Thursday, April 16, 2015

No Clear-Cut Favorite in NHL’s Western Conference

By Mike Chen

With the Stanley Cup playoffs set to open on Wednesday, many consider the New York Rangers to be the favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference. The Western Conference, though, is a different story. Despite the recent history of Western domination, each team in the conference has a noticeable flaw. Let's take a closer look at what each seed has to watch out for.

Anaheim Ducks — Though the Ducks finished well over 100 points, this isn't the same caliber of team that won the Cup nearly a decade ago. That team was anchored by two Hall of Fame defensemen in their prime, while this team has defense as their primary question mark with one of the smallest goal differentials among all playoff teams. With their goals against as one of the worst of all playoff teams, Bruce Boudreau's reputation is on the line with this top-seeded team.

St. Louis Blues — Perhaps the most top-to-bottom solid roster of the Western Conference, the Blues are the favorite on paper. Their biggest challenge might actually be facing themselves. This squad as a whole has been considered an elite contender for a number of seasons now, and each year they've folded when the spotlight is brightest. Thus, it becomes a test of character, particularly when facing a red-hot Devan Dubnyk, and the goal is to erase the stigma of wilting under the pressure.

Nashville Predators — This is the best Nashville team in franchise history, yet the last quarter of the season wasn't kind to the Predators. The first season of the post-Trotz era saw many positive things, but the inexplicable downward left both fans and players scratching their heads. Pekka Rinne was a potential MVP candidate early in the season, but the team let up four or more goals 10 times from March onward, costing them a shot at the Central Division and top spot in the west. This may be a new version of the Predators, but they probably wish they still had a touch of that Trotz stinginess.

Chicago Blackhawks — A serious injury to Patrick Kane took the wind out of Chicago's sails for the last chunk of the season. Though he began contact practice recently and is expected to play in the series, there's no way he can be at 100%. That puts a serious dent into the Hawks' depth, which had been their strength over recent playoff runs.

Vancouver Canucks — Vancouver survived what could have been a devastating injury to Ryan Miller thanks to some solid play by Eddie Lack down the stretch. But with the Sedin brothers hitting the latter stages of their career, goal scoring depth continues to plague the Canucks. This isn't the team that used to arm a 1-2 punch of the Sedin line and the Ryan Kesler line; instead there's a significant points drop-off from the top three scorers to everyone else on the Vancouver roster, and the team's poor goals-against continues to be a concern.

Minnesota Wild — Let's put this in perspective: Devan Dubnyk's save percentage with Minnesota is an unreal .936. That will regress to the norm at some point, but when will that happen? Perhaps it doesn't this season, and the Wild roll on with an unthinkable swagger to go with their strong roster. But we've seen plenty of examples of how the Stanley Cup playoffs truly are their own beast, with regular season stars going cold while heroes come out of nowhere. Minnesota's run was based on something unsustainable, but no one knows where the end of that streak actually is.

Winnipeg Jets — The former Atlanta Thrashers have now brought playoff hockey back to Winnipeg. How long will it last? The Jets competed hard and developed a reputation for work ethic, but at the same time lack game-breaking scorers. Winnipeg's special teams were decidedly middle of the road over the course of the NHL season, but that puts them near the bottom of the playoff-bound group.

Calgary Flames — Students of advanced stats will tell you that the Flames had a season of luck, similar to last year's Colorado Avalanche. At some point that luck runs out. Getting outshot and falling behind isn't a way to win in the playoffs, and it's a pattern the Flames would like to forget. Just look at how Colorado got bounced last year to see how the story may end.

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