Playoff picks: Western Conference

- April 16th, 2014

NEW YORK — Perhaps the best part of the Stanley Cup picks is that you get an opportunity to make up for the failed predictions of the pre-season.

Well, they weren’t all failed but I’m sure not proud of my selection of the Colorado Avalanche to finish dead last in the Central Division. I figured the team would respond to new head coach Patrick Roy, but that it might take more than one season for the full impact to be felt.

Instead, they not only qualified for the playoffs but passed both the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues to finish first in the Central Division and earn home-ice advantage through the first two rounds (should they advance).

Anyway, there’s my crow-eating for the day. Feel free to share you pre-season prediction successes and failures in the comments section.

For what it’s worth, I had the Blues winning the President’s Trophy, which was looking like a safe bet until a six-game losing skid to end the regular season. The San Jose Sharks were my pick to come out of the Western Conference in the playoffs and I’m sticking by that selection, while realizing they could get bounced in the first round given how tough it will be to come out of the Pacific.

Here we go:

Central Division semis

Colorado Avalanche (1) 52-22-8, 112 points vs Minnesota Wild (first wild card) 43-27-12, 98 pointsThe Avalanche go in as the favourite and you’d think that I learned my lesson after underestimating the Avalanche going into the campaign. However, not having Matt Duchene to start the series is a big factor. To me, he drives the offence for the Avalanche. There’s still depth up front with Ryan O’Reilly, Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and company, but I’m not sold on Colorado’s defence and the Wild have some weapons that could cause some commotion in Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Mikko Koivu, Charlie Coyle and Matt Moulson to name a few. Matt Cooke is a guy who could get under the skin of the Avalanche in this series. Ryan Suter is going to need to play 30 or more minutes nightly and while unpredicatable, Ilya Bryzgalov has been outstanding for the Wild since arriving from the Edmonton Oilers, going 7-1-3 with a .911 save percentage and 2.11 goals against average. Provided Bryzgalov is steady, the Wild could pull off the upset special in Round 1. I’m taking the Wild in seven games.

St. Louis Blues (2) 52-23-7, 111 points vs Chicago Blackhawks (3) 46-21-5, 107 points

Going into this season, I was convinced that the Blues were going to be able to put the playoff disappointment of the past two springs behind them and would break through after consecutive defeats to the Los Angeles Kings. But as hard as it is to believe, the Blues actually found themselves with a tougher first-round opponent than those two previous springs. And while I like a lot of what the Blues bring to the table — including what I think is among the top defence corps’ in the entire NHL and the forward group of Alex Steen, David Backes, T.J. Oshie and company, it’s tough to bet against the defending champions in the opening round. Ryan Miller gives the Blues an edge in goal and while Steve Ott hasn’t chipped in much offensively since his arrival from Buffalo, he’s the type of disruptive force that could help St. Louis push through. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane should be rested after skipping some games at the end of the regular season to get healthy. Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa should be key contributors and this is the type of series where Bryan Bickell might be able to find his playoff form that earned him a big raise. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya and Nicklas Hjalmarsson. Provided Corey Crawford supplies adequate netminding, the Blues could be in for a third straight spring of discontent. Blackhawks in seven.

Pacific Division semis

Anaheim Ducks (1) 54-20-8, 116 points vs Dallas Stars (second wild card) 40-31-11, 91 points

The Ducks are so deep in goal that their starter for much of the season, Jonas Hiller, is unlikely to dress for the series opener as rookie Frederik Andersson gets the call and John Gibson moves into the backup role. Ryan Getzlaf had an MVP-type season (he was second on my ballot) and Corey Perry remains one of the purest goal scorers in the NHL. Teemu Selanne is hoping his fond farewell season includes a Stanley Cup to go along with the bronze medal he earned at the Olympics. Mathieu Perreault, Andrew Cogliano, Patrick Maroon, Nick Bonino, Matt Beleskey, Jakob Silfverberg and Kyle Palmieri must provide secondary scoring, while the defence corps of Francois Beauchemin, Bryan Allen, rookie Hapus Lindholm and late addition Stephane Robidas must be on their game to withstand the push that is sure to be coming from Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. The Stars should be loose in this one as their retooling under GM Jim Nill and head coach Lindy Ruff is ahead of schedule. Kari Lehtonen might steal a couple games in this series, but the lack of depth on the back end could prove to be the Stars’ undoing as the Ducks win the series in six.

San Jose Sharks (2) 51-22-9, 111 points vs Los Angeles Kings (3) 46-28-8, 100 points

The Kings are that team that nobody wanted to match up with in the opening round of the playoffs, thanks to the goaltending of Jonathan Quick, the defensive wizardry of Drew Doughty and the underrated two-way play of Anze Kopitar. Although the Kings are the lowest scoring team in the post-season, Marian Gaborik has given the offensive attack another weapon, Tyler Toffoli should benefit from the taste of the playoffs he enjoyed last spring. Mike Richards had only 11 goals and 41 points this season but this is his time to shine and if the Kings are to advance, he’ll be right in the middle of things. Ultimately, I think the Sharks are ready to learn from their playoff disappointments of year’s past and have the horses to not only outlast their California rival but to make a lengthy playoff run. Marc-Edourd Vlasic is an unheralded force on the blue line and the offensive depth includes the likes of Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Brent Burns, Tommy Wingels and rookie Tomas Hertl, who is ready to return from a knee injury. The Sharks have a nice safety net in Alex Stalock, but Antti Niemi must do his part to help his team advance and it says here that he will. Sharks in seven.

Categories: Hockey

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