NHL Playoffs: 2014 Western Conference (Late) Preview

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Occasional contributor to the St. Louis Game Time paper Jeff Fahrenkrog has crunched the numbers and has been kind enough to contribute his preview and predictions.

SB Nation 2014 NHL Playoff Bracket

Jeff's submission to Game Time came after the paper was already full for Thursday night - but why let all of this hard work go to waste?

Warning: You're not going to like the last one.

Ducks vs. Stars

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One shouldn’t place too much emphasis on the fact that the Stars bested the Ducks 2 games to 1in their season series. Like the Blue Jackets, the Stars are making their first playoff appearance in more than a decade and are just happy to be here. Making the NHL’s second season was a nice bonus as Stars rookie GM Jim Nill works to rebuild the organization. His biggest move – acquiring 84-point center Tyler Seguin last summer from Boston – paid handsome dividends. Seguin teamed with LW Jamie Benn (34 goals, 79 points) to form one of the five most potent one-two combinations in the NHL.

While impressive, this top-heavy production is not a recipe for playoff success. History has shown that winning teams rely on offensive balance from multiple line combinations. Other than this duo, no Dallas forward scored more than 35 points. The Stars also have middle-of-the-pack special teams, were fifth in the NHL in puck giveaways and are rather porous defensively, finishing 17th in the league in goals per game – the worst of any team in the playoffs other than the Flyers.

The Ducks posted 116 points – the most of any Western Conference team. They also have one of the most potent one-two combinations in the land in Ryan Getzlaf (87 points) and Corey Perry (43 goals, 82 points). Both are big, strong and tough and create match-up problems for the opposition when they cycle the puck down low. Unlike Dallas, Anaheim has a balanced scoring attack with Nick Bonino (49 points), Matt Perreault (43 points) and Andrew Cogliano (42 points) amongst their top 9 forwards. This offensive bounty allowed Anaheim to finish 1st in the NHL in goals per game (3.21).

To make matters worse for Dallas, the Ducks #1 defenseman – Olympian Cam Fowler – returned from an MCL sprain the last week of the season. He heads a balanced, underrated unit that finished 9th in the NHL in goals against. Consequently, it makes little difference as to which of Anaheim’s three goalies gets the starting nod this Spring.

Finally, the Ducks are carrying the added, self-imposed desire to deliver one last Cup for the incredibly likable 43-year old Teemu Selanne, who will wrap up a brilliant 20-year career at the end of the playoffs. DUCKS IN 5.

Avalanche vs. Wild

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The numbers show Colorado has a prolific offense (4th in the NHL with 2.99 goals per game) and an average defense. Led by Ryan Suter (43 points and a league leading 29:25 in average ice time per game), the Wild emphasize strong defensive play at the expense of offensive production. The two clubs have the worst and second-worst penalty killing of any playoff teams -- a weakness that the Avs 5th ranked power play will surely exploit. And Colorado bested the Wild in 4 of 5 match-ups this year.

And yet...this series has upset potential. First, Zach Parise (56 points in 67 games) and Mikko Koivu (54 points in 65 games) are now healthy and were productive down the stretch. Second, trade deadline acquisition Matt Moulson offers the Wild additional offensive punch (23 goals, 51 points) that they didn't have the first 80% of the season. Third, the Wild's other trade deadline acquisition -- bizzare Russian netminder Ilya "Universe" Bryzgalov -- defied all odds, was actually successful, and went 7-1-3 with a 2.12 GAA while subbing for the Wild's three other injured goaltenders. He'll get the net nod for Round 1.

While Colorado is coached by the legendary Patrick Roy, this is a young and inexperienced club, as only 4 players boast Stanley Cup rings. Six of the top seven Avalanche scorers are entering either their first or second NHL post-season experience. Additionally, leading scorer Matt Duchesne (70 points in 71 games) is out until May with a bum knee.

In this scribe's opinion, the club's unheralded blueline has overachieved. Last year, the Avs finished second to last in goals against per game. This year, the club somehow managed to improve to #14th in the league despite employing the same top 3 defensemen as last year -- only D-men #4 thru #6 are new. From the Hockey News: "Erik Johnson and Jan Hejda have wildly exceeded expectations in workhorse roles, but they're #3 and 4 defensemen being asked to play top-pairing minutes. They could be exposed over a long series."

Despite the smoke and mirrors masking the team's apparent weaknesses, the Avalanche have continued to impress / perform all year. They enter the post season on a hot streak, as they finished on an 8-1-2 run. Goalie Semyon Varlamov (41 wins, 2.41 GAA, .927 SVPCT.) blossomed under Roy's tutelage in 2013-14. Plus, the collection of offensive forwards Colorado has amassed over the last several drafts is gelling into an impressive unit. Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan O' Reilly, Paul Stastny and Calder Trophy favorite Nate McKinnon all posted between 25 and 28 goals and 60 to 65 points.

While the Wild's defensive strength suggests an upset is possible, I do not think it is probable. AVALANCHE IN 7.

Sharks vs. Kings

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God, I hate the Kings. They play how the Blues play, but are more effective in executing coach Darryl Sutter’s blueprint for post-season success. Here’s the recipe: Grind an opponent down physically, limit their shots on net, play aggressive, relentless defense and possess the puck as much as possible. And if all else fails, rely on the stellar net-minding of 2012 Conn Smythe Award winner Jonathan Quick. Although he missed 24 games this year with a groin injury, Quick is now healthy and just as effective as usual in keeping pucks out of the net (the Kings 2.05 GAA was 1st in the NHL.)

Technically, the Kings offense was 5th worst in the NHL, registering only 2.41 goals per game. But this low mark is a result of the defensive system the team employs, rather than an indictment of their true offensive skill. L.A’s roster boasts top-end talent like Anze Kopitar (70 points) and Jeff Carter (27 goals in 72 games). The Kings also bolstered their weak attack at the trade deadline by adding Slovakian speed merchant Marian Gaborik (16 points in 19 games). Sleek skating defenseman Drew Doughty (37 points, + 18) would put up Erik Karlsson-like numbers from the back end if he was allowed more freedom to roam with the puck. His offensive ability was on full display in Sochi, as he netted 4 goals and 6 points in 6 games.

The poor Sharks are always a bridesmaid but never a bride. Year after year, they post excellent regular seasons followed by painful, heart-breaking playoff results. In the last decade alone, they’ve won five division titles, posted seven, 100-point seasons (in 9 full campaigns) and made the Conference Finals in 2004, 2009 & 2010 – only to lose each time.

Like L.A., the Sharks have great depth at center with Joe Thornton (76 points) Logan Couture (54 points in 65 games) and Joe Pavelski (41 goals, 79 points). Additional strength on the wings is supplied by speedy Patrick Marleau (33 goals, 70 points) and bruising Brent Burns (48 points). An added bonus is that talented rookie Tomas Hertl (25 points in 37 games) – who missed half the season after knee surgery – returned in the season’s final week. He is ready for the playoffs and restores the scoring balance amongst the Sharks top 3 lines.

San Jose’s blueline is less offensively inclined than years past when Dan Boyle was a lock for a minimum of 50 points per year. Now 37, Boyle is approaching the end of a productive NHL career. Strong, shut-down Olympian M.E. "Pickles" Vlasic has emerged as the Sharks pre-eminent defenseman.

In conclusion, these clubs are very evenly matched, and this series will be highly competitive. I expect a brutally physical series that will go the distance. But in the end, the Kings goaltending is more reliable than the Sharks. Incumbent net-minder Antti Niemi lost starts down the stretch to back-up Alex Stalock (who posted superior GAA and SVPCT.’s this year.) Six hours before face-off, San Jose coach Todd McClellan has yet to name his starter. This uncertainly underscores why L.A. won both the 2013-14 season series and their second-round 2013 playoff tilt as well. Look for history to repeat itself yet again, where San Jose will be left at the altar after Round 1. KINGS IN 7.

Blues vs. Blackhawks

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In the table above, the numbers suggest the Blues would hold a slight advantage over the Hawks in this series. They have more wins, points and a better 2013-14 head-to-head record. Their goals allowed per game and penalty killing percentage is significantly stronger.

Blackhawk goalies also posted a .905 SVPCT – 25th in the league and the worst of 16 teams in this year’s playoffs. Although Corey Crawford’s year-end totals are impressive (32 wins, 2.26 GAA, .917 SVPCT), they are below the stellar marks he posted one year ago. At the other end of the ice is trade deadline import Ryan Miller, who the Blues viewed as a slight upgrade over the inconsistent and somewhat mentally fragile Jaroslav Halak. While Miller started out on fire, his numbers declined in tandem with the rest of the Blues, as the team slumped badly at the end of the year. In 19 games with the ‘Note, Miller posted a 10-8-1 record, 2.47 GAA and .903 SVPCT.

Both clubs listed down the stretch. In their final 14 games, Chicago finished 7-7 while St. Louis went 5-9 (including 6 straight losses to end the year). This was due to both clubs icing 10 Olympic participants and a compact NHL schedule that saw teams play up to 5 games in one week. That type of pounding led to injuries for a number of Sochi participants, including Chicago’s potent one-two punch of Patrick Kane (69 points in 69 games) and Jonathan Toews (68 points in 76 games) Both however have been declared healthy and ready for Game 1.

The Blues alarming decent was more mystifying, as only Vladimir Tarasenko (43 points in 64 games) missed more than four games down this stretch due to injury. In the last week of the season, 2/3 of the Blues top line (David Backes: 57 points; T.J. Oshie: 60 points) got hurt and 3 additional top-9 forwards (Vladimir Sobotka, Patrick Berglund and Brendan Morrow) missed multiple games as well. Fortunately, all but Oshie and Berglund will suit up in Game 1.

If injuries aren’t really to blame for the Blues sudden free-fall, what is? The importance of the‘Note frittering away the conference and division lead and a much easier first round match-up against Dallas proved far more consequential than the Hawks year-end slump. The numbers suggest a deeper, more underlying problem that the Blues have faced before: an inability to score goals.

In the first 41 games of the season, St. Louis sprinted out to a 29-7-5 record, scoring 145 goals (3.53 GPG) while allowing only 94 (2.29 GAG). The ‘Note closed out their 57-game, pre-Olympic schedule with 39 wins and 84 points. Up to that point, the team had pitched 6 shut-outs and had not been blanked once all year.

In that 18-day span between NHL games, the Blues offense went missing – and they still have yet to find it.

St. Louis played 25 games after the Olympics – and scored no goals in 7 of those contests. In the last 41 games of the season, the Blues allowed only one more goal (95) than they did in the first half. Clearly, defense and goaltending are not the issue. Instead, the problem lies with the Blues offense, which scored only 93 goals (or 2.26 GPG) in the second half of the year – a 36% decline from the first half. Numerous parties are guilty of this drop-off, but leading scorer Alex Steen serves as a good example. In the first half of the season, he posted 24 goals and 38 points in 35 games. In the second half of the year, he scored just 9 goals and 24 points in 33 games.

If pro-rated over an entire season, the Blues punch-less performance would have ranked #29 in the NHL – ahead of only the horrific car crash that is the Buffalo Sabres organization. A half season of offensive problems isn’t an anomaly – it’s a pattern. And it’s the same issue that’s plagued the Blues the previous two springs against the L.A. Kings when they lost 8 of 10 games.

With Toews and Kane back into the fold, Chicago will have no problems scoring this series. Additional offensive support will be provided by leading scorer Patrick Sharp (34 goals, 78 points) and the versatile Marian Hossa (30 goals, 60 points). With 3.18 goals per game, the Blackhawks finished #2 in the NHL.

On defense, the clubs are remarkably similar. Norris Trophy candidate Duncan Keith (61 points, +22, 24:38 ATOI) teams with long-time partner Brent Seabrook (41 points, +23, 22:15 ATOI) to form the Hawks top pairing. The Blues counter with the Olympic gold medal tandem of Alex Pietrangelo (51 points, +20, 25:21 ATOI) and Jay Bouwmeester (37 points, +26, 24:02 ATOI). Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson form a shut-down pair akin to the Barrett Jackman / Roman Polak tandem for St. Louis. Kevin Shattenkirk (45 points) provides slightly more offensive upside than Hawks 5th defenseman Nick Leddy (31 points).

Unfortunately for long-suffering Blues fans, the club will finish their 47th regular season without a Stanley Cup parade. While Ryan Miller is more capable between the pipes than either Halak or Brian Elliott, he can’t score goals. This malady is the illness which continues to sicken St. Louis. Despite the Hockey News, ESPN and CBC Sports all picking the Blues in the series, my pick is CHICAGO IN SIX.

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