(Hey everyone, welcome Michael Berger to the staff! He's a longtime Blackhawks fan and current journalism student who will helping us out in a variety of ways going forward. I'm happy to have Michael on board and look forward to his contributions in the future. Just in time for the playoffs, welcome Michael! - Ed.)
Now that the first 82 games are over, the second season can finally begin. After a three-day span in which both the reigning champions and the President's Trophy winners were eliminated, the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoff matchups are set.
It is shaping up to be a great playoff season with a strong and surprising Western Conference competing for one spot in the Stanley Cup Final. We all know that the Blackhawks will be traveling down to the Music City for a first-round matchup with the Predators, but the rest of the West is equally intriguing. Here is a preview of what's going on outside Nashville-Chicago:
The other series in the Central Division is a matchup between the St. Louis Blues and the Minnesota Wild. These are two very good teams with the ability to make significant playoff runs if all goes according to plan. Both teams have a solid veteran presence, skill throughout the lineup, and players who can step up in crunch time.
The Blues are still a hard-hitting team with high quality defense, but have improved offensively since last season with the addition of players like Paul Stastny and the rise of Vladimir Tarasenko. At the start of the season, the Blues were a favorite by many to finally break their historic streak and win a cup. To do this, they would have to go through Minnesota and Chicago or Nashville.
Since trading for Devan Dubnyk in January, the Wild goaltender has gone 27-9-2 with a .936 save percentage. This has been good enough to get him into Vezina and Hart Trophy conversations. Dubnyk's arrival has revitalized this entire team from scoring to defense and could lead to a first round upset that would once again send the Blues home early.
This is a series that very few predicted at the beginning of the season. The Canucks were supposed to be a middle of the road team looking at a rebuild while the Flames were supposed to be competing with Edmonton and Buffalo in the McEichel sweepstakes.
The Canucks have done a great job all season utilizing their older talent along with their young up and coming players and rebuilding on the fly. Vancouver's top lines are still great and they still have solid defensive players. They start to face issues with the depth in their bottom six. If they can continue to get solid production from the top of their lineup and from the goaltending tandem of Lack and Miller, they should be in a position to win.
The Flames on the other hand have been absolutely baffling. When they started off the season hot, it seemed like a statistical anomaly. This has proven to not be the case. Even with their bottom of the league possession numbers, they still reached the 3-seed in the pacific division. They only clinched a spot after overcoming incredible adversity in order to knock out the defending champions in their penultimate game. They have done all of this even with their best player in Mark Giordano being out for the season.
Matchup wise, this is an interesting series. The Canucks are the better team on paper and should win, but I'm not going to be the person who bets against the incredible story that is the Flames. I have the Flames winning this one in a quadruple overtime thriller in Game 7.
In another matchup that no one could have predicted, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are returning to Winnipeg for the first time since 1996 with the Jets taking on the Anaheim Ducks. Since the Jets finished in the second wild card spot, they will be in the Pacific Division bracket throughout the first two rounds.
Even though they started the season with low expectations, the Jets have found ways to overcome several obstacles including injuries, suspensions, and locker room drama in order to make their way to the playoffs. This is a big and hard-hitting team that can score when they need to. They still have a question mark in net with Ondřej Pavelec, but he has played well as of late.
The Ducks have looked very good all year and were able to rack up the most points in the conference with the help of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Ryan Kesler. This team has been able to hang on and win an incredible amount of close games. The Ducks has two solid goaltenders and will be starting Frederik Andersen over John Gibson against the Jets.
These teams match up pretty well. Anaheim beat the Jets in all three meetings this season, but one win came in overtime and another came in a shootout. This series has great upset potential and could end up being very close.