Every team has a weakness, and no team is perfect. The Western Conference of the NHL looks to be stacked this year headed into the playoffs, but that’s not to say there is any clear-cut favorite. While the Blues have the best record, and have been nearly invincible at times, very few feel confident to go the distance outside of St. Louis. Like the rest of the west, the first round could be very treacherous.
Just like in the world of combat sports/boxing/MMA, styles make fights interesting, not records.
With the season winding down, we’re at the point where we know a bit more about the teams involved, and what can beat them. Some of these matchups will be obvious beatdowns, but others…
ST. LOUIS BLUES
- Reasonable finish- 1st, but second is possible.
- Tough, grinding style. Very system based and structured.
- Rolls 3 lines that score, and a 4th to check and chip in small minutes.
- Best goaltending tandem, questions on who the #1 is, but solid either way.
The Blues have been solid all year, and haven’t dipped in the standings despite losing guys like Andy MacDonald and Alex Steen at times. They will pick apart teams that try to out-finesse them, and look to beat you in a transition game. They’re big, and finish checks. There’s nothing overly complex about their game, they’re just very very good at it. Ken Hitchcock knows what he has, and they win most games by not having to stray from their formula.
Their easiest matchup of the remaining contenders- Phoenix. The Coyotes like to skate the puck, make slick passes, and have counted on Mike Smith to stand on his head at times. Their defense has a solid top pairing with Klesla and Yandle, but their depth isn’t where the Blues have theirs. The Blues protect their goalie, and play too structured and physical for the Yotes to succeed.
The hardest matchup for the Blues? The Kings, without a doubt. Jonathan Quick has played as well as any goalie in the league this year, and that includes most of the year when the Kings weren’t scoring goals. LA rolls a top-six that most teams would envy, and guys like Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown are a tough matchup for anyone. The Blues have been shutdown by hot goalies this year, and Quick is no exception.
- Reasonable finish- 2nd, but first is possible.
- Deep as any team in the league, if healthy.
- Goaltending will be a topic of discussion, but not a weakness.
- Offense that creates space, and takes timely shots.
The Canucks are likely the favorite to win it all, again. Their team, on paper, is as scary as there is. There is nothing they can’t do, except impose themselves physically. That’s the weakness Boston exploited on Vancouver, and it proved to be their fall. Unless a team causes the Canucks to scramble and be checked, they’re in for a long night.
With that said, they should be rooting for San Jose to fall to the 7th space. The Sharks are good, but their weaknesses fit the strengths of Vancouver (inconsistent goaltending, transition game). The Canucks will need to take advantage of Douglas Murray who loves to play aggressive and hit big, and rattle the cage of Niemi. Is San Jose better than last year? Bringing in Burns and Havlat were smart moves, but still not enough to overcome the Canucks.
Who will give the Canucks the biggest headache? How about the Stars? The Stars have a deep corps of forwards that win draws (except Ribeiro), play the boards well, snipe, and cycle well. Steve Ott is a headache for anyone, and having him goad Alex Burrows will be entertainment to the darkest minded fans everywhere. Plus, Kari Lehtonen is having the best season that no one is paying attention to.
DETROIT RED WINGS
- Reasonable finish- 4th or 5th, with 6th also likely
- Injuries are a concern, but should be getting healthy around playoff time.
- Immaculate top line, structured gameplay.
- Solid goaltending from Howard when/if healthy.
They’re still good, folks. While Brian Rafalski is gone, the top two defense pairings are still very tough to beat. It’s all about matchups with Detroit, and their puck possession style has given their foes fits for the last two decades. Detroit protects their goalie, and doesn’t allow much of a window to be checked. With an older lineup, staying healthy will be the challenge as it was last year.
Who is they’re easiest prey? They match up great against Chicago, who have some serious goaltending concerns. The Blackhawks just aren’t as nasty as they need to be to beat a team that has to be knocked off the puck. The Sharks are nasty, as are the Blues and Kings, but unless one of them slides into the 4th or 5th spot- it’s likely either Nashville or Chicago.
And Nashville would be the tougher out this year due to one man- Pekka Rinne. While Detroit can give Nashville fits, it’s the tougher pairing unless something drastic happens.
- Likely 5th or 4th, but 6th still possible
- Deep group of forwards, balanced with skill and grit
- Solid goaltending from Pekka Rinne
- All four lines play, 3rd pairing chips in
The key to Nashville going farther lies in a few young souls that will be depended on for big minutes. One of which is Roman Josi, who allows Hal Gill to play his best type of game. The others include guys like Colin Wilson, Gabriel Bourque, and last year’s heroes Matt Halischuk & Nick Spalling. Solid special teams make Nashville a tough out in the regular season, but with less calls made as the playoffs come around the goals must start coming from 5 on 5 and transition opportunities.
Most favorable matchup for Nashville is easily the Blackhawks unless the Preds slide to 6th. Chicago isn’t as deep as they were two years ago (their entire third line that won them a round or two in the playoffs is gone), and their goaltending situation is sketchy at best. Nashville has humiliated Corey Crawford this year, and Ray Emery has only fared slightly better.
Detroit causes the most problems for Nashville just based on their style of play. In the realm of Trotz hockey, teams chasing the puck is good defense. In Detroit, holding the puck is good defense. Their puck possession game is tough to beat when running on all healthy cylinders, and doesn’t allow room for much pressure- which the Predators need to generate offense going the other way.
- Most likely stuck in 6th, but could rise to 5th.
- Great top six when healthy.
- Defensemen 1-3 also very good, but bottom pairing is sketchy.
- Goaltending is a major issue.
The crest on the front may scare some fans, but this is not the team that won the cup. This team is younger, and with several holes. However, they are still dangerous and possess some of the best shooters in the game. The health of Jonathan Toews is the lynchpin to their playoff chances, taking pressure off Corey Crawford and Ray Emery.
Either of their Central division rivals would be tougher than if they stayed in sixth, but Nashville especially since they are built in reverse than the Hawks are. Chicago would need spectacular netminding, and very timely scoring to avoid an early exit if they were to climb to fifth. Even at sixth, the Kings and Stars pose a huge threat.
Of the Pacific division teams that Chicago could hope to see, the Sharks would likely be their most generous match up. Niemi has not fared well against Chicago, and the Hawks have enough speed in their forwards to thwart a bigger, slower Sharks team in transition. Even with the uncertainty of the goaltending in Chicago, they hold an edge over the Sharks- who have to rely on Thomas Greiss if Niemi is shaken.