Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round Preview: Western Conference

Avalanche vs Predators

Why the Avalanche win: Nathan MacKinnon takes over games. We’ll see if that continues in the playoffs, but he’s on an unbelievable run right now. Add in the fact he’s got two great players running alongside him in Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog, you’ve got your hands full.

Why the Predators win: Predators are the best team in the league, far more dangerous than when they made their run to the Stanley Cup Final last spring. There’s no real weakness on this team.

Player that proves to be the difference: Kyle Turris.. This is the true No. 2 center behind Ryan Johansen that Nashville missed last spring. When Turris was acquired from Ottawa early in the season, the Preds solidified themselves down the middle and really transformed the roster into one of the best in the league.

Something you might want to know: Predators leading scorer this season was Filip Forsberg with 64 points, which checked in at 52 on the NHL’s leaderboard. However, the Predators had six players record 50 points – Tampa Bay and Toronto were the only other teams to have that high a tally of 50-point guys.

What happens: Predators in 5. I think Nashville makes this a quick series. There’s just way too much on the Predators side.

Wild vs Jets

Why the Jets win: Can the Wild keep up? I don’t think they can. Minnesota is going to miss Ryan Suter in this series, though getting Jared Spurgeon back will help things.

Why the Wild win: Suter might be done, but Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, and Matt Dumba will make up for the loss. Minnesota trots out a great shutdown forward line in Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Mikael Granlund while Jason Zucker-Eric Staal-Nino Niederreiter will keep Winnipeg’s hands full. Jordan Greenway adds an element the Wild didn’t have before he signed his pro contract after his junior season at BU ended last month.

Player that proves to be the difference: Connor Hellebuyck.. Hellebuyck’s numbers (44-11-9, 2.36 GAA, .924 save percentage, six shutouts) would be enough to run away with the Vezina Trophy most years. He’s the rock that backstops the Jets and allows Winnipeg to play their quick-pace, run-and-gun style.

Something you might want to know: The city of Winnipeg hasn’t experienced a playoff series win since the 1987 Smythe Division semifinals, when the first iteration of the Jets (who are now, of course, the Coyotes) took down the Flames in six games. Winnipeg is 0-for in the last six seasons they’ve made the playoffs (1988, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1996, 2015).

What happens: Jets in 6. Hellebuyck shuts the door on the back end and the Jets keep up their offensive pace on the other end.

Kings vs Golden Knights

Why the Golden Knights win: Because we said Vegas wouldn’t hold onto the Pacific, would fall off in the second half, wouldn’t be a playoff team, wouldn’t be a good team, wouldn’t land an NHL team. We know nothing. Oh and they’re deep, fast, skilled, and have really good goaltending. That helps too.

Why the Kings win: They look similar to the teams that won it all in 2012 and ’14. Anze Kopitar has been a force all year up front and Jeff Carter has been sensational since he returned. Dustin Brown has reignited his career. Drew Doughty holds down a strong defense and Jonathan Quick has been strong in net of late.

Player that proves to be the difference: Jeff Carter.. In 21 games since returning from an ankle injury that sidelined him for four months, Carter has 13 goals and 19 points.

Something you should know: Four of the top eight players in terms of plus-minus are playing in this series: William Karlsson (1st, plus-49), Jonathan Marchessault (2nd, plus-36), Reilly Smith/Dustin Brown (t-7th, plus-31).

What happens: Kings in 5. It’s not so much clock strikes midnight on Vegas, more that Los Angeles just isn’t a good matchup for this team.

Sharks vs Ducks

Why the Ducks win: Plagued by injuries early on, the narrative was watch out if they get healthy and get in the playoffs. Well, they’ve done both those things. With everyone back – with the exception of Cam Fowler, who was injured last week – the Ducks enter the playoffs 10-1-1 in their final 12 games. This looks like the team we expected to see come April when the roster was ravaged by injuries in October.

Why the Sharks win: San Jose is solid from the top to bottom. The Evander Kane acquisition at the deadline added offense up front. This team is built very well from the net-out.

Player that proves to be the difference: Ryan Kesler.. Most important player on this team. It’s no coincidence that this team reached the Western Conference Final twice in Kesler’s first three seasons in Anaheim. He’s your best defensive forward and your agitator, the daily double of not just shutting down the opposing top line but getting under their skin, knocking them off their game. On top of that, he can be your top offensive producer. He didn’t had a great regular season after returning from hip surgery just after Christmas, but has shown flashes of finding his game of late.

Something you should know: With 118 points in 121 career playoff games, Ryan Getzlaf has the 4th-most playoff points since the 2004-05 lockout, trailing only Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Patrick Kane. Getzlaf has played six fewer playoff games than Kane, 28 fewer than Malkin, and 27 fewer than Crosby.

What will happen: Ducks in 7. Take it a step further and say Anaheim wins Game 7 in overtime. This series is almost too close to call. It’ll be worth staying up for.

Advertisements

Best Centers: 11-15

11 – Mark Scheifele

The magic date is February 18, 2016. Since that day – which lord knows in Winnipeg was probably a cold, dark, bone-chillingly frigid day – Scheifele has assembled a 49-67-116 line in 105 NHL contests. Only Connor McDavid (37-86-123) and Sidney Crosby (56-65-121) have a higher offensive output over that span. I’ll admit that putting Scheifele as the NHL’s 11th-best center feels like a low-ball ranking. This is an elite-level player.

12 – Claude Giroux

A guy who has been a workhorse and point producer over the past seven or eight years. Giroux has 548 points going back to the start of the 2009-10 season, averaging 73.4 points per 82 games. He’s missed just 10 games over that span, regularly playing in the neighborhood of 20 minutes per night. A player in the running for the second-best faceoff man in the world (yes, Patrice Bergeron is in his own class).

13 – Ryan Kesler

I liken Kesler to Boston’s Brad Marchand. You put up with the occasional dumb penalty for all the other great things he does. While the consensus sometimes seems to be that the 33-year-old is not the player he once was – from what could simply be a case of ageism – he’s still bringing it. Another guy in the running for second-best faceoff man in the world, Kesler has won a league-high 1,213 defensive zone draws since being traded to Anaheim from Vancouver in 2014. Kesler, who averaged 21:18 of ice-time last season, was the only forward in the NHL to average 2:30 of both powerplay and shorthanded time in 2016-17. Kesler is expected to be out until December as he recovers from hip surgery, and Anaheim will be worse off as a result.

14 – Ryan Johansen

Ironic that Kesler and Johansen are right next to one another after their no-love-lost battle in the Western Conference Final last season. But in all seriousness, Johansen is going to be a superstar in this league for many years to come. Over the last four seasons, the 25-year-old has posted 60 points every year while missing just two regular season games. The Predators win the Stanley Cup if he doesn’t go down with a thigh injury in the Western final.

15 – Ryan O’Reilly

If the Sabres had a better supporting cast, they’d be a slam dunk for the playoffs because there’s not many top-two center/top-defenseman/goalie tandems in the league than the one that exists in Buffalo with O’Reilly, Jack Eichel, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Robin Lehner. Eichel called O’Reilly Buffalo’s Bergeron over the summer, and that’s a spot-on assessment. O’Reilly – who has led all NHL forwards in time on ice per game in each of his two seasons in Buffalo – does everything for the Sabres, playing in high-leverage situations and taking virtually every key faceoff. O’Reilly was the only player besides Bergeron to finish with a faceoff win percentage above 58 percent among players that took more than 1,500 draws last season.

Mid-season award predictions

So it’s the official midpoint of the season even though many teams are around the 50-game mark, well past the official midway point that is 41 games. But anyway, here’s a look at who might, will, and/or should win the respective NHL awards that are handed out following the season.

Hart Trophy: Brent Burns, San Jose- This award will probably go to Connor McDavid or Sidney Crosby but Burns is why the Sharks lead the Pacific Division and are in the running to repeat as Western Conference champions. He’s been on the ice for 36 percent of San Jose’s goals, according to puckalytics, which compares to 28 percent for McDavid and 22 percent for Crosby. His 51 points in 50 games leads the team.

Vezina Trophy: Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota- What a story this will be. The once forgotten about, cast away to the AHL only to get another chance and thrive goaltender in Dubnyk finally getting his due. He’s statistically been right up there with Carey Price among the game’s best netminder over the past few seasons and he’s been unconscious once again this season. He leads the league in save percentage (.936) and GAA (1.88), and is second in wins (27). The only thing that separates him from the goaltending Triple Crown at the moment in Sergei Bobrovsky, who has one more win than Dubnyk.

Norris Trophy: Brent Burns, San Jose- For all the reasons mentioned above, and then some. He’s having an historic season for a defenseman, and is making a serious push at the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading point-getter. Should Burns win the scoring title – he’s eight points off the current perch held down by McDavid – he’d be just the second blueliner in NHL history to lead the league in scoring. The other is Bobby Orr.

Selke Trophy: Ryan Kesler, Anaheim- Kesler has been Anaheim’s best player this season. He has 39 points in 51 games while his 21:48 of ice time per game is a second behind Patrick Kane for the league-high among forwards. Kesler has taken a league-high 1,119 faceoffs, his 57.6 success rate on the draw third in the league behind Patrice Bergeron and Ryan O’Reilly among players that have taken greater than 900 faceoffs. Watch out for a late surge from Bergeron, whose offensive numbers aren’t there but numbers on defense, faceoffs, and possession remain through the roof.

Calder Trophy: Auston Matthews, Toronto- In what has been the Year of the Rookie in 2016-17, Matthews stands alone in the race for the Calder. That’s how good he is, and that’s how much higher a level he’s on than everybody else. Forget rookies, Matthews has been one of the top five players in the league this season. He looks like he’s been in the NHL for 10 years. He’s tied with Alex Ovechkin for fourth in the NHL with 23 goals.

Jack Adams Award: John Tortorella, Columbus- The Blue Jackets have broken out this season, emerging as one of the league’s best teams, highlighted by a 16-game winning streak that stretched from November to January. It’s another feather in the cap for Tortorella, whose best known for going into young clubs and getting guys to realize their potential, as he did in Tampa Bay and New York.

General Manager of the Year: Peter Chiarelli, Edmonton- Chiarelli has done a fine job reconstructing the roster in Edmonton, and the Oilers are on track to erase an 11-year playoff drought as a result. Of course, it all starts with Connor McDavid, but a Chiarelli bringing in a number of players over the past two years, such as Milan Lucic, Patrick Maroon, Andrej Sekera, Mark Letestu, and Kris Russell has changed the identity of the team. While he traded an elite talent in Taylor Hall, it’s looked like the shake up the Oilers needed.

Lady Byng Trophy: Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis- He’s having his best season yet, with 47 points in 49 games while carrying a Blues team that isn’t as good as years past. He’s done so by staying out of the box, with just eight penalty minutes.

Masterton Trophy: Craig Anderson, Ottawa- Anderson hasn’t played since December 5th, away from the Senators to be by his wife’s side as she undergoes treatment for cancer. However, he’s nearing a return as his wife has completed treatment.

Art Ross Trophy: Brent Burns, San Jose- He’s a long shot but what the heck, let’s have some fun here. I’ll be rooting for the story.

Richard Trophy: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh- Crosby has slowed off the pace when it comes to putting the puck in the net after a torrid start to the year, but nobody has really caught up.