The Nashville Predators snuck their way into the last playoff spot in the Western Conference on Monday night, cementing the eight teams who will square off for the Stanley Cup from the Central and Pacific Divisions. While the Eastern Conference is still a more nebulous picture, we can already begin to see how the drama in the West will play out.
To recap, the eight Western conference teams that will compete in the postseason are the Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators, Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks, Edmonton Oilers, and Calgary Flames. The Blackhawks have already secured their spot as the conference’s no. 1 seed.
I’m never one to compliment the Blackhawks, though, so we’ll just offer a quick “congrats” to them and move on.
Now, if the playoffs began today – which, thank goodness they don’t, I’m not emotionally prepared. The Western playoff picture would have the following matchups: Chicago vs. Nashville, Minnesota vs. St. Louis, Edmonton vs. San Jose, and Anaheim vs. Calgary.
In this situation, the wildcards are in position to play their division rivals, giving us a hard-fought first round.
The Preds battled the Blackhawks in the first round of the 2015 playoffs, a series which the Blackhawks would ultimately go on to win in seven games. That round was rife with drama, injuries, lengthy overtimes, and antagonism. The two teams have met up five times already this season, with Chicago taking four of those games.
Though, this season suggests that the Preds have struggled against their divisional rival, that’s not entirely true. While they have struggled to surge back to the level of success and consistency they had leading to that 2015 run, there’s still been plenty of positives. Leading scorer Ryan Johansen has been added to their team since then, along with defensive wonder P.K. Subban.
Filip Forsberg is also having a banner year, and is more than enough to counter the Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane on the score sheet.
No matter who takes that series in the end, it will be a physical ordeal. Look for a bruised and battered champion to move on to face the winner of Minnesota-St. Louis, who will probably be equally worse for the wear. But hey, that’s the playoffs.
The Wild and the Blues have both surged at points this year, and in turn have fallen flat when their pace proved too unsustainable. Devan Dubnyk, in goal for Minnesota, has been a saving grace time and time again; Jake Allen, St. Louis’s starting goaltender, was left at home on a mid-season road trip because he was playing so poorly.
While the goalies will be central to the success of either team, leading scorers will, not surprisingly, dictate the pace. Vladimir Tarasenko of the Blues leads his teammates by a margin of almost 20 points, while the Wild’s Mikael Granlund is only seven points ahead of the next scorer, Eric Staal. Staal has been hot recently and will surely be looking to make his impact felt through Minnesota’s playoff run.
From the Central Division to the Pacific, where there are two California teams and two Canadian teams – polar opposites of hockey powerhouses. It is certainly possible that the standings will rearrange so each will face their provincial rivals rather than border-hopping, that’s not the case right now. I personally hope it does shuffle so Edmonton and Calgary play each other.
No Canadian teams made the playoffs last season, and this year marked a huge turnaround for the organizations up north. A healthy Connor McDavid made worlds of difference for the bottom-dwelling Oilers, who are now a force to be reckoned with. McDavid, along with Leon Draisaitl, has led the team by example.
However, there aren’t many players in Edmonton with NHL playoff experience. Despite all their talent and things finally clicking for them that could prove to be an issue in the long run.
As of now, they will draw San Jose. The Sharks made it to the Stanley Cup Final last year only to lose on home ice to the powerhouse Pittsburgh Penguins, and will be seeking a repeat performance (but with a happier ending). There’s been minimal turnover on their team since then, at least with core players, and if they do end up taking on Edmonton that experience and drive to repeat could be the Oilers’ early Achilles’ heel.
Finally, we come to Anaheim and Calgary. Calgary too has struggled in recent years, and has made some structural changes to once again reach the postseason. Their goaltender, Brian Elliott, has made a huge impact on this new team, and the scoring prowess of Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan rounds out the front end. Anaheim will likely look to shut down Gaudreau through sheer force, a plan they try to carry out every year in the playoffs.
Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler are the Ducks’ not-so-secret weapons, players who can score, but also lay hard hits and make sneaky (read: occasionally dirty) moves. The Ducks are a big, hard-hitting team who usually leave a trail of injuries behind them when the stakes are high. Bigger players on the Flames will have to hold their opponents accountable when these hits inevitably happen.
I’m more sold on the Central teams remaining against these opponents than I am with the Pacific teams. Nashville is likely to remain in the last wildcard spot, pinning them up against Chicago. However, the Pacific Division has shuffled quite a bit this year as different teams have gotten hot or hit rough patches.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs begin April 12, so we won’t have to wait much longer to find out.