Over the past three Stanley Cup playoff runs, while every team had a chance, in the Western Conference it seemed like only two teams were in the mix for the Stanley Cup. Sure, there were consistently strong teams like the St. Louis Blues or Anaheim Ducks, but the common consensus was that it would be the Chicago Blackhawks or the Los Angeles Kings representing the West to play for the league championship. In 2015, the Kings became just the sixth team in NHL history that won’t get a chance to defend their championship. As for the Blackhawks, their offense has gone colder than a January night in the Windy City over the past few weeks. Patrick Kane returning earlier than expected in Round 1 will help, but there could be some rust in the first couple of games.
Of the eight teams in the Western Conference, I think a legitimate argument can be made for the six of the eight participants. The Calgary Flames are fun to watch and a nice story, but their too young and inexperienced to make a deep run. The Winnpeg Jets are also a nice story (it will be an epic environment for game three of their first round series), and it’s great that we’ll be seeing our first playoff “white-out” in Winnipeg since 1996. They have some experienced guys in the line-up, and a first round upset isn’t out of the question, but I don’t trust the goaltending duo of Ondrej Pavelec & Michael Hutchinson to carry them far.
As for the other six playoff teams out West, here’s why they can make a run:
Chicago Blackhawks – Just because they aren’t as heavy a favorite as they’ve been in the past, it doesn’t mean they can’t right the ship. They’re loaded with playoff experience, and the unexpected, early return of Patrick Kane will give the line-up a jolt. Guys like Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, and Brad Richards will need to step up their game if they don’t want Nashville hanging around.
St. Louis Blues – St. Louis won a tough Central Division this year that saw five teams make the playoffs. The Blues are probably the deepest and most balanced team in the conference, and getting Vladimir Tarasenko and Alex Steen back right before the playoffs will provide a big boost. For the Blues to win the West, they’ll need consistency between the pipes. Brian Elliott was the man to start the year, but both he and Jake Allen have been very streaky. A recent subpar run of games by Elliott has opened the door for Jake Allen to be the top guy. Their performance in the crease can either put St. Louis over the top or end their season early.
Anaheim Ducks – The other division winner in the West was the Ducks. Anaheim ran away with the Pacific, and didn’t really need to look over their shoulder much in the standings down the stretch. The additions of James Wisniewski and Simon Despres at the trade deadline gave them the deeper blueline that they needed to make a long playoff run. This is also where the off-season acquisition of Ryan Kesler should pay off. Much like the Blues, Anaheim’s goaltending situation is going to dictate how far they can go. Either Frederik Andersen or John Gibson will need to stake their claim on the crease early in the first round and hold on to it for the long term.
Vancouver Canucks – Even though they missed the playoffs last season (cough cough John Tortorella), the Canucks have their core in place from the previous playoff campaigns. Even though it looks like Eddie Lack will be the initial guy between the pipes for Vancouver, having Ryan Miller as an insurance policy is a nice fallback to have.. They get production from all over their line-up, which is a big key to playoff success. The bracket they’re in has them facing Calgary in the first round and probably Anaheim in the second round, so there’s no reason why the Canucks couldn’t find themselves in the Conference Finals if they take care of business.
Nashville Predators – Up until March, the Predators were considered one of the elite teams in the NHL. They’ve cooled off a lot over the season’s past six weeks, but having a top-notch goalie like Pekka Rinne gives you a chance in every series. They have one of the better bluelines in the conference, but the whole team will need to wake up and smell the playoff coffee considering the way their regular season finished.
Minnesota Wild – The Wild were a team that was left for dead in the months of December and January. After acquiring goaltender Devan Dubnyk from Arizona, he went on a run of 39 consecutive starts (spanning January 15th through April 7th), posting a 26-8-3 record during that time. Not only did that put Minnesota well in to the playoff picture, it makes them the team that no one else in the West wants to see along their quest to the Stanley Cup Final.