Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Playoff preview: Western Conference

The NHL playoffs are here, and the consensus in the hockey world can be summed up as this: Holy crap, this year’s bracket is almost impossible to predict.

The playoffs are always tricky, and most years there are at least a few potential upset picks to be had. But generally, you still wind up with maybe six or eight legitimate Cup contenders, with everyone else falling into the “happy to win a round or two” category. Not this season. With nobody emerging as anything close to a clear favorite and at least a dozen teams having a plausible path to the Cup, trying to make predictions is a fool’s game.

Luckily, I am just such a fool, so this year’s preview will include picks for you to bookmark and then laugh at when they’ve all been proven wrong in two weeks. Just don’t pretend yours are any better, because anyone who claims they’ve got this all figured out is a crazy person.

The Western Conference is up first; we’ll dive into the East tomorrow.


It was only a year ago that the Pacific felt like the best division in hockey, powered by the three California teams. Now, the playoffs feature the Ducks and three Canadian underdogs. Things move fast in this league.

No. 2 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 3 Calgary Flames

Series starts: Wednesday in Vancouver

Season series: The teams split four games.

Playoff history: They’ve met six times, most recently in 2004. In the last three of those meetings, the series has gone to overtime of the seventh game. And all three times, the winner went to the Cup final.

Dominant narrative: An aging Canucks core just a few years removed from dominating the league (but never winning it all) makes what could be one last run at the franchise’s first Stanley Cup … but they’ll have to get past the grittiest collection of grits that ever did grit.

In this corner: The Calgary Flames (45-30-7, 97 points, plus-24 goals differential)

The big question: How the hell did they get here? The Flames just aren’t that good — even their biggest fans would probably concede that — and Mark Giordano’s injury should have torpedoed their season. They didn’t even bother to bring in any reinforcements at the trade deadline, because, really, what was the point? And yet they’re still chugging along, defying the numbers all the way, and they suddenly find themselves in what looks like a very winnable matchup.

One player to watch: Johnny Gaudreau. The rookie is all sorts of fun to watch. He’s also tiny, which makes him the sort of player who conventional wisdom says can sometimes disappear once the playoffs turn into a war of attrition. If that happens, the Flames are probably doomed.

Health watch: Goalie Karri Ramo is day-to-day, meaning Jonas Hiller is the starter for now, and lots of other guys are banged up. And, of course, Giordano has a torn biceps and is out for at least three more months. So, this being the playoffs, expect the rumors of him being mysteriously ahead of schedule to start sometime around Game 4.

Key number: 44.4 percent, the Flames’ score-adjusted Corsi, third-worst in the league. This is one of the most important possession stats for predicting future performance, and the Flames were worse than the Oilers, Coyotes, and Maple Leafs. That’s bad.

Bandwagon potential: Enormous. As we covered a few weeks ago, the Flames may well be the most likable team in the NHL. Their odds of winning the Stanley Cup are bordering on nonexistent, so you’re signing up to have your heart broken eventually, but the ride may be worth it.

They’ll win this series if: Nothing we know about hockey makes sense anymore. Or, as this year’s Flames call it, the status quo.

And in this corner: Vancouver Canucks (48-29-5, 101 points, plus-16 goals differential)

The big question: Who’ll start the series in goal? And who’ll finish it? The Canucks spent big last summer to bring in Ryan Miller as the undisputed starter, but he was just OK before getting hurt in February. Miller returned to action Saturday, and he didn’t look sharp while giving up five goals to the Oilers. Vancouver may start out with backup Eddie Lack, who played well in Miller’s absence. But if either guy has a bad game period shift, expect the well-oiled Vancouver Goaltending Controversy Machine to fire up.

One player to watch: The Sedins. OK, that’s technically two players, but close enough. Both twins had rebound seasons this year, and at 34 years old they’re still the driving force behind the Canucks offense. They’re also great fun to watch; check out this sick no-look pass from Henrik to Daniel from last week.

Health watch: They’re in relatively good shape; Zack Kassian remains out, but they don’t have any critical players on the shelf.

Key number: Minus-9, the Canucks’ 5-on-5 goals differential, the worst of any playoff team (via Dave Ebner). The next worst: the Flames, at minus-2.

Bandwagon potential: Minimal. These aren’t quite the same Canucks you learned to hate in 2011, but there are still a few familiar names [cough] … Burrows. And they’re facing the Flames, who are basically the Daniel Bryan of the NHL playoffs.

They’ll win this series if: One of the goalies can stand tall long enough for the Sedins to work their magic one more time.

Prediction: The overmatched Flames refuse to die, but the Canucks eke out a win in seven games. In overtime, obviously.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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