect time as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are expect to be back for game 1. When deciding to pick the winner of this series it’s hard not to go with the Blackhawks considering their experience and talent along with the Blues inexperience and struggles as of late. The issue with that side of the argument is that most people saying that were buying the Blues all season long. Who wouldn’t? They were hands down the most disciplined team all year and could role four lines with no worries. Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo are talented young defenseman that the Blues will be building around for years to come, and the addition of Ryan Miller at the trade deadline gives St. Louis a potential brick wall for the playoffs. The Blackhawks are almost a carbon copy of their team last year, so the only question marks going into the playoffs this year will be fatigue and injury. Want to doubt Corey Crawford again? Go ahead. I’ve learned my lesson with this team. Chicago is so good that just having an above average goaltender will give them a good shot of making a deep playoff run. I wish this series were played last month when the Blues were full of confidence and were rolling over their competition, but even if they were to get into a groove quickly in the playoffs I wouldn’t pick them to take out the Blackhawks. Give me Chicago in 5. (The reason I think they are the 2nd most intriguing is the fact that the Blues could return to form and challenge Chicago)
1. Los Angeles Kings @ San Jose Sharks California is the home to three of the most talented teams in the NHL, and this first round match-up features the two most northern of the teams (LA is not in the north, but it is north of Anaheim!). The Kings and Sharks both have plenty of playoff experience on their rosters and both have aspirations and goals to win the Stanley Cup this year. This is hands down the most compelling of any first round series in the NHL considering the powerhouses these rosters are and the rivalry between these two in-state teams.
The Kings, like the Blackhawks, are a roster similar to their previous championship season, but they have added a couple new players that could make a difference. Marian Gaborik is an elite goal scorer when healthy, and if this trade deadline addition can get it going in the playoffs it help the weakness of this team. Just like every year it seems, the big question about the Los Angeles Kings going into the playoffs is their goal scoring even though their roster has multiple highly skilled forwards. They have a reputation to save ‘it’ for the playoffs, but will they turn it on this year? The Sharks are preseason favorites almost every year to some, yet they still have failed to reach the final. Getting young forward Tomas Hertl back from injury is a huge upgrade for the Sharks as they hope to add more depth to their forward position. San Jose is watching the passing of the torch happen before their eyes as Patrick Marleau, Joe Thorton, and Dan Boyle keep getting older and Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic continue to improve. Don’t get me wrong, the old guys are still highly productive, but the younger players have only made this team even more potent. Picking a team to win in 7 games is basically saying “I have no idea”, and this is no different. I love what the Sharks bring to the table offensively and I feel they have the better squad as a whole besides goaltending. With that being said, I believe Antti Niemi will be strong enough in net to out-duel Jonathan Quick and the Los Angeles Kings. Give me the Sharks in 7.