NHL powers facing new blood in Western Conference playoffs
ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — The Western Conference produced six of the last eight Stanley Cup champions, and the NHL appeared to be tilted decidedly to the left again when this season began.
Fast forward to April, and the West still looks powerful — but its recent hierarchy has gone through a bit of upheaval.
Half of the Western teams heading into the postseason this week missed the playoffs last year, and much of the conference’s momentum resides with the upstarts in an unpredictable slate of matchups.
Take the Anaheim Ducks, who have slugged it out with Los Angeles and San Jose for years. The Ducks comfortably won the Pacific Division again and held off St. Louis for the conference’s top spot, yet they are the only California team left standing in the division bracket against three Canadian clubs — Winnipeg used a wild card to move over from the Central — for a spot in the final four.
The Central Division side of the bracket is dominated by three usual suspects with ticking clocks on their title aspirations. Chicago has two recent Stanley Cup wins, while St. Louis has been on the brink of a playoff breakthrough for three frustrating seasons. Minnesota also is eager for overdue success in its third straight postseason.
They’re joined by upstart Nashville, which has been among the NHL’s biggest surprises in the Predators’ first season under coach Peter Laviolette.
The eight-team West field features only three teams with previous NHL titles, and the Original Six Blackhawks are the only contender with multiple championships.
Nashville, Vancouver, Minnesota, Winnipeg and St. Louis — now in its 47th NHL season — have never raised the Stanley Cup. Calgary and Anaheim each have won it once.
The odds are on an unfamiliar title contender to emerge from the West, but it will have to earn it.
Here’s a glance at each of the four series:
DUCKS (51-24-7) vs JETS (43-26-13)
Teemu Selanne retired a year too early. His Ducks have drawn a first-round matchup that will send them all the way to Winnipeg, where the Finnish Flash began his NHL career and is still beloved.
The Ducks that he left behind are deep, balanced and tough — and they’re widely considered to be ripe for an upset by the surging Jets, who squeaked into the postseason for the first time since their NHL return nearly four years ago.
Winnipeg will rely on physical play to go after an early upset before getting the series back to its frenzied hometown, but the Ducks could be motivated by a league-wide lack of respect for their three straight years of excellence.
“They’re a similar-built team to us, there’s no doubt about it,” Anaheim captain Ryan Getzlaf said. “It’s about being prepared for what you’re playing against, and we’ll be prepared for anybody.”
CANUCKS (48-29-5) vs FLAMES (45-30-7)
This all-Canada matchup pits two Pacific Division surprises.
Vancouver bounced back swiftly from last season’s collapse, returning to the playoffs with a retooled roster under new coach Willie Desjardins. Calgary overcame the injury loss of captain Mark Giordano and persevered through a harrowing stretch run for its first postseason berth in five years.
The Flames appear to be an unbalanced team, but that top-end talent is scintillating. Rookie wing Johnny Gaudreau and second-year center Sean Monahan have teamed with Jiri Hudler to create one of the NHL’s most dynamic lines.
The Canucks are still led by the Sedin twins, whose puck-possession skills and offensive flair are just as entrancing as they were a decade ago. Vancouver’s tendency to commit too many penalties could be exploited by the Flames, who will need power-play and secondary scoring to keep up.
BLUES (51-24-7) vs WILD (46-28-8)
St. Louis’ reward for a season of steady excellence is a nightmare first-round matchup with Minnesota, which has been arguably the NHL’s most impressive team since mid-January.
Both teams are uniformly deep and balanced, and this series will match strengths on strengths when St. Louis’ dominant power play goes against Minnesota’s stellar penalty-killing units.
The differences are small, and the biggest could be in net: While St. Louis doesn’t have a dominant netminder, Devan Dubnyk has incredibly become an all-world goalie since arriving in Minnesota three months ago. If Dubnyk keeps up his uncanny run, all of the Blues’ top-end offensive talent might not matter.
PREDATORS (47-25-10) vs BLACKHAWKS (48-28-6)
Chicago was arguably the NHL’s most consistent power in the previous half-decade, winning two titles and making five playoff appearances. With salary cap issues and age catching up to this roster, the Blackhawks might be down to their last shot at another Cup as currently constructed.
And if goal-scoring sensation Patrick Kane makes a return from a broken collarbone, the entire series could be shifted. Kane was cleared for contact in practice Monday, and coach Joel Quenneville expects him to play in the series.
Nashville roared back into the postseason and held off Chicago for home-ice advantage in this series, but nobody knows exactly how the Predators will respond to playoff pressure — particularly when they visit Chicago’s suffocating United Center.