The NHL playoffs get rolling on Tuesday night, and in today’s NHL analysis we’re previewing the first-round matchups. This post will focus on the four series in the Western Conference (click here for the Eastern Conference)We’ll begin with capturing each series in a soundbite and then move to fuller discussion.
(1)Chicago vs. (8) Minnesota—Chicago goalie Corey Crawford made huge strides this season, and now has to do it when the money’s on the table.
(4)St. Louis vs. (5)LA Kings—Does the Blues’ well-coached defensive style enable them to avenge a second-round defeat from last season on Los Angeles’ march to the Cup?
(3)Vancouver vs. (6)San Jose—Does Vancouver’s successful change to goalie Cory Schneider this season mean they finally end their run of postseason disappointments?
(2)Anaheim vs. (7)Detroit—After fighting their way into the playoffs can the Red Wings’ thus-far disappointing offense cash in a second chance?
Now with a deeper look at each matchup…
Goaltending was the missing link for the Blackhawks. This was always one of the best offensive teams in the league, rivaled only Pittsburgh and Vancouver when it comes to offensive talent. This year was no different as Chicago had the 2nd-best offense in the NHL and got outstanding play from Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, great passing from people like defenseman Duncan Keith and Marian Hossa was again a solid offensive player.
But the defense has been even better. Corey Crawford was the sixth-best goalie in the NHL in terms of save percentage and the defense overall was in the top five when it came to limiting the shots against him. Combined, those two elements produced the #1 defense in the NHL. Instead of being a flashy regular season team, Chicago is now built for a deep playoff run—if only Crawford can keep it going when the pressure is highest.
Minnesota had a nice season in getting into the playoffs, thanks primarily to quality team defense that keeps offenses from getting a lot of shots. But they don’t have good goaltending, and while there’s a number of decent offensive players, there isn’t anyone outside Zach Parise that I would call really good. At the very least Parise has a lot of playoff experience, as a key component of New Jersey’s run to the Finals last season.
There’s little chance of an upset in this series, and even less if the Wild’s Jason Pominville, perhaps their second-best scorer, isn’t cleared after a concussion. I’ll take Chicago in a sweep.
ST. LOUIS-LA KINGS
St. Louis came through a lot of injuries this year and some disappointing goaltending, but the Blues survived thanks to the good coaching work of Ken Hitchcock, and some excellent overall team defense. St. Louis is the second-best team in the NHL at keeping you from getting a shot off and that carried them to a strong finish and the #4 seed in the West.
Los Angeles rode to the Stanley Cup last year because goalie Jonathan Quick was untouchable and a lot of players stepped up with unexpected offensive contributions. The offense has gotten a good carryover into this season. The Kings are 10th in the NHL in scoring, and have gotten great years from Jeff Carter and Anze Kopitar, along with a nice season from Dustin Brown. This is a unit that’s going to provide a challenge for the St. Louis defense and if Blues’ goalie Brian Elliot doesn’t turn his own disappointing year, Los Angeles can turn this series into an offensive style that St. Louis does not want.
But let’s return to Quick. His save rate of 90.2% was abysmal, and while Los Angeles still finished seventh in the league defensively, it’s primarily because of the ability of the personnel in front of Quick to limit shots.
I’m torn on this series, as befits a 4-5 matchup. Both teams move the puck well, getting good passing from the defensemen. In the end, I’m going to take Los Angeles in a seven-game series. While Quick turning things around would make it an easy pick, the pressure is really on Elliot because the Kings have more weapons to win an offense-oriented series.
Vancouver pulled the plug on Olympian goaltender Roberto Luongo after playoff disappointments. Had the Canucks done this a year ago, their postseason might have been different. It wasn’t until they were in a 3-0 series hole against Los Angeles in the first round that the change to Cory Schneider was made and he began playing well immediately. Luongo was also a train wreck in the ’11 Finals against Boston. Schneider got the job this year and his 92.7% save rate was #4 in the NHL.
Now we have to wonder if the Canuck offense is up to the task after finishing in the bottom half of the league in scoring. They did not get typical years from the Sedin brothers, Henrik and Daniel and Alex Burrows only had 13 goals. If this doesn’t change, it will put a lot of pressure on Schneider, because in spite of his excellence, Vancouver is not an elite defensive team, due to the fact that opponents have little difficulty getting shots against this finesse-oriented team.
San Jose didn’t play well offensively this year either, but their key players came through. Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture all came through, and the veteran Joe Thornton remains as good a passer as there is. This is a team that still got a lot of shots, even if the conversion rate wasn’t great, so if regular season form holds on both sides, Schneider will kept under pressure.
The Sharks’ team defense is no better than the Canucks, and their own goalie Antti Niemi, is underrated. He’s not far behind Schneider, ranking seventh in the NHL at stopping shots.
I think this shapes up as the most compelling of the first-round series. Can San Jose can continue a great run for sports in Northern California? They’ve already got the World Series title, a Super Bowl appearance, a Rose Bowl win and Golden State is poised to advance in the NBA playoffs. Or is this Vancouver’s time to make another big playoff run? As much as I like geographic stories, my gut tells me that the Canucks have good things ahead. I’ll take them to win a seven-game barnburner.
It went right to the bitter end, but one of the game’s proudest franchises in the Detroit Red Wings scraped into the playoffs. Now they have to cash in their second chance against an Anaheim team that lurked under the radar all year, as Chicago and Pittsburgh got headlines and then attention shifted to the teams fighting for survival. Anaheim quietly grabbed the #2 spot in the West early and never let it go.
Defense is what saved Detroit, and goalie Jimmy Howard, after a somewhat pedestrian season, finished strong along with the team, getting up to 10th in save percentage among regular goalies. What the Wings have not gotten is any kind of offensive production. Pavel Datsyuk continued to do good work at center, and Niklas Kronwall was a good passer from the defenseman spot. Henrik Zetterberg is an outstanding passer. But there weren’t finishers. Datsyuk can fill that role and the Red Wings should expect more from Daniel Cleary if they’re going to advance.
They have to do it against a team that’s very well-balanced. Befitting an under-the-radar team, Anaheim isn’t extraordinary at anything, but they’re solid at most everything. If we were to identify a signature strength it would be their ability to score in the power play, thanks to offensive talent like the versatile Corey Perry who can both pass and light the lamp, and Teemu Selanne. If we were to identify a weakness, it’s that while Anaheim does a good job with its opportunities, they don’t put a lot of pressure on an opposing goaltender.
That’s what I’m going to continue the underrating of Anaheim and pick Detroit in this series. I believe Howard can step up and have a big series here, and while counterpart Viktor Fasth isn’t bad, he doesn’t strike me as one you should fear in the playoffs. Detroit does it in six.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The NHL re-seeds its bracket after the first round, unlike the NBA, so low plays high in the second round. Based on the picks I’ve made, that would create second round matchups of Chicago-Detroit and Vancouver-Los Angeles.