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ST. LOUIS BLUES VERSUS MINNESOTA WILD
Although the Blues and Wild are going into the playoffs with a lot of promise, neither has a history of recent playoff success. In fact, while Minnesota and St. Louis have reached the postseason for the third and fourth time respectively, neither squad has advanced past the second round over that span. In other words, for as talented as these squads are, they have plenty to prove.
If you just look at their respective records, then Minnesota would obviously have to be considered the underdogs, but that distinction doesn't have much meaning this deep into the salary cap era and it's particularly inaccurate for this series. First off, Minnesota really had two seasons: The pre-Devan Dubnyk era where they meandered to a 18-19-5 record and the stretch that began with a 7-0 victory over Buffalo on Jan. 15 with Dubnyk between the pipes. In that stretch they posted a 28-9-3 record. St. Louis is 25-11-4 over the same 40-game span, so since the Wild added Dubnyk, they`ve been the better team.
It's not as if the Wild look like a bad team on paper too. With Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek, Mikko Koivu, Mikael Granlund, and Nino Niederreiter leading the charge, the Wild have a solid and deep core of forwards. In Ryan Suter they also have one of the best defensemen in the league, although it's hard to measure up to the Blues elite defense, which is arguably the best group in the league.
St. Louis also looks strong up front. A few years ago, the best thing you could say about the Blues' group of forwards was that it was well-rounded, but the rise of 23-year-old Vladimir Tarasenko and 22-year-old Jaden Schwartz along with the breakout of 31-year-old Alexander Steen has provided St. Louis with star power up front too.
At the end of the day though, the big X-factor for both teams is its goaltending. Is Brian Elliott really up for the task of carrying the Blues in the playoffs? If not, is 24-year-old Jake Allen with his 52 games worth of regular season experience and one minute of NHL playoff action really a desirable alternative? If we're looking at what they did in the regular season, then Dubnyk has clearly been better than either of them, so goaltending should theoretically be Minnesota's big edge. And yet Dubnyk has never played in a postseason game, so we'll have to wait and see how he handles the increased pressure.
Of course, Dubnyk has been through a lot in recent years. He was given an opportunity to lead what was initially considered to be a promising Oilers team in 2013-14 (keep in mind Edmonton at the time seemed to be trending upwards) and he imploded, which nearly led to the destruction of his NHL career. It didn't take him long to emerge from that stronger than before. Will that experience help him in the playoffs? It might, but at the end of the day given that goaltending is such an unknown in this series, I'm going to lean towards the team that has the better overall group of forwards and defensemen, which is St. Louis in my mind.
I don't consider Minnesota to be an underdog and I wouldn't call it an upset if they won, but I'm looking for St. Louis to take this in six games.
Note: Line combinations are subject to change going into the playoffs. They also often change on a game-to-game and shift-to-shift basis.
Jake Allen surrendered just one goal in each of his last four starts. He has posted a stunning 1.80 GAA and .930 save percentage in 16 games since the All-Star break.
By contrast Brian Elliott has a 2.66 GAA and .904 save percentage in 24 contests since the break. If you're looking for a silver lining, he did turn aside 23 of 25 shots against Minnesota on Saturday.
The Blues are going into the playoffs with no players sidelined.
This is the fourth straight year St. Louis has secured a postseason berth and the second time over that span that it's secured the division title. Despite that, St. Louis has only won a single playoff series in the salary cap era.
St. Louis had the fourth best power-play conversion rate in 2014-15 at 22.3%. Kevin Shattenkirk was their most prolific player in that regard with 25 points in 56 contests.
Zach Parise scored three goals and four points in his final four games of the season. That brought him up to 33 goals and 62 points in 74 contests in 2014-15.
Nino Niederreiter has been fairly hot and cold this season and right now he's in the midst of a bad patch. He did score two goals against Los Angeles on March 28, but that's the only time he's gotten any points in his last 11 contests.
The Wild are relatively healthy with the noteworthy exception of defenseman Keith Ballard. He hasn't played since Dec. 9 due to a concussion and shouldn't be counted on to return in the near future.
Since the blockbuster signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the Wild have made the playoffs three seasons in a row. That being said, those deals were made in the hopes of bringing the Stanley Cup to Minnesota and so far they haven't come close. Minnesota lost to Chicago in five games in the first round of the 2013 playoffs and was again eliminated by the Blackhawks - this time in the second round - last year.
While the Blues might be one of the best power-play teams in the league, the Wild topped the NHL when it came to killing penalties. They had an 86.3% success rate in shorthanded situations and were 90.8% after the All-Star break.
NASHVILLE PREDATORS VERSUS CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
Chicago might have lost its last four games to essentially limp into the playoffs, but if you want to talk about a team entering the playoffs cold, you won't find a better example in the West than Nashville. The Predators have a 6-12-3 record in their last 21 games and haven't won since March 28.
The decline of Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne has played a big role in that. He had a 1.96 GAA and .931 save percentage in 37 pre All-Star Game starts, but posted a 2.48 GAA and .911 save percentage after the event. He also has allowed at least three goals in each of his last five games. That's critical problem for Nashville because for all the offseason talk about making Nashville more competitive offensively, it's still only a middle-of-the-road team in that regard.
The rise of 20-year-old Filip Forsberg has been a big boost to this team as he made a serious push for the Calder Trophy with 26 goals and 63 points in 82 games. He has the potential to be a star forward and should make the Washington Capitals regret giving him away for Martin Erat and Michael Latta for years to come. Mike Ribeiro proved to be a great pickup for Nashville too. After Arizona bought out his four-year, $22 million contract, the Predators were able to ink him for just $1.05 million for the 2014-15 campaign and he's rewarded their trust with 15 goals and 62 points in 82 contests.
Beyond those two though, Nashville's group of forwards isn't anything to write home about. Removed Evgeni Malkin, James Neal had just 23 goals and 37 points in 67 games during his first season with the Predators and the rest of the Predators forwards after Ribeiro and Forsberg were equally lackluster when it came to offensive production. As has often been the case for Nashville, its defense ended up doing much of the offensive heavy lifting as Roman Josi finished with 55 points and Shea Weber ended up with 45.
Nashville's strength is, as it has often been, it's blueline and that goes beyond just Weber and Josi. However, the Blackhawks have a great group of defensemen too and when it comes to forwards, this is clearly a lopsided fight. It's true that the Blackhawks weren't actually a great team offensively during the regular season. However, I'm still of the belief that Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp, and Brad Richards are all potentially dangerous weapons in the playoffs. On top of that, Patrick Kane, who has been out since Feb. 24, might return as early as Game 1.
Corey Crawford can't be overlooked either with his 2.27 GAA and .924 save percentage in 57 starts. He's a great and sometimes underrated netminder that has been a major part of Chicago's success in recent years.
With the way Nashville limped into the playoffs, I don't have a lot of confidence in the team. I will say that Rinne has the potential to get hot and steal this series, but as things stand I'm predicting Chicago winning in six games.
Filip Forsberg has enjoyed a superb rookie season, but he did slow down in February. He's bounced back in time for the playoffs though with three goals and four points in his last four contests.
We already mentioned Pekka Rinne's mediocre play since the All-Star break, but he's not the only one that's taken a step backwards. Colin Wilson recorded 30 points in 43 games before the break, but he's recorded just 12 points in his last 34 contests.
Nashville's lineup for the season finale didn't include defensemen Cody Franson, Shea Weber, or Roman Josi. It sounds like Josi and Weber will be fine for the start of the season, but Franson is regarded as day-to-day. Mike Fisher (lower body) is also questionable for the start of the first round.
This is the Predators first playoff trip since 2012. When they play on Wednesday it will also be their first postseason game without Barry Trotz serving as the head coach.
Nashville averaged 2.96 goals per game prior to the All-Star break, but that dipped to 2.51 goals per game for the remainder of the season. While the Predators played in 37 games after the All-Star break, Mike Ribeiro and Forsberg tied for the scoring lead among forwards with just 23 points.
Antoine Vermette is projected to be a healthy scratch in Game 1, but will likely find his way into the lineup at some point.
The Blackhawks haven't been great offensively lately, but Marian Hossa has been an exception to that. He's going into the playoffs with a goal and seven points in his last eight games.
Brad Richards has had a largely disappointing campaign from an offensive perspective, but it's gotten worse lately. He has just three goals and eight points in 29 contests since the start of March. He's also been dealing with an upper-body injury, but we'll cover the Blackhawks' ailments in the Notes sections.
As touched on already, Patrick Kane (broken clavicle) might be available to return for Game 1 of the playoffs. In fact, the odds of that happening are very high given that he's already been medically cleared. Richards, who missed the final three contests of the regular season due to an upper-body injury should be back too. The status of defenseman Kimmo Timonen, who also missed Chicago's last three games, is not clear though and Daniel Carcillo (upper body) might be unavailable too.
Now that San Jose's playoff streak is officially over, the Blackhawks are enjoying the longest run in the Western Conference. Chicago has advanced to the postseason for seven straight campaigns, starting with the 2008-09 campaign. The Blackhawks have of course also won the Stanley Cup twice over that span.
If you read Nashville's notes, then you know the Predators' offense declined as the season went on, but Chicago's drop has been even more pronounced. The Blackhawks averaged 3.02 goals per game before the All-Star break and a mere 2.23 after it. The good news? Chicago was only allowing 2.26 goals per contest after the All-Star break, so at least its differential wasn't horrid.
ANAHEIM DUCKS VERSUS WINNIPEG JETS
For Winnipeg, just making the playoffs was a huge accomplishment. It's more than was expected of the Jets going into the season and it's bringing the playoffs back to Winnipeg for the first time since 1996.
The fact that they made it this far without significant contributions from the now departed Evander Kane makes it even more impressive. The Jets also had to go through more than their fair share of defensive injuries, as highlighted by the fact that Mark Stuart led all Winnipeg blueliners in games played with 70.
At the end of the day, Winnipeg owes a lot of its success to solid and timely goaltending. Had goaltender Ondrej Pavelec not posted three straight shutouts in the span of four days, then that alone might have been enough to tip the scales out of the Jets' favor.
Up against a team like Anaheim, which has star power in Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry along with both offensive and defensive depth, this series looks like the biggest mismatch in the Western Conference. That's not to suggest that the Jets are doomed from the start as the parity in the conference is as such that every team has cause to believe that they can go far into the postseason.
If Pavelec can carry his late season momentum into the playoffs, then the Jets can do some serious damage. Even if the Jets goaltending doesn't measure up, Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers, who has been great since getting out of Buffalo, should be persistent thorns in Anaheim's side.
So there's certainly cause for some to pick Winnipeg in this series, but I don't think Anaheim is a team that should be underestimated either. I'm taking the Ducks in five games.
The Ducks are a bit thin on obvious choses for this one, but Frederik Andersen is at least a noteworthy choice. He did surrender four goals against Dallas on April 8, but that's the only time he has allowed more than two goals in his last five contests.
Ryan Getzlaf got off to a terrific start this season, but he's going into the playoffs with five goals and nine points in his last 17 contests. He's a huge part of the Ducks offense and it's hard to see Anaheim getting far unless he bounces back in the postseason.
Goaltender John Gibson and forward Nate Thompson are both day-to-day with upper-body injuries. Meanwhile, defenseman Sheldon Souray (wrist) has spent the campaign on the non-roster injured reserve list.
Anaheim has now won its division in three straight campaigns, but the squad hasn't enjoyed much playoff success over that span. It was booted in the first round of the 2013 postseason by Detroit and lost in seven games to the eventual Stanley Cup-winning Los Angeles Kings in 2014.
Anaheim has been great at home, but it's been equally good on the road this season. The Ducks' 25-12-4 road record was the best in the Western Conference.
As previously mentioned, Ondrej Pavelec has hasn't allowed a single goal in his last three starts. You don't get hotter than that. It's worth adding though that he has a 1.98 GAA and .932 save percentage in 20 games since the All-Star break.
Andrew Ladd has just one assist in his last five games. That's certainly not a long slump, but he will be under the microscope in the playoffs given his status as the team's captain and leading scorer in the regular season.
Mathieu Perreault (lower body) didn't participate in the season finale, but he should be fine for Game 1. The Jets are still without defensemen Grant Clitsome (back surgery) and Paul Postma (lower body) though. Neither blueliner has a clear timetable for his return.
As a franchise, this is the second time the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets have ever made the playoffs. They have not won a postseason series. As mentioned above, the City of Winnipeg hasn't hosted a playoff game since 1996 and hasn't won a playoff series since 1987.
When it comes to 5-on-5 play, Winnipeg has been one of the most successful teams in the league with a 1.15 goals for/against ration. That compares favorably to Anaheim's ratio of 1.04. The Jets also rank eighth in the league with a total of 2,409 hits this season.
VANCOUVER CANUCKS VERSUS CALGARY FLAMES
Going into this season, not a lot of people had faith in either of these squads. When it comes to Vancouver, that was perhaps unjustified though. After all, the Canucks anemic offensive numbers in 2013-14 were probably at least partially the result of John Tortorella's system, so it's not surprising to see the Canucks forwards, and the Sedin twins in particular, do rebound this season under Willie Desjardins. Combine that with the offseason addition of goaltender Ryan Miller and there was reason for cautious optimism.
Calgary was a bit more of a surprise though. The Flames entered the season with potential, sure, but the odds of them putting it all together this season seemed slim. However, Johnny Gaudreau proved to be one of this season's top rookies with 64 points while Sean Monahan had an impressive sophomore season. Then there was Jiri Hudler, who broke out with 76 points in 78 contests. Combine that with a remarkably good defense - even without injured captain Mark Giordano - and decent netminding from Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo and the Flames have actually been a pretty impressive team this season.
Going into this series, these two teams look very even from a macro sense. Both are roughly on par with each other offensively and defensively, but where they differ is in terms of experience. In Vancouver, five of the top six scorers are in their 30s. In Calgary if you skip over the injured Giordano, it's just two of the top six. Taking a broader look, Vancouver's average age is 27.7 while Calgary's is 26.5, per NHL Numbers.
On top of that, this is Calgary's first trip to the playoffs since 2009 while Vancouver has advanced for the sixth time in seven years. So while the Flames can draw on the experience of former Stanley Cup champion Hudler or 33-year-old netminder Jonas Hiller, it does seem fair to say that the Canucks have an edge in that regard and that might ultimately prove to be the difference in what it likely to be a tight series.
Although it could go either way, I'm predicting Vancouver wins in seven games.
The Sedin twins have been good this season, but they've been particularly effective lately. Daniel has four goals and eight points in his last four contests while Henrik has a goal and six assists over the same span.
Nick Bonino has enjoyed some great hot streaks this season, but his slumps tend to drag out for weeks or even months. He has actually been more hot than cold lately, but given that he had just two assists in his final five games, he might be on a downward path going into Game 1.
This is the seventh time Vancouver has played against the Flames in the playoffs, although this will be the first time they've met in the postseason since the salary cap era started. Historically, Vancouver has lost four of its six series against the Flames.
Vancouver ranks second in the league this season with an 85.7% success rate when it comes to killing penalties. They're 19.3% conversion rate with the man advantage is also good enough to crack the NHL's top 10.
Dennis Wideman is the obvious choice, although the Flames had no shortage of alternative options. Sure, Wideman's been great all season, but lately he's found another level with two goals and nine points in his last five contests.
Most of the Flames were pulling their weight towards the end of the season. But since I have to pick on someone, I'll note that Mikael Backlund hasn't recorded a point in his last five games and has just a goal and an assist over his last 13 contests. He's not exactly an offensive force to begin with, but those are still abysmal numbers.
Calgary will have to continue to get by without defensemen Mark Giordano (torn biceps) and Ladislav Smid (neck) for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, forwards Lance Bouma (upper body) and Paul Byron (lower body) are listed as day-to-day. As is goaltender Karri Ramo.
The Flames are 10-20-4 when trailing after 40 minutes, which was the fourth best winning percentage under those circumstances. They were 20-22-4 in games where they surrendered the first goal, which represents the league's sixth highest winning percentage.