This is part of a series of posts previewing each of the four quadrants of the 2014 NHL playoffs. Below are the four teams that comprise the NHL Central Division bracket. We open with a big-picture look at each team and then close with brief comments on each first-round series matchup individually.
1)Colorado Avalanche (52-22-8): All season long we watched the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues slug it out in the Central Division, only to see both fade and the lurking Avalanche sneak in and steal the division for first-year coach Patrick Roy, also the goalie for the franchise’s greatest moments.
Roy has a worthy successor in Semyon Varlamov, the third-best goalie in the league this season. The Avs offense is top five, and done it without a signature star—though Matt Duchene would be first-among-equals. The team defense has to improve though. Varlamov is a good enough goalie to win one series by his lonesome. That’s fine if you’re a team that barely snuck in, but Colorado has bigger expectations and it will take consistent and sustained team defense to fulfill them.
2)St. Louis Blues (52-23-7): The Blues made a significant midseason acquisition, bringing in goalie Ryan Miller from the Buffalo Sabres. It’s a mark of how disappointed the team has been in the playoff shortcomings in recent years, where defenses that were strong throughout the year melted in spring. This year’s D has been tough—third in the NHL In both the bottom line and at shot prevention. Now Miller has to deliver when it counts.
The offense ranks seventh, but I have no idea how. There’s not much in the way of real scoring talent here, and they don’t do very well at getting shots on goal. Somehow, enough of them found the back of the net though, so something obviously went right.
3)Chicago Blackhawks (46-21-5): The defending champs got inconsistent goaltending all year from Corey Crawford, a reason they were 12th in goals allowed in spite of excelling at keeping opponents from getting shots on net. A direct corollary was poor play on the penalty kill.
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Chicago has the second-best offense in the game and they keep constant pressure on opponents. From Jonathan Toews to Patrick Sharp to Patrick Kane to Marian Hossa to brilliant defenseman Duncan Keith, the Blackhawks can move the puck and light the lamp. And the late-season injuries to Toews and Kane appear to have been exaggerated—both are expected to play in the first round.
4)Minnesota Wild (43-27-12): This is a poor man’s version of the Kings—a bad offense carried by a couple good players and a good defense. Minnesota just doesn’t have Los Angeles’ championship pedigree and their defense isn’t quite as good.
Jason Pominville and Zach Parise are the players who can produce and the team defense is solid. Unlike the Kings though, the Wild don’t have reason for optimism when it comes to inconsistent goaltending. Ilya Bryzgalov was a train wreck in Philadelphia and we haven’t seen a reason to think it will be different in the Twin Cities. Darcy Kuemper isn’t much better. If only Josh Harding had stayed healthy and the Wild could have made some noise.
Colorado-Minnesota: You can tell the smart money is nervous about Colorado’s lack of recent playoff pedigree, going off as a modest (-145) format in spite of the run to the division title and the fact that there is nothing whatsoever in this matchup that would indicate either that Minnesota is the better side or that there is some kind of unique matchup edge pointing to an upset. I respect the concern over the Avalanche’s lack of playoff experience, but I’m not going to be limited by it. The Avs in five.
St. Louis-Chicago: In spite of both teams fading down the stretch, this is a heavyweight matchup for the first round. The Blues have been knocked out by Los Angeles each of the last two years and I’m sure don’t feel like they’re getting any kind of break by having to deal with a championship team getting healthy.
If nothing else, it’s St. Louis’ chance to end their playoff frustration in a big way. But I don’t see it. What I do see is Corey Crawford starting to play better now that it matters and overall Blackhawk superiority asserting itself in a series that ends disappointingly early, in five games, a margin stronger than their status as a (-115) favorite suggests.
The winner of this overall bracket moves on to play the winner of the Pacific Division field, headed up by the West’s top seed, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Read more about the NHL Pacific Division bracket.