Western Conference First Round Previews

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Any sentient being who is a sports fan loves the NHL playoffs. Fair or not, hockey gets labeled as a provincial, niche sport. But the postseason emits a unique vibe. Fans are more raucous and the stakes are exponentially higher as the league’s top practitioners publicly move the boundary lines on human potential. For the bystander, it is simultaneously exhausting and thrilling. No spectacle better packages brutality with ingenuity.

Harkening back to last year’s Western Conference finals, Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Kesler expounded on his team’s game plan against the Blackhawks’ abridged defensive group when he said, “No human can withstand that many hits.” Kesler’s confession proved overweening; the Blackhawks won the series and the Cup.

The Ducks and Blackhawks are back in the dance, and the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, and Dallas Stars return after missing out in 2015. As for the other side of the bracket, the optics are that the East is the Washington Capitals vs. the field. In the West, uncertainty is more prevalent. Success will be achieved on a more granular and contingent level.

Chicago Blackhawks vs. St. Louis Blues

One of the most intriguing layers to the Chicago Blackhawks this season is their composition. The Blackhawks rode their top four defensemen to a Stanley Cup after Michal Rozsival went down with injury. It was a gutsy and valuable performance, and it was the centerpiece of IH’s précis for why the Blackhawks won the Cup.

Johnny Oduya was a component of that quartet, and Chicago let him walk last summer, acquiring Trevor Daley as his replacement in the Patrick Sharp trade. Daley was subsequently traded to Pittsburgh for Rob Scuderi, who was then dealt to Los Angeles for Christian Ehrhoff. At the trade deadline, the Blackhawks did make some trades, but they were for forwards, most notably Andrew Ladd. Trevor van Riemsdyk (TVR) will be Chicago’s number-four defenseman this postseason.

This brings to fore a few issues about how the salary cap affects team construction: how bad contracts like Bryan Bickell are damaging; how important it is to find meaningful contributors on cheap contracts; and most relevantly, how crucial is it to have a strong defensive group 1-6? Conventional wisdom says it is essential, but the Blackhawks, like the Los Angeles Kings, are a team that squeezes efficacy out of not overpaying for their defensemen at 4-6.

The reason for this is that forwards are more important in today’s NHL. The center and wingers are fundamental to strong three-zone hockey. In the defensive zone on breakouts, they make themselves a pass target. On transition defense, they need to keep a tight gap. They supply a lubricating element in the neutral zone on the regroup and on the rush. Lastly, they are the safety net in the offensive zone when the strong-side defenseman pinches — or they show dogged tenacity retaining possession on the forecheck.

Like the Kings, the Blackhawks recognize that the influence of their centers and wingers is more pervasive and have tried to stockpile as much depth as possible. TVR is the test case for how far Chicago can push this paradigm. Van Riemsdyk’s Corsi was poor this season. He had a -13 even-strength Scoring Chances Differential, per war-on-ice.com. Heading into 2015-16, he had only played 17 NHL games, and his 13:32 TOI/G from the 2014-15 regular season dwarfs the 7:02 he received in the Cup final.

But the Blackhawks recognized potential in the undrafted college free agent, and in 82 games this season, he posted three goals and eleven assists in fairly tough usage. What TVR may lack in foot speed he makes up for in instinct. His instincts with the puck give him a dose of offensive facility, and the same can be said for Erik Gustafsson.

The Blackhawks have tried to hoard at forward and hope their blue line meets the critical threshold for adequacy on defense with their fourth, five, and sixth defensemen. If TVR, Gustafsson, and Rozsival can accomplish their first pass, chase opposing puck-carriers to the outside and keep a taut gap, pinch pragmatically, and recognize when the dominant players have space and need the puck – the bet makes sense.

So how does the Blackhawks’ fabric affect this series? For starters, top defenseman Duncan Keith will be missing Game 1, so the Blackhawks’ bet on baseline efficacy from its blue line will be tested. Rival St. Louis is often listed as an agglomeration of skill and power, but that assessment suggests that the power players for the Blues have equal merit to the skilled ones. They don’t. More accurately, the Blues have three great-to-very-good forwards in Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, and Alexander Steen, and a collection of centers and wingers whose usefulness in this series is murky at best. Jori Lehtera is a capable playmaker when centering Schwartz and Tarasenko, but without them he is negligible. Paul Stastny is wildly overpaid, but he will fight admirably in the corners and make some good plays without the puck. But keep in mind that for the first 50 games he was ineffective for the Blues. David Backes’ best years are behind him, and whether he can impact this series is uncertain. Robby Fabbri has injected puck-handling and playmaking into the St. Louis mix, but the playoffs are not the regular season and the intensity level ratchets up.

Even though the Blues finished with better possession metrics than Chicago, it may come as a surprise that these are not driven by the team’s big names on defense. Kevin Shattenkirk fared okay, but Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester did not. The Blackhawks’ Kane and Toews’ lines do a sterling job of pressuring opponent’s defensemen retrieving the puck and then taking away the boards on zone exits. How the Blues recalibrate on their second and third try out of the zone will be something to watch for from their first and second defensive pairings.

Finally, the Blackhawks have several “in-case-of-emergency-break-glass” players in Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Keith, and Brent Seabrook. Kane, the frontrunner for the Hart Trophy, has been shredding the competition this season with Artemi Panarin and Artem Anisimov, and there is no reason to suspect that they will be stalled by the Blues. Chicago often drops the puck to Kane and Panarin before the puck-handler even reaches the neutral zone, not so different from the way a quarterback hands off to a running back, and that allows the creativity of each player to emerge. Both Kane and Panarin snake through coverage and find each other readily for give-and-gos as the third forward, Anisimov, bestows invaluable off-the-puck work.

Toews did not have the season many expected, but his 200-foot contribution was still felt almost every night, and the transience of the playoffs is something he seizes upon. Marian Hossa began to look his age this season in some respects, but he and Toews are both still effective puck-handlers, and Andrew Ladd offers hands that are crafty in terms of collecting takeaways and finishing around the net. Like Anisimov, Ladd has good recognition without the puck and helps keep the puck in the Blackhawks’ possession.

In a strange way, it feels like having home-ice advantage is the worst possible outcome for the Blues. Even with stellar performances from their platooning goaltenders in the regular season, there is wariness about how that translates into the playoffs. Moreover, the lack of resilience, an intangible attribute, has been something that has plagued the Blues in prior postseason appearances. To put a name to a team trait, coach Ken Hitchcock has purportedly been the source of some consternation among the personnel. If the Blues lose Game 1 at home when the Blackhawks are without Keith, will St. Louis, who has immense pressure on them to deliver traceable success, fold like a deck of cards?

IH routinely oscillates between how much of the Blues’ shortcomings are coaching related and how much derive from overvaluing their talent. Regardless, they are going against a Blackhawks nucleus that excels at overcoming adversity and consistently finds ways to grind out wins in a series.

Prediction: Blackhawks in six

 Los Angeles Kings vs. San Jose Sharks

No team executes a policy of revanchism better than the Los Angeles Kings. Just as a lot of sentimentality is expended when describing the pace-and-space approach of the Blackhawks and Stars, what makes the Kings unique is their ability to shrink the playing surface. Every season, the Los Angeles outpaces its peers in possession metrics, but the chemistry behind this is not complicated. Win the one-on-one battles and races. Support the puck when your team has it and when it does not. Be better at eliminating gaps in every nook of the ice than your opponent. And when in doubt, shoot – especially when there is traffic obstructing the goaltender’s vision.

The precision and force with which the Kings execute these objectives can be overwhelming. In virtually every game, there will be a time frame where the Kings will accrue more shot attempts than their adversary by a ratio of 10:1 or higher. The margin between the Kings and the Penguins, who finished second in Corsi for percentage, is 3.7 while the difference between the Penguins and the 17th place New York Islanders is only 3.5. The hapless Oilers are ranked 19th and the margin between them and the Penguins is 3.9, per Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com. The Kings not only are better than their opponents at controlling the puck, they are significantly better.

Can the Sharks halt the unremitting pressure exerted by the Kings’ forecheck? IH is skeptical. Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic will be back for San Jose, which is important, but to mitigate the LA forecheck the Sharks need to be sure-handed and accurate in both the defensive and neutral zones. Mobility is not enough.

The possession metrics for the Sharks are in the top ten in Corsi for percentage and Corsi against per 60 minutes, which reflects well on their transition game. But they can be sloppy. An errant pass is imminent death against the Kings, and the San Jose defensive group does not have the ability to navigate its way out of danger, like Nashville, nor the full-bore forward effort that the Bolts possess to will their way out of the zone.

Prevailing over the Kings’ forecheck demands a type of quality in the details the Sharks just do not possess. Their defensemen need to cleanly retrieve the puck and move it before time and space are eclipsed by the F1. The forwards need to cleanly receive the pass and find the correct, tiny passing lane before the F2 or strong side defenseman arrives. Finally, the Kings’ F3 does an extraordinary job at disrupting the final move out of the zone, and that coverage over-the-top enables the Kings’ defensemen to move aggressively and gives their transition defense teeth.

The Sharks do have a few things in their favor. Two statistics of interest are that they are the second best team in the conference in even-strength Scoring Chances and Goal Differential, trailing only the Kings. Los Angeles can suffer because of divisional rivals’ familiarity with their play. While on paper the Sharks should get killed, the familiar contours of the Kings’ strategy and terms of engagement allow San Jose to be prepared. They know Anze Kopitar’s paths around the offensive zone to gain time. They understand Jeff Carter and Tyler Toffoli are deadly off the rush and on the power play. They are keenly aware that Milan Lucic plays in a straight line and makes his living around the blue paint.

They also have the offensive talent that can score on the Kings, and can exploit a defense that is its weakest facet. Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski were brilliant this year, and Brent Burns functioned as a third, star forward. When Burns was on the ice with Pavelski and Thornton, they controlled 57 percent of shot attempts, per Puckalytics. That triumvirate is potent enough to win the Sharks a game or two.

But after that line there is a drop-off. Logan Couture missed a lot of time with injury, but when he played he was not quite as dynamic as he has been in the past. Patrick Marleau still submitted 25 goals, but eleven came on the power play, and his impact at even strength is dwindling. For the Sharks to have any chance at forcing this series to seven games, the margin of error is miniscule. They need full-throated awesomeness from everyone, and peerless play away from the offensive zone.

Not to be overlooked, the Kings also have the clear goaltending edge. The playoffs are Jonathan Quick’s time of year, and he will be pitted against his old teammate Martin Jones. Jones posted a solid .918 save percentage this year, but his save percentage will have to be roughly .20 higher for him to compete with Quick in the postseason.

The debate in sports over the existence of momentum rages on, but questioning this highlights how human nature tacks toward myopic assessments. The Kings stumbled into the postseason, therefore they are beatable. Absent from that rationale is the fact that the Kings led the Pacific for a healthy portion of the season. And that they always have the puck. And that they have one of the top five players in the NHL in Kopitar. Los Angeles has forward depth, defensive aptitude, and most importantly, true difference-makers in Kopitar, Carter, Toffoli, Doughty, Muzzin, and Quick. This should push them past the Sharks.

Prediction: Kings in six

 Dallas Stars vs. Minnesota Wild

The metrics underpinning this matchup are extremely illuminating. Perception says that the Dallas Stars operate in a sort of functional chaos. They are extremely fast and want their forwards and defensemen to operate the same way. Supposedly, this comes at a detriment to their defense, which is sacrificed in its desire for speed and offense. In contrast, the Wild hew toward a tradition of tight-checking defense and mustering enough offense to win.

The truth is more nuanced. The Stars are the best team after the Kings at generating shot attempts 5 v 5, and their Corsi for metrics are much closer to Los Angeles than to the number three team. In Kings fashion, their defensemen are integral to their ability to sustain a forecheck, and the Stars’ skaters excel at retrieving the puck after a shot attempt off the rush. Defensively, they pale in comparison to the Kings, but how much they allow is much closer to the league average. And to Minnesota.

The Wild permit 55.1 percent of Corsi against per 60 minutes, and the Stars are 55.5. The difference in defensive play is closer to a rounding error than a lacuna. Besides, there is a canyon-sized gap between the Stars and Wild on offense. The Stars finished tied for first in the NHL in Goals for at 5v5 with Washington, and that advantage in this series will be pronounced. The Wild seemingly have no answer for Jamie Benn and the rest of the cavalry.

The prescription for the Wild making this competitive is to slow the pace down as much as possible, deploy the Erik Haula, Nino Niederreiter, and Jason Pominville triumvirate as a shutdown assignment, and hope they can subsist on Zach Parise’s line and complementary scoring. Furthermore, by soaking up time and turning the game into a slog, that low-scoring affair would play into their edge at goaltender. Devan Dubnyk did not repeat his stellar numbers from last year, but he is fine, and the play between the pipes is the Stars’ biggest weakness.

Yet, even with Tyler Seguin’s exact return date unclear, it is hard not to favor the Stars. Jamie Benn’s command of the puck is transcendent, and Jason Spezza has proved to be a fantastic No. 2 center. Klingberg is the Queen on the chessboard, and his offensive prowess warps opposing defenses, opening up space for his teammates. Dogged role players like Cody Eakin and Antoine Roussel play the game at 100 MPH, but also chip in scoring. There is shooting off the wing from Patrick Sharp, and a reservoir of talent in Valeri Nichushkin. The Stars have too much firepower. While goaltending will fell them eventually, it is not so deleterious that they will lose to an underachieving Wild squad.

Prediction: Stars in six

 Anaheim Ducks vs. Nashville Predators

This is the toughest series to predict in the West. There has been a Jekyll-and-Hyde element to both the Ducks and the Predators this season. It took Anaheim half the season to flip the “on” switch, and Nashville has been burdened by inconsistency. And the similarities do not end there.

Both teams exceled at controlling the puck, finishing dead even in Corsi for percentage at 52.5, tied for fourth best in the NHL. More specifically, both teams ranked higher in preventing shots against than generating them. Credit should be doled out to each defensive group. Proficiency in zone exits helps an offense predicated on second, third, and fourth chance opportunities to endure. For both teams, goals produced off the rush were often a byproduct of a defenseman jumping in as a second wave or by a defenseman driving the net to open up a seam pass for the puck-carrier. Corey Perry (Ducks) and Filip Forsberg (Predators) are both capable of carving up room for themselves in transition and making plays in traffic, but what is gained off the rush for both teams is mostly an opening into the offensive zone. Once there, both teams like to dig in and work the trenches.

Despite their shared characteristics, the odds seem to favor the Ducks. In this series, the Ducks can pair Getzlaf and Perry together and use Ryan Kesler’s line to blanket and rough up the fearsome Forsberg line. (Forsberg’s line finished fourth in goal production among forward lines at even strength, per leftwinglock.com.) Or Anaheim can go three deep and put Getzlaf, Perry, and Kesler each on their own line. Either way, the result would likely equal a low-scoring, physical affair, which would give the Ducks the edge. Also, Nashville’s goaltender, Pekka Rinne, was abjectly bad this season, while the Ducks were first in goals against. And a nice trump card for the Ducks is that they finished first on the power play and penalty kill this season.

Ryan Johansen will need to be excellent in this series for the Predators to win. Yet Johansen is the first player IH can remember watching who seemed clearly out of shape deep into the season, and former coach John Tortorella clashed with him on this issue in Columbus. Johansen was highly coveted and acquired in a blockbuster trade, but his forechecking can be lackluster, and his decision-making with the puck is erratic. Nevertheless, because he has the requisite skill to be a star, hope is extended. Johansen is usually paired with James Neal, who sneakily had a very good season. If the Johansen and Neal line can dominate, Nashville can win. After all, the Predators did finish better than the Ducks in even-strength Goal differential and Scoring Chances differential. The margin between these teams is miniscule.

At the beginning of the season, there was some concern that the Ducks’ core had ossified. Getzlaf and Kesler were not scoring and both players were struggling to put their imprimatur on each shift. That storyline evaporated by the end of the season, but it bears remembering going forward. The Ducks are aging, and while Rickard Rakell provides necessary artistry in his ability to score and pass inside the offensive zone, the team needs to win this season. It might be ugly, but the Ducks are not flaming out in the first round.

Prediction: Ducks in seven

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