Chicago Blackhawks (1) vs. Nashville Predators (WC2)
The Predators battled down the stretch with St. Louis for third place in the Central and with Calgary in the wild card race, but lost both and instead of a rematch with Anaheim (who they eliminated in the first round last season), Nashville draws their division rival and nemesis from the Windy City.
Nashville are much more offensive minded under Peter Laviolette than they were during the Trotz era, with 30 goal scorers Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg. They have a blueline headed by Roman Josi and PK Subban, but if they attempt to play ‘fire wagon’ hockey against Blackhawks, they will need Pekka Rinne to stand on his head to pull the upset. The veteran goaltender has traditionally not been at his best in the postseason.
Joel Quenneville has most of the core group that won three Stanley Cups and Chicago continues to play at a high level in spite of mixing in newcomers every year.
Unlike previous seasons when they were heavily reliant on Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane to do the bulk of the scoring or are entering the playoffs severely depleted by injury, the Hawks are relatively healthy, have scoring depth (seven forwards with 19 goals or more) and the return of Brian Campbell and Johnny Oduya makes it unnecessary for Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to play 30 minutes a night.
Prediction – Hawks in six
Minnesota Wild (2) vs. St. Louis Blues (3)
The Wild were second only to Pittsburgh in goals (266) and received a Vezina Trophy worthy performance from Devan Dubnyk until March, when their 4-10-2 cost them top spot in the Central.
The addition of Eric Staal gave Minnesota a viable second line center to take some of the attention and offensive burden away from Mikko Koivu and head coach Bruce Boudreau has one of the best and deepest defensive corps in the NHL to work with, but the Wild will need Dubnyk to play as he did early in the year if they are going to get past the first round.
St. Louis struggled early in the season, which necessitated the departure of Ken Hitchcock and promotion of former Wild head coach Mike Yeo.
Many thought that once GM Doug Armstrong moved pending free agent Kevin Shattenkirk, that the Blues would fade and possibly miss the playoffs, but instead they went 15-3-2 down the stretch.
Goalie Jake Allen stepped up his play late in the season and Yeo will need that to continue, along with getting key goals from someone other than Vladimir Tarasenko.
Prediction – Wild in six
Anaheim Ducks (1) vs. Calgary Flames (WC1)
The Ducks victory over Los Angeles on Sunday gave them top spot in the Pacific and a rematch against the Flames, who they eliminated two years ago in the second round. The Ducks have won 27 straight games over Calgary at the Honda Center.
Anaheim has the edge on experience with Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler, and a solid blueline even with Cam Fowler injured. Head coach Randy Carlyle has to decide whether Jonathan Bernier or John Gibson will be his goalie, as Bernier went 12-1-2 to finish the season.
Calgary has a great deal of young talent in Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and rookie Matthew Tkachuk and their defense improved markedly after acquiring Michael Stone from Arizona. Brian Elliott had a wildly inconsistent and after winning 11 games in a row in February/March, losing four of his last five starts.
Prediction – Ducks in five
Edmonton Oilers (2) vs. San Jose Sharks (3)
The Oilers make their first playoff appearance since 2006, with former Sharks Todd McLellan at the helm and Art Ross winner Connor McDavid leading the way. Edmonton cannot depend solely on the 20-year-old to carry the team on his shoulders.
Veterans Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle will have to provide secondary offense to take some heat off the young phenom. Forwards like Patrick Maroon and Milan Lucic will have to provide a deterrent to San Jose to keep them from taking liberties with McDavid, while also maintaining their composure and not taking stupid penalties.
A determining factor in the series could be fatigue on Edmonton goalie Cam Talbot, who played a league-high 73 games.
For most of the season, San Jose looked like the team that reached the Cup Final and defenseman Brent Burns appeared on track to win his first Norris Trophy, but the Sharks slumped down the stretch and veterans Logan Couture and Joe Thornton ran into the injury bug.
Couture and Thornton practiced on Monday and could be in the lineup for Game 1, but they need to be close to top form for the Sharks to have a chance to win the West.
Prediction – Sharks in seven
Michael (@MikeInBuffalo on Twitter) can also be found on HockeyBuzz.com