2016 NHL Playoffs: Western Conference Preview

By Ryan Mayer

The slate has been wiped clean. 1,230 NHL regular season games – 82 apiece for each of the NHL’s 30 teams – are now, ultimately, irrelevant as we head into the 2016 NHL Playoffs where anything can happen. No. 1 seeds can fall, No. 8 seeds can hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup and unlikely heroes can and will emerge to spur their team to dramatic victories over the course of the next two months. 

So now that the first round series’ are set, let’s dive into each of the 16 playoff teams from each conference and discuss why they can win it all, how they can lose and discuss the x-factor that could spur them on to a legendary Stanley Cup playoff run.

The Western Conference is loaded. Anybody trying to tell you they know exactly what will happen here is probably lying. There are five teams that can be seen as legitimate Stanley Cup threats, which makes previewing how this will play out that much harder. That being said, we’ll do our best to give you a sense of where these teams stand heading in. 

Dallas Stars- 109 Points- 1st Central Division

Why They’ll Win It All 

The Stars have been one of the hottest teams in the NHL over the last month and a half going 12-4-2 to close out the year leading them to the top spot in the Western Conference. The Stars have reached that spot on the back of special teams units that are both in the top 10 (22.1 PP percent, 4th, 82.3 PK percent, 10th). That recent run has been without Tyler Seguin since March 17th following that gruesome Achilles injury. Led by the trio of Jamie Benn, Seguin and veteran Jason Spezza, the Stars offense is potent but also deep featuring five players with 50 points or more and eight with 30 or more. They’re tops in the league in goals for per game at 3.23 ahead of even the Capitals. 

Why They Won’t Win It All

The concerning part for this team is the goaltending situation. Neither Kari Lehtonen or Antti Niemi has been particularly brilliant this season, each sporting a save percentage just barely above 90%. Additionally, the Stars have allowed the most goals of any of the 16 teams left in the playoffs with 228 for the year. They rely fairly heavily on an offense that has been ridiculously productive this season, which is fine, but as we know, goals have a tendency to be harder to come by come playoff time. 

X-factor- Tyler Seguin 

Seguin is expected to return to practice this week from that Achilles injury. If he’s able to provide any contribution to this team, that’s huge. After an injury like the one he suffered, there wasn’t much expected from him the rest of this season. Getting him back into the line-up could provide a big boost for one of the league’s hottest teams. 

St. Louis Blues – 107 Points- 2nd Central Division

Why They’ll Win It All

The Blues aren’t far behind the Stars in terms of their performance over the final six weeks with a 13-4 record in March and April combined. Their goaltending combination of Jake Allen and Brian Elliott are two of the top goalies in the league no matter the metric you look at. That’s led to them being the 4th stingiest team in the league in terms of goals allowed per game (2.40). Their special teams units are both in the top six of the league and they have scoring depth to rival the Stars with 10 skaters who have 30 or more points, including five with 40 or more. 

Why They Won’t Win It All

Their first round match-up is the defending champion Blackhawks and one of their biggest division rivals. Just getting past the Blackhawks may require so much energy that the Blues could be gassed in Round 2. And there’s no guarantee that they’ll get past Chicago. Their 3-2 record in the regular season belies just how close the season series was as each of the Blues wins came in either OT or a shootout. 

X-factor- Brian Elliott

We all know that a hot net minder can carry his team to the Cup final and if Elliott’s regular season performance is indicative of what we’ll see in the post-season, then the Blues should make a deep run. 

Chicago Blackhawks – 103 Points- 3rd Central Division

Why They’ll Win It All

Well, let’s start with the obvious. They’ve done it before. Multiple times in the last five years. We know how talented this team is, and this year includes an even more prolific version of Patrick Kane (first US-born Art Ross trophy winner), which I didn’t think was possible. Their power-play is 2nd best in the league at 22.6 percent and they’re sixth in the league in goals for per game (2.85). A big season out of youngster Artemi Panarin was a nice surprise and Jonathan Toews had his typical rock-solid production. Corey Crawford has been particularly good this season as he’s fifth in the league in save percentage (92.4 percent) and first in shutouts with seven this year.  

Why They Won’t Win It All

Fatigue. That may sound strange heading into round one and let me explain. The ‘Hawks, in winning two Cups in the last three years and going to the Western finals in the other, have played nearly another full season’s worth of games (65) in the playoffs alone. We’ve seen it before with franchises that are making consistently deep runs in consecutive years, they can tire and have a surprise off season. Chicago was able to get through the regular season, but will they be able to put together another span of 16 great games needed to win the Cup? 

X-factor- Penalty Kill 

The biggest concern for Chicago is the penalty kill. It’s been below average this season. 22nd ranked at 80.3 percent, that can be a big Achilles heel come playoff time if not corrected. Especially in the first round against a Blues team whose power play connects at a 21.5 percent clip. If they can figure out the kill in the post season, that will go a long way to helping them complete the back-to-back mission. 

Anaheim Ducks – 103 Points- 1st Pacific Division

Why They’ll Win It All 

The Ducks special teams have lived up to the name this season, leading the league on both the power-play (23.1 percent) and penalty kill (87.2 percent). Combine that with the stinginess they’ve shown allowing just 188 goals total (2.29 per game) and you can see how the Ducks are built to win in the post-season. 

Why They Won’t Win It All 

Not enough firepower. For as good as they’ve been in keeping opponents from putting the puck in the net, they’ve struggled to do so themselves. Only four players have scored 20 or more goals this year (Perry, Kesler, Rakell, and Silfverberg). They’re the fourth worst playoff team in terms of goals per game at 2.62 ahead of the Wild, Flyers and Red Wings. Stinginess is great, but you still need to be able to score. The Ducks have struggled a bit in that category. 

X-factor- Ryan Kesler

The Ducks have the special teams and defense to be able to make a deep run. That much is clear, but you still need scoring an getting Ryan Kesler back healthy from the ever mysterious “lower body injury” would go a long way in helping pick up some offense. 

Los Angeles Kings – 102 Points- 2nd Pacific Division

Why They’ll Win It All 

The Kings are once again a legitimate contender for the Cup, relying on many of the same names and faces that have helped them reach the pinnacle before. Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli and off season acquisition Milan Lucic have led the team in scoring. Add in Drew Doughty and Alec Martinez on the blue line and veterans Marian Gaborik, Dustin Brown and Vincent Lecavalier and there’s plenty of firepower here. 

On the back end, Jonathan Quick has had his typical solid season allowing just 2.22 goals per game (7th), saving 91.8 percent of the shots he’s faced (T-21st) with 5 shutouts (T-5th). That performance has been part of the reason the Kings, like their Pacific division counterparts the Ducks, are one of the stingiest teams allowing just 2.34 goals per game (3rd). 

Why They Won’t Win It All 

Special teams have been a bit of an issue for the Kings this season. Their power play has been solid at 20 percent (8th), but the penalty kill has been just average at 81.4 percent (15th). That can derail anybody’s attempt at reaching the Finals, and the Kings will need to improve upon that in the post-season. 

X-factor- Alec Martinez

Getting Alec Martinez back relatively healthy will be huge for this team. Along with Doughty on the blue line, Martinez is hugely important to this team. His puck moving ability in the offensive end is essential. His health and whether or not the penalty kill improves are big x-factors in this team’s hopes for another Cup. 

San Jose Sharks – 98 Points- 3rd Pacific Division

Why They’ll Win It All 

Five 20 goal scorers and Joe Thornton (19) show just how much depth the Sharks have in the scoring department. They find themselves in the top five in goals scored and goals against per game (2.89 and 2.52 respectively). The seemingly ageless core of Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Brett Burns and Patrick Marleau are joined by electrifying youngster Tomas Hertl in creating a potent attack. 

They’ve gotten solid goaltending from former Kings goalie Martin Jones who posted 37 wins with a 2.27 GAA (t-9th) and 91.8 percent save percentage (t-21st). Their back-up option in James Reimer has been very good when he’s appeared, but he’s appeared in just eight games. 

Why They Won’t Win It All

We’ve been here before with the Sharks right? Very good regular season, statistics that on the surface look great, before they lose early. They haven’t made the conference finals since back-to-back trips in 2009-10 and 2010-11. You may disagree and say that past performance has nothing to do with this season. However, with this franchise, that doesn’t seem to be the case.  

X-factor- Penalty kill

Yes, this seems like a broken record, but the Sharks, like the Blackhawks have been below average this year with a man down. They’re tied for 20th in the league at 80.5 percent after the regular season. Figuring out that unit to pair with a lethal power-play (22.5 percent) will go a long way to helping this squad make it’s first Stanley Cup Final in franchise history. 

Nashville Predators- 96 Points- 1st Wildcard

Why They’ll Win It All 

The combination of Filip Forsberg and James Neal has been lethal this season as the two have put up 64 goals and 58 assists. Roman Josi and Shea Weber have been brilliant in their playmaking and goal scoring efforts from the blue line as well. 

The biggest thing for this team however, is their advanced stats. The Predators are 4th in the league in Corsi for at 52.48% and 2nd in the league in Fenwick for at 53.57%. Additionally, the Preds have been the most “unlucky” team in terms of PDO stats of any of the playoff teams. At .994, the Predators are performing slightly below that average of 1.000 so far this year which means they are likely to get a few more bounces here and there. A little puck luck is crucial come playoff time, and Nashville is ripe for it. 

Why They Won’t Win It All

The goaltending has been just average this season. Pekka Rinne hasn’t been his usual self with a 90.8 save percentage and allowing 2.48 goals per game in his 66 starts this season. That, combined with a penalty kill that sits right in the middle of the pack at 81.2 percent isn’t exactly promising for this team’s hopes of making a title run. 

X-factor- Ryan Johansen

Since being acquired at the trade deadline, Johansen hasn’t been a huge factor for this team with just eight goals. His scoring is down as a whole this season as he has 14 on the year between Columbus and Nashville, which is well below his previous two years worth of production when he scored 33 & 26 goals. Johansen getting going as a complement to Forsberg and Neal would be a big boost to the Preds hopes of pulling an upset and making a run. 

Minnesota Wild- 87 Points- 2nd Wildcard

Why They’ll Win It All

The Wild have been one of the better teams in the league in keeping opponents off the board. 9th in the league in goals against per game at 2.49, Minnesota has been able to keep games relatively low-scoring which plays well for them considering they don’t score a lot (2.60 goals per game 18th). Despite there not being a ton of scoring, the offense has been spread around with a balanced attack. 11 players have recorded 10 or more goals this season and Ryan Suter is close to that number with eight. That kind of balance is needed in the playoffs when the top guys can go cold. 

Why They Won’t Win It All

Wild players and coaches don’t want to hear about how they “backed in” to the playoffs, but when you lose your last five games all in regulation, that’s pretty much exactly what you did. Coming into a match-up with the Stars after losing five straight to end the season isn’t exactly an ideal way to start your run. Add to that an average power play unit (18.5 percent 15th) and one of the worst penalty killing units in the league (77.9 percent 27th) and it’s a recipe for an early exit. 

X-factor- Devan Dubnyk 

He’s had an okay season in net with a 2.33 GAA and 91.8 save percentage. That said, Dubnyk was one of the hottest goalies in the league towards the tail end of last season when he posted a 1.78 GAA and 93.6 save percentage en route to a Masterton trophy. If Dubnyk can find that form once again, this team could get on a roll. They’ve been streaky this season (both good and bad) and a hot goalie might help kick off a hot streak all the way to the Stanley Cup. 

Conference Final Prediction- Blues 4-3 over Kings

I said it at the top of the post, and I’ll say it again here. Any of the top five teams could emerge from this conference as the West’s representative. The top half of the bracket is silly good with the Stars, Blues and Blackhawks. The bottom half seems destined to set up a Ducks-Kings Round 2 match-up which would be a whole lot of fun. I’m going with the Kings out of the bottom half based on just how much talent they have on their roster, there aren’t really any weak points. That said, the series against the Ducks won’t be easy and should go either six or seven games. As for the Blues, I just think at some point, the Blackhawks will begin to feel the effects of the multiple playoff runs in the past couple of years. That many extra games, while fantastic because it brought two Cups to the Windy City, are hard on the players. They’ll never admit to that, or even come close to saying it, but at some point it becomes a factor. That’s the reason I think the Blues take a tight series there and ride that momentum to a win over the Stars in Round 2. The conference final between the Blues and Kings would be another brutal battle, but I think St. Louis comes out on top. 

Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.

 

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