Tuesday, April 12, 2016

2016 NHL Playoff Preview - Western Conference

Yesterday I went through the Eastern Conference matchups, declaring my apparent love for Florida-based teams. Today's topic: California love.

CENTRAL DIVISION

(1) Dallas Stars vs. (WC) Minnesota Wild

Who would've guessed that this year would give us the battle for the legacy of the Minnesota North Stars? Well, it's not really that big a deal, nor is it that odd an occurrence, so I probably won't mention it again, but I'm sure other people will.

The Stars are an offensive juggernaut that's been playing a more effective defensive game recently. The Wild are also a playoff team. While Minnesota has had a nice run to get into the playoffs, they're still a whole tier below Dallas and the other Central Division teams. I'll still give the Wild a shot because of the way they've played in high-leverage games this year, but I would say this is the series I'm least hopeful of going 6 or 7 games.

Pick: Dallas

(2) St. Louis Blues vs. (3) Chicago Blackhawks

If you've been paying attention to the Blues recently, you know that this group has come up short in a big way in recent years. And if you've been paying attention to the Blackhawks recently, you know that they've been accumulating championship hardware on the regular. So who in their right mind would pick the Blues to come out on top this series?

Well, I don't know if I'm necessarily "in my right mind," but I'm picking the Blues. The way Tarasenko has exploded this season has been incredible, and the Blues (when healthy) might have the best top 10 (top two forward lines, top two defensive pairings) in hockey. When their best players are on the ice, not many teams can match up.

Chicago is obviously strong as well, and they paid a tall price in future draft picks to shore up their forward depth. But future draft picks don't play in the playoffs, so the 'Hawks are in decent shape. This series should probably go seven games, and I'd venture to say this will be one of the best series in recent memory.

Pick: St. Louis

PACIFIC DIVISION

(1) Anaheim Ducks vs. (WC) Nashville Predators

I think this is a tough matchup for the Ducks. They're a big, bruising team that makes you work for every inch, but Nashville is one of the few teams that can match that physicality and intensity. I think it's going to be a closely competed series, but I think it might be a little frustrating to watch. The rink is going to seem awfully small.

This entire series is going to come down to Pekka Rinne's performance. Yes, I just provided the most obvious analysis possible: goaltending will be important. But Rinne has had such an up-and-down season, the Predators' fate will be closely tied to his ability to steady the ship.

In the end, I'll take the hotter team, and the team with Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, guys who have been dominating the ice for the better part of a decade.

Pick: Anaheim

(2) Los Angeles Kings vs. (3) San Jose Sharks

While some other series have history, there's something about Kings/Sharks that has another level of mystique. And by "mystique," I mean straight up loathing.

Kings fans hate the Sharks, but that's nothing when compared to the vitriol that Sharks fans feel for the Kings. If there's a team out there that has the same consistent feelings of disappointment as my Capitals (at least in recent years), it's the Sharks. And the Kings have been the focus of their frustration.

But all that buildup only matters to commentators. Once these two teams get onto the ice, it's going to be a hockey series just like any other. When looking at the rosters, the Kings have a slight edge at the top with all-world players like Doughty and Kopitar. I'd give the Sharks an edge in depth, particularly among the forward group. Overall, they're evenly matched.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, when things are even, you go with the team that has the better intangibles. Coaching, playoff experience, home ice, etc. All of that stuff favors the Kings...

...so, naturally, I'm going with the Sharks. While there's no historical proof in favor of this thought (and in fact, there may be proof against it), I think the Sharks are due for a turnaround. It's purely an emotional choice, but I'm pulling for Jumbo Joe Thornton.

Pick: San Jose

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