Bryan Altman, CBS Local Sports
The most wonderful time of the year is unquestionably playoff hockey time, which begins tonight and will remain with us for the better part of the next two months. So now that the playoff field is set, we can all begin to mentally prepare ourselves for the inevitable overtime marathons, the game-seven heartaches and the paralyzing nervousness that generally exists non-stop throughout each game. That and we can try and suss out exactly who is going to make it into the second round and who will be hitting the links before the month of April is over. Yesterday we tackled the Eastern Conference so let’s take a look at the Western Conference’s first round matchups.
Blackhawks vs Predators
Chicago, Nashville and St. Louis all had a crack at the Central Division title knowing full well that if they didn’t win it they would be stuck in a nightmarish first-round matchup against the other runner-up. That’s exactly the fate that has befallen the Predators as their prize for putting up a 104-point season is a date with the 2013 and 2010 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks. It’s hard to imagine that the Blackhawks are thrilled that they’ll have such a daunting first-round matchup, but us fans should surely be excited as this is the marquee battle of the first round.
The Predators have floundered since the all-star break and are entering the playoffs earning just two of 12 possible points in their last six games. The Blackhawks aren’t exactly on fire themselves, entering their series with the Preds having lost four in a row and seven of their last 12 but they are hoping to get star winger Patrick Kane back at some point in this series. Besides that, of these two struggling teams, the Blackhawks have the playoff pedigree that the Predators lack. This divisional matchup should be a physical and intense one all the way through but the Blackhawks will be buoyed by Kane’s return and seem primed for another deep playoff run.
Prediction – Blackhawks in 7
Flames vs Canucks
Excluding a memorable opening faceoff line brawl last year, the Flames and the Canucks haven’t had much to fight about since the early 2000’s. All that is about to change on Wednesday night as this rivalry gets renewed. Both of these teams have been huge surprises for many this year after both missed the playoffs last season and finished towards the bottom of the Western Conference. The Flames resurgence has been largely thanks to the emergence of rookie Johnny Gaudreau and veteran Jiri Hudler, both of whom have had impressive, but unexpected seasons. Hudler set career highs in goals and assists by a wide margin with 31 and 45 respectively while Gaudreau will almost certainly be a Calder Trophy finalist after a 64-point rookie campaign.
For the Canucks it’s been the reemergence of the same two similar-looking faces that have been leading their team for nearly a decade. Henrik and Daniel Sedin have put up big numbers this year and Radim Vrbata has reaped the benefits of that with his first 30-plus goal season. But this one is going to be decided in net. It looks like it’ll be Jonas Hiller against Eddie Lack even though Ryan Miller has returned for the Canucks. Whichever one of these goaltenders can steal a game or two can probably steal the series as these teams are extremely even on paper. I think the Canucks take it, but not without some renewed bad blood between these two squads.
Prediction – Canucks in 7
Wild vs Blues
The Blues managed to avoid playing the hated Blackhawks but their reward is a date with one of the hottest teams in hockey over the last few months in the Minnesota Wild. The Wild have rode Devan Dubnyk straight into the playoffs after the goalie started 39-straight games for the team and has secured a position that the Wild haven’t had much security at for years.
The Blues have faced a similar goalie dilemma but seem to have settled on 24-year-old Jake Allen over veteran Brian Elliott. Whoever starts for the Blues, they can take solace in the fact that top scorers Vladimir Tarasenko and Alexander Steen will be ready to go for the playoffs and take the Blues through to the second round of the playoffs. The Wild are a deep team and will be a tough out, but I think Dubnyk might be gassed after such a heavy workload and it could show against a St. Louis team that will be getting it’s two top scorers back.
Prediction – Blues in 6
Jets vs Ducks
The Jets might have been the final wild card team into the Western Conference playoffs but they’re definitely not going to go out without making some noise first. That noise will probably be the sound of bone-crunching hits that they lay on the Anaheim Ducks. The Jets are a bruising team that makes you pay every time you touch the puck, which makes them a difficult team to play against. That’s even true for the Ducks and their dynamic duo of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, who will be looking to advance to the conference semi-finals for the second straight year.
The Ducks were 3-0 against the Jets in the season series but two of those games were decided by a shootout. Plus, Winnipeg’s MTS Center will be rocking for the first Jets playoff games since the team returned to the city in 2011. All in all, this won’t be an easy series for either team, but I have a strange feeling about the Jets.
Prediction – Jets in 6
The regular season is now officially meaningless. All of the standings and all of the stats go out the window when the puck drops this evening and whether you’re a one seed wild card team all it takes is four wins to move on to the next round of the Stanley Cup Finals.