Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Western Conference playoff preview

The NHL playoffs start tonight, which means we've got only a few hours left to break down each series and get our predictions on the record, followed by a few weeks of regretting each and every one of them. As always, please remember that prior to the season I picked the Stars and the Lightning for the Stanley Cup Final, and you should not listen to anything I tell you is going to happen.

On Monday, we broke down the Eastern Conference, and I already cravenly backtracked on one of my picks during the podcast. Today, let's move out West.

Central Division

The Central ceded its status as the league's toughest division to the Metro this year, but it's still very good. As always, the Blackhawks are the team to beat, but for the first time in four years, they'll actually be starting at home.

#1 Chicago Blackhawks vs. WC Nashville Predators

In this corner: The Blackhawks (50-23-9, 109 points, +28 goals differential not counting shootouts), who locked up the top seed with weeks to play and then cruised down the stretch.

And in this corner: The Predators (41-29-12, 94 points, +18), a preseason Cup favorite that stumbled through much of the first half before eventually getting on track.

Head-to-head: The Blackhawks took four of five.

Dominant narrative: The closest thing to a dynasty we've seen during the cap era takes aim at their fourth Stanley Cup. It's hard to overstate how impressive Chicago's run on top of the NHL has been in a league where the salary cap is supposed to drag teams back to the pack. Now they head into the playoffs as the clear favorite out West but draw a deceivingly tough matchup with Nashville.

Injury report: Everyone is banged up this time of year, but all the big names in Chicago sound reasonably healthy for Game One. Nashville is in rougher shape with several players potentially on the sidelines; key defenseman Roman Josi is hobbled but should play.

The big question: Can anyone beat the Blackhawks? Hey, it's already out there. It plays into the narrative all sports fans secretly love, that of the near-invincible favorite waiting for just the right underdog to show up and shock the world. So here's a spoiler: Yes, of course someone can beat the Hawks. In today's NHL, anybody can beat anybody else, even in a seven-game series. Chances are, somebody will beat Chicago over the next two months. Can it be Nashville? It sure can. Will it? Uh, let me get back to you on that one.

One player to watch: P.K. Subban. If you're a sports fan, you should always be watching Subban, just because. But he's also a guy with a history of having big playoff moments, and he loves the spotlight. Remember his "I can't wait to take it all away from them" quote about the Bruins a few years ago? Let's see how he feels about facing the league's marquee team.

Key number: 77.7 percent. That's Chicago's penalty kill rate, the worst among the 16 playoff teams, and you'll hear about it plenty over the coming days. As others have pointed out, that stat is a bit misleading because of how badly the Hawks started. You can't totally hand-wave away a team's worst stretches, but Chicago isn't in as much special teams trouble as you might think.

Prediction: Blackhawks in seven.

Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: Subban gets an overtime goal in the series.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

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