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It’s mid-April, and that can only mean one thing in the hockey world: The quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup is upon us! Here’s a quick look at the first round matchups in the West (check out the East preview over here!) and our predictions.
Central Division Matchups
1 Colorado –vs– WC1 Minnesota
The Avalanche may have been the most surprising team this season, finishing 2nd overall in the West and 3rd league-wide after finishing last season as the 2nd worst team in the league. Minnesota repeated as the 8th seed in the West, claiming history as the 1st team to play a cross-division game in the 1st round of the new playoff format. The biggest question mark is in goal for the Wild. Darcy Kuemper has been solid, but we should all hope that Josh Harding can re-emerge from his battle with MS and backstop the Wild. It will be interesting to see what Colorado gets in the playoffs from rookie Nathan MacKinnon and captain Gabriel Landeskog in their first career playoff appearances.t
Season Series: Avalanche 4-1. Each team won 1 game in a shootout.
Series Opener: Thursday @ 9:30pm ET on CNBC
Prediction: Colorado had a dominating team against the Wild and many other teams. They’ll miss John Mitchell (injured), but it won’t cost them too much. Avs in 5.
2 St. Louis –vs– 3 Chicago
Chicago has had somewhat of an up and down year, finishing 5th overall in the West. The Blues had a great start to the year and become the Cup favorites in many eyes when they acquired Ryan Miller at the trade deadline.The Blues showed it, winning 13 of their first 17 after adding the veteran netminder, but lost their last 6 games of the season, all in regulation. Miller will rebound, and this team will score goals and defend well. Will it be enough to knock out the defending Stanley Cup Champions? The Blackhawks still score in bunches, but their defense has been shakier this season than in years past. The Hawks’ offense will be bolstered by the return of Kane and Toews from injury for game 1.
Season Series: Blues 3-1. All 3 of the Blues’ wins were in 2013 and 2 were in shootouts. The Blackhawks won the most recent meeting, March 19th, 4-0.
Series Opener: Thursday @ 8pm ET on NBCSN
Prediction: These teams always seem to battle when they face one another and this series should be no different. This could end up being the battle for the West’s Stanley Cup berth, but whoever emerges will be bruised. Blues in 7.
Pacific Division Matchups
1 Anaheim –vs– WC2 Dallas
The Ducks have a lot going for them, including wins in 9 of their final 12 games and the fight to win 1 more Cup for Teemu Selanne in his last NHL season. (In case you forgot how much everyone loves Teemu, check out the postgame video from his final regular season contest.) An interesting story to follow will be the Ducks’ goalie situation. Rookie John Gibson started 3 of the final 4 Ducks games, winning 3 while posting a .954 save % and 1.33 GAA. Veteran Jonas Hiller may seem the obvious choice, but many think Hiller may be the odd man out in favor of Gibson and fellow rookie Fredrik Andersen. The good news for Ducks fans is that they have an embarrassment of riches in net. The Stars have veteran Kari Lehtonen in net, with former champion Tim Thomas ready in case the Finn falters. The struggle for Dallas will be finding scoring beyond Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. Rookie wingers Valeri Nichuskin and Alex Chiasson haven’t exactly excelled of late, and they will certainly miss the presence of playoff veteran Rich Peverley.
Season Series: Stars 2-1.
Series Opener: Wednesday @10pm ET on NBCSN
Prediction: Dallas went into Anaheim and came away with a 2-0 shutout in February. The only other team to shut the Ducks out this year was the Blackhawks, and that was in Chicago. The Ducks still have more weapons and should handle the Stars with relative ease. Ducks in 6.
2 San Jose –vs– 3 Los Angeles
Both 2-3 matchups in the West might be the most interesting league-wide, all between teams with solid playoff experience. The Kings had their well-documented Cup win in 2012, while the Sharks have won at least 1 playoff round in 6 of the last 8 years. These teams have met twice in that time, with the Sharks winning the opening round matchup in 2011 (4-2), and the Kings taking a 7-game second round matchup last year. The Kings struggled to score for a good part of the year and scored the fewest goals of any playoff team, They also allowed the fewest, but it remains to be seen if they can shut down the offensively talented Sharks. The Sharks will also get a boost with the return of talented rookie Tomas Hertl from his knee injury. The key for the Kings will be finding scoring depth beyond Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter. Watch out for Justin Williams, who always seems to show up in the playoffs.
Season Series: Kings 3-2. LA won 1 game in OT and San Jose won one in a shootout. The Sharks won their most recent meeting, April 3rd, 2-1.
Series Opener: Thursday @ 10:30pm ET on NBCSN
Prediction: The expectations are high for both teams and the Sharks look like the stronger team. Unfortunately for the Sharks, they have repeatedly underperformed in the playoffs. Will this be their year? Sharks in 7.