Here is Corey Abbott's preview of the Eastern Conference.
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS VERSUS MINNESOTA WILD
Minnesota is still a relatively young franchise without a rich playoff history, but it has the potential to build a strong rivalry with the Chicago Blackhawks. I say potential because for a rivalry to be truly great, there has to be at least some give-and-take. So far it's been rather one-sided with Minnesota meeting Chicago in the 2013 and 2014 playoffs and losing in five and six games respectively.
Of course, it's not just the Wild that have been dominated by the Blackhawks in recent years. Chicago has arguably been the best franchise overall since the start of the 2009-10 campaign. That's due in no small part to Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane of course, but as the Pittsburgh Penguins can attest, you need more than two star players to win the Stanley Cup.
Chicago's true strength lies in its depth. After the big two, the squad has an army of offensive weapons, including Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, and Brandon Saad as well as emerging threats like Teuvo Teravainen. This is a team that can roll out three true scoring lines and even its fourth unit is capable of generating scoring opportunities.
On top of that the Blackhawks have a strong blueline led by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Although it's partially due to the fact that he missed most of the season because of blood clots, it's telling that Chicago has only needed to ask veteran Kimmo Timonen for an average of 10:22 minutes per game since the playoffs began.
Some of the names on Chicago's roster have changed over the past couple years, but the squad's strength has remained. So if this series is going to be different from the last two, it will have to be because the Wild have managed to close the gap on their own.
There are some reasons to think that they might have too. Adding Thomas Vanek over the summer gave them another veteran option and while he wasn't a major factor in the first round, he remains a big threat going forward. Then there's the fact that Mikael Granlund, 23, and Nino Niederreiter, 22, have another year's worth of experience under their belt since their last series against the Blackhawks. Both of them played key roles in defeating the St. Louis Blues n six games and will be expected to come up big against Chicago as well.
That being said, the biggest difference this year - as well as the biggest X-factor in this series - is the presence of goaltender Devan Dubnyk. Back in the 2014 playoffs, goaltending injuries were a big part of the story in Minnesota. Ever since the Wild acquired Dubnyk in January though, they've been one of the best teams in the league. He did suffer a six-goal contest against St. Louis in Game 4, but he was otherwise very effective against the Blues in the series.
The Chicago Blackhawks will be an even bigger task for Dubnyk, but he might prove to be up to it. In fact, I'd even go so far as to give Minnesota the edge in goaltending in this series as the Blackhawks netminders and defense were a rather mixed bag against Nashville. That resulted in both Corey Crawford and Scott Darling getting ice time and one has to wonder if coach Joel Quenneville will once again be forced to use both of his goaltenders.
There's also a fatigue factor for Chicago, in part because its gearing up for its ninth playoff series in three years and more recently because it had to go to double and triple-overtime against Nashville. I also would give Minnesota the momentum factor given the Blackhawks' weak finish to the regular season and the fact that the team they faced in the first round similarly limped into the playoffs.
Although it's easy to sell Chicago as the favorites in this one based on its recent history and star power alone, this is a more even series than we've seen in the past. The Wild should be hungry and they should be ready for Chicago this time and while this series will ultimately boil down to whether or not Dubnyk can continue to rise to the occasion, I'm going to pick Minnesota to come out ahead in seven 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.
There's no shortage of Blackhawks players that excelled offensively in their first round series against Nashville. Jonathan Toews was leading the way though with three goals and eight points in six contests. Defenseman Duncan Keith also impressed with two goals and seven points in the first round. That includes his series-winning goal.
The Blackhawks were pretty much firing on all cylinders, but defensively they left something to be desired. Scott Darling finished with a 2.21 GAA and .936 save percentage, but his temporary hold on the starting gig evaporated after he allowed four goals in Game 5 and then three goals on 12 shots in the first 11:16 minutes of Game 6. Corey Crawford entered Game 6 and turned aside all 13 shots he faced to get the win, but overall he had an ugly 4.19 GAA and .850 save percentage in three playoff games.
Daniel Carcillo has been sidelined due to a concussion, but he has been practicing with the team recently.
This is the third straight year that Chicago has won at least one playoff series. The only team with a longer active streak is the New York Rangers at four years.
The Blackhawks were one of the best teams on the draw in the regular season with a 52.0% success rate, but they only won 49.4% of their faceoffs against Nashville in the first round. Jonathan Toews struggled in particular with an uncharacteristically bad 47.6 winning percentage.
Zach Parise has three goals and five points in his last four contests, including two markers in the Wild's final game against St. Louis. Goaltender Devan Dubnyk turned aside 66 of 68 shots in his last two games.
Thomas Vanek had no goals and just 10 shots in Minnesota's six-game first round series against St. Louis. He did have a pair of helpers though over that span. Defenseman Ryan Suter had something of a rough series too with a single assist and minus-three rating in six contests. He had a rough time from an analytics perspective too with a 42.66% 5-on-5 Fenwick For compared to his team's superior 45.54% when he was off the ice.
This is the third year in a row that Minnesota will face Chicago in the playoffs. The Blackhawks beat them in five games in 2013 and six contests in 2014.
The Wild had an incredible 33.3% success rate with the man advantage in the first round. However, they only had 12 power-play opportunities, which is the third least in the league.
Keith Ballard remains out indefinitely with facial fractures and a concussion.
ANAHEIM DUCKS VERSUS CALGARY FLAMES
The Calgary Flames continue to defy expectations, but how much further can they go?
Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Jiri Hudler have proven time and time again this season that they're one of the best units in the game and at this point I'd even rate it favorably against the higher profile top line of Patrick Maroon, Ryan Getzlaf, and Corey Perry.
I also like the chances of Jonas Hiller having a strong series. He didn't leave the Ducks under the best of circumstances last year as Anaheim had relegated him to the backup spot by the end of his tenure. He should be fiercely motivated to prove the Ducks wrong for letting him go and I expect him to have a strong series under those circumstances.
There's not a lot else I can say in the Flames' favor though. In terms of depth, the Ducks have a significant edge and they should be well rested too after sweeping the Jets. Anaheim's defense is strong too while Calgary has been getting by despite missing a few defensemen including captain Mark Giordano.
Then there's the analytics. Anaheim wasn't exactly a puck possession darling in the regular season with its 51.7% Fenwick For in 5-on-5 situations, but it was still league's ahead of Calgary's 45.7%. And of course, the Ducks were 12 points better than them in the regular season won the season series 3-1-1.
It's not as if the Ducks are without question marks though. Goaltender Frederik Andersen didn't have too much trouble against the Winnipeg Jets, but he has a career .890 save percentage in five contests against Calgary.
There are also questions about Anaheim's ability to step up in the playoffs. This is a team that's starting to build a reputation for falling short in the postseason after great regular seasons. The hope was that the summer acquisition of Ryan Kesler would help with that and it should be interesting to see how he does against Calgary. He certainly was effective against the Jets with three goals and five points in four contests.
It's hard to bring myself to bet against Calgary because they've proven me wrong before, but I look at this matchup and I have a hard time envision this as anything other than the end of the road for the Flames. I'm predicting that Anaheim will take this in six games.
James Wisniewski spent the entire first round in the press box, but it wouldn't be surprising to see him get a chance before the second round is over.
Corey Perry led the charge for Anaheim in its four-game sweep with three goals and seven points. However, Jakob Silfverberg was arguably the most pleasant surprise for the Ducks as he recorded a goal and five points in Anaheim's last two games.
Typically when you sweep your opponent, there isn't going to be much in the way of players that looked bad. They had eight players that recorded at least three points in four contests and the ones that didn't were those that you wouldn't expect major offensive contributions from. They did have some players that looked lukewarm from an analytics perspective though. Clayton Stoner had a 44.79% 5-on-5 Fenwick For, which was substantially worse than most of the team's - although again, that's partially a reflection of how good Anaheim was as a whole. Sami Vatanen similarly ranked well below his teammates with his 45.45% 5-on-5 Fenwick For.
There's a good chance that Nate Thompson (upper body) will be available for Game 1. He has been practicing on the fourth line lately after missing Anaheim's first round series.
Under head coach Bruce Boudreau's guidance, the Anaheim Ducks have made the playoffs for three years in a row. However, Boudreau has never been able to lead a team past the second round of the playoffs over his eight seasons as a bench boss.
The Ducks were the only team able to sweep their first round opponent and they did so by averaging four goals per game. They tended to get off to slow starts though as 10 of their 16 goals occurred in the third period or later.
Jiri Hudler got off to a slow start in Calgary's first round series against Vancouver, but he came up big in Game 6 with two goals and four points. He also netted the game-winning goal and registered an assist in Game 4. Johnny Gaudreau's contributions were a bit more spread out and he finished with two goals and six points in the six-game series.
There weren't any major weak links in this series, but because someone has to be highlighted, I'll go with Jonas Hiller. He was great overall, but he was yanked from Game 6 after allowing two goals on the first three shots he faced. He'll still start in Game 1 though as Flames coach Bob Hartley didn't feel the goals were his fault and simply pulled him in an effort to spark the team.
Calgary is expected to start the second round without defensemen Raphael Diaz (lower body), Mark Giordano (biceps), and Ladislav Smid (neck). Diaz and Giordano have been skating and while neither seems to be close, perhaps we'll end up seeing one or both of them play before the end of the second round. Smid isn't expected to return though. The Flames are also missing forwards Lance Bouma (upper body) and Paul Byron (lower body).
This is the first time Calgary has advanced to the second round since 2004. Only two current players of the Flames were even playing in the NHL back then. Jiri Hudler made his NHL debut with the Detroit Red Wings during the 2003-04 campaign while Matt Stajan had 27 points in 69 contests as a rookie with Toronto that season.
The Flames ranked third in the first round with 133 blocked shots. However, the two teams ahead of them - Nashville and the Islanders - have already been eliminated.