NHL Western Conference Playoff Preview

The Western Conference NHL playoff race was very tight by the end of the regular season—third through ninth place were separated by only five points. I expect the playoff matchups in the West to have much of the same intensity we saw in the regular season. Below I examine and preview what to expect as the NHL playoffs roll our way.

#1 Chicago Blackhawks vs #8 Minnesota Wild 

2013 NHL Playoffs Preview
Chicago Blackhawks center Dave Bolland 36 and right wing Patrick Kane 88 during the third period against the Phoenix Coyotes at the United Center The Phoenix Coyotes beat the Chicago Blackhawks 3 2 in the shoot out Rob Grabowski USA TODAY Sports

Tale of the Tape

Chicago: 36-7-5 (77 points); 3.10 goals for/game (2nd); 2.02 goals against/game (1st); 1019 PDO

Minnesota: 26-19-3 (55 points); 2.46 goals for/game (22nd); 2.60 goals against/game (15th); 995 PDO

Chicago’s regular season saw them go 24 games while earning at least a point and eventually end up with the President’s Trophy as the team with the best record. Their 77 points in 48 games is a higher total than both Edmonton (74) and Columbus (65) earned last year in an 82 game schedule.

Minnesota, on the other hand, limped into playoffs. The month of April saw the Wild go 5-8-1, earning only 11 of a possible 28 points. By the end of the season, they required a tie-breaker to simply get into the playoffs.

Chicago had the second-best Fenwick Close% in the NHL this year (behind only Los Angeles) while Minnesota’s put them slightly behind Dallas. This makes me think that Chicago is in a much better position to shift into playoff mode than the Wild are.

Goaltending, as they say, is very important when the playoffs roll around. Before the season started, I would have definitely given the edge to Minnesota’s Niklas Backstrom over either Corey Crawford or Ray Emery from Chicago but now I’m not so sure. Both Crawford and Emery finished in the top-15 in even-strength SV% among goalies with at least 15 starts while Backstrom finished 32nd.

The top-end talent had a better season for Chicago, too. Both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane averaged at least a point-per-game while no one for Minnesota cracked the 40-point mark.

Finally, health is on the side of Chicago, too. Dany Heatley is going to miss the rest of the season while Jason Pominville is still a game-time decision for game one. These are two guys that would normally be in Minnesota’s top-six forwards and are not easily replaced from within.

Chicago is a better possession team, has had better goaltending and better goal scoring for the length of the season. If there’s a series that screams sweep, this is it.

Prediction: Chicago in four games.

#2 Anaheim Ducks vs. #7 Detroit Red Wings 

2013 NHL Playoffs Preview
Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard makes a save during the second period against the Dallas Stars at the American Airlines Center Jerome Miron USA TODAY Sports

Tale of the Tape

Anaheim: 30-12-6 (66 points); 2.79 goals for/game (8th); 2.40 goals against/game (9th); 1024 PDO

Detroit: 24-16-8 (56 points); 2.54 goals for/game (19th); 2.29 goals against/game (5th); 997 PDO

I like to think of Anaheim as the Toronto Maple Leafs of the West. I say that because you look at their PDO and then see that they are a minus-possession team and wonder how they did it. Their goaltending wasn’t anything special (.914 team SV%, 14th in the NHL), they didn’t fill the net and their special teams were good (4th on the PP, 13th on the PK) but not blow-you-away good.

Anaheim got off to a good start. Their goaltending was shaky early on – Jonas Hiller had an .879 SV% in his first eight games – but their offense was unbelievable; Anaheim scored five or more goals in six of their first 18 games. Once their goaltending started coming around – Hiller then had a .928 SV% from March 1st on – their scoring took a backseat. After scoring 5+ goals six times in their first 18 games, they did so just twice in their final 30 games. It seems as though Anaheim managed to sustain itself all season by having either their goaltending or offense carry them at different points of the year. They never had a sustained slump where both their goaltending and offense wasn’t extraordinary and for a minus-possession team, this is worrisome come playoff time (everything evens out eventually).

I wrote early in the season that Detroit would struggle to make playoffs and they did. One less win and they finish in 10th instead of 7th and they miss the playoffs.

Detroit is a plus-possession team that simply couldn’t find the back of the net – their team shot 6.9% on the year putting them slightly ahead of offensively-challenged Ottawa. Much to my surprise, Detroit made the playoffs on the back of Jimmy Howard, who managed a .938 SV% over his last 24 games. Before the season started, I thought Detroit’s goaltending would be a weakness. As it turns out, Howard is the only reason that Detroit is in the postseason.

You worry about a team being ready for playoffs. Anaheim unofficially locked up a playoff position a month ago, and of their final 14 games of the season, only three were against eventual playoff teams.

Detroit’s possession statistics and the improvement on defense was apparent over the final handful of regular season games where Detroit held three out of six opponents to 17 shots or less and five out of six to 24 shots or less.

I think this is a close series but Detroit has been playing very well as of late while Anaheim has been on cruise control.

Prediction: Detroit in six games

#3 Vancouver Canucks vs #6 San Jose Sharks 

2013 NHL Playoffs Preview
Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo makes a save against the Anaheim Ducks during the second period at Rogers Arena Anne Marie Sorvin USA TODAY Sports

Tale of the Tape

Vancouver: 26-15-7 (59 points); 2.54 goals for/game (19th); 2.40 goals against/game (9th); 1015 PDO

San Jose: 25-16-7 (57 points); 2.42 goals for/game (24th); 2.33 goals against/game (6th); 995 PDO

Before the pucks drop, I think this will be the second-best series to watch in terms of evenly matched teams. Both Vancouver and San Jose struggled to score this year, both teams got very good goaltending and both teams are plus-possession teams.

Let’s not kid ourselves when it comes to San Jose, however. They started the season on an absolute tear, winning their first seven games and scoring at least four goals in five of those seven games. They went 18-16-7 over the final 41 games earning just 43 points in that stretch. We can talk about players being ready at the start of the season because they were playing overseas and whatnot, but this is a team that got desperate for goals. After scoring 4+ goals in each of their first five games they only scored at least three goals once in the next 17 games, ironically in a loss. Patrick Marleau had nine goals in his first seven games and just eight in his next 41 games; Joe Thornton was a +7 after the first seven games and was a -1 in the next 41 games; Dan Boyle had six points in his first six games and just 14 in the next 40 games.

But they are still a plus-possession team, as I said. Brent Burns, Boyle and Thornton were Corsi monsters, Antti Niemi had the best season of his career and they are a playoff tested team (it seems like we say that every year).

Vancouver just couldn’t stay healthy all year. Ryan Kesler was injured, then he came back, then he was injured again, then he came back again; David Booth is going to miss the rest of the season and now Cory Schneider might not play game 1.

With Kesler back and the acquisition of Derek Roy at the deadline, Vancouver seems poised for a Cup run. They have two scoring lines now and they’ve always had depth at defense and good goaltending.

The season series was a clean sweep for San Jose but again, it was rare for Vancouver to have a full lineup. This will be a great series to watch and could go either way. Flip a coin.

Prediction: Vancouver in seven games

#4 St. Louis Blues vs #5 Los Angeles Kings

2013 NHL Playoffs Preview
Los Angeles Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin takes a shot against the San Jose Sharks during the game at the Staples Center Mandatory Credit Richard Mackson USA TODAY Sports

Tale of the Tape

St. Louis: 29-17-2 (60 points); 2.58 goals for/game (17th); 2.38 goals against/game (7th); 990 PDO

Los Angeles: 27-16-5 (59 points); 2.73 goals for/game (10th); 2.38 goals against/game (7th); 993 PDO

This is the one series I’m looking forward to the most (outside of my Habs, naturally). These are two very evenly-matched teams as you can see by the tale of the tape.

For St. Louis, the trouble all season was goaltending. Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak combined for an .877 SV% through the end of March. At one point in the season, they had to turn to rookie goaltender (and a native of my hometown) Jake Allen just to stay in the playoff race. Things settled down in net down the stretch as Elliott went 11-2 in April and allowed one goal or less in 10 of those 13 games. Team defense has always been a strength for St. Louis, evident by the fact that they allowed 30 shots or more just twice in those final 13 games.

The Blues had a great On-Ice Corsi for the most part as seven of their regular players (30 games or more) had an On-Ice Corsi of at least four. Also, they are incredibly deep up front as they had seven forwards with at least 20 points on the season. They also possess two of the best young defensemen in the game in Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk. As long as Elliott stays solid in net, they’re going to be a tough out for any team playing them.

Los Angeles finished the season as the best Fenwick Close% team in the league even though both their team SH% and team SV% were middle of the pack. This is quite the statistical anomaly.

The Conn Smythe winner from last year (Jonathan Quick) had a very mediocre season. He posted a sub-.910 SV% in every month except April and like St. Louis, they relied on Not-Their-Starting-Goalie to keep them afloat for a while; Jonathan Bernier sports a .922 SV% for the season and went 9-3-1 for them.

Los Angeles, as well, has two of the best young defensemen in the game with Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov. On top of that, Jake Muzzin – a former 5th round pick in 2007 – seemingly came out of nowhere to lead all NHL defensemen in On-Ice Corsi by quite a wide margin and finished second overall in the league to teammate Justin Williams.

These are two very even teams and statistically two of the best in the NHL. This is going to be a very hard fought series that should go the distance. My heart says St. Louis (they were my preseason and mid-season pick to win the West), but I just don’t have faith in Elliott.

Prediction: Los Angeles in seven games.

I have Los Angeles winning the West this year and facing Pittsburgh in the Finals. I believe we will see repeat Stanley Cup champions this year.

If you’re not a habitual hockey watcher, I strongly urge you to watch as much of the playoffs as you can. The intensity and effort in the games are unrivalled in any other professional tournament. Enjoy the playoffs and be sure check out my NHL Eastern Conference Playoff Preview.

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