Western Conference Playoff Preview

The playoffs are here! After six months of watching regular season games, we now get to enjoy the spectacle that is postseason hockey.

Funny Tweets aside, this year’s playoffs are probably going to be really fun, mainly because you could make a case for 8 to 10 teams to win the Stanley Cup, and not be completely off base with your choice (#parity).

With that many good teams, some Cup contenders will be going home in round one. Most of them will be from the extremely deep Western Conference, where powerhouses like St. Louis and Chicago are meeting up in the first round.

Here’s a breakdown of each first round series in the West, along with predictions provided by intuition and a statistical model.

Dallas Stars vs. Minnesota Wild

Dallas Strengths: The Stars have one of the best offenses in the entire league, led by Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin up front, and John Klingberg on the back end. They are also fifth in the league in 5v5 Corsi For percentage.

Dallas Weaknesses: Goaltending could be a big issue for Dallas. Antii Niemi and Kari Lehtonen have been well below average this season, with the duo’s combined .904 save percentage in all situations being the lowest total among playoff teams. The team also has struggled recently, with a 49.5% CF% since the trade deadline. Some of that could have to do with injuries to Tyler Seguin and John Klingberg, but the dip in performance is still something to keep an eye on.

Minnesota Strengths: Devan Dubnyk has been a great 5v5 goaltender for the Wild, posting a .929 adjusted save percentage at evens, ninth among goalies who played at least 50 games. The Wild also have Nino Niederreiter, who has been one of the best puck possession players in the league this year. From a team standpoint, the Wild have a high penalty differential, due to the fact that they’re rarely in the penalty box; they had the fewest times shorthanded in the entire league.

Minnesota Weaknesses: Outside of Dubnyk, the Wild really don’t look like a strong team. They have poor 5 on 5 numbers, (46.8% CF% since the trade deadline) and aren’t good on special teams (15th on the power play, 27th on the penalty kill). It’s hard to see the Wild making it past the first round.

Minnesota is a bad 5v5 team. Dallas is a good 5v5 team. It’s not at all difficult to see the Stars absolutely steamroll the Wild, and move onto the next round of the playoffs.

Shane’s Prediction: Dallas in 4.

Model’s prediction: Dallas in 7.

St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks

St. Louis Strengths: The St. Louis Blues were a strong 5v5 team for most of the regular season, finishing 8th in Corsi For percentage. They really excelled when Jaden Schwartz returned to the lineup, however, and since the trade deadline, the Blues are 3rd in the league with a 55.7% CF%. Combine that with great goaltending, the league’s 6th most efficient power play and 2nd most efficient penalty kill, and the Blues really start to look like the best team in the West.

St. Louis Weaknesses: This may be a little nit-picky, but the Blues’ penalty differential isn’t the greatest. They end up shorthanded more often than they end up with the man-advantage, which may not even end up being an issue in the playoffs. Seriously, it’s really hard to find a weakness with the Blues.

Chicago Strengths: The Chicago Blackhawks have one of the best goalies in the league in Corey Crawford, who has a pretty strong Vezina case. The Blackhawks also have the league’s second most efficient power play, as Artemi Panarin and Patrick Kane are absolutely lethal with the man advantage.

Chicago Weaknesses: Compared to the rest of the West, Chicago’s 5v5 numbers are pretty bad. They finished the year with a 51.3% CF% percentage, and since the trade deadline, haven’t been better, with a 50.9% CF%. In a series against St. Louis, the Blackhawks just might not be able to keep up at even strength, and St. Louis’ penalty kill might be able to nullify any advantage they may have had through their power play.

This is not the dominant Chicago teams we’ve seen in the past, and this St. Louis team has gotten huge boosts from young players like Colton Parayko, Robby Fabbri, and Joel Edmundson. The Blues finally have a star in Vladimir Tarasenko, and I see them smoking past the Blackhawks.

Shane’s Prediction: St. Louis in 4.

Model Prediction: St. Louis in 5.

Anaheim Ducks vs. Nashville Predators 

Anaheim Strengths: The Anaheim Ducks struggled to score goals early in the season, so switched to a heavy neutral zone trap and have smothered the opposition ever since. They finished the year in 3rd with a 52.9% CF%, and lead the league in both power play efficiency and penalty kill efficiency.

Anaheim Weaknesses: The Ducks haven’t been a dominant 5v5 team recently; since the trade deadline, they rank 12th among playoff teams with a 50.7% CF%. They, like the Blues, also don’t have the best penalty differential.

Nashville Strengths: The Nashville Predators have one of the strongest defensive corps in the league, and that defense propels them to 5v5 dominance. Over the course of the season, they posted a 52.7% CF%, and since the trade deadline, the team has been at 52.2%.

Nashville Weaknesses: Pekka Rinne hasn’t been strong for the Predators this year, with his .913 adjusted 5v5 save percentage being the worst total among goalies who played at least 50 games. Other than that, the Predators don’t have any glaring holes; their special teams are average, and they don’t take tons of penalties. This is going to be a close series.

The 5v5 play is a bit of a toss-up, but Anaheim’s dominance on special teams proves to be too much for the Predators.

Shane’s Prediction: Anaheim in 6.

Model’s Prediction: Nashville in 7.

Los Angeles Kings vs. San Jose Sharks 

Los Angeles Strengths: For what feels like the 100th year in a row, the Los Angeles Kings are the best Corsi team in the NHL. They finished the season with the highest CF% (56.8%) and have the highest CF% (57.4%) since the trade deadline. The Kings are also 8th in the league in power play efficiency, though their penalty kill is merely mediocre (15th).

Los Angeles Weaknesses: Time to get nitpicky! The Kings take more penalties than they draw. That’s pretty much their only weakness. Even playing Rob Scuderi consistency hasn’t hurt them, as they’ve posted a 57.4% CF% with him in their lineup. The Kings are very, very good.

San Jose Strengths: The San Jose Sharks, like the Los Angeles Kings, are a good 5v5 team. They finished 8th in CF%, and are 3rd in CF% since the trade deadline. The Sharks are also very good at drawing penalties, ranking 5th in the league in power play opportunities. When they get those opportunities, they often score, ranking 3rd in power play efficiency. They may be a poor penalty killing team (20th), but they don’t go shorthanded very often (only 6 teams have been shorthanded less than the Sharks).

San Jose Weaknesses: It will be interesting to see what the Sharks do in net, as Martin Jones has been their starter for most of the season. Jones has a .918 save percentage in 65 games. The team’s backup, on the other hand, is James Reimer, who played in 32 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs before being acquired by San Jose, and playing 8 games with them. In those 40 games, Reimer has a .922 save percentage. Regardless, neither Jones nor Reimer appear to be the same quality goalie as others in the league, putting the Sharks at a slight disadvantage.

This is the most intriguing series to me, mainly because it’s going to be very, very close. The Sharks just might be able to match the Kings at even strength, and if they do so, then their ability to draw penalties and score on the power play should give them the edge. If they can’t hang at 5v5, or if their power play goes cold, then the Kings will walk away victors.

Shane’s prediction: San Jose in 6.

Model prediction: San Jose in 6.

(statistics courtesy of war-on-ice.com and are score adjusted at 5v5 unless otherwise mentioned.)

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