The NHL playoffs get underway tonight for six teams in the Western Conference, which means that it’s time for the St. Louis Sports Zone first round predictions!
(1) Chicago Blackhawks vs (8) Minnesota Wild
The Chicago Blackhawks were one of the most consistent teams all season in the NHL. They won 24 straight to start the season and put together an 11-game point streak from March 31-April 20 en route to winning the President’s Trophy. The Minnesota Wild are without Dany Heatley and were among the teams shorthanded the most this season. They will have to play penalty free and virtually mistake free hockey to advance, something I don’t see happening. Give me the “Hawks in 5.
(2) Anaheim Ducks vs (7) Detroit Redwings
The Detroit Redwings fought their way into the playoffs, clinching on the final night of the regular season. The Anaheim Ducks, on the other hand, jumped out to a big lead in the Pacific Division and coasted into the playoffs, going 7-5-1 in April. Anaheim’s offense may have been inconsistent down the stretch but they have one of the deepest rosters in the league and had six forwards reach double digits in goals. Add to that their stout duo of Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fast in net and this team seems primed to make a deep run. The Redwings won’t go down without a fight though. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg will lead the way for Detroit but if they don’t get help from the rest of the supporting cast it could mean an early exit. I’ll take Anaheim in 6 games.
(3) Vancouver Canucks vs (6) San Jose Sharks
I think this series is one of the most evenly matched in the west. Both sides have plenty of talent, including goaltenders who are capable of stealing games. The key for Vancouver, in my opinion, will be Alain Vigneault’s ability to choose a starter in net and stick with him. If I had to guess what Alain Vigneault will do, I’d assume that we’ll see Roberto Luongo, since Corey Schneider was injured late in the year. Vancouver has a balanced attack if they can figure out the situation in net they may be able to stack up against any team in the conference. The Sharks don’t have a problem in net. Antti Niemi finished the regular season tied for the NHL lead in wins (24) and starts (43), was third in saves (1,127), tied for sixth in shutouts (four), tied for seventh in save percentage (.924) and seventh in goals-against (2.16) among those who played the majority of their teams’ games. If San Jose wants to advance they have to get off to a good start, history has shown that when things go bad for the Sharks, they go bad in a hurry. I like the Canucks in 6.
(4) St. Louis Blues vs (7) Los Angeles Kings
The defending Stanley Cup champion Kings will start their title defense against the Blues in a rematch of last year’s Western Conference semifinals, which Los Angeles won 4 games to 2. This series will be interesting from the start as both teams play a very physical style of hockey. Last year the Kings bullied the Blues around, something I know David Backes hasn’t forgotten. St. Louis will have to be careful early, asserting themselves while not forcing themselves out of position. The Kings aren’t the team they were last spring either. They have more offense, thanks to the addition of Jeff Carter. However goaltender Jonathan Quick’s up and down season makes them vulnerable, since consistency is the most important thing in the postseason. This one could go seven games, but I’ll take the Blues in 6.
(1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs (8) New York Islanders
The top seeded Pens are loaded from top to bottom. So much so that some believe they could make it to the third round without Sidney Crosby, who has been out with a fractured jaw. The bad news for New York is there is a chance he could return for the first game of this series. The Islanders have the offense to make this series interesting. The key for New York is to keep the puck out of their own net. That means they will have to remain committed to playing defensive hockey and that Evgeni Nabokov will have to steal a few games along the way, but even that may not be enough. Give me the Penguins in 5
(2) Montreal Canadiens vs (7) Ottawa Senators
Fans north of the border live and breathe hockey, so the playoffs must be like Christmas in Canada, even more so when the Canadiens and Senators are pitted against each other. Montreal has one of the most balanced attacks in the NHL. Each of their top 3 lines is a legitimate threat to score. In fact, eight of their nine forwards on those lines had more than 25 points during the regular season. Ottawa is a horse of a different color. The Senators haven’t had Jason Spezza most of the season and have had to play cautiously, but still made it into the playoffs. If they want to hang around they will need more from Milan Michalek and Corey Conchar. This series could be closer than the seeding indicates but I’ll take Montreal in 6.
(3) Washington Capitals vs (6) New York Rangers
These two teams played an epic, seven-game series in the playoffs last year with the Rangers winning game 7 at home. If this series goes 7, the deciding game will be in Washington. To get that far the Rangers Henrik Lundqvist will have to steal the show. Alex Ovechkin led the NHL with 32 goals as Braden Holtby emerged as a solid No. 1 goaltender. The return of defensemen Mike Green also helped the Caps have the league’s most potent powerplay unit. The Rangers have the forwards to match Washington and I have more confidence in Lundqvist than I do Holtby, so I’ve got the Rangers upsetting the Capitals in 6.
(4) Boston Bruins vs (5) Toronto Maple Leafs
These two teams played close all season and are set to meet again in the playoffs. The key for Boston in this series will be limiting their opponents chances on the powerplay. The Bruins powerplay has been terrible, but their ability to kill off the penalties has been noteworthy as they finished 4th in the NHL. If they can keep games at even strength for long periods of time, it will be hard for anyone to beat them. For the Leafs this series, success will depend on the production from Nazem Kadri, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. Toronto will also need a strong performance from James Reimer to have any hope of advancing. Toronto has a chance but I’ll take Boston in 6 games.