On Wednesday, April 13, 2016 the Stanley Cup Playoffs began. In the Western Conference, three teams which missed the playoffs last season, will be competing for the opportunity to represent the Conference in this year’s Stanley Cup Final. Those teams, are the San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings and Dallas Stars. Amazingly, the Stars posted the best regular season record in the Conference.
The reigning Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks will now begin defense of the title. The Anaheim Ducks, St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators and Minnesota Wild will join the Sharks, Kings and Stars in the attempt to derail Chicago. Having won the Cup three times since 2010, the Blackhawks know full well how tough the task will be. Here is a look at the four opening round series in the Western Conference.
Dallas Stars (1) vs Minnesota Wild (8): This was quite a turnaround for the Stars. The disappointment of last season behind them, the Stars enter the playoffs as the top-seeded team in the West. During the regular season, these two division rivals met five times, with the Stars winning four of the five. The highest scoring team in the NHL, the Stars also outscored Minnesota 18-13 overall.
The Wild have gone through a lot of tough times this season, but managed to pull it together in the wake of the firing of former head coach Mike Yeo. Though they have played well, in spurts, the consistency just has not been there for the Wild team, which lost the last five games of the season. Prediction – Stars in five.
Stars/Wild series schedule: Gm1) Thursday, April 14 at DAL. Gm2) Saturday, April 16 at DAL. Gm3) Monday, April 18 at MIN. Gm4) Wednesday, April 20 at MIN. *Gm5) Friday, April 22 at DAL. *Gm6) Sunday, April 24 at MIN. *Gm7) Tuesday, April 26 at DAL
Anaheim Ducks (2) vs Nashville Predators (7): Hard to believe this is the same Anaheim team which began the season with a record of 1-7-2 in the first 10 games. When the smoke finally cleared, the Ducks not only wound up allowing the fewest goals in the NHL this season, but also won their fourth straight Pacific division crown. The other good news is that five key players, Ryan Kesler, David Perron, Rickard Rakell, Sami Vatanen and Kevin Bieksa, all of whom have recently been sidelined due to various injuries and ailments, are expected to be back in the lineup when the series begins.
Though Nashville did outscore Anaheim 10-7 while winning two of the three meetings the teams had this season, the last time they played, was on Nov. 17, 2015. Since Dec. 26, 2015, the Ducks have an NHL-best record of 34-10-5. This does not bode well for Nashville, despite the presence of dynamic defensive duo Shea Weber and Roman Josi. Preds goalie Pekka Rinne is an All-Star, but it is doubtful he can hold up against the waves of pressure from the Ducks. Prediction – Ducks in five.
Ducks/Predators series schedule: Gm1) Friday, April 15 at ANA. Gm2) Sunday, April 17 at ANA. Gm3) Tuesday, April 19 at NSH. Gm4) Thursday, April 21 at NSH *Gm5) Saturday, April 23 at ANA. *Gm6) Monday, April 25 at NSH. *Gm7) Wednesday, April 27 at ANA.
Pacific division semifinal – Los Angeles Kings (2) vs San Jose Sharks (3): In this division rivalry, the Sharks still have some rather fresh wounds. The Kings knocked them out of the playoffs in both 2013 and 2014. In 2014, the Sharks took a 3-0 series lead in their first round matchup, only to have the Kings storm back and sweep the next four games. The Kings then went on to Stanley Cup glory. This season, the Sharks won the regular season series 3-2. The Kings also are dealing with some injury problems, as it appears as though Marian Gaborik, Alec Martinez and Jordan Nolan will be sidelined to begin this series.
Much has been made of the Kings lack of depth on the blueline, but in Drew Doughty, they do have arguably the best defenseman in the NHL. Then there is the issue of the superior scoring depth of San Jose. While the Sharks did score 16 more goals than did the Kings this season, the latter were the third-best defensive team in the NHL. Then there is the backstory of former Kings goalie Martin Jones, now starting in goal for San Jose. Jones was backup to Kings goalie Jonathan Quick, when the Kings won the Cup in 2014. This should be a great series, but when it comes to mental toughness, the Kings have proven they can handle adversity. Prediction – Kings in six
Kings/Sharks series schedule: Gm1) Thursday, April 14 at LAK. Gm2 Saturday, April 16 at LAK. Gm3) Monday, April 18 at SJS. Gm4) Wednesday, April 20 at SJS. *Gm5) Friday, April 22 at LAK. *Gm6) Sunday, April 24 at SJS. *Gm7) Tuesday, April 26 at LAK.
Central division semifinal – St. Louis Blues (2) vs Chicago Blackhawks (3): In the last three seasons, the Blues have gone out in the first round. This time around, they not only have home-ice advantage, but the Blackhawks will also be missing stud defenseman Duncan Keith for the first game of the series. Keith is serving the final game of a six-game suspension he received when he used the blade of his stick to give Minnesota forward Charlie Coyle an unauthorized nose job.
The Blues are out of excuses. This is the best overall Blues team in the (head coach) Ken Hitchcock era. Also, netminder Brian Elliott, who is often a forgotten man in St. Louis, will finally have his chance to shine. This season, the Blues went 8-2 in the last 10 games and came within two points of Dallas for best overall record in the Conference. The five-game regular season series between the teams, was very close. Chicago outscored the Blues 14-13 overall, but Chicago lost the regular season series, 2-0-3. For the Blues, it’s now or never. Prediction – Blues in six
Blues/Blackhawks series schedule: Gm1) Wednesday, April 13 at StL. Gm2) Friday, April 15 at StL. Gm3) Sunday, April 17 at CHI. Gm4) Tuesday, April 19 at CHI. Gm5) Thursday, April 21 at StL. *Gm6) Saturday, April 23 at CHI. *Gm7) Monday, April 25 at StL.