It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year: The NHL Western Conference First Round, Reviewed, Previewed.

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For some it’s the Superbowl, for others it’s the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament or maybe even New Years Day for the Rose Bowl. For me, it’s the NHL Playoffs. It doesn’t get any better than–for all intents and purposes–the 16 best teams in the NHL grinding it out with a new level of speed,physicality and intensity. Suddenly depth-players like Joel Ward, Sean Bergenheim and our old friend Darren MacCarty become heroes, a back-up goaltender like Jaroslav Halak can shut down Sidney Crosby and literally stir so much excitement a riot breaks out in Montreal. Then of course we have the best players being your best players; Pavel Datsyuk might just go ahead and score two goals to eliminate a seemingly younger and feistier Phoenix Coyotes team in a game 7.

The first round of the NHL playoffs don’t always guarantee the best hockey, but it’s the skim–chances are a lot higher you’ll see something you’ll remember for a long time. Finally, after months of  Tuesday night games against Columbus, you get to play the elite. Finally, every game matters SO MUCH. NO MORE SHOOTOUTS, OVERTIMES FOREVER. WE’VE MADE IT.

Yes, the Red Wings have made it 22 years in a row. Be sure to read all of Brett D’Angelo’s fine work previewing the Wings first round and first round if you haven’t yet:

https://detroitsportsnation.com/blog/game-1-red-wings-vs-anaheim/

https://detroitsportsnation.com/blog/round-1-red-wings-vs-ducks/

I will also preview and predict the Wings first round match against the Ducks, but also the rest of the NHL first round. Today, I will deliver the West.

 

Western Conference

(7) Detroit Red Wings vs. (2) Anaheim Ducks

Wings won season series 2-1

Before the final four games of the season the strongest the Wings looked was when they beat the Ducks twice in three nights in Anaheim during a scheduling anomaly in late March. Jimmy Howard made 66 saves on 68 shots in what were arguably his strongest two performances of the season (five shutouts be damned). Can we put aside the Ducks 5-1 in Detroit though? Locals are calling this a great match-up for the Red Wings and I don’t see that comparing the roster. What makes this a good match-up for the Wings is timing. They’re coming in on fire with the fourth line contributing offensively, Val Filppula and Johan Franzen remembering they play hockey for a living and the Euro Twins (Datsyuk and Zetterberg) continuing what I believe has been their best performance since the last Cup run four years ago. Suddenly I’m feeling confident that the Wings will make this series interesting after firmly believing they would fall short of the playoffs for most of the shortened season. My confidence isn’t just rooted in four wins to close out the season, it’s that depth players are making big plays, Howard is playing the best of his career, and Zetterberg and Datsyuk are healthy–most of the team is. The only injury I would list key at this point is Darren Helm and frankly at this point he’s the only player I would want back. Brendan Smith has been playing with increasing confidence and Danny DeKeyser has been the poised puck-moving defenseman the Wings have been begging for to compliment Nik Kronwall. As the Los Angeles Kings and other low-seeded teams have proved in the past, it’s about getting healthy and hot at the right time. Do I think the Wings have as much talent as that Kings squad last season? No, definitely not. But the Wings are playing well enough to steal a series. The Ducks slowed down from a tremendously hot start after Teemu Selanne and Andrew Cogliano stalled out, still the top end firepower of Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan and Ryan Getzlaf have been enough to carry them. Those three, along with Francois Buchemin and Sheldon Souray on defense are powerful both in the ability to slow the puck down and put it in the net. The biggest issue for the Wings will be the size and physicality of this always-dangerous Ducks core. Their power play could give any teams issues, especially the Wings who have had an inconsistent penalty-kill all season. The biggest x-factor in the series will be the decline of Selanne and emergence of DeKeyser for Detroit. This will be a seismic shift that will affect the depth tilt for these teams. I haven’t picked the Wings to win a first-round series since 2009, but what the hell, they look like their peaking at this time which is something I haven’t been able to say since 2009.

Wings in six.

 

(8) Minnesota Wild vs. (1) Chicago Blackhawks

Hawks won season series 2-1

Is there any team you can laugh at more than the Wild? Sure they almost missed the playoffs in a season where aside from the Pittsburgh Penguins, Ducks and their first round opponent, all had a playoff appearance in question but saaaay the St.Louis Blues didn’t hand out a collective $198 million to the top two free-agents this past off-season. Sure, the Wild have improved and Suter and Parise have lived up to their contracts this season, but it goes to show that hockey is the ultimate team game, even when you anchor your offense and defense with elite players in those facets. It hasn’t saved the Wild from their lack of depth. GM Chuck Fletcher has tried, OH he has tried but deadline acquisition Jason Pominville is out with a concussion and Dany Heatly is gone for the rest of the year. Those injuries are huge, as they leave Minnesota as basically a two-line team. Devin Setoguchi and Matt Cullen have been good complimentary offensive players and one could argue give the Wild more scoring depth than the Wings, it’s just been a matter of health and consistency for this team. It doesn’t help that they’re going up against the President’s Trophy winning Blackhawks which ensure arguably more depth and physicality than any team in the league. While the President’s Trophy has served as a curse for many teams in the past, I don’t see any omen’s stopping this Blackhawks team. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are just beginning to enter their prime and have the mental savvy to make the Cup push as they did in 2010. That Cup was a seeming fluke, to not be so harsh an anomaly–they won a Cup three years before they were due by NHL standards. Hmmm…2010-’11-’12, HEY, THREE YEARS! Defensively, they have Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook who were stalwarts the first run, now they have the addition of minutes-eater Johnny Oduya and stud Nick Leddy. Sure, they had a first round bow out to a weaker Phoenix Coyotes team last year, but the first five games of the six game series went to overtime. It was a tightly contested series that goaltender Corey Crawford will need to shake off. Before a recent lower-body injury to Ray Emery, Crawford had to split time down the middle with the ’07 Stanley Cup finalist. Crawford will be motivated to shake off last years overtime loses and assert himself as the sole playoff starter while Emery is out.

Hawks in five.

 

(5) Los Angeles Kings vs. (4) St.Louis Blues

Kings swept season series 3-0

On January 19 the Blues opened the season with a 6-0 demolition of the Red Wings. It appeared that night, the Blues were sending a statement to the entire league: We’re young, we’re physical, we’re built for a short-season and long playoff run. While the Blues haven’t exactly fallen off the cliff, they certainly slowed down from the young bruising team that appeared before that night. Their biggest problem seems to be scoring consistency. It’s not that they lack scoring depth–five players reached the 25-point mark, impressive in a 48 game season–it’s that there have been periods they’ve gone ice cold. I will argue that’s because they never acquired a true top scorer. Chris Stewart led the team with 38 points and he’s a great complimentary scorer but the one thing the Blues are lacking is a guy who has the ability to take over. Meanwhile, the Kings have that guy; a player who will consistently dominate the scoresheet of a series. Last year that man was Anze Kopitar and he did it for four rounds. Had it not been him, you could argue it was Dustin Brown or Mike Richards or Jeff Carter. With four players over 30 points, the Kings still have the same young squad who marched through the playoffs last year. With them, you had to pick your poison; Will it be the four-pronged elite scoring attack? The Conn Smythe goaltending of Jonathan Quick? Or the suffocating defense of Drew Doughty, Slava Voynov and (now) Jake Muzzin? While the Blues come into the playoffs off an 11-2 April, the Kings are still the kings; a team of incredible depth, balance and youth. The Blues were built for a long playoff run, but the Kings proved they’re built for a long playoff run. This series will be a slugfest that will take a lot of both teams. St.Louis will make it a series based on the goaltending of Brian Elliot, but they have nothing else to win the series over the defending champs.

Kings in six.

 

(6) San Jose Sharks vs. (3) Vancouver Canucks

Sharks swept season series 3-0

YAWN! For whatever reason, I couldn’t be more disinterested in this series. The Sharks have done some moving an shaking since losing against essentially the same Vancouver team in the 2011 conference finals, but I don’t have faith the result will be any different in this matchup. Last season, they traded Heatly and Setoguchi to Minnesota for scoring defenseman Brent Burns and parted ways with longtime punisher Douglas Murray and a struggling Ryane Clowe. The idea of the Sharks was to get younger, infuse some new pieces that will breathe some life but they’ve also kept their affection for veterans acquiring Brad Stuart in free agency then Scott Hannan and Raffi Torres through trade. Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski have done well in trying to carry the scoring torch from Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, but Thornton and Marleau are still relevant. Both got off to very hot starts then abruptly came back down to earth. Still, they can put the puck in the net and the Sharks will need to finally breakthrough and get this team out of the state of stagnancy that’s plagued them since 2006. The Canucks seem stuck as the team that was only one game away from the Cup in 2011. The core of the team is still in tact but production from Alexandre Burrows and Ryan Kessler have tailed off–especially as Kessler has fought injury all season. While they picked up Derek Roy at the deadline, I still believe the Canucks, similar to the Sharks, haven’t made aggressive enough moves to remain as true Cup contenders. Vancouver really seems in crisis over their goaltending situation as it is still not clear whether Corey Schneider or Roberto Luongo will get the starts. It is believed Schneider will start game 1 and while Luongo jokes about it on Twitter and we constantly hear about the two’s friendship, I wonder if all that will really be tested when they’ve played as nearly equals all season. Despite the Sharks sweeping the season series, I think Vancouver wins the playoff series and it won’t take them long to do it. Just don’t expect the Canucks to do much else this spring.

Canucks in five.

 

There’s all my predictions which will probably be all wrong, but I made them and I gave you my reasons. Expect my Eastern Conference first round previews and predictions tomorrow.

Enjoy the games everybody!

-Kyle Bauer

 

Kyle Bauer is an award winning college sports broadcaster and former Sports Director of WXOU 88.3fm, freelance journalist and radio producer who has been published in The Macomb Daily, mlive.com, Oakland Post and MIPREPZONE.com, follow him on Twitter @kyle_bauer