NHL 2014 Western Conference Playoff Picks
Our newest contributor, Jeremy Crowhurst, sees the St. Louis Blues tripping up Chicago’s Jonathan Toews and the defending champions.
Predictions? For the playoffs? In hockey?
Sure, every few years, the team that finished first overall in the regular season goes on to win the Stanley Cup, like the Chicago Blackhawks did last year. But the year before that, it was the L.A. Kings, who finished 13th overall, who won the cup. Two years before that, the Philadelphia Flyers made it to the Stanley Cup finals before losing in six games to Chicago. Not bad for a team that finished 20th overall in the regular season, particularly given that only sixteen teams make the playoffs.
Anything can happen in the playoffs. Hockey teams generally spend most of the season on either a winning or losing streak, and an upset usually takes little more than the opposing goaltender getting hot at the wrong time. That’s why predictions, by and large, are seldom more reliable than coin-flips.
Colorado Avalanche vs. Minnesota Wild – Colorado in five.
Colorado by all appearances looks to be a dynasty in the making. Of their top four players, the oldest is 23 years old, the youngest is the probable rookie of the year, 18 year-old Nathan MacKinnon. Their top defenseman is just 25, as is their starting goalie. This is a team that is going to be very good for a very long time. On the down side, they have virtually no playoff experience and a rookie head coach, so this won’t be their year to win it all. However, Minnesota won’t be the team to knock them out. They lost goalie Josh Harding, the league’s leader in save percentage and goals-against average, to complications from MS in December. Their other goalie, Niklas Backstrom, had season-ending abdominal surgery in March. The offense has been on life-support all year long. Unless Harding can somehow find his way back into the net, this one will be over quickly.
St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks – St. Louis in six.
Most pundits are predicting a Chicago victory, largely because St. Louis finished the year with a six-game losing streak. If only it were that simple. The last team to enter the playoffs on a six-game losing streak was the 1992-93 Buffalo Sabres. They had actually lost seven in a row, and faced a Boston Bruins team that had won eight in a row, and 16 of their last 18. Buffalo swept them. Since the NHL merged with the WHA in 1979, six teams have entered the playoffs on losing streaks of five or more games. They collectively went 4-2 in their first rounds. No, this series will be decided by the health of Chicago’s two best forwards, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Kane missed the last 12 games of the season, and without him, the Blackhawks’ power-play was almost non-existent, converting just three of 35 opportunities. He’s back practising with the team, but if he isn’t playing, it’s Chicago that will go on a losing streak. Toews missed the last six games of the season with an undisclosed upper-body injury, but he’ll at least be healthy enough to play by the time the playoffs begin. St. Louis is a team without a clear offensive leader, but lots of offensive depth, great coaching, and one of the best defenses in the league (3rd in goals allowed.)
Anaheim Ducks vs. Dallas Stars – Anaheim in four.
Dallas has two star players – Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn – and a whole lot of question marks after that. Anaheim has two bigger stars – Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry – and a whole lot of depth after that. Anaheim enters the playoffs on a four-game winning streak, including wins over three of the best teams in the league. Dallas limps into the playoffs having gone 4-4 in April, having spent all of 2014 chasing Phoenix and Vancouver for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference. Having locked that up in the last few days of the season, they may be completely spent. Die-hard Dallas fans might point to the season series, which Dallas won 2-1, as well as Anaheim’s tendency to sink to the level of some of their weaker competition. While anything can happen in the playoffs, we don’t see it happening here.
San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings – Los Angeles in six.
This series might well be very short, and the winner will depend on which Los Angeles team shows up to play. The Kings have been the most streaky, inconsistent team in the NHL this past season. Starting in November, they won six out of seven, then lost four of five, then won nine of ten, then lost five in a row, then won four of six, lost nine of ten, then won eight in a row, lost three, won seven of eight, and closed out the season losing four of five. Seems like they’re due to turn things around. If the Sharks win this one, don’t expect too much more for them. Their stars are in or entering their thirties, and their goaltending has been below-average (as playoff teams go). They’re more than capable of making some noise, but their window for winning a championship closed a couple of years ago.
Photo by Sarah Connors