About halfway through the season, it looked as though the Minnesota Wild (106 points) had a stranglehold on the Central and most likely the Western Conference. In fact, they had even earned mention as a contender for the President’s Trophy. Everyone else in the Central seemed destined to battle it out for the remaining playoff spots.
Then March happened.
Minnesota plummeted back down to earth winning four of 16 games in the month of March. The Chicago Blackhawks (109 points) saw the door swinging wide open and wasted no time as they stepped over the Wild and took the top spot, and they never looked back.
The Blackhawks had all but locked up the West well ahead of the end of the season even though they coasted through their final few games.
Fortunately, Minnesota’s outstanding start kept them from falling too far in the standings as their second spot was never really in jeopardy, but home ice throughout the West was no longer on the table.
Nashville (94 points) and St. Louis (97 points) both had some ups and downs this season, with the Predators having a slow start and the Blues having a bit of an identity crisis after an offseason that brought big changes for both clubs. Neither club was in any danger of losing their place in the playoffs down the stretch, so they wrapped up the season battling one another for a more advantageous matchup in the first round. Ultimately, none of these teams are a throw away as each of them are dangerous in their own right.
Even though the division seemed a bit lopsided with Chicago and Minnesota appearing to run away with the Central, the playoffs are a different beast. Records mean nothing beyond home ice, and everyone is playing for the same goal. A Stanley Cup. For Chicago, the road ahead is familiar with three Cups since 2010 (six in franchise history), for the rest of the Central Divisions contenders, it is still just a dream. One they hope to script for themselves over the course of the next two and a half months.
In the NHL, there is no bigger stage than the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Chicago Blackhawks (50-23-9) vs. Nashville Predators (41-29-12)
Season Series: Blackhawks 4-1
The Chicago Blackhawks earned their home ice advantage, which means that anyone hoping to get through them will have to do so at the Madhouse on Madison at least once. The Madhouse plays host to a team with the second-best road record in the league (behind the New York Rangers), so that might be about as easy as taking candy from the biggest kid on the block. Can it be done? Of course, St. Louis did it last year, but the task may not be quite so easy this year because the Blackhawks and the Blues are two very different teams this year.
The Nashville Predators own the worst road record (17-20-4) of all the teams that have earned a spot in the playoffs, so that road through Chicago might look a little more daunting.
The Preds won the first game of the season series at home against the Blackhawks, but they lost the next four bouts giving the Blackhawks the edge in the season series at 4-1. In fact, the Predators haven’t won a game in Chicago in their last ten meetings dating back to October 18, 2014. The Blackhawks outscored the Predators 20-13 over the course of the series as well.
Of course, we all know that these are just numbers on paper at this point in the season, but home ice could still be a big factor. These two teams are actually quite well matched with both icing a deep blueline corps, and strong core players, and some top end skill players. With Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brian Campbell, and Trevor van Riemsdyk, the Blackhawks already had a solid blue line. With the deadline acquisition of Johnny Oduya, they also have the depth that they lacked last season. In addition, the Blackhawks have three extra defensemen with Michal Kempny, Gustav Forsling, and Michal Rozsival on the sidelines.
On many teams, Kempny and Forsling would likely be among the top six d-men on a regular basis.
They have also had solid goaltending from Corey Crawford (.918 Save Percentage, 2.55 Goals Against Average) and Scott Darling (.924 Save Percentage, 2.38 Goals Against Average), and both have already proven they can stand tall under the biggest spotlights.
At the beginning of the season, the big knock on the Blackhawks would have been the influx of youth after the cap took its annual bite out of their roster, but the young guns have turned into an asset with seven rookies contributing 105 points throughout the season. In fact, the Blackhawks may be rolling their most balanced lineup in recent memory with six players tallying 20 or more goals on the season. Players like Richard Panik, Ryan Hartman, Tanner Kero, and Nick Schmaltz have cracked the top six throughout the season with solid results. With Artem Anisimov (lower body injury) set to return for Game 1, Kero and Hartman will move back to the bottom six and round out the four-line rotation. A luxury that coach Joel Quenneville hasn’t consistently had in his bag of tricks over the last few seasons.
It certainly doesn’t hurt the Blackhawks cause at all that their lineup has a mounting list of future Hall of Famers with Quenneville, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Keith all but locks.
While experience is certain to favor the Blackhawks that isn’t the hardest thing for an opponent to overcome. No matter how well a team matches up on paper, teams are always going to be forced to pick their poison. Who is the top line that you deploy your best defensive weapons against? Do you shut down Kane and Artemi Panarin, or do you attempt to shut down Toews with his young wingers in Panik and Schmaltz? That is likely to be a fluid situation as both lines are capable of denting the net early and often.
Kane’s line (with Anisimov and Panarin) is capable of Harry Potter like magic, while Toews’ line (with Panik and Schmaltz) is both physically challenging and peppered with some serious talent as well.
Who can forget when Panik (who was passed over by several teams) made Evgeni Malkin look like he was playing EA Sports NHL circa 1991 and accidentally unplugged his controller.
For their part, Nashville is also getting a boost from their youth movement, and their arrival couldn’t have come at a better time as the biggest knock on the Preds in years past has been their ability to score goals across their lineup and goaltending. Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson have been a huge part of the Preds offensive push with 31 goals each. James Neal trails the duo with 23 goals, but the scoring does slip a bit from there. The Preds don’t have quite as many explosive scorers as the Blackhawks, but with players like Ryan Johanssen (15 Goals), Calle Jarnkrok (14 goals) also among their forward corps they are more than capable of running up the score if they go unchecked.
The Preds shipped their anchor on the blueline (Shea Weber) to Montreal over the summer, but the other half of that blockbuster trade was P.K. Subban. The blueline may stack up a little differently, but make no mistake it is still quite effective. While Subban’s numbers were down, they don’t tell the whole story as he battled injuries and only appeared in 66 games, he remains a force that shouldn’t be overlooked. The Preds still ice one of the most dangerous bluelines in the league with Roman Josi, Subban, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm eating up the bulk of the minutes on the back end.
The biggest question mark for the Predators is still in net. Pekka Rinne hasn’t been a model of consistency in recent years, but he has found a rhythm of late allowing only 14 goals in his last nine appearances of the season. His final numbers were on par with Crawford’s with a .918 Save Percentage and 2.42 Goals Against Average. However, his playoff numbers average out to .912 Save Percentage and 2.52 Goals Against which is considerably lower than both Chicago netminders. Rinne will have to be at his best if the Preds hope to upset the Blackhawks.
In the Playoffs, Crawford has an average of .920 Save Percentage and 2.26 Goals Against Average, while Darling carries .936 Save Percentage and 2.28 Goals Against Average. All of Darling’s playoff appearances came against Nashville in 2015 where he helped Crawford out of a tough spot (one in relief and four starts including both a double and a triple OT win). Crawford was called on to relieve Darling in Game 6 that year, and the team went on to win their third Stanley Cup during the Kane and Toews era. With that loss likely still in the back of their minds, the Preds are likely hoping to see Crawford over Darling (who was once in Nashville’s system).
Sometime soon, the Preds are going to break through, but it won’t be this year. The Blackhawks are primed for a deep run with scoring coming from all over their lineup, solid goaltending and the depth to battle through injuries should they pop up throughout the playoffs. Both coaches have Cup wins, but it’s tough to dispute Quenneville’s edge in a lineup chess match.
Prediction: Blackhawks in six
Minnesota Wild (49-25-8) vs St. Louis Blues (45-29-7)
Season Series: St. Louis Blues 3-2
Before the month of March, any team that drew the Minnesota Wild might have looked like lambs being led to the slaughter. However, the Wild posted a spectacularly awful month of March winning just four games.
Their Vezina candidate netminder Devan Dubnyk carried a .824 Save Percentage for the month having appeared in 14 of the 16 games. The low point was a loss to the Chicago Blackhawks where Dubnyk was yanked after allowing two goals on two shots in 4:38 minutes of play. From there, his confidence seemed to spiral forcing many to question Bruce Boudreau‘s decision to pull his netminder so quickly. Dubnyk rebounded with three wins to close the season, but a netminder that appeared untouchable early may not look as terrifying to opponents now that his wings have been clipped on such a grand stage.
To be fair, Dubnyk is not the only one to blame for the Wilds woeful March showing, in ten of the losses the Wild scored two or fewer goals. Fortunately, the season is not won or lost in one month, and the Playoffs offer a fresh start. Their stellar start to the season afforded the Wild an opportunity to hang onto the second spot in the Central without much concern and held them to a one-point edge over the top team in the Pacific (Anaheim Ducks). So, essentially the Wild only lost ground to the Blackhawks who would get home ice should the two teams meet in the second round. A concern for a later date no doubt.
The Wild started the season with a new coach in Boudreau, and a new center to add some depth up the middle with the addition of Eric Staal.
They came out swinging. The month of December was a model of consistent hockey as they won 12 of 14 games, and the team stayed red-hot right up until that March reality check. In fact, the team didn’t give up three or more games in a row until mid-March, and even then it only happened twice. This Wild team is not the team to sleep on. The addition of Martin Hanzal from the Arizona Coyotes at the deadline makes their depth at the pivot as strong as any team they’ll face on the road to winning a Stanley Cup. Hanzal hasn’t been a huge factor since he came in, but those rental players always seem to find their place in the heat of a long playoff run, and Boudreau has proven he is fairly masterful at pushing his teams well into the playoffs.
The downside is that Boudreau also happens to have a thing for Game 7’s, in that he’s never won one. Ever!
Having said that, the team on the other side has to be able to force them into a Game 7 situation for that to matter, and the St. Louis Blues may not have the arsenal to do that.
The Blues are a hard hitting, fast team with a slew of talented forwards, better than average defense, and solid netminder in Jake Allen, who has yet to officially prove himself under the playoff spotlight. However, the Blues gave up a lot during the offseason shedding David Backes (Boston), Troy Brouwer (Calgary), and Brian Elliott (Calgary). Backes was the beating heart of this team for a long time, and his departure almost certainly played a role in what seemed to be an identity crisis during the first half of the season. The team was never terrible, but they just seemed to be missing some of the grit that had become a hallmark of the Blues over the course of Backes’ tenure with the club. They did acquire Nail Yakupov from Edmonton, but as many predicted he turned out to be exactly what he was during his time with Edmonton. A bottom six forward. He played in just 40 games and tallied three goals and six assists. If you look up thud in the dictionary, there might be a picture of Yakupov, because yet again he landed with a resounding thud.
As teams around the league stammered to make that blockbuster deadline deal that was going to put their team over the edge, the Blues had a blockbuster of their own. Well, it was a blockbuster for the Capitals anyway. The Caps got defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, and Phoenix Copley (a third-string netminder at best) while the Blues got a couple of spare parts and a three-mile long list of ‘if/then’ scenarios that could land them a few extra late round picks in the next few drafts should the Caps go deep into the playoffs. The odds are better on that than on the Blues making a similar deep run this season.
A quick recap in simple terms, the Blues handed off a top defenseman for players and potential picks that will have absolutely no positive contributions for the Blues playoff run this year. Face meet palm.
In all fairness, the Blues still have Vladimir Tarasenko, Colton Parayko, Alex Pietrangelo, Alex Steen, and Jaden Schwartz. There is still enough talent on this roster that they could put up a fight and perhaps even surprise a team, but they are nowhere near the team that they were last season, and Minnesota is unlikely to be the kind of team they could surprise. The team is going to be tested depth wise as they will not only be without Shattenkirk on the back end, but they are also still missing Robby Fabbri (ACL) and Paul Stastny (broken foot). It’s possible that Stastny will be ready to go, but Fabbri has been ruled out for the season.
While the Blues are certainly not a team to rest on as they are quick, physical, and have some highly skilled talent throughout their lineup from a depth perspective, they appear to be significantly overmatched.
Prediction: Wild in five
One team will stand, the others will just be footnotes.
It all kicks off on Wednesday night. Are you ready?