On Tuesday night, the competition for the most coveted trophy in sports (the Stanley Cup) gets underway. With ramped up intensity and excitement to match, the NHL playoffs take hockey to an entirely different level.
This lockout-abridged season should be no exception, as they play on the ice hardly seemed to suffer from the prolonged vacation. But who amongst the 16 teams in contention has what it takes to win it all this year? Is it the President’s Trophy-winning Chicago Blackhawks, who lost only seven games in regulation all season? Or perhaps the playoff-tested Red Wings will take it all in their 22nd straight postseason appearance? Maybe the star-studded Penguins will be too much for the rest of the league to handle?
Tuesday’s docket sees exclusively Western Conference teams in action. With that in mind, check out this primer for all the pertinent information on the clubs out west; including what it might take for your favorite team to win it all.
#1 Chicago Blackhawks
Record: 36-7-5 77 points
The Blackhawks started the season in epic fashion, earning at least a point in their first 24 contests. While that streak eventually ended, their hot play did not. Goalies Corey Crawford and Ray Emery received the Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed (102). Not to be overshadowed by the defense, the Hawks also scored the second most goals in the league (155). The team finished the season with the best record in the NHL, capturing the President’s trophy. They have the depth to roll four lines, always an important factor in the postseason.
Key to victory: Do not take opponents lightly
The Blackhawks were hard to beat this season, but when they did fall it was too often to lowly teams like the Colorado Avalanche (who snapped their points streak) and the Calgary Flames. The President’s Trophy is often seen as a curse upon the winner. Coach Joel Quennville and Captain Jonathan Toews need to make sure this team plays every game like it could make or break the series.
Key performer: Patrick Kane
With 55 points in 47 games, Kane led the Western Conference in scoring (ranking 5th in the NHL). This high-flying forward consistently produced on offense. This year, Kane truly showcased the ability to to takeover contests. In the playoffs, scoring is at a premium. Having a player of Kane’s caliber may be the difference between going to the semis and going home.
First round opponent: Minnesota Wild
Season series: 2-0-1
#2 Anaheim Ducks
Record: 30-12-6 66 points
In what was one of the feel good stories from the 2013 season, the Anaheim Ducks once again became mighty. A rebound year from Captain Ryan Getzlaf and continued production from veterans like the ageless Teemu Selanne helped the team capture the Pacific Division. The true key to their success however, was the stellar play from goaltenders Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth.
Key to victory: Don’t let goaltending become a controversy
Both Fasth and Hiller played well this season. As was seen with the Vancouver Canucks last year, that can be both a blessing and a curse. Coach Bruce Boudreau has yet to name a starter for game one. Odds may be in Hiller’s favor, but he played in only one more contest (26) than Fasth, with the latter having slightly better numbers. Either way, Ducks fans need to hope that the starter doesn’t get distracted while constantly looking over his shoulder.
Key performer: Teemu Selanne
At age 42, the offense in Anaheim no longer runs through Selanne. That being said, the biggest weakness this year for the Ducks was lack of secondary scoring. If the “Finnish Flash” shows that he still has some spark left, the Ducks could make a run.
First round opponent: Detroit Red Wings
Season series: 1-2-0
#3 Vancouver Canucks
Record: 26-15-7 59 points
Despite all the controversy surrounding goaltender Roberto Luongo hanging over their heads, the Canucks still managed to win the Northwest Division. Led by the remarkable Sedin twins (Henrik and Daniel), they can still beat teams with precision passing. That being said, their +6 goal differential fails to impress, as did their play outside a weak Northwest division.
Key to victory: Chemistry
No one can deny the chemistry between Henrik and Daniel, but the rest of the team must follow suit. Their second line of Ryan Kesler (who is coming of of injury), Derek Roy (who was acquired at the trade deadline) and Chris Higgins (who also missed time with injury) needs to gel quickly if they want to make a run.
Key performer: Cory Schneider
Although he is questionable for the series opener against the Sharks, the job as starting goalie is Schneider’s to lose. He needs to come back from his undisclosed injury soon, and perform well immediately, to silence the rabid Vancouver hockey media.
First round opponent: San Jose Sharks
Season Series: 0-2-1
#4 St. Louis Blues
Record: 29-17-2 60 points
With a game predicated on solid defensive play and a gigantic wingers that punished their opponents, the Blues pounded their way to the postseason. With Captain David Backes leading the way, they play an aggressive and physical style; which should bode well in the playoffs.
Key to victory: Offensive production from the blueline
With Alex Pietrangelo leading the way, the Blues are blessed with a plethora of offensive talent on the back end. The further added to this at the trade deadline; bringing in both Jordan Leopold and Jay Bouwmeester. The latter may be the key in this regard, as this will mark the the 10-year veteran’s first trip to the postseason.
Key performer: Brian Elliott
Brought in to compete for the backup position, Elliott has been a pleasant surprise during his two seasons with the Blues. Now firmly entrenched as the number one guy, his playoff numbers (4-6 in 12 games, with a .886 save percentage) leave much to be desired. If the Blues want to win, he needs to play big on hockey’s biggest stage.
First round opponent: Los Angeles Kings
Season series: 0-3-0
#5 Los Angeles Kings
Record: 27-16-5 59 points
As was showcased when they won the Stanley Cup as an eight seed last season, the Kings revel in being the underdogs. Again this year, they will not have home ice advantage in the first round. That being said, these road warriors probably won’t mind. They have a rare ability to truly roll four lines, which makes them dangerous to repeat.
Key to victory: Be responsible in your own end.
Defense wins championships. From Dustin Brown, to Mike Richards and Anze Kopitar; all of LA’s fowards buy into this philosophy. Their offensive is predicated on creating turnovers, something the Kings excel at.
Key performer: Jonathan Quick
With a save percentage of .902 last year’s Conn Smythe winner had an off season this campaign by his own lofty standards. Quick is the one player the Kings really can’t afford to have a Stanley Cup hangover. He stole more than a few contests last postseason. Considering the streaky offense in front of him, he may need to steal a few more.
First round opponent: St. Louis Blues
Season Series: 3-0-0
#6 San Jose Sharks
Record: 25-16-7 57 points
This was an up-and-down season for San Jose. They came out of the gates on fire, fizzled for a while, then finished strong. That inconsistency has to be very worrisome to Shark fans, as they have a history of coming up short in the postseason. That being said, their roster is filled with big bodies. If they dish out more punishment then they take, they could make some noise.
Key to victory: Their big players have to show up
From Joe Thornton on down, the Sharks never seem to show up to play playoff hockey. This culture existed long before players like Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture joined the fight. It will be up to veterans like Thornton, Dan Boyle and Patrick Marleau to change it if they are to have a chance.
Key performer: Brent Burns
Burns was brought in from Minnesota to anchor the defense; but it was when he moved to forward that he really shined. If that experiment continues to work, it’s just another big, talented body up front that opponents could have trouble dealing with.
First round opponent: Vancouver Canucks
Season series: 3-0-0
#7 Detriot Red Wings
Record: 24-16-8 56 points
The Wings did not punch their ticket to the postseason dance until their final game. Much of the season, they struggled to adjust to life with out defenseman Niklas Lindstrom. If that wasn’t enough to overcome they also lost more man-games to injury than any club in the league. That being said: they made it for the 22nd consecutive year. They have been here before, and have more experience dealing with the pressures of playoff hockey than any club in the field.
Key to victory: Possess the puck
The Wings have had variations of the same system in place since the days of Sergei Fedorov and Steve Yzerman. It was when they got away from this that they struggled. They play the puck possession game better than anyone in the league. In a fashion more akin to European hockey, the Wings don’t need to attack to control a game. If they can limit the chances of their opponents, they have the skill to capitalize off the few chances they do get.
Key performer: Johan Franzen
It would be easy to place Zetterberg or Datsyuk in this place, but Franzen has shown he is a difference-maker in the playoffs. When the Wings won their last Cup in 2008, “The Mule” was good for over a point per game. In fact, they very well may have gone back-to-back had he not gotten injured. Over the past two postseasons, he has been less effective; and the Wings have faltered.
First round opponent: Anaheim Ducks
Season series: 2-1-0
#8 Minnesota Wild
Record: 26-19-3 55 points
With the signings of Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, no team made a bigger off-season splash than the Wild. That being said, their play was awful to start the season. They came around late, squeaking into the playoffs by winning their final game. The also bolstered their forward core by adding Jason Pominville at the trade deadline. That being said, their are still questions on the blueline and in net.
Key to victory: The defense needs to step up
Excluding Ryan Suter (who may win the Norris Trophy), Minnesota’s defensive play is lackluster at best. Jared Spurgeon, Tom Gilbert and Jonas Brodin are hardly household names. While they have shown promise at times, they have also all been inconsistent and aren’t exactly playoff tested. Suter can’t play 60 minutes a night, and even if he could they would have to pair him with someone. So the rest of the corps will have to step up.
Key player: Zach Parise
There is no one on the Wild roster with more playoff experience than Parise. In fact, he has only failed to merit an invitation to the dance once in his career. Last season, he captained the New Jersey Devils all the way to the finals. Parise led the Wild in scoring in the regular season, he will be counted on both on and off the ice this postseason.
First round opponent: Chicago Blackhawks
Season series: 1-2-0