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Round 1 Western Conference Preview

By: John Galletley

Arguably the greatest postseason in sports is getting underway tonight. Part two of the Stanley Cup Playoff Preview focuses on the Western Conference. For the past few years, the conference has been looked at as superior to the East and the conference finals have been somewhat treated as the real Stanley Cup Final. However, things are different this year since the familiar foe and clutch playoff performing Los Angeles Kings will not be participating this year. With the teams that actually are competing, here are the matchups:

Anaheim Ducks vs. Winnipeg Jets

ducks vs. flames

The Ducks are a team that is expected to perform well in the regular season. They find themselves in a familiar spot being one of the league’s top teams going into the playoffs but haven’t made a deep run in the playoffs since 2007 when they won the Cup over the Ottawa Senators.

This year might be different though. Not only are their division rival Kings out of the way, but they also have an extra star as deep line help in Ryan Kesler to help support Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. One stat that glares out at you when looking at the Ducks is the fact that they only have a +10 goal differential yet they have 109 points. That is the lowest among the playoff teams and their goalie Frederik Anderson isn’t exactly their strong suit. On the positive side of that though, you can say they know how to win tight games. The question going into the playoffs for the Ducks has to be if Anderson can hold up for them and they can finally take the leap out of the Western Conference into the Stanley Cup Finals?

On the other side, you have the Winnipeg Jets who sort of snuck into the playoffs and some probably didn’t expect them to be here. The Jets are in the playoffs for the first time since returning to Winnipeg and do so in interesting fashion. They had several question marks back in February when they traded a star they were frustrated with in Evander Kane but they have made their acquisitions work. Guys like Tyler Myers, Lee Stempniak, Drew Stafford and Jiri Tlusty have helped make this team deeper. They also have a hot goalie in Pavelec who has won 9 of his last 12 to end the season.

The Jets don’t have the stars the Ducks do, but one player who they’ll look to lead the way for them is their now defenseman Dustin Byfuglien. For a team that just got into the playoffs, the Jets have a +20 goal differential compared to the Ducks +10. The question is will Pavelec stay hot for the Jets and can Byfuglien make a significant impact?

Prediction: The stats tell you that the Jets could be primed for an upset but I think the firepower of the Ducks will be too much to overcome and Pavelec won’t keep his hot streak up. Ducks in 6.

Vancouver Canucks vs. Calgary Flames

Canucks vs. Flames

After missing the playoffs last year, the Canucks find themselves back in contention this year. The coaching change from John Tortorella to Willie Desjardins seems to have allowed the players to play more of their own style and more freely. This team is led by the Sedin brothers who have unbelievable chemistry together and Daniel had 76 points on the season. They also boast the second best power play kill in the NHL at 85.7%.

The key for the Canucks seems to be if they can get anything out of their acquired goalie this year in Ryan Miller. We all know he has been great in the past taking the Sabres and the USA national team on deep runs in their respective tournaments. The problem is his age is showing and the Canucks haven’t gotten the goalie they were expecting with him allowing 2.53 goals per game. If he can recapture his past self though, the Canucks can be dangerous.

The Flames seem to be the team that has come out of nowhere. They’re the young team very few people had going to the playoffs in the beginning of the year and the team a lot of people expected the Kings to jump but give them credit, they beat the Kings to clinch their playoff spot when everything was on the line. Now the Flames are going to get a test to see if they can keep up their surprise run in the playoffs.

This team is led by center Jiri Hudler who had 76 points on the year as well matching Daniel Sedin. Jonas Hiller is in the net for the Flames coming from the Ducks where he has had past experience in the playoffs but he also had question marks coming into this year. Give him credit though, he has quieted some critics with a 2.36 goals-against average. Another strength the Flames have is discipline because they manage to avoid taking penalties. Somehow they got this far despite losing their best player in Mark Giordano earlier in the season. With a +24 goal differential, the question is can this young team keep defying the odds?

Prediction: The Flames have been on a nice run but I think the Canucks have the edge with past playoff experience and leaders in the Sedin brothers on their side. Canucks in 6.

St. Louis Blues vs. Minnesota Wild

blues vs. wild

The Blues are in a similar position as the Ducks as a team that wants to take a leap in the playoffs this year now that the Kings are out. They always seem to run into a hot team in the playoffs which is why they brought in reinforcements this year with Paul Statsny. They’re led by Vladimir Tarasenko who had 37 goals and 36 assists on the season supported strongly by Alexander Steen who had 64 points of his own.

This team may arguably be the most complete going into the playoffs along with the Rangers. They have players like American sensation TJ Oshie, Steve Ott, Alex Pietrangelo, and David Backes behind them. There may not be a team with more notable talent than the Blues. The Blues have a solid goaltender in Brian Elliot as well to enhance their balanced attack that ranked fifth in goals per game (2.92) and goals-against per game (2.4). With this much talent on the Blues, the question for them this year has to be will they finally get over the hump or will they choke in the early rounds once again?

As for the Wild, they have the task of knocking off one of the best teams in the league but they’re no stranger to that with them knocking off the top seeded Colorado Avalanche last year. This team deserves tremendous credit for turning themselves around in the second half of the season because back in January, they were as low as 12th in the conference with their coach Mike Yeo on the chopping block.

The biggest reason why this team has turned themselves around is because of the acquisition back in January of Devan Dubnyk. He gave the Wild a solid goalie to rely on being second in the NHL with 2.07 goals-against per game. They also have Zach Parise who had 33 goals on the year and has been deep in the playoffs before with him being a big factor in the 2012 Devils Stanley Cup Final run. This team may be a wild card but any NHL fan that has been paying attention knows they have potential to be a dark horse in the playoffs.

Prediction: Both teams have tremendous talent and this will be a great series, but I think the Blues have a little bit more depth than the Wild and this will be the year they make a serious playoff run. Blues in 6.

Nashville Predators vs. Chicago Blackhawks

predators vs. blackhawks

I’ve talked about surprise teams in these articles, but any hockey fan will tell you the Predators were the clear surprise of the season consistently playing like one of the league’s top teams. That is until dropping their last six games which cost them the Central Division title. Pekka Rinne has been one of the top goalies in the NHL all season with a 2.18 goals-against average. It helps that they have their star defenseman Shea Weber and the young defenseman on the rise in Roman Josi in front of him who have helped in only allowing 28.1 shots per game. That is sixth in the NHL. It’s pretty clear that this unit won’t be easy to score against.

The question becomes is there anyone on this team that can step up offensively? There’s not a single player on this team that will blow you away with their scoring ability and competing against a team like the Blackhawks who have stars that can get hot at any time, this has to be a concern. If the Predators can find a way to get their front ride scoring and return to early season form, this team may just escape this matchup and could be dangerous along the way.

Then we have the Blackhawks who are the dynasty in the Western Conference with history on their side. They have won two Stanley Cups the past five years and got knocked out by the Kings in overtime of the seventh game in the Western Conference finals last year. One can make an argument that this team benefits more than anybody by having the Kings miss the playoffs. The Blackhawks have the core and familiar faces to succeed in Jonathon Toews, Patrick Kane who is just coming back from a clavicle injury, Marion Hossa, and Duncan Keith. No one will ever count the Blackhawks dead in the water as long as these faces are here and rightfully so. They’re the only team in the NHL who never blew a lead after two periods this season.

Despite no one counting the Blackhawks out, the health of Patrick Kane has to be a concern because they’re not the same team without him. He does sound like he will play in this series but one can never be 100% sure. This team has had stretches in the regular season where they have looked sluggish and can’t afford to do that against a team that will be very difficult to score against.

Prediction: The Predators have had a great season but it’s very hard for me to bet against the Blackhawks in this spot. They have the core to lead the way on both sides of the ice which should overpower the defensive-minded Predators. Blackhawks in 7.

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Want to talk sports? John Galletley is the man to go to. He has been following sports of all kinds since he was a child but had a first love for baseball being in a family of Yankees fans. He also loves to travel and has used sports in order to do this including taking several road trips to MLB stadiums and other sports venues. John has always dreamed of working in the sports world and wants to make his way there as a writer in order to follow the philosophy of never working a day in your life if you love what you do.

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