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Stanley Cup Playoffs Preview: First Round (Western Conference) with "Gamblin" Matt Mortensen
[With the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs on the horizon, my good friend "Gamblin" Matt Mortensen and myself set out to give you an extensive preview of the first round match ups. Naturally that blew up into a column that was over 7,000 words. As a result, a one part column featuring all the predictions and analysis will now be broke into two parts. Here is the Western Conference portion.]
Dallas Stars vs. Minnesota Wild
Major Storyline: Old Minnesota vs. New Minnesota. I could be wrong Matt but I’m pretty sure this is the first time since the Wild joined the NHL in 2000 that they’ve played the Artist Formerly Known as the Minnesota North Stars in the playoffs. Don’t dismiss that as a small thing. I reckon there’s still many a person bitter over the North Stars’ departure to Dallas and I expect this rivalry to come out in full force here. To think it didn’t seem like this series was even a possibility a month or so ago!
M: You are right. Should have happened in 2008 but Minnesota choked. I think this is the biggest miss match in the Western Conference by a long long way, Iken. Perhaps even more than the Caps/Flyers series. In saying that though, the Wild are better than what they've been showing. But backing into the playoffs losing 5 straight isn't a good sign for any team I don't think.
Star with the Most to Prove: Antti Niemi/Kari Lehtonen. I was actually going to go with Tyler Seguin here at first considering this is his first big postseason as the man for a team. Then I went and looked at the stats for Niemi and Lehtonen, a duo who have a combined 2.71 GAA and a ridiculously poor .905 save percentage. Matt; these guys aren’t that good in net at all. As good as Dallas’ offense might be these stats are alarming to me, especially when you consider that Minnesota has firepower with Parise, Suter, Pomminville and a host of others. Whichever guy Dallas goes with in net, they have to be better than 2.71 and .905. They will not get the job done otherwise.
M: I'm in agreement with you here that it comes down to the goalies. The only way Dallas can lose this series is if their goalies go completely missing. I would assume Lehtonen gets the game one start but Niemi did win the Stanley Cup back with the Blackhawks in 2010. You may be alarmed by their goalie stats but if you look at Dallas’ attacking stats that should be more alarming to the Wild’s chances than anything for you.
Wild with the Most to Prove: Zach Parise. He may not get a lot of play as an elite player but the Minnesota native is damn good; or at least he was till this year when he posted his lowest goals, assists and points total since his rookie year (not counting his injury plagued first season with Minnesota). Sooner or later there’s going to need to be some questions asked about Parise, and I think it starts here if the Wild are unable to take advantage of a clear advantage over the Stars’ goaltending situation.
M: Well I'm going to go way out left field here and not even pick a player. Wild with the most to prove is that atrocious special teams of theirs. Dallas was the 5th on the power play and 10th in the kill. While the Wild was 15th on the power play and 27th on the kill. If they keep that up I don't care how bad the stats are for the Stars’ goalies they will find more than enough goals to get past the Wild. Add to the fact that the Stars are the highest scoring team in the NHL the Wild are going to have to play very disciplined in not giving up penalties and they have to try to keep control of that puck for as much as possible. If they give the Stars the chance they will put it past them. Devan Dubnyk can't let multiple goals in. The key to this series is discipline for the Wild. If they are short handed then I have no faith in them stopping an avalanche of goals being conceded.
Gamblin Matt and the Odds plus Winner: The stat I like the most is 63-69. The Stars have allowed 6 power play goals in their last 22 games. Goes to show they aren't all about attack and when they need to they can get the job done. In saying that they’ll win and win easily. Do I smell a sweep? I think I do. $9.70 for the sweep and $5.30 for 4-1. This along with the Caps/Flyers series is the easiest to pick for me. The Stars aren't to be slept on this post season.
Winner: Wild in six. I’m going upset Matt. I LOATHE the Stars goaltending tandem, I like the overall talent the Wild have (even if they underachieved) and the Stars, as talented as they are all around, reek of a team that has enough inexperience to fall short this year only to rise up stronger in the next. So against all odds, I’m going with Minnesota. Every NHL playoffs has one huge upset after all, right?!
St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks
Major Storyline: Can the Blues finally get over the hump? If there were ever such thing as a Western version of the Washington Capitals, it’s the Blues, who despite an impressive core have failed to get past the second round of the playoffs ever since Ken Hitchcock became head coach in 2011. I’d say they’re arguably at a crossroads here against their division rival; a win against the Hawks perhaps reaffirms that the team is in the right direction. If not, I think this is a clear sign that, like Washington, something is wrong with the process and a major change needs to be made.
M: This is when you bring out the powerhouse word. I'm a Blues fan if you had forgotten. It's becoming more and more likely that you just can't pick them or believe in them once the playoffs start. Our regular seasons are great but losing in the first round the last three years is a worrying sign. However I think we are a different team this year. I think the West is loaded with Stanley Cup contenders in which I see 5 potential contenders. 4 of them coming from the West. One powerhouse and legitimate Stanley Cup contender will be sent home after this series. Not just because I'm a Blues fan but I think this is going to be the best series of the first round and the one I look forward to watching the most.
Blue with the Most to Prove: Alex Steen. There’s better players on the Blues sure, but the heart and soul of the team, at least for me, has always been the son of Winnipeg Jets legend Thomas Steen. And indeed Alex, when healthy, has been the team’s glue as an overall excellent two way player. I’m calling for him to set the example here for his team. Yes Vlad Taransenko may be the total package offensively and yes David Backes is amazingly still there as the team’s defensive leader. But neither guy is the complete package the way Steen is, and thus I see him as the x-factor. As Steen goes, the Blues go.
M: I refuse to say Steen now that you name dropped the Winnipeg Jets. I don't want anything to do with them so I refuse to pick him here. I'm going to take Vlad here. I think we take game one. No Keith for game 1, who is still suspended, for the Hawks is a big loss. I think if Vlad gets us off on the right foot it will bode well for us in this series. You have to keep attacking and attacking to beat the Hawks and I think we have enough depth this year to do it.
Blackhawk with the Most to Prove: None. I’m legit going with none here Matt. The Blackhawks, less I’m mistaken, have won three of the last five Stanley Cups and probably have at least one or two more left in them before the team is broken up due to Patrick Kane being an absolute idiot. They have nothing to prove to anyone here.
M: Their depth on defense this year really concerns me for the Hawks chances in this series and going forward. Crawford played great in the regular season but he has been out with an injury and has let in 17 goals in his last 5 games. You can't be doing that if you want to be winning playoff series. If the Hawks win either game in St Louis I really worry. Especially game 1 without Keith. Their stars can draw on the experience they have had these last few years and they always seem to exude confidence. And rightfully so. But hopefully it's our year.
Gamblin Matt and the Odds plus Winner: I would be absolutely shocked if this series does not go the distance let alone to 6. $1.83 we are to win this series and $2.02 are the Hawks. Home ice advantage would be why we are favourites. This really is a hard series to pick. Hawks 4-2 is $5.45 where as 4-3 is $5.70. We are $5.60 for 4-2 and $5.35 for 4-3. I'm picking… Us 4-3. I don't feel confident in that at all. I can see this series going either way. But hopefully when we win we can stop the stupid talk of the Hawks being a better dynasty than the Kings.
Winner: Blackhawks in six. They’ve been here before, they’re still as talented as ever, the core remains the same and the Blues still are the team you don’t trust. I’ll give them enough respect to make it six games, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Hawks will ultimately conquer them once again.
Anaheim Ducks vs. Nashville Predators
Major Storyline: Will anyone actually watch this series? Alright I’m probably being a bit of a dick there but seriously; who is going to watch this series? When Nashville is by far the most popular team of these two, you know you’re going to have problems selling this series to the general public. Hell I’m considering watching at most one game from this series Matt, which I presume means you’re going to watch every game and declare this the greatest thing since Yvonne Strahovski.
M: I'll be watching because I like the Ducks. But also just to irritate you because I know you hate them. That’ll bring joy to my heart. This won't be greater than the Ducks beating the Jets… You remember that, Iken? I do. It was glorious.
Duck with the Most to Prove: John Gibson; Frederik Anderson. I almost went against these two after looking at the Ducks stats and seeing how average the team had been with scoring goals this year (Ryan Getzlaf had the highest total of points at a mere 63). And yet even still I just can’t bring myself to feel good about the Anaheim goaltending situation. Yes I said the same thing last year and I was wrong, but last year the Ducks were facing two teams (Winnipeg and Calgary) that were more pesky than great offensive teams (hence why neither is sadly here again this year). It’s a whole different animal this time around, and I’m curious to see how the Ducks goalies do against the competition one year removed.
M: You really do like picking goalies don't you? I think these two make a good one/two goalie combination. But I agree with you here. But because the Ducks let in the fewest goals. They were 34-10-5 after the Christmas break. That's insane. That's not a team to sleep on. The Preds did win the regular season match up 2-1. Though they haven't played since mid November. So before the Ducks went on their rampage of the league. When the last time you saw a team was be ranked number 1 on the power play and number 1 on the penalty kill, Iken? This Ducks team is very very scary.
Predator with the Most to Prove: Pekka Rinne. It’s a goalie series Matt! There was a time I’d argue that Rinne was one of the three best goalies in hockey; now nearly thirty four years old he looks like a shell of himself, putting up numbers this year that resemble that of Dallas’ goalie tandem. The Ducks offense may not have been great this year but that’s likely due to underachievement more than anything, and I reckon they’re licking their chops at Rinne here. If the Preds want to win, Pekka’s got to turn back the clock.
M: I'm going Filip Forsberg here. Do the Preds have enough depth to help Forsberg and Johansen? I don't think they do. I think they rely too much on those two and have to work too hard to score goals. They rely on Rinne too much too so I think that's a good pick from you. I think the Predators have the best defensive duo and they could make life very hard for the Ducks offensive group. But the Preds need to score here and I worry that they don't have enough fire power and the Ducks will be too strong and tough down back and won't let in many goals at all. That's what they've done all year. They've changed their game plan to a more defensive mind set.
Gamblin Matt and the Odds plus Winner: $1.60 for the Ducks to win this series while the Preds are $2.41. I'd have that a little bit closer if it was me, personally. I really really rate the Preds defense and I think that could be trouble for the Ducks. I think the Ducks goalies have been great this year unlike you, Iken. Their form since Christmas is frightening. I think the Preds match up better here though than they would against the Kings. This is going to be another long series I feel and one of the better ones to watch so give it a try, Iken. I'd be shocked if either team wins in 5 but it would be the Ducks if so. Ducks 4-2 is $5.20 and 4-3 is $4.95. While the Preds are 6.05 for 4-2 and $6:40 for 4-3. I'm leaning towards the Ducks here. I was thinking 4-2 all day yesterday before Iken and I started this but I'm leaning towards 4-3 now.
Winner: Ducks in five. I have a feeling the offense will find its footing and Gibson/Anderson prove to be up for the first round challenge, while Rinne sadly fades much like he did in the regular season. Unless Filip Forsberg (who I really like) goes off on a breakout tear, this will be over quick.
Los Angeles Kings vs. San Jose Sharks
Major Storyline: The last gasp of the San Jose Sharks. It’s been eleven years since the San Jose Sharks brought aboard Joe Thornton, a move that brought the Sharks the most successful period in franchise history. It’s also brought them zero Stanley Cups, a really depressing thought considering they’ve had Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and the greatest Shark of all time Patrick Marleau on for most (or all) of the ride. With Thornton and Marleau now in their mid to late thirties, I think it’s safe to say this is the final shot the Sharks have to win with this core. Hell to be honest, the fact that they’re even here is an accomplishment, wouldn’t you say Mortensen?
M: I would agree with you that this is their final shot. What a script though for it to be these two teams in the first round. Along with the Blues/Hawks series this is what I'm looking forward to the most. You are right that they still have Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture. But the Kings still have Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar and my boy Jonathan Quick which very well could bring them another title and reaffirm my thought that they are the better dynasty in this era over the Hawks. Major storyline for me is the Kings home record and the Sharks road record. The Kings were 26-12-3 at home while the Sharks were 28-10-3 on the road. This truly sets up for a 7 game classic I think.
King with the Most to Prove: Milan Lucic. I’ll be honest; the Kings fall into the same category as the Blackhawks considering they’ve won so many Cups recently themselves. The exception is Lucic, the former Bruins player who ran himself out of town by being an idiotic goon who regressed in every single form besides goonery. He’s been better this season for the Kings, but he still needs to prove he belongs. He must maintain the form he had during the regular season; if he’s less like that and more like he was the last several post seasons for Boston, the Kings could have issues.
M: Can it be anyone other than my boy, Quick? As far as I'm aware he’ll be going up against what was supposed to be his protégé in Martin Jones. Quick will want to reaffirm to the world that he is the best goalie in all of hockey. There are a lot of ways that the Kings can win this series but it starts and ends with Quick. If he plays like we all know he can play then it's going to be long nights at the office for those Sharks players on the ice trying to get it past Mr. Quick. I expect this to be quite a low scoring series and could see one or two 1-0 games. They have been quite poor defensively the past week or two and cost themselves the Pacific title after giving up a 3-0 lead against those stupid Jets. If they don't fix those problems and play like the Kings we have come to expect than they could be in trouble.
Shark with the Most to Prove: Thornton. He may not be the same player he used to be and he may no longer be the Sharks captain. But make no mistake; the Sharks are still Thornton (and Marleau’s) team, as evident by the fact that Thornton led the team in points with 82 (the fourth highest in the NHL). I think Thornton knows this is his last realistic opportunity for a Cup, especially with this Sharks team, and that puts all the pressure on him to finally step up and deliver that championship they should’ve won years ago. It’s all about Joe Thornton here Matt.
M: Without a doubt it is Thornton here or is it? It's the Thornton vs. Doughty matchup if it is. Did Doughty have a Norris Trophy season or did he have a Norris Trophy season? The winner of this match up goes a long way in determining which team wins this match up. The most to prove for me is Marc-Édouard Vlasic. From what I've heard he’ll be back for game 1. But what Marc-Édouard Vlasic do we get? He hasn't played since March 17. If Doughty is a top shutdown man than how do you describe Marc-Édouard Vlasic? I'd put them in the same breath. We all remember that 2014 series. And what happened? Marc-Édouard Vlasic left the series and then the Kings seemed to find everything a hell of a lot easier. They need a fully healthy Marc-Édouard Vlasic playing at his best if they want to compete with the Kings.
Gamblin Matt and the Odds plus Winner: This is going 7. Which the Kings will be winning. It's $4.95. Knowing Iken he’ll want some stupid feel good story for the playoffs and so he’ll pick the Sharks as that feel good story. Sharks 4-3 is $6.30. I could see this game going 4-2 so the Kings is $5.35 and the Sharks are $5.80. Not only will the Kings win this series but they also will in fact be winning the Stanley Cup this year. You heard it here first.
Winner: Sharks in six. For my money Matt the Sharks weren’t supposed to be here; the fact that they are and the fact that they’ve been so close (and yet so far away) all these years leads me to believe that maybe this is finally the year they have a shot. I think they’re good enough to hang with the Kings and ultimately will themselves over LA to make it to the next round. You want a feel good story for these playoffs? These Sharks will be it. You heard it here first.
And scene. Special thanks to Matt for helping me bang this out. I’ll be back later guys and gals with my Lucha Underground review and my preview for CMLL’s Super Viernes show Friday (that may come before the LU review depending on my mood). Till then, some Calgary-Edmonton love!