NHL Western Conference Round 2 Preview

On Wednesday I prepped you for the 2nd round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. I also mentioned that I had a chance to get 7 of my 8 predictions from the first round correct. Nashville, though, had other ideas.

Quick aside: I feel for Bruce Boudreau. The guy can’t win. His reputation as a great regular season coach is matched by his reputation as a terrible playoff coach. In our world, the latter is far more important. His players love him (Teemu Selanne notwithstanding) but that only counts for so much.

On to Round 2 in the West. The convoluted divisional playoff system paired up Pittsburgh and Washington last night, the East’s top 2 teams by record. Tonight, the convoluted divisional playoff system pairs up the West’s top 2 teams by record. The NHL remains unique among the pro sports leagues in its ability to undermine itself in subtle but effective ways.

Dallas Stars (C1) vs St. Louis Blues (C2)

Dallas drew arguably the weakest 1st round opponent in the playoffs. I don’t mean to disrespect Minnesota, but the Wild had the fewest points of any playoff team and were missing their top goal scorer and emotional leader, Zach Parise (Thomas Vanek, the Wild’s 7th leading scorer, also missed the series). Which isn’t to say that the Stars don’t deserve to be here, but rather to point out that it’s hard to draw any conclusions from their 6-game victory over the Wild.

St. Louis, on the other hand, had possibly the toughest 1st round matchup with the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks. The Hawks rallied from a 3-1 deficit, but the Blues managed to put them away in Game 7 and hopefully exorcise whatever playoff demon had been haunting them the last several seasons. As one lucky non-hockey fan discovered, that Game 7 was one of the most thrilling games in recent memory. It’s fair to say St. Louis enters this series battle tested.

This looks like a classic matchup of offense versus defense. The Stars were the top-scoring team in the league this season; the Blues finished 4th in goals against. Dallas is captained by Jamie Benn, who led all scorers in the 1st round with 10 points. St. Louis has David Backes, who plays a bruising two-way game that earns his reputation as being “hard to play against.” The Stars defense features John Klingberg, an offensive dynamo who is trusted to generate more chances than he gives up. The Blues defense is anchored by Alex Pietrangelo, an all-situations blueliner known for his strong defensive game.

Controversy and intrigue abound. In typical playoff hockey fashion, Dallas is playing coy about the availability of Tyler Seguin for Round 2. Seguin has been out since suffering a sliced Achilles. He gave it a go in Game 2 against Minnesota, but then was shut down for the rest of the series. Dallas hasn’t missed Seguin so far, but as the stakes get higher, you have to believe they’ll want their 2nd leading scorer in the lineup.

In St. Louis, coach Ken Hitchcock faces questions about his curious player usage. Specifically, why Troy Brouwer is playing 3 minutes more per game than Vladimir Tarasenko. Brouwer scored the series-winning goal against Chicago, so Hitchcock is at least temporarily vindicated. Cameras caught Tarasenko rudely dismissing his coach at one point (at least that’s how it looked), so there could be some frustration mounting for the young Russian star.

One area we can be relatively sure of these teams is in goal. Unfortunately, that’s not good news for Dallas. Neither Kari Lehtonen nor Antti Niemi had what you’d call a standout performance in Round 1. St. Louis has Brian Elliott, who rather quietly led the NHL in save percentage during the regular season and played well enough to hold off the Blackhaws.

The Blues are healthy and playing some of their best hockey over the last 2 months. If Seguin were 100%, I still might favor St. Louis. Blues in 6.

San Jose Sharks (P3) vs Nashville Predators (P4)

Much like St. Louis, San Jose used the 1st round to conquer a long-time nemesis. Unlike their Central counterparts, the Sharks needed just 5 games to do it. What’s more, the Sharks went into Los Angeles in Game 5 and tuned up the Kings by a final score of 6-3. San Jose didn’t just exorcise the demon; they bludgeoned it with a hammer, then lit the corpse on fire and threw it over a cliff.

It’ll be hard for some to shake the image of the Sharks as playoff chokers, no matter how much facial hair Joe Thornton tries to hide behind. This really does appear to be a different San Jose team than in years’ past. The additions of Joel Ward up front, Paul Martin in back, Martin Jones between the pipes, and Peter DeBoer behind the bench have paid dividends in changing the team identity. Martin in particular has unlocked Brent Burns’ offensive ability, providing a steady counterpoint to the roving Wookiee. San Jose has been controlling play and suppressing shot attempts at a rate not seen since in Silicon Valley since their last conference final appearance in 2011.

San Jose’s Round 2 opponent comes to us from Nashville, and calls themselves the Predators. Those 2 facts may come as a shock to some non-hockey fans, but I assure you I am not making this up. Nashville got here the hard way, falling behind Anaheim 3 games to 2 in the 1st round before winning Games 6 and 7. As in the East, the West’s crossover wildcard team ended up beating the resident division champ.

The Predators are a team built from the goal out. Goalie Pekka Rinne is supported by one of the league’s best defense pairings, Roman Josi and Shea Weber. Get used to those names, you’re going to be hearing them a lot; Josi averaged better than 27 minutes per game against Anaheim, with Weber not far behind. The 2nd defense pair of Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis is solid as well. The forwards are less heralded, but feature talented youngsters like Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen, along with capable veterans such as James Neal and Mike Ribeiro.

San Jose steamrolled one of the league’s best teams, and Nashville barely got out of Anaheim alive, so from that perspective, the pick looks easy. Except that these teams met 3 times in the regular season, and Nashville took 2 of those games. What’s more, San Jose only won in a shootout, having rallied from a 2-goal 3rd period deficit just to get the game to overtime.

In psychological terms, it’s recency versus small numbers. How much weight do we give to San Jose’s impressive first round win? Likewise, can we really draw any conclusions from 3 regular season matchups? The answer to both, of course, is “maybe.” This is why the prediction business is so frustrating.

When it comes to playoff hockey, I like recency. Sharks in 7.

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