The first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs was finally completed Wednesday, April 27. The Nashville Predators became the second lower seed in the Western Conference to clinch on the road after holding off the Anaheim Ducks, 2-1.
Three of the four winners were underdogs coming in, with the St. Louis Blues being known for postseason futility going against the three-time champion Chicago Blackhawks. The Dallas Stars were the only favorite to win, playing a battered Minnesota Wild coming into the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs on a five-game losing streak.
As detailed in this column Wednesday, the engine driving each of these upsets was success on the road. Teams in the Western Conference usually travel more than twice as many miles as their Eastern Conference brethren, and the best ones often develop the mentality of road warriors to survive.
Nashville was a wild card team and took out four-time Pacific Division champion Anaheim by winning three of four road games. St. Louis barely won the game at home when Chicago was without Duncan Keith before dropping the next, but took the next two on the road to regain control of the defending Stanley Cup champions. The San Jose Sharks turned the tables on the two-time champion Los Angeles Kings by winning all three road games.
Overall, road teams went 16-9. The only series that did not feature more road wins than home wins was Dallas-Minnesota in which home teams managed to win three of six.
Predicting the rest of the Western Conference playoffs is difficult. The Stars earned the top seed until at least the Stanley Cup finals with 109 points, but is probably the team least fitting the mold of a champion. All four remaining teams look strong even though two of them finished the 2015-16 NHL season with fewer than 100.
Those teams now play each other for the third time in Stanley Cup playoff history, though neither team has more than four players left from those meetings in 2006 and 2007. San Jose might be the only team that most people will pick to win because of its impressive giant-slaying series against Los Angeles, but lost two of three to Nashville during a 2015-16 NHL season in which both turned things around more than a week into January.
St. Louis must be considered a serious contender after what Pro Hockey Talk described as a breakthrough Monday. This has been a great team until mid-April for years and has the structure to succeed in the postseason. Dallas may not be conventional, but has Stanley Cup champions on its roster from Chicago and will certainly be the most talented team when Tyler Seguin returns if it is not already.
Both series will go at least six games. Those winners will need at least six to settle the next round provided there is no significant imbalance in their injury reports.
The more of those series that go seven, the more likely the softer schedule of the Eastern Conference leads to its winner getting the Stanley Cup. Hopefully it at least showcases the quality of hockey in the Western Conference to a time zone that rarely sees it.