Unlike the Central Division, the Pacific was a race right down to the last game with the Anaheim Ducks (105 points) once again prevailing. Surprisingly, the team that chased them to the finish line was not the Los Angeles Kings (who missed the playoffs and sacked both Dean Lombardi and Darryl Sutter a day later) or the San Jose Sharks (99 points) who took the third spot. Instead, it was the Edmonton Oilers (103 points) led by second-year phenom Connor McDavid. The Sharks made the cut but fell behind with a late season skid.
Where the Sharks fell, the Calgary Flames (94 points) surged with a nine-game winning streak in March. They made sure that everyone was on notice that the Flames would be heading back to the Playoffs. The Pacific was a tighter race than the Central, but it was a four-team race as the Kings, Coyotes, and Canucks were never really in the hunt down the final stretch where the Central teams were only vying for the last two spots as the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild were well in control of the top two spots.
In recent years, the West has been dominant with Los Angeles, San Jose, Anaheim, Chicago, Minnesota, Nashville, Dallas, and St. Louis all looking like teams that could feasibly make a strong push. The Western Conference Finals have been some of the most exciting battles as well, but the balance has shifted again. While the Central still has several teams that look like they could make a push to the Stanley Cup Final, the Pacific has a pair of contenders and what can best be described as pretenders. In addition, the East has reasserted themselves as the Metropolitan and Atlantic Divisions were extremely competitive this year, where in the last few years there were a couple of legitimate contenders also-rans.
Sure, upsets happen but barring a major injury, a goaltending implosion of epic proportions, or a sharknado swallowing southern California the Pacific is still a two horse race.
The real excitement in the Pacific came out of Edmonton as Connor McDavid continued to dazzle in his sophomore season. His 100 point season earned him the Art Ross Trophy and more than likely it will lock up the MVP title as well. The first in what will almost certainly be a full trophy case when his time in the NHL is done. While McDavid is the main draw in the Pacific, the race to the Cup is unlikely to be as certain as the space he’ll be needing on his mantle in the future, but sometime very soon there will be banner(s) raised in the shiny new Rogers Place well before the newness wears off. The road to the Western Conference Final is going to be punishing with the hard-hitting Ducks likely to stand between any team hoping to battle the Central Division on the way to a Western Conference title.
The Ducks will face off against the Wild Card Calgary Flames in what will undoubtedly be a physical battle as the teams have already come to blows earlier in the season. While the Sharks will hope that their veteran status will help them stave off the quick and skillful Oilers. Can Brent Burns effectively slow McDavid down? Will the Flames or the Ducks emerge unscathed from what could be a rough and tumble battle in the first round? And, if they do, will there be anything left in the tank as they meet the Oilers or Sharks?
Anaheim Ducks (46-23-13) vs. Calgary Flames (45-33-4)
Season Series: Ducks 4-1
Two years ago, Calgary flamed out in the second round against these Anaheim Ducks (4-1), while the end result may not be that far off this team has a few more weapons in their arsenal. The Flames have stronger goaltending from Brian Elliott and a few x-factors like Matthew Tkachuk and Stanley Cup Winners in Kris Versteeg and Troy Brouwer that could present some problems for the always formidable Ducks. If the name Tkachuk sounds familiar, you might remember his father Keith Tkachuk who played through 2010 (most notably with Winnipeg/Phoenix and St. Louis). Both Matthew and his father have a familiarity with the sin bin and found their way there by playing the role of sand paper, irritating everyone that comes in contact with them. And both could punish teams that engage by finding ways to get the puck to the net. In fact, Tkachuk is so adept at irritating that poison control is compiling a treatment plan.
Tkachuk battled his way into the league and made a bigger splash as he tangled with Drew Doughty earning some harsh criticism from the veteran defenseman who called the young agitator out for being ‘dirty’. Some thought perhaps the 19-year-old would tone it down after being called out to the press by the reigning Norris Trophy winner, but not Tkachuk. Tkachuk shared a few words on the incident with the media himself and then proceeded to go after any player in a Kings uniform, including Doughty until one of them took the bait in their next game. For that, Tkachuk is being lauded as fearless much like his father was, but that is up for debate.
If the Flames hope to do any significant damage to the Ducks chances of moving on to the second round, Tkachuk is going to have to play like he is ten foot tall and bulletproof. With the Ducks, he won’t have to go looking for a fight, they’ll bring it to him. His bravado already wrote the check, it’ll be up to him to make sure he can balance it out.
Having said that, even if Tkachuk rolls in like a heavyweight prize fighter, and Versteeg and Brouwer manage to impart every ounce of wisdom they have to offer, there is still one big fat glaring problem that the Flames have thus far been unable to work out. The Flames are going to have to figure out how to win at the Honda Center where they have gone 0-20-5. This streak dates back to April 25, 2006. Let that settle in for a minute.
They were still called the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf were rookies, and the Ducks were still a year away from winning their first (and only) Stanley Cup with Randy Carlyle at the helm in his first stint as head coach. The Ducks are certainly hoping that his return could be the catalyst that gets them back to the Cup Final, and perhaps raise the Cup once again.
This Flames team may be a better rendition of the prior model, but if they can’t win in Anaheim they’ll still be booking tee times by the middle of next week.
The Ducks and Flames are bound to drop the gloves early and often with a heavy dose of animosity brewing over an April 4th knee-on-knee hit delivered by Flames captain Mark Giordano that took out Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler (out two to six weeks). Whether Fowler is available is yet to be determined, but either way, the Ducks will likely be looking for a pound of flesh. This first rounder is likely to garner the first player to get bounced from the game with a misconduct as there are a number of players on both sides capable of stirring up whatever bad blood that happens to be boiling between them.
Neither team will shy away from being a physical presence, but the Ducks almost certainly have the edge as that hard-hitting style of play is what has helped them dominate the Pacific Division for the last five years. There will be no easy way through the Ducks.
When the Ducks aren’t laying waste to any red jersey in their vicinity, they also have an array of scorers in their arsenal with Ryan Kesler, Rikard Rakell, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Jakob Silfverberg leading the charge. They also have the depth up the middle that can break games off the draw. Antoine Vermette was brought in during the offseason as a face-off specialist and has delivered just over 62% at the dot. The Flames top trigger men hover at or below the 50% range. It’s pretty simple, the team that wins the puck controls the game and that can be especially daunting when teams are locked in a chess match and the Flames can’t win at the Honda Center.
For the Flames, it’s going to come down to their ability to battle for the puck which is going to be a punishing task with the army of rabid dogs the Ducks like to deploy. Johnny Gaudreau is going to have his work cut out for him, as his ability to advance with the puck is going to be severely limited with Kesler, and Perry looming in whatever space he manages to carve out for himself. In fact, Gaudreau and the rest of the Flames speedsters will likely feel like they’ve been wearing the Ducks bruisers like some high fashion accessory by the time the series is over.
For the Flames, there are a few things that could potentially work against the Ducks. The longer the series goes, the better. The Ducks have a penchant for blowing Game 7’s, the trick will be staying healthy through the brutal onslaught it will take to get to a Game 7 because the Ducks will be doing anything in their power to avoid that scenario altogether. In addition, the Flames will have to aggressively get to the net and test John Gibson who has yet to truly prove himself in the playoffs. With Frederick Andersen now in Toronto, it will be Gibson’s net, but Jonathan Bernier is waiting in the wings and Carlyle has proven he’s not afraid to go to the veteran should Gibson falter.
The Flames will also have to use their speed effectively, as it is their best weapon for putting the Ducks on their heels. The Ducks hard-hitting ways can be a huge deterrent, but they can’t hit what they can’t catch.
When all is said and done, the deck is stacked heavily in favor of the Ducks and the Flames abysmal record at the Honda Center is a psychological hurdle that could get into the heads of even the most battle-tested veterans. My prediction is that the Flames will battle, but ultimately they’re going to get shaken down for their lunch money and hung on the nearest flag pole.
Prediction: Ducks in five
Edmonton Oilers (47-26-9) vs. San Jose Sharks (46-29-7)
Season Series: Edmonton 3-2
The Edmonton Oilers put up a strong fight for the top of the Pacific Division but came up just shy of the target. The Sharks should have been in the heat of that battle as well, but the team finished the season on an epic slide dropping nine of their last 13 games, two of those losses were delivered by the Oilers. Not exactly the finish the Sharks were hoping for.
On the other hand, the Oilers won 12 of their final 14 games with McDavid notching his 100th point of the season and the Art Ross Trophy in his final game of the regular season. To be fair, the hardware had been locked down well ahead of game 82 with Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane stuck on 89 points as they tied for second in the race.
The Oilers are a young, fast team with a lot of high-end skill up front. This should look somewhat familiar to the Sharks who went up against a younger, faster team in last year’s Stanley Cup Final and looked a bit like Wile E. Coyote AND his anvil as the Pittsburgh Penguins masterfully played the Roadrunner. Unfortunately, this Oilers team is even younger, and perhaps a bit faster, and starving for their first taste of the Stanley Cup Playoffs after a long drought. Unless they can take advantage of the Oilers less than perfect back end, this showdown is likely to go much the same way with the Sharks looking like they are skating in tar pit as their opponents fly effortlessly around them.
While the Oilers have a few talented young defensemen, this is perhaps the biggest test they’ve faced and the one key weakness that could perhaps be exploited. While veteran Andrej Sekera, along with Adam Larsson, and Oscar Klefbom can hold their own on the blue line, Darnell Nurse and Kris Russell can be a bit more hit or miss. However, the odds are good that coach Todd McLellan will shelter them as best he can. It certainly helps that McLellan has a deep knowledge of the Sharks and how they operate having coached San Jose from 2008-2015, that knowledge will almost certainly favor the Oilers as they work on their plan of attack and how best to deploy their stable of talented young forwards.
McLellan is also quite familiar with some of San Jose’s best offensive weapons having worked alongside Brent Burns, Logan Couture (who is currently practicing with a full cage after a puck to the mouth), Joe Thornton (unlikely to start Game 1), Joe Pavelski, and Patrick Marleau. All of these players have significant offensive upside, but Edmonton has one player in their back pocket that can turn a game with a flick of the wrist.
Did I mention McDavid?
He is no less electrifying or dangerous than Crosby was in his first couple of seasons and based on what we have seen of McDavid in his first two seasons there is every reason to believe McDavid is going to get even better.
The Sharks will have to get in front of Cam Talbot and find ways to get the puck to the net early and often. Talbot is a solid netminder, but he has appeared in 73 games this season which is the heaviest workload among netminders by a fair amount. Frederick Andersen played in 66 for Toronto, and Braden Holtby appeared in 63 for the Capitals. That’s a lot of hockey and while it very well could amount to nothing, should he falter that will likely be one of the first stats to gets picked apart.
On the other end of the ice, the Sharks rely on Martin Jones who was a Playoff hero for the Sharks last season backstopping the team all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. He appeared in 65 games this season, and while his numbers fell off a bit from last year he is still a top netminder who is more than capable of stealing a game on occasion. The question is does he have enough magic in his bag of tricks to neutralize McDavid?
Perhaps Jones and Burns combined can hit the dimmer on the McDavid Spotlight for a game, but at the end of next week, this image might be more appropriate for San Jose (the only thing missing will be the beards).
Prediction: Edmonton in five
One team will stand, the others will just be footnotes.
It all kicks off on Wednesday night. Are you ready?