Wednesday, April 12, 2017

First round predictions: Western Conference

With the most exciting sports tournament set to start today, we stock up on beer and fill out our brackets.  We move on to the Central:

(1) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (WC2) Nashville Predators

Chicago backed into the #1 seed in the West by finishing the regular season with four straight losses, but prior to that streak the Hawks had pieced together a 20-4-2 record since the start of February.  Led by a core group of three time Cup winners, the Hawks earned more points on the road than everyone except the Rangers.  Patrick Kane had another fantastic year, the goaltending was solid, and with the exception of Roszival, the roster is healthy.  The only real question is whether they can make up for their dreadful faceoff percentage; amongst playoff teams, only Edmonton was worse.  Nashville was the beneficiary of the Subban deal, and the skating advantage P.K. provides over Weber will be critical in this matchup.  Rinne turned in another solid season, but if the Predators hope to outmatch a solid veteran squad, he will have to exceed his career playoff averages.

Prediction: Chicago in 6

(2) Minnesota Wild vs. (3) St. Louis Blues

Ordinarily when a team sets franchise marks in wins and points, they garner heaps of praise.  Not so for this Minnesota squad, who suffered an awful 1-9 stretch which took them from tops in the West to hosting an unfavorable matchup against the always competitive Blues.  Behind captain Mikko Koivu, the Wild iced a solid two-way team; their +58 goal differential was second to only Washington.  Can Bruce Boudreau take his third team to the next level?  To do so, he will have to lead his Wild past his predecessor in Minnesota: Mike Yeo.  Yeo took over on February 1st for living legend Ken Hitchcock, and led the Blues on a rampage, taking 22 of the final 32 games to push ahead of Nashville.  After letting David Backes and Troy Brouwer walk in the off-season, the Blues, in somewhat of a rebuild, refused to let Kevin Shattenkirk leave without just compensation.  The trade with the Capitals brought in highly touted prospect Zach Sanford, whose big body and nose for the net fits the Blues offensive scheme.  Without much scoring depth, however, the Blues are outmatched.

Prediction: Minnesota in 6

For what promises to be the most physical division to win, we move to the West:

(1) Anaheim Ducks vs. (WC1) Calgary Flames

These teams hate each other.  The last time out, captain of the Flames, Mark Giordano, took out defenseman Cam Fowler with a knee collision.  Anaheim has quietly built a team full of pests and agitators, headlined by Corey Perry, and this feistiness should be expected to make its mark on the series.  The Flames, while much improved over their last dance in the playoffs, are too young and inexperienced to matchup well in a long, physical series.  This one figures to go seven games, and will be as close to old time hockey as we will get these days.

Prediction: Anaheim in 7

(2) Edmonton Oilers vs. (3) San Jose Sharks

Much has been written about Edmonton's prolonged playoff absence, and their triumphant return has been made possible by none other than the dynamic, future Hall of Famer, Connor McDavid.  This writer had the pleasure of seeing McDavid play his first career game in Verizon Center, albeit from the worst seats in the building, and it was worth every penny.  Connor skates like a young Bobby Orr, and handles the puck with the best of them.  Guarded by the muscle of Milan Lucic, Darnell Nurse, Zack Kassian, and Pat Maroon, the Oilers young talent has plenty of space to make plays.  Their dreadful faceoff percentage (47.03%) will be their biggest drawback, but luckily for Oiltown, the Sharks do not fare much better (48.13%).  The defending Western Conference champions have their work cut out for them, and with Joe Thornton beginning to show signs of age, this will be a steep obstacle to overcome.  Brent Burns posted another unreal season, and his continued dominance from the blue line is the last hope for big Joe to raise the Cup.  Unfortunately for Sharks fans, that will not be this season.

Prediction: Edmonton in 5

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