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NHL Playoffs Preview: Western Conference Quarterfinals

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Its finally that time of year. The regular season was wrapped up last night, officially setting the matchups for the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. While the regular season determines who will get an opportunity to fight for the main prize, the Stanley Cup, all that goes out the window once the playoffs begin. 16 teams, all with a chance to become champions. All 16 wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup. With that, here is a preview of the Western Conference Quarterfinals matchups:

Dallas Stars vs Minnesota Wild

The Dallas Stars come into the playoffs as the best team in the Western Conference, finishing the regular season with 109 points. The Stars success mainly comes from their offense as they lead the league in goals scored, 265, which was 17 more than the second place team, the Washington Capitals. The Stars offense is led by forward Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Benn finished 2nd in points with 89, while both finished in the top 10 in goals, Benn with 41 and Seguin with 33. The Stars may be without Seguin early in the series, as head coach Lindy Ruff said the forward could miss game one while he recovers from an Achilles injury, which has kept him out since March 17th. While offense is not expected to be a problem, the biggest concern for the Stars would be their goaltending. The Stars gave up the 11th most goals this season, 228, the most by any playoff team. Neither Kari Lehtonen or Antti Niemi solidified themselves as the teams starting goaltender,each finishing the season with 25 wins. Neimi finished with a slightly better goals against average, 2.67, while Lehtonen finished with a 2.76.

As for the Wild, they enter the playoffs having lost their past 5 games, ending what turned out to be a very odd season. After starting the season very well, the Wild fell apart. After losing 13 games in a 14 game stretch, which included them falling out of a playoff spot, the Wild fired their coach Mike Yeo. With the season looking lost, the Wild hired Mike Torchetti, then the coach of their AHL affiliate, the Iowa Wild. Then the unthinkable happened. The Wild turned it around, winning 15 of their last 26 games and clinching the final Wild Card spot. The Wild are almost the opposite of the Stars, as they finished 19th in goals scored. The team is led by Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu, who finished with 56 and 53 points respectively. They are very solid defensively, however, giving up the 9th least goals this season.

Prediction: Stars in 4

Nobody ever wants to be the one to pick the sweep, but I will do it here. The Stars just possess to much offense, and the Wild are not strong enough defensively to shut them down, and not strong enough offensively to keep up with the offense of the Stars.

Anaheim Ducks vs Nashville Predators

The Ducks won the division on the final day, beating the Capitals 2-0 to clinch the Pacific. The Ducks started the regular season horribly, losing 9 of their first ten games. Rumors of firing head coach Bruce Boudreau and blowing up a roster, who just a season ago made it to the Western Conference Finals, sat over a team who just couldn’t find a way to win. They improved over the coming months, before flipping the switch in December, and became arguably the best team in the league form that point on. Struggling stars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry started looking like themselves again, and led a team that went from last in their division, and as stated earlier, all the way to their 4th straight division title. heading into the playoffs, the Ducks look like one of the top teams going into the playoffs, possibly getting another shot at making it to the Stanley Cup, which they came just 1 win short of last season.

The Predators come in as one of the most balanced teams in this years tournament, as they finished the regular season ranked 14th in both goals against and goals for. Led by goaltender Pekka Rinne and defenseman Shea Weber, the Predators defensive unit is one of the best in the league, and will look to shut down the Ducks big group of forwards. While they are known for their defense, the Predators feature an underrated group of forwards, led by Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen, who could surprise a lot of fans watching this series. The Predators looked like a very strong group going into the all star break, but fell off a little as the season winded down. They will look to find that first half magic as they go into a series against one of the hottest teams in the league, the Ducks.

Prediction: Ducks in 6

While the idea of an underdog like the Predators winning this series is always exciting, the Ducks have just been doing everything right for a while now to bet against them. While the Predators boast a very strong defensive core, they just don’t have enough to outlast a Ducks team who is one of the most shutdown teams in the league.

St. Louis Blues vs Chicago Blackhawks

The Blues finished with the 3rd best record in the NHL. Whats their reward? They get one of the hardest first round matchups. The Blues get to face the Blackhawks in the first round, a team who has dominated in the playoffs over the past 4 years, reaching the conference finals in all 4 of those years. But we will get to them in a bit. As for the Blues, they finished in the top 5 in goals against, only giving up 197 goals this season. Offensively, the blues finished right in the middle of the pack, sitting at 15 having scored 219 goals this year. The Blues were without forwards David Backes and Troy Brouwer in practice this afternoon, and there is no word whether they will play in game 1 on Wednesday. While goaltender Brian Elliot was one of the better goaltenders this season, the Blues playoff struggles of the past can be linked to struggles in net. Elliot will need to be strong as he finally gets his opportunity to start for the Blues in the playoffs.

Now we get to the Blackhawks. What is there to say. The Hawks are arguably the best playoff team in the league. They know how to turn it on when it counts. Playing in multiple double and even some triple overtime games over the past 7 seasons, they have proved that you can never count them out. Oh and did i mention they have won the Stanley Cup 3 times in their past 6 seasons. And have been to the Western Conference Finals the past 4 seasons. With all that being said, there are still concerns from the defending Cup champions. The Blackhawks will go into game 1 without their 2 time Norris Trophy winning defenseman Duncan Keith, who will serve the final game of his 6 game suspension after hitting Minnesota Wild defenseman Charlie Coyle. They also have very big concerns with the back end of their defense. After Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Niklas Hjalmarsson the teams bottom 3 are not very strong. And despite proving himself over and over again, Corey Crawford enters the playoffs with just 1 start since March 14th after suffering a head injury. The Hawks are going to need him to get himself back into the swing of things right away.

Prediction: Hawks in 7

It is just to hard to bet against this team. Despite the defensive problems and Crawford’s injury, I expect the Blackhawks to be able to pull out a series win in what should be one of the best series of this round, and possibly the entire playoffs. The Hawks depth on offense and speed of the team has proven they can beat not only the Blues, but every other team in the playoffs. While its not a guarantee, its hard to expect anything else from this team.

Los Angeles Kings vs San Jose Sharks

After missing the playoffs just a year ago, the Los Angeles Kings return just two years removed from a Stanley Cup in 2014. The Kings finished with the 3rd fewest goals against this season, returning to their shutdown defensive play from their cup runs in 2012 and 2014. Offensively, the Kings finished 14th, nothing special but like the Blackhawks their offense shows up when it is needed. They enter the playoffs healthy and at full strength. Despite not winning the division, the Ducks passed them on the final day of the regular season, they have their sights set on something a lot bigger. The Stanley Cup. And after winning two in 3 seasons, it isn’t to crazy to think they get there once again this season.

A team that gets over looked every season, the Sharks have made the playoffs in 11 of the last 12 seasons. Problem is, they haven’t done anything in those 11 appearances, only making it to the conference finals twice, but haven’t made it past that round. But every year is a new year, and the Sharks hope this one will involve a parade at the end of it. The Sharks quietly finished the season in the top 5 in goals and top 10 in goals against. Like most teams in the playoffs, their fate could rest in the hands of their young goaltender Martin Jones, who played for the Kings just last season. Jones had a very good season, but he is getting the ultimate test right away, facing one of the best teams in the league, and a team that knows how to win.

Prediction: Kings in 6

While the Sharks present a tough series for the Kings, just like the Blackhawks, they are a tough team to pick against. The Sharks are underrated both offensively and defensively, but the Kings are hungry to prove that they are the team from the previous years, not the one that missed the playoffs. Combine that with the skill of the Kings, and you have a pretty deadly force entering the playoffs.