Western Conference Playoff Preview

We've gone over the East, so now it's time to shift our focus out to the Western Conference, where many of their games are played while you are sleeping. The West does have plenty of teams that are worth staying up late for, though and insomniacs are going to be treated to some excellent playoff action in the upcoming action with the first round featuring some very interesting matchups. Last year, everyone got to see the Kings pull off an incredible run as an eight-seed to win the Stanley Cup and they are in a good position to make another run this post-season with the strong team they have assembled. They do have a tough first round match-up, though and the West features a lot of very good teams that could stand in the way of the Kings pulling off a repeat.

After the jump, we'll take a look at the matchups and who has the best chances of advancing out of the first round.

1. Chicago Blackhawks vs. 8. Minnesota Wild

  5v5 FenClose 5v5 FenTied 5v5 Sh% 5v5 Sv% 5v5 GF/60 5v5 GA/60
Blackhawks 55.80% 53.85% 9.4% 0.927 2.9 1.8
Wild 48.68% 47.74% 7.9% 0.912 2.2 2.4
  PP Sh% PP SF/60 PK Sv% PK SA/60
Blackhawks 11.05% 42.1 0.897 53.6
Wild 12.56% 51.7 0.858 46.3

This almost isn't fair. The Blackhawks have been vastly superior to the Wild in just about every area at even strength. They control puck-possession better, they produce a lot more offense, they have better goaltending, I could go on but I feel like that would be just rubbing it in at this point. The only area where the Wild have the advantage is on special teams, as Chicago's powerplay and penalty kill have been very weak this season while Minnesota's are at least average. However, Chicago's penalty kill has been saved (literally) by their strong goaltending tandem of Ray Emery & Corey Crawford, who have combined to post one of the better short-handed save percentages in the league. That is something I wouldn't bank on continuing, but it could easily play a factor in this series.

I mentioned this in the Eastern Conference preview, but bad goaltending and special teams can often be a deciding factor in a series, so that's the one thing Hawks fans should be weary of. It played a role in them losing to Phoenix in six games last year. That being said, this is probably Chicago's only concern. The Hawks are a much better team than Minnesota and shouldn't have much of a problem advancing past them in the first round. I say they win this series in five games, and that's only because I never predict sweeps. 

2. Anaheim Ducks vs. 7. Detroit Red Wings

  5v5 FenClose 5v5 FenTied 5v5 Sh% 5v5 Sv% 5v5 GF/60 5v5 GA/60
Ducks 48.21% 49.96% 9.4% 0.928 2.5 1.9
Red Wings 53.63% 54.42% 7.1% 0.932 2.1 1.9
  PP Sh% PP SF/60 PK Sv% PK SA/60
Ducks 14.21% 56.4 0.85 43.6
Red Wings 13.25% 48.8 0.864 47.9

Hard to believe that the Ducks managed to be a two-seed after looking at how bad their underlying numbers are. That's what a great powerplay, high shooting percentages and good goaltending can do for you in a shortened season, though. The Ducks may have won the Pacific Division, but this is a team with a lot of flaws, particularly with their neutral zone play and their defensemen's inability to lead a breakout, save for Cam Fowler. It's a reason why they have struggled to control the play territorially and why most of their defensemen are spending a ton of time getting pinned into their own zone. It hasn't affected their scoring that much, though as the Ducks have received great years out of Getzlaf & Perry and have gotten some depth scoring from the likes of Andrew Cogliano & Teemu Selanne, as well. Roughly 21% of their overall goals have come on the powerplay, though so that's a tad concerning if things dry up there.

The Red Wings have been an interesting team. They have been terrific at puck-possession, have plenty of forwards capable of doing this but they haven't been able to score that much for whatever reason. Some of it is bad luck (Zetterberg shooting at only 6.4%), but they have a few players who either aren't shooting much (Valterri Filppula) or don't have a ton of offensive upside (Dan Cleary, Justin Abdelkader) and are getting top-six minutes. They have a very low goals per game rate at even strength and the one thing that's kept them above water is the play of Jimmy Howard, who has an EV save percentage of .937.

I've seen a lot of people call this a "first round bye" for the Wings, but I'm not as down on Anaheim as others. The Wings are a better team at even strength and should be able to win this series if they can dominate Anaheim territorially, but they still haven't been able to score much and are going up against a very good goaltending tandem in Viktor Fasth & Jonas Hiller. That being said, the Wings ability to control possession could play to their advantage since it will force a bigger workload on Anaheim's goaltenders and put less stress on Howard to steal games. Any goalie can stand on his head in a short-series, but I tend to place more faith in teams who can win the shot battle at even strength and that's why I'm going with the WIngs in six games.

3. Vancouver Canucks vs. 6. San Jose Sharks

  5v5 FenClose 5v5 FenTied 5v5 Sh% 5v5 Sv% 5v5 GF/60 5v5 GA/60
Canucks 51.68% 52.04% 8.4% 0.924 2.3 2.2
Sharks 52.41% 54% 6.6% 0.927 2 2.1
  PP Sh% PP SF/60 PK Sv% PK SA/60
Canucks 12.18% 43.7 0.875 43
Sharks 11.02% 58.6 0.878 44.5

This series looks much more evenly matched than the first two we looked at, but the Sharks should have a slight advantage over the Canucks here. A main reason for this is that the Sharks are the superior team at even strength but their goal-scoring hasn't been nearly as good thanks to a very low team shooting percentage. This has improved considerably in recent weeks and the team's overall play has been much better since they traded Douglas Murray & Ryane Clowe. San Jose's powerplay and penalty kill are also strong and they've received terrific goaltending from Antti Niemi, so they appear to be in good shape heading into the post-season.

The Canucks are also in a good position here, as they are a very strong possession team and have received good goaltending on top of that. They also got a lot deeper up front by adding Derek Roy at the trade deadline and have three strong centers with him, Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler. That should go a long way in the playoffs. Having two solid goaltenders will also help out since they can turn to the other if one struggles. 

There are a couple things here that could give San Jose the edge, the first of which is that their tough-minute forwards have done a better job at controlling possession and the second is their powerplay has been more dangerous than Vancouver's. They have a difficult task up ahead against a strong Vancouver penalty kill, but the Sharks first powerplay unit is capable of doing a ton of damage. The Sharks PK also matches up favorably to Vancouver's powerplay, so I think this will end up being one of the deciding factors and help San Jose take the series in seven games.

4. Los Angeles Kings vs. 5. St. Louis Blues

  5v5 FenClose 5v5 FenTied 5v5 Sh% 5v5 Sv% 5v5 GF/60 5v5 GA/60
Kings 57.35% 57.11% 8% 0.912 2.4 2.2
Blues 53.91% 54.19% 8% 0.911 2.2 2.1
  PP Sh% PP SF/60 PK Sv% PK SA/60
Kings 16.20% 45.6 0.875 43.5
Blues 13.78% 49.5 0.856 36

This is probably the toughest series to predict because we have two very, very good teams going up against each other. The impression I get from looking over their underlying numbers is that the Blues are a great team, but the Kings are just better. Los Angeles has been one of the best puck-possession teams since the 2007-08 season and the closest thing to a dominant even strength team the NHL has seen in years. The Blues were an excellent even strength team last year, as well and they were crushed by LA in the second round last year, so is there reason to believe that this year's matchup could be different?

Possibly. The biggest difference between this year's LA team and last season's is that they aren't getting elite-level goaltending from Jonathan Quick. In fact, Quick has been quite bad this season and it contributed to the team's early struggles. They have a solid back-up in Jonathan Bernier who they can turn to, but something tells me that Quick will receive the majority of the starts. The Blues also got slightly better over the past year and have one of the deepest defense corps in the league after adding Jay Bouwmeester at the trade deadline. They also have one of the best penalty kills in the league in terms of shot prevention but their goaltending has let them down here.

The Blues goaltending in general has been pretty bad this season, as their even strength save percentage is below average and they've had to rotate goalies with Jaroslav Halak battling injuries. Right now, the go-to guy is Brian Elliott, who has been a wall for the past month but he is still Brian Elliott and is prone to a bad game or two. Quick has gone through the same struggles this year, though so goaltending could end up being a crapshoot.

In the end, I have to go with the Kings here because they are just too good of a team, but it's going to take them seven games to get the job done.