By Scott Billeck – @scottbilleck
Well, another year has come and gone and with it, another year with the Winnipeg Jets not in the playoffs. Good news is I don’t have to predict a sweep of the hometown team, so there is that. Here is my first round break down of each series with predictions. Let’s start the fun!
(1) Colorado Avalanche vs (4) Minnesota Wild
The Avalanche come into this series the Central Division’s best team this season, a year after finishing second last in the league — an impressive feat. The additions of 18-year-old phenom Nathan MacKinnon as well as some sensational play from Semyon Varlamov has catapulted the Avs to the upper echelon of the NHL.
The Wild are no chumps either, boasting Ryan Suter on defense and 30-goal scorer Jason Pominville with Zach Parise up front. The Wild finished just two points shy of the 100-point plateau and had trade deadline addition Ilya Bryzgalov finish 7-0-3 in 11 games with the Wild, including a rock solid 1.78 goals-against average.
The problem will be the avalanche of firepower that Colorado possesses. The team had five 20-plus goal scorers this season and one with 19. Bryzgalov owns a not-so-good .908 save percentage and a 2.81 GAA in 38 career playoff games and the Avs cleaned up in the season series with a 4-0-1 record. The Avs will be without centre Matt Duchene due to a knee injury but I don’t see that mattering, in the first round at least.
Prediction: 4-1 – Avs take the series in five games.
(2) St. Louis Blues vs (3) Chicago Blackhawks
Arguably the best series of them all in the first round, the defending Stanley Cup Champion Hawks will take on one of the best defensive tandems in the league in Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo and the Blues.
Chicago will have Jonathan Toews as well as Patrick Kane back for the first round, both having recovered from injuries. The Hawks have nearly everyone from last year’s triumph and one from their 2010 victory in Kris Versteeg.
The Blues took the season series 3-2, winning the first three before dropping the last two contests. The Blues were also losers of their last six regular season game, falling out of the Central Division lead and the Presidents’ Trophy race.
Still, I’m taking the Blues here. I see Ryan Miller putting on a good show — being a contract year and all — and with the Blues stellar defence shutting down Toews, Kane and Co., I see the bigger, grittier team coming out of this series.
Prediction: 4-3 – Blues move on to the second round in seven.
(1) Anaheim Ducks vs (4) Dallas Stars
The Ducks come into the playoffs being narrowly beat out by the Boston Bruins for the Presidents’ Trophy and tied with those Bruins with the most regulation and overtime wins with 51. They won 54 games on the season.
The Stars enter the playoffs after an exciting race for the final wild card spot in the West, edging out the Phoenix Coyotes (and to a lesser extent, the Winnipeg Jets) on the second last night of the season. With the addition of Tyler Seguin last off-season, the Stars gained a 37-goal centre with two-way upside. Seguin finished the season with 84 points and not far behind him was line mate Jamie Benn, who record 34 goals and 79 points himself on one of the NHL’s best lines. Throw in a healthy Keri Lehtonen and the Stars form a formidable opponent.
However, when it comes to the playoffs, experience often trumps skill and the Ducks are no slouches in that department either, finishing second in the league with 266 goals-for this season. They also won 25 games on the road and also edged out the season series 3-2.
Prediction: 4-2 – Ducks burn out the Stars in six.
(2) San Jose Sharks vs (3) Los Angeles Kings
The San Jose Sharks are like one of their own, Joe Thornton. They do so well in the regular season yet, when it comes to the playoffs, they are often absent and without the killer instinct needed to climb to the top.
This year will be like the many that have past. The Sharks, who finished with 111 points were exceptional during the regular season winning 51 games – one of only six NHL teams to eclipse the 50-win plateau. They had three players with 70 points or better and, until he suffered an almost-season ending injury, one of the most explosive rookies in Tomas Hertl. Again, however, this is business as usual for the Sharks in the regular season.
The Kings held identical records both home and away this season at 23-14-4 and allowed the fewest goals-against out of any NHL team with 174. Jonathan Quick led the way for the Kings with 27 wins and an excellent 2.07 goals-against average, good for third-best league wide among goalies with more than 45 starts.
The Kings don’t score much – just 206 goals this season – lowest among the 16 playoff teams. But what they lack in offensive prowess, they make up with their defence, led by two-time Olympic gold medalist Drew Doughty and solid goaltending with former Conn Smythe winner Quick.
This is probably the toughest series to predict, with the season series a close 3-1-1 record for the Kings. I say close because four of the games were decided by one goal, including two games that entered overtime. In the end, however, the Sharks will be the Sharks.
Prediction: 4-3 – Kings take the series in seven in what will be the lowest scoring series of the first round.
Stay tuned for Wednesday’s Eastern Conference Preview and Picks.