Okay, we’re rolling on with our previews. If you missed the Eastern Conference preview, featuring some G-rated chirping at Jaromir Jagr, click here to check it out. I’m excited for the Western Conference because I played against all these teams the previous two seasons.
Anaheim Ducks vs. Winnipeg Jets
Oh, man. This is going to be a bloodbath. Both teams are very big and physical. I was hearing some rumblings around the league, and not many guys wanted to play Winnipeg in the playoffs. That old-school barn up there in Manitoba is probably the most intimidating place to play in the NHL right now. I’ve never experienced an area that was that loud.
For me, this series comes down to Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien. He means so much to them offensively, but he’s taken a leap this year on his own end. The big fella needs to make Anaheim’s trio of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler pay the price every time they go into the corner.
Honestly, near the end of my career, I stopped trying to hit Byfuglien. And I mean that completely. There were multiple times when I had him lined up perfectly and he had his eyes down, and I was thinking, I’m about to light this dude up. But he’s so big and strong that I’d end up getting the worst of it. I’d be wheezing my way back to the bench like, What the hell just happened?
Byfuglien is one of the true imposing figures in hockey, and they’re going to have to ride him in order to win.
What to look for:
A whole lot of chirpin’. These two teams relish it. The Anaheim goalies might be on a short leash because they don’t have a permanent No. 1 with playoff experience, so those big Winnipeg forwards like Blake Wheeler, Adam Lowry and Andrew Ladd are going to be all over that crease trying to stir shit up. All of those guys are 6-foot-3 or more. It’s going to be Loiter City in the Anaheim crease.
With that said, if anyone can punch back it’s Anaheim. Ryan Kesler is a guy who is loved by teammates but hated by all 29 other teams. He makes opponents do dumb things, and this is the time of year where guys like that shine. His excellent two-way play on the second line could cause some matchup issues for Winnipeg. The Jets will try to pound the Getzlaf-Perry line with Byfuglien, which means Kesler’s line should have a lot of chances to produce.
Anaheim in 7. But this could be an upset special.
Nashville Predators vs. Chicago Blackhawks
There’s something to be said for a team full of guys who have won the Stanley Cup multiple times. Even when you win a series, there are multiple times when you’re sitting in the locker room after a bad game and you’re fighting the thought of, Oh my gosh, we’re done. Chicago is full of guys who have fought through that before and found a way to win.
When it’s all said and done, Jonathan Toews may go down as the most decorated player of the last 20 years. There are amazing players in the league across the board, but there are only a handful is players who can consistently elevate their game when the team needs it. Toews and Kane both do it.
Playing against them, the frustrating thing is that you’re never quite aware of when you’re shutting Toews down and when you’re not. Kane is so skilled and so flashy that visually, it almost distracts you from what Toews is doing. You start honing in on Kane and then Toews slips through the cracks into space and makes you pay. I’ve never seen a guy with such an uncanny ability to score timely, backbreaking goals. Toews kind of leans on you until you have a mental collapse, and then it’s in the back of your net.
What to look for:
Roman Josi is a special player for Nashville. Shea Weber is such a lightning rod and attracts so much attention that it allows Josi to thrive. He’s got a great skill set and a booming shot. The kid is the real deal. The Weber-Josi pairing might be the best in the NHL, so it will be fascinating to watch them match up against Kane and Toews. Don’t forget that Nashville also has Mike Fisher at center to shadow them.
The interesting thing will be to see what happens when Nashville’s shutdown line isn’t on the ice. Their bottom six will need to beat Chicago’s bottom six. If it was any other matchup, it would be a total strength for Nashville. But Chicago can roll out Bryan Bickell and Andrew Shaw. Bickell is a guy who disappears sometimes in the regular season but always seems to transform into an absolute beast in the playoffs. Either you have that gene or you don’t.
I really like the Predators’ balance across all four lines, but if Pekka Rinne isn’t world-class in this series, Chicago wins.
Chicago in 6. I have to go with the experience. Could be the final run for this group.
Vancouver Canucks vs. Calgary Flames
Don’t sleep on Calgary. My last two years in the league, that was a very, very tough team to play against. You wouldn’t necessarily lose to them in those years, but you’d leave the building black and blue. It wasn’t a fun place to play hockey. They have a junkyard dog mentality instilled by Bob Harley and they block shots with reckless abandon. Their third period numbers were also unbelievable.
It’s so unfortunate that Mark Giordano is injured, because he’s turned into one of the best defensemen in the NHL and he’s led that team out of the fire. You feel good for a guy like that, because I remember we used to jaw at him about being stuck in Calgary when they were still rebuilding. Stuff like, “Hey, congrats on being captain of an AHL team.”
Now he’s helped them become a force to be reckoned with. If he was healthy, he’d be right there in the Norris Trophy race. Honestly, once he went down, I thought Calgary would be on a slow decline, but Kris Russell and T.J. Brodie have stepped up big time.
This will be one of the better series of the first round because of the contrasting styles. Speed and grit vs. patience and finesse. I don’t think you’ll see a team win two in a row.
What to watch for:
For me, the key is the experience of Vancouver. They’ve got some great goaltending going on with Eddie Lack, who has been outstanding lately, and Ryan Miller, who is Ryan freaking Miller. They have son gamers. Alex Burrows is a guy who might be Public Enemy No. 1 in these playoffs, especially with Brad Marchand sitting at home this year. Burrows is going to try to make you punch him in the face after every whistle. By putting him back on the top line with the Sedin twins, they’re trying to rekindle what he was in the playoffs, and I think it might work. Throw in Radim Vrbata, and you have a sneaky good group of vets in that Top 6.
I know Calgary is a team that doesn’t have great possession stats, but I think sometimes those advanced stats can be a little misleading, especially in the playoffs. When things get tighter, a lot of in-zone possession doesn’t necessarily mean threatening scoring chances. Especially with a team like Vancouver, which sometimes passes it around forever on the fringes. I’ll be curious to see if the Canucks can break through and create enough quality shots against a team that blocks shots as well as Calgary does.
Vancouver in 7. I think this is the one series where goaltending is going to swing it.
St. Louis Blues vs. Minnesota Wild
St. Louis has the mentality, especially against Minnesota, to be the bully. The Blues are a team that grinds you down with their big forwards. That fourth line with Ryan Reaves and Steve Ott just crushes guys out there. But they also have a mix of skill with Paul Stastny, Vladimir Tarasenko and T.J. Oshie. That’s just a very balanced team with diversified scoring from top to bottom.
Minnesota is a very disciplined, structured team in the way Mike Yeo has them playing. Their penalty killing has been outstanding all year, but they’ve also evolved into a scoring team in the second half of the year. They can beat you in different ways now. The question is, who do they want to be? In the playoffs, it’s got to be black-and-white with your identity. If you’re a physical team, play physical. If you’re not, then don’t pretend to be. If I’m Minnesota, I’m turning my cheek when the Blues to try stir it up after the whistle. If Barret Jackman is going to give Tomas Vanek an extra shot, Vanek needs to just skate away. As tough as that is sometimes as a hockey player, it can be the smart move against physical teams.
I think Minnesota is the rare playoff team who may benefit from a little bit of a cat-and-mouse game.
What to watch for:
Zach Parise’s game, from Game 1 to Game 82, is always the same. It’s a playoff-style game. He’ll go in there every night and take a beating to score goals. His passion for scoring goals reminds me of Pavel Bure. It sounds silly to say, but there are guys in the league who just love scoring goals. Not every guy is like that. Not every guy is willing to pay the price to score. (I’ll never forget when Brent Sutter was the coach in New Jersey and he told Zach that he needed to stop thinking about scoring goals and concentrate on getting the puck deep or something. His face was priceless.) For me, I love it when the goal scorers on my team have Zach’s mentality. I wouldn’t have it any other way. St. Louis is going to take away some of Minnesota’s skill guys with their physicality, but Parise thrives in that environment. He’s got to be the compass for the Wild.
St. Louis has great defensemen in Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk. Outside of the Rangers, they probably have the best overall unit in the NHL. But where they’ll really have the advantage over Minnesota is that those guys have very balanced minutes. On the flip side, you have Ryan Suter playing 30 minutes per night for the Wild. I think you may even see him playing more than that in this series. The playoffs are such a long grind that it catches up to you. Minnesota needs someone from their bottom four defensemen to step up and force the coaches to let them eat those minutes. Because no guy is going to tell the coach, “I want to play less.”
St. Louis in 6. This is the one matchup that doesn’t favor the Wild. The depth of the Blues’ defense will wear them out.
Want to tell me what I messed up? Send me a chirp @Rupper17 on Twitter.