NHL playoffs: Western Conference preview
Vancouver faces Calgary in western Canadian battle
With the NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs set to begin Wednesday night, here's a breakdown of the first-round matchups in the Western Conference, along with a prediction for each series.
For our Eastern Conference preview, click here.
Note: Chances of winning are implied probabilities derived from betting odds made available Tuesday morning by Pinnacle, with the bookmaker's vigorish removed, rounded to the nearest full percentage point.
Canucks: 48-29-5, 101 points, finished second in Pacific Division
Flames: 45-30-7, 97 points, finished third in Pacific Division
Regular-season series: Flames won 2-1-1 (Canucks 2-2-0)
Series opener: Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET (CBC TV, CBCSports.ca)
Chances of winning: Vancouver 56%, Calgary 44%
2 things to know
Flames not cooling down: Followers of possession stats have been waiting for the surprising Flames to collapse all season. They finished third-last in the league in score-adjusted Corsi, ahead of only Buffalo and Colorado and behind Toronto, Columbus, Arizona and Edmonton. None of those teams came close to making the playoffs, but Calgary somehow just keeps on winning — even after losing its best player, defenceman Mark Giordano, to injury in late February. Unlike many previous overachievers (like Colorado last year) the Flames weren't great in one-goal games or score-adjusted PDO (that's combined shooting and save percentages at 5-on-5 in close games). Now they've caught another break by drawing a Vancouver team that's also sub-par when it comes to possession indicators. Hey, sometimes when you're hot, you're hot.
Not (yet) Miller time: The Canucks thought they'd solved their post-Luongo goaltending questions when they signed former Vezina winner Ryan Miller to a three-year, $18-million US deal last off-season. But the 34-year-old showed his age, posting his worst save percentage (.911) since 2007-08 and missing virtually all of the last seven weeks with a knee injury. He returned for the meaningless regular-season finale against Edmonton and allowed five goals. With Miller's timing and health still iffy, it looks like backup Eddie Lack will get the chance to play in his first NHL post-season.
Prediction: Calgary in 7
Ducks: 51-24-7, 109 points, won Pacific Division and Western Conference's No. 1 seed
Jets: 43-26-13, 99 points, finished second in wild-card race
Regular-season series: Ducks won 3-0-0 (Winnipeg (0-1-2)
Series opener: Thursday at 10:30 p.m. ET
Chances of winning: Anaheim 60%, Winnipeg 40%
2 things to know
Ducks good in tight spots: When a team wins a lot of one-goal games, you often hear things like "they're gritty" and "they just know how to win" but there's compelling evidence in many sports that shows success in tight contests isn't all that sustainable. How, then, to explain Anaheim, which last season trailed only Colorado (see what we mean by unsustainable?) in one-goal-game winning percentage and this season led the league by a mile with a ridiculous 33-1-7 mark? Bruce Boudreau's team ranked 11th in goals scored, 20th in goals allowed and posted the worst goal differential (plus-10) of any playoff team. They're also a middle-of-the-road possession team. Those numbers scream upset, but if Anaheim's close-game magic is in fact a skill, it will serve them well in the tighter-checking environment of the playoffs.
Many signs point to Jets: Even though they're facing the team with the best record in their conference, the Jets have a lot going for them. They have a superior goal differential, they're better at driving play as measured by possession indicators, and they played a far tougher schedule in the cutthroat Central while Anaheim fattened up on the likes of Edmonton and Arizona in the Pacific. On a less tangible level, the Winnipeg crowd will be bonkers for its first Stanley Cup playoff games in almost two decades, and could influence a few calls (would you want to whistle a Jets penalty in that building?). The question mark, as always, is in net, but Ondrej Pavelec is as hot as they come. He rides a streak of three consecutive shutouts into the playoffs.
Prediction: Winnipeg in 6
Predators: 47-24-10, 104 points, finished second in Central Division
Blackhawks: 48-28-6, 102 points, finished third in Central Division
Regular-season series: Blackhawks won 3-1-0 (Predators 1-1-2)
Series opener: Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. ET
Chances of winning: Chicago 55%, Nashville 45%
2 things to know
Kane able to play: This is the only series in either conference where bookmakers favour the lower seed, and they did so even before it was announced that Chicago star Patrick Kane is expected to play in the opener after missing the final 21 regular-season games with a broken collarbone that was supposed to keep him out until the end of May. The puck-handling wizard was in the mix for the scoring title and MVP honours, racking up 27 goals and 64 points in only 61 games before he got hurt. If Kane boosts the offence and the defence remains stingy (only Montreal allowed fewer goals) Chicago has a shot to win its third Cup in six years.
Preds fading: One of the NHL's surprise teams, the Predators sat atop the league for much of the season before a late-campaign malaise set in and they lost their final six games, ceding the tough Central Division to St. Louis. Veteran forward Mike Ribeiro — Nashville's second-leading scorer behind rookie Filip Forsberg — looked like a great pickup off the scrap heap early on, but he has only nine points since the start of March, around the time he was sued for an alleged sexual assault. The Predators still finished as one of the better possession teams in the league, but Chicago did too, and it has a significantly higher goal differential and a better track record of success in the playoffs.
Prediction: Chicago in 5
ST. LOUIS VS. MINNESOTA
Blues: 51-24-7, 109 points, won Central Division and Western Conference's No. 2 seed
Wild: 46-28-8, 100 points, finished first in wild-card race
Regular-season series: Wild won 2-1-1 (Blues 2-2-0)
Series opener: Thursday at 9:30 p.m. ET
Chances of winning: St. Louis 57%, Minnesota 43%
2 things to know
Dubnyk steps in: On Jan. 14, the Wild were in the midst of a crisis. A 7-2 loss at Pittsburgh the night before had extended their losing streak to six games, leaving them eight points out of a wild-card spot. Desperate for an upgrade in net, GM Chuck Fletcher traded a third-round pick to Arizona for unheralded veteran Devan Dubnyk. The turnaround was immediate. Dubnyk started the next night and blanked Buffalo 7-0, beginning a string of 39 consecutive starts that didn't end until the penultimate game of the season, after Minnesota clinched a playoff spot. He went 27-9-2 for his new team, with a .936 save percentage and 1.78 goals-against average that would both top NHL leader Carey Price's numbers.
Some reward: The Blues won hockey's toughest division, and what do they get? A matchup with a wild-card team that has the NHL's best record since Dubnyk arrived. You could argue St. Louis would be better off swapping places with the conference's lowest playoff seed, Winnipeg, and taking on Anaheim, champion of the soft Pacific. This should be one of those tooth-and-nail series, pitting two teams in the top six in goal prevention and pretty similar possession rates. The Blues will need to pressure Dubnyk with their talented group of forwards, led by 37-goal man Vladimir Tarasenko, who's only 23.
Prediction: St. Louis in 7