Man, I can't believe it's finally here. This is, literally, the greatest time of the year. If you're a hockey fan, this is your Christmas. With the hours ticking away before the first slate of games are to be played tonight, we wanted to give everyone a look at both the Eastern and Western opening rounds. Tonight, Chicago/Minnesota, St. Louis/Los Angeles and Detroit/Anaheim will open their series against one another. Before the puck drops, lets look at the Western Conference:
(1) Chicago Blackhawks vs (8) Minnesota Wild
The Minnesota Wild have the displeasure of playing the best team in the NHL. You read that right, the best team in the NHL. The Blackhawks are probably the most balanced team heading into the playoffs in all phases of the game. Offensively they rank second in the NHL, scoring 3.10 goals per game. Their defense is ranked first in the NHL, giving up 2.02 goals per game. It's disgusting how good this team is.
The Blackhawks specialty teams? 19th in the NHL on the power play at 16.7% success. The penalty kill? Third in the NHL with 87.2% success at killing penalties. I'm shocked, actually, at how bad they are on the power play given their talent.
Goaltending? Not an issue. Corey Crawford and Ray Emery have matching GAA at 1.94 (seriously). That makes them number six and seven overall in the NHL in that category. Crawford is 10th overall in save percentage among all goalies with a .926 clip.
With all this going on, you have to ask yourself if Minnesota has a chance?
Well, not really. I mean there's a chance that Minnesota wins a game or two at home, but I don't think they are good enough to steal a game in Chicago. Their road record is 12-11-1. The good news is that the Wild are top ten in scoring goals on the road in the NHL with 66 of them, but they also have given up 70.
Here's the thing with Minnesota – They are in the bottom half of the league (22) in goals per game with 2.46 and goals against per game (16) with 2.60. While they are good enough to squeak into the playoffs thanks to a Columbus loss on the last day of the regular season, I don't think they have the firepower to hang with Chicago.
Chicago is good, like Stanley Cup Finals good. Anything else for this team is a failure.
Predication: Chicago in 5.
After the jump…the rest of the West!
(2) Anaheim Ducks vs (7) Detroit Red Wings
Anaheim has quietly been one of the best teams in the NHL. It could be the "East Coast bias" everyone talks about when it comes to sports, but Anaheim finished the season at 30-12-6, their best regular season in franchise history. I guess that is debatable due to the shortened season, but it doesn't matter. What matters is that Anaheim has been successful in locking up the number two seed in the Western Conference.
While they've been successful this year, Detroit has struggled to find and identity and had to make a run at the end of the season to grab the seventh seed overall. This isn't a position that Detroit has been in a long, long time. Usually when things went south, they had their captain in Nicklas Lidstrom to lead them. This year things are different, no matter what anyone in the D wants to tell you.
Anaheim is a top ten scoring team (2.79 G/G, 8th overall) led by Ryan Getzlaf, who finished 11th in the NHL in total points. Defensively, they are ranked 11th in the NHL with a 2.40 GA/G. Again – balance. It seems to be a constant with the Western Conference teams. They're balanced just like Chicago.
Unlike Chicago, though, the Ducks have a working power play. Anaheim is fourth in the NHL on the power play, converting 21% of their chances. They are also 13th on the penalty kill, killing 81.5% of all penalties they take.
Detroit? 20th overall in scoring at 2.54 goals per game, but they're 5th in the NHL in defense, allowing only 2.29 goals per game. Even their power play is average (15th, 18.4% success) and their penalty kill ranks 12th in the league at 81.7% success.
When you compare Jimmy Howard to Jonas Hiller and Victor Fasth, it's a wash. Howard has a 2.13 GAA and a .923 SV% heading into tonight's game. Fasth posts a 2.18 GAA and a .921 SV% while Hiller posts a 2.36 GAA and a .913 SV%. The only difference between the three goalies is that Howard (42) has played almost double the amount of games that Fasth (25) and Hiller (26) have played.
With all that said, I'm giving Anaheim the nod here.
Prediction: Anaheim in 6.
(3) Vancouver Canucks vs (6) San Jose Sharks
Man, when you look at the season series, San Jose is 3-0 against the Canucks. I was surprised to see that, but then you have to take into consideration that two of San Jose's wins came at home where their record is 17-2-5. San Jose's issue is that they suck on the road. Their road record this season is 8-14-2. It's unfathomable how bad they are on the road, especially when you consider that Antti Niemi is having a great season.
Niemi is currently 16th in GAA, posting a 2.16 and 11th in SV% at .924. While those numbers may not be mind blowing, take into account that in 43 starts this season, Niemi has only posted a save percentage of .850% three times. That's pretty good. Also, look at Niemi's numbers against the Canucks. He's 3-0-0 with a 1.97 GAA and a .943 SV%.
This could be a dream matchup for San Jose.
Vancouver is still going to be Vancouver. While the Canucks are usually a good offensive team, this year they are 19th in scoring, netting 2.54 goals per game. Even more surprising is that they are 10th in goals against per game at 2.40. Even Vancouver's power play is ordinary, hanging there at 22 overall. It's strange to see this team more "defensively minded" than in years past. It's not their game – or so one would think.
A large part of that has been the play of Cory Schneider, who has effectively killed any and all talks of a goalie competition. His 17-9-4 record, combined with a 2.11 GAA (13th overall) and a .927 SV% (8th overall) could be a big reason why Vancouver sits in third in the West.
I can't put my finger on it, but I don't think Vancouver comes out of this series. Yes, San Jose sucks on the road, but they're almost unbeatable at home with a 17-2-5 record. I think they're good enough to steal a win in Vancouver.
Prediction: Sharks in 7
(4) St. Louis Blues vs (5) Los Angeles Kings
Last but not least we have the defending Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings taking on the St. Louis Blues. I'll be honest, this series doesn't interest me in the slightest. I think I have a bias against St. Louis because I find St. Louis to be one of the most boring teams I've ever watched. Seriously, I'd rather watch a paper cut heal then watch the St. Louis Blues play hockey, but alas here we are.
Much like the Sharks, LA is dreadful on the road, but that's probably because Jeff Carter and Mike Richards are tag teaming everything in sight the night before a game. Seriously though: 8-12-4 on the road this season. Yikes.
St. Louis has been good all season and I expect them to take this series. I just don't find them very entertaining – so I'll make this short and sweet.
Predicition: St. Louis in 7