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 Pacific 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)Anaheim Mighty Ducks(54-20-8): Anaheim has been the best in the West thanks to an explosive offense led by Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaff. The Ducks lead the NHL in scoring, and they’ve got a pretty good defense to go along with it, ranking 9th. They do their best work in the 5-on-5, trailing only Boston in this category. The key weakness is the work on the power play, somewhat surprising for a team with two individual scorers as good as Perry—a former MVP winner—and Getzlaff.
There’s intrigue around the goalie situation though, which is every bit as alarming as hearing the words “quarterback controversy” for an NFL team going into the playoffs. Jonas Hiller started the most games, but he did not play well (31st in save percentage in a 30-team league) and Hiller was in net last year when the team lost to Detroit. Two rookies, Frederik Andersen and John Gibson, have played better and it looks like one of them will get the call. Anaheim fans have to hope that one is their version of Colin Kaepernick.
2)San Jose Sharks (51-22-9): No team in the NHL stays on the attack better than the Sharks. Joe Thornton’s 65 assists are second only to Sidney Crosby, and he feeds an offense that includes excellent scorers in Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture. While the power play hasn’t been very good, the Sharks have produced a top offense by executing in the 5-on-5.
San Jose also plays good, consistent, team defense and ranks in the top five defensively. The concern about goaltender Antti Niemi is that his save percentage only ranked 24th in the NHL and any team that makes a long run has games the goalie needs to win. The flip side of that concern is that Niemi was the goaltender when Chicago won its 2010 Stanley Cup, so he’s been there before.
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3)Los Angeles Kings (46-28-8): No team in the playoffs has the kind of black-and-white dichotomy the Kings do when it comes to their identity. This team can’t score a goal to save its life. Los Angeles is the worst offensive team still standing, with only Jeff Carter and Anze Kopitar being worth mentioning. They need Dustin Brown to become the kind of offensive force he was in their 2012 run to the Stanley Cup.
But the defense is better than the offense is bad. Forget U.S. Olympic goaltender Jonathan Quick for the moment. Los Angeles simply doesn’t let you get shots off. Quick didn’t have a great year—the second regular season in a row that’s been the case—but he didn’t need to. It was team defense that made the Kings the best defensive team in the league. And Quick is still the man who won the Conn Smythe Award in 2012, and he drastically he elevated his game in last season’s run to the Western Conference Finals.
4)Dallas Stars (40-31-11): Dallas is more an offensive-oriented team, led by Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. The Stars’ offseason decision to trade Loui Erikkson to Boston in exchange for Seguin has paid off in spades with the young center scoring 37 goals.
Dallas does have mediocre goaltending with Kari Lehtonon, and the team defense isn’t good enough to protect him. The Stars will need their offense to be in gear to have a chance to win a series.
Anaheim-Dallas: I’m nervous about the Anaheim goalie situation, enough to be on upset alert. But there’s enough reasons for me to overlook those and stick with the (-185) betting favorite in this series. For one, I’m very open to the possibility that Ducks coach Bruce Bodreau is making a Jim Harbaugh-esque genius change that will give his team a real shot at the Cup. And if the young goalies don’t work out, it would still have to be a defense-minded underdog that pulled an upset. Dallas isn’t that, and Anaheim sweeps.
San Jose-Los Angeles: This is one of three first-round matchups that I consider big-time battles (Tampa Bay-Montreal and Chicago-St. Louis being the others). The Sharks and Kings played last year in the second round and it took Los Angeles the full seven games to survive. The defenses will grind, the games will be tight, but I’m saying that this time San Jose—a (-145) favorite—pull out this year’s seven-game tilt.
The winner of this bracket meets the winner of the Central Division foursome, where defending champion Chicago is lurking. Read more about the NHL Central Division bracket.