My discussion about the best two weeks in sports continues, as we begin the look for the best out west.Yes, that cheap rhyme was intentional.

bwdhDamn that dog, errr lion.  Still mocking us after all of these years.

Dallas vs Anaheim

The Ducks were able to quietly claim the #1 seed in the West, thanks mostly to some injuries to the Blues and Blackhawks.  But it would be a mistake to dismiss the Ducks as an unworthy top seed, they amassed 54 wins, were just 1 point shy of Boston for most points in the league and finished with the leagues most potent offense.  The Stars made the most of the new divisional/conference alignment, by earning a pass to the post season for the first time since 2008.  It seems to have been a very long rebuild period for Big D, will the patience pay off right away, or will Cinderella see midnight come early?

THE GOOD

As mentioned above, the Ducks finished with the highest ranked offense in the league, at least 5 on 5 anyways, finishing with a league high 192 goals at regular strength, good for a 3.2 gpg average.  Their top two stars of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, each lead the team in two offensive categories.  Perry leads the team in goals with 43 as well as +/- with an incredible +32, while Getzlaf leads the team with 56 assists and a nice point total of 87.  Together they have a combined 74 goals, 95 assists and 169 points.  Centers Nick Bonino and Mathieu Perreault have finished the season with 49 and 43 points, both career highs respectively, while Andrew Cagliano ended the season with 42, the most since his rookie campaign in Edmonton.  The Ducks also feature 2 d-men with 30 or more points, and I haven’t even mentioned guys like Saku Koivu and legendary Duck Teemu Selanne.  Hell, the Ducks had so much scoring, they were able to unload Dustin Penner to the Caps at the trade deadline for a bag of pucks and some pylons.  Well, it is California, so maybe some Satrbuck’s coupons and a Zumba dvd.

The Stars have a dynamic scoring duo of their own, in the form of acquisition Tyler Seguin and home grown draft pick Jamie Benn, who incidentally went 129th overall in 2007 and has only finished with fewer than 40 points during a lock out season.  Seguin leads the team in every major offensive category, finishing with 37 goals, 47 assists and 84 points.  He also apparently keeps himself in impressive shape for the ladies or so his photo shoot for ESPN Magazine would suggest.  Thankfully he kept his pants on though.  I’m looking at you Chara and Kessler.

THE BAD

So despite all of that scoring, how could the Ducks possibly have finished with only 44 power play goals, just 1 ahead of rival LA, who also happen to have the fewest amount of pp goals among all play off teams?  Hell, Perry almost outscored their entire power play this season alone!  Some more consistency here is needed, especially given Dallas’s lack luster special teams.

The Stars feature some of the worst special teams in the post season this year.  They’re power play is ranked 2nd from the bottom compared to the other playoff teams, (Again ahead of the Kings, can you guess what will be under their “bad” column?)  and their pk has allowed 49 tallies, only good for an 81.4 %.  The Ducks seem to score enough without the use of their pp, not being able to kill anything off though, won’t help your cause at all.

X FACTOR

If you read any of my playoff stuff before, you would know that I hate goalie controversies, and Bruce Boudreau seems to have one on his hands here.  My name is Jonas (yo-nus) Hiller was the man for Ducks the last few seasons.  Unfortunately, due to some injury issues and inconsistent play, he seems to have been passed over by rookie Frederik Andersen.  Andersen was terrific for the Ducks this year, winning 20 games and finishing with a 2.29 gaa. However, I’m always leery about handing the goaltending reigns to a rookie in the playoffs, it’s just a whole different animal with a lot of pressure and many variables.  Speaking of variables, why not throw 3rd goalie John Gibson in the mix.  Gibson certainly won’t be starting the playoffs, but could he possibly slide into the back up slot ahead of Hiller or Andersen?  Having too many forwards is a luxury, having too many defensemen is a coach’s wet dream, but having too many goalies is usually just trouble.

Speaking of goaltending issues, the Stars might have some of their own to contend with.  Starter Kari Lehtonen has been reliable for most of the season, but a head injury about a month ago, caused some panic in the Dallas front office.  Thankfully they had recently traded for Tim Thomas, who returned himself from exile this season to play with Florida.  Because when you already have a Stanley Cup, why not go somewhere warm, where there are no expectations and nobody cares how crazy you are.  Unfortunately for the Stars, but perhaps fortunately for Lehtonen, Thomas’s play hasn’t exactly been Stanley Cup caliber since the trade, winning only 2 of 8 games played and sporting a gaa that was north of 3.00 for most of that time.  Still Thomas does have the experience and we all know he has performed some miracles before at this time of year.  Something that surely won’t be lost on Lehtonen, who has played only 2 NHL playoff games in his career, and gave up a total of 11 goals against in that extremely short stretch.  Scary….….

VERDICT

You know, after writing this preview, despite finishing at opposite ends of the Western playoff landscape, these two teams have phenomenally similar issues.  I’m not sure what that means, it’s just an interesting set of circumstances.  However, despite their struggles on special teams and their goalie controversies preparing to consume them whole, this series boils down to talent and the Ducks just have more of it.  In fact, the Ducks have a lot more of it.  True that Perry and Getzlaf are the straws that turn the Anaheim drink, but the Ducks still have a nice mixture of various ingredients inside that glass, should one or both of the stirrers start to falter.  Dallas simply doesn’t have that luxury.  If they can get some scoring help for Seguin and Benn they might just push this series a few more games.  Unfortunately, if they don’t, this series might just be the most lopsided of all the opening round match ups.  Ducks in 5.

getlafhair

Who cares about your little ESPN article Seguin.  I was in a nationally televised commercial.  Oh and by the way, I’m not just the hair club captain……….

Los Angeles vs San Jose

Part of the reason for the new playoff format this season, was so the NHL could get more rivalries going in the first round.  While the system isn’t perfect, see St. Louis vs Chicago, it seems to have worked out for the better here.  Is it just me or do the Sharks and Kings play each other every playoffs?  The only thing that could add more bad blood to this series, is if we could somehow add Anaheim and create some sort of triple threat match for the heavyweight championship of California.  Both teams had nice regular seasons finishing with triple digit points, but the key difference between these teams is post season success.  The Kings are only a season removed from their shocking Stanley Cup ride, while the Sharks couldn’t find their way out of the west with mapquest, google maps, or the world’s most advanced GPS.  At least people in San Jose know who the Sharks are.  Even with a miracle playoff run to their credit, nobody in the LA media seems to know they exist.

THE GOOD

As has been the case for the past several seasons, the Sharks have had little trouble putting points on the on the board during the regular season.  Joe Pavelski lead the team with a career high 79 points, while key forwards Joe Thornton and Patrick Malreau finished just behind, with 76 and 70 points.  Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that all three men played an entire 82 games this year.  It’s not often when a team’s top 3 stars can find themselves in uniform every night.  How many x-box achievement points is that worth?  Something else the Sharks might have going for them is the nice production the 3 had during the first round of last season.  Normally you would expect your best players to be your best players, but that is hardly the case for the Sharks in the playoffs.  However, last season Thronton finished with 1 goal and 5 assists,  Marleau had 4 goals and 1 assist, while Pavelski shared the team lead in points with 4 goals and 4 assists.  In case your wondering, Logan Couture was the player he was tied with (3 goals and 5 assists).  Couture would have probably joined his teammates at 70 points or more this season, had he not been sidelined with a hand injury.  The point is, if they can keep away from disappearing like shrinky dinks this season as well, they’ll be on track to head back to round 2.  I actually never had any shrink dinks, but I do remember the commercials.

As has been the case for the past several seasons, the Kings have had little to no trouble keeping points off the board during the regular season.  Defenseman Slava Voynov, who himself played the full 82 compliment of games, has been solid for LA, while Drew Doughty finished the year +18.  Doughty was third on the team with that +/-, finishing 3 behind center Tyler Toffoli and an impressive 16 behind Anze Kopitar.  Fine job Anze, that means you lead the entire team in every major category: goals 29, assists 41, points 70 and +/- 34.  But the real accolades should go to goaltender Jonathan Quick.  Besides having one of the coolest names a goalie could ever have, Quick not only was chosen as the starter for Team USA during the Olympics, not your fault buddy, but he finished with the second best gaa of his career (2.07), good for best in the West if you remove Josh Harding.

THE BAD

Boston won the President’s Trophy, Anaheim finished first out west, Montreal is the only Canadian based franchise in the playoffs and Chicago are the defending Stanley Cup champions, yet I don’t think any team has more pressure on them to compete than the Sharks.  Nobody knows about bitter playoff disappointment better than a Shark fan.  Well, maybe a Buffalo Bills fan in the early 90’s, but nobody in very recent memory at least.  It’s well documented how they’re picked as cup favorites every year, yet can’t ever seem to even reach the finals.  Every player has to feel this heat (That video is some 80’s awesomeness at it’s best is it not?), but I think the guy who feels it the most has to be head coach Todd McLellan.  San Jose went on 3 four game losing streaks this season, and I heard grumblings after all of them regarding McLellan.  Like many of his players, McLellan’s regular season totals are pretty, 271-128-57, but his playoff numbers aren’t quite as attractive 27-28.  Those totals are sort of like the crazy you girl you met at the bar, and comparing how you felt about her as you were drinking, and what your opinion was after they turned the lights on.  Perhaps even more disturbing is his record in the series in which his team would eventually be eliminated, 20-7.  Comparing that total to the other two is like not seeing that same chick with the lights on, and instead not getting a good look at her until the following morning.  In summery, I believe there to be a lot of pressure on McLellean, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s the scapegoat fire if the Sharks face another early round exit.

So I feel as if I mentioned the LA scoring issues already at great length, but I suppose I have to put something here at least, just to make it official.  The King’s offense is the worst of any playoff team and finished only 4 from the bottom during the regular season in terms of goals per game, and 3 from the bottom in power play efficiency.  Kopitar leads the team in just about everything but, as much as I like Jeff Carter, Justin Williams and Mike Richards, the buck kinds stops at Anze.  Plus, 70 points is wonderful, but we’ve already discussed how the Sharks had three guys with that total or more.  If the Kings want to get out of this series, they have to play their game and not get involved in any high scoring affairs.

X FACTOR

If there is one player feeling some pressure as much as their head coach, it has to be goalie Antti Niemi.  Niemi started out the season strong, but has hit a very rough patch down the stretch. In his final 5 games of the season, Niemi allowed 13 goals and was pulled half way through an April 9th game vs Anahiem, a Shark loss that would allow the Ducks to claim 1st in their division and #1 overall in the Western Conference.  There was even some talk about back up Alex Stalock, and his 0 games of playoff experience, starting in goal for game 1.  Obviously, no matter how lackluster the King’s offense is, if Niemi isn’t on his game, it could be a short playoffs for the Sharks.  Yes, even shorter than what they are already accustomed to :-).  Ok, sorry, that was a low blow.  But I had a smiley next to it, so you aren’t allowed to get mad at me.

Marion Gaborik has been a man on the move the last few seasons, but it seems as if he’s finally found a place to call home in sunny California.  Just like the Terminator said he should.  In only 19 games with the Kings, Gaborik has 5 goals, 11 assists and is +7.  But beyond the production though, he’s shown great chemistry with Kopitar.  If the two can keep it up in this series, it will at least add a little bit more scoring to mix for LA.

VERDICT

It’s a shame that one of these teams has to be gone after round 1.  Despite their under achieving, San Jose is still a very solid hockey club, and LA is worth keeping around just for their Twitter account alone.  I really like the LA D core, and I believe that Jonathan Quick is the best goalie in the world, but I just can’t get around the King’s lack of scoring.  If these are all low scoring affairs, by that I mean a 1-0 or 2-1 score, than the advantage probably goes to the Kings.  Unfortunately, I don’t see the majority of the games lacking that much offense, and so I think I have to give the nod to the Sharks.  It will be close and probably go the distance, but I say the fins narrowly swim by.  SJ in 7.

batman_la_kings

Just so we’re clear on what you’re looking at here.  This is the Batman, fighting a giant shark with a lightsaber.  You may also refer to it as the most epic picture in the history of ever.  The Kings logo is done poorly, but I give whoever did this props for creativity.

Minnesota vs Colorado

When the Wild committed to huge contracts for both Ryan Suter and Zach Parise they sent two messages to their fans; they were willing to spend money, and they didn’t care if it was only spread out amongst two players.  I’m kidding, but it’s hard to say that the contracts have worked for thus far for Minny.  Last season they stumbled into the playoffs on the final day of the season, before be ousted by Chicago.  This season has definitely seen improvement, but they still finished with the second fewest points of all playoff teams in the west, and 9 behind their closest Central opponent.  That means they will finish just one slot higher than last season.  Conversely, the Avalanche have finished 13 spots higher than last year, when they had the worst record out west and finished with the 2nd fewest total points in the league.

THE GOOD

Some hockey fans remember Patrick Roy as a passionate, hall of fame worthy goalie, who won Stanley Cups with both Montreal and Colorado.  While other hockey fans might remember him for his rather fiery temper and well, this.  Or, perhaps this.  Holy Jumpin’!  Man, I wish NBC would hire Darren Pang.  At any rate, no matter what Roy you remember, he seems determined to change that impression to one of a great NHL coach.  Taking a team from worst (in their conference) to first (in their division) is no small feat.  A lot of credit has to be given to Joe Sakic and the entire front office team, not to mention the actual players, but it seems that Roy’s presence has been felt immediately.

I was joking about the contracts of Suter and Parise above, but you can’t say they haven’t been pulling their weight.  Parise had 29 goals to go with 27 assists this season and finished 2nd in overall points to, who has turned out to be a key player for them this season, last year’s acquisition Jason Pominville, who had 60 points.  Suter is a beast.  Not only did he amass 43 points this year, he has a +15 rating, averaged nearly 30 minutes of ice time per night, and incredibly played in all 82 games this season.

THE BAD

The Avalanche will apparently be without the services of center Matt Duchene for the entirety of the 1st round, as he is still recovering from a knee injury he sustained a few weeks ago.  Not only did Duchene lead the team in assists (47) and total points (70), he also plays nearly 20 minutes a night for Roy.  This will also deal a blow to their already shaky penalty kill, which finished the regular season at only 80%.

The Wild have been searching for some stability in their net for some time now, and appeared to had found it this season with Josh Harding.  Harding technically still leads the league with a 1.66 gaa, but hasn’t played since December due to issues with multiple sclerosis.   Since then, the Wild have used 4 other goalies, all with mixed results.  Darcy Kuemper looked to be the fore runner for the job, until a upper body injury and some inconsistent play down the stretch began to hamper him.  So that means that the job might go to the Universe Man himself, Ilya Bryzgalov.  Bryzgalov started the season without an NHL job, until he found himself being summoned to Edmonton during the season.  Feeling the need to do something with their net, the Wild acquired Bryz at the trade deadline with the idea of using him as a safety valve.  Unfortunately, it seems as if the damn has ruptured already, and Minnesota will more than likely have to lean on the former Flyer (yet another goalie ousted from the city of brotherly love) for any type of playoff success.  Hopefully his head is firmly planted upon his shoulders and not floating amongst the stars.

X FACTOR

With all due respect to every other rookie in the NHL, specifically Ondrej Palat of TB, nobody has been as impressive as last year’s #1 pick, Nathan MacKinnon.  MacKinnon played every game this season for the Avs, finishing with some other worldly totals for a rookie; 24 goals, 39 assists, a +20 rating, and he’s ONLY 18 YEARS OLD!  And you thought that all of those teenagers who save the world in Final Fantasy games had no basis in reality.  Still, despite a season that should easily net him the rookie of the year award, the question remains as to whether or not he can continue his tremendous play when it matters most, during the playoffs.

The Wild lost 4 of 5 games against Colorado this season, being out scored 16-11 in those contests.  However, neither Kuemper nor Bryzgalov played in any of those games.  I’m not sure if that would have affected the outcome, but it’s worth noting none the less.  Something else that might be worth mentioning is that Minnesota finished under .500 on the road when you factor in OT/SO losses, going 17-17-7.  However, their lone win against the Avs this season did occur in Colorado.  None of these facts may play a role in this series, but then again, they just might be x factors.

VERDICT

Normally I would be very leery about going all in with a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in several seasons, finished dead last the previous season and has a rookie head coach.  But to dismiss what the Avalanche have done all season and chalk it up to mere luck would just be ignorant.  I’m not saying that I think they’re ready for a deep playoff run just yet, but I do believe they have more than enough to take care of the Wild.  The absence of Duchene is obviously a huge loss, and I do have some concern about Roy’s passion perhaps sending the wrong message to a young and inexperienced playoff team.  We certainly don’t need to see this.  But at the end of the day, the Avs are heading upstream while the Wild seem to be treading water.  Aves in 6.

royglass

Seriously.  Forget just the people of Colorado, that might be the greatest service you could do for humanity.

Chicago vs St. Louis

There are pros and cons to the new playoff seeding being used this year.  I’m not a huge fan of it, but my gripes stem mainly from two concerns.  This series, as well as the Tampa/Montreal series, are a clear indication of one of my complaints.  Why should an overall 3rd place finisher have to play a 5th place team in the first round?  My second issue is similar, but I’ll save it for the 2nd round.  As for this series, both of these teams had solid seasons, feature star studded lineups, struggled down the stretch and have some injury concerns.  They’re also, in the minds of many, both legitimate cup favorites.  It’s just a shame one won’t survive round 1.

THE GOOD

As one would expect from a Ken Hitchcock coached team, the blues feature one of the leagues best defenses.  Finishing 3rd in the leagues in goals against, the Blues have great D anchors such as veterans Barret Jackman and Jordan  La-La-Leopold, both of which helped them to finish with the leagues 2nd best pk.  But while their D core is certainly adept at keeping pucks out of their own net, they also have an affinity for putting pucks into the nets of their opponents.  3 Blue defenders finished in the team’s top 10 point leaders, including Alex Pietrangelo with 51, Kevin Shattenkirk with 45, and former Panther Jay Bouwmeester, with 37.  No, I never tire of Randy Moller goal calls.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the Blackhawks and their 2nd ranked offense.  The ‘Hawks feature 5 players with 60 points or more, including a defenseman!  That guy would be Duncan Keith, who only has 8 goals, but has been an assist machine, raking up a team high 55.  He, along with names such as Kane, Toews, Hossa and Sharp, have tallied 261 goals this year, only 2 behind league leader Anaheim.

THE BAD

The Blues seemed to have the Central all but locked up heading into the month of April.  Then they decided to lose their final 6 games of the season, being outscored 22-5 while being shut out in their final 2!  Mostly this had to do with the extensive injury list, which kind of reads like the casualty list from Pickett’s Charge.  Currently Backes, Oshie, Morrow, Berglund, Tarasenko,Bouwmeester, Roy, Sobotka, not to mention perhaps a half dozen others are all listed as out or day to day.  Even for  a team this talented, it would be very difficult to just jump into the playoffs and start playing great hockey again.  And, since seeing as all of the names mentioned are all important players for St. Louis, it doesn’t seem very likely to happen either.

The Blackhawks aren’t exactly heading into the playoffs full of steam themselves.  Much like the Blues, Chicago was challenging for the Central crown when they hit a rough patch in March, finishing the month 7-8.  Also, much like their opponents, they’ve been bitten by the injury bug.  Patrick Kane is nursing a lower body injury and is highly questionable for a game 1 return.  Captain Jonathan Toews has also missed time due to a hand injury, but is optimistic to be in uniform for the start of the series.  Chicago is deep and talented, but even they can’t survive for long with out the support of arguably their two best players.

X FACTOR

4 years ago, Ryan Miller was looked at as the greatest goalie in the world.  He was winning Vezina trophies as the leagues top goalie and helped Team USA to a silver medal in Vancouver.  He even nearly got a average Sabre team to believe in themselves enough to make a deep playoff run.  But that was then, and since that season Miller’s numbers have begun to climb, while his demeanor begins to weaken.  Although in his defense, Lucic kind of deserves it…….just sayin’.  Still, that wasn’t the only time Miller has been a bit of a distraction over the last few seasons, and perhaps a change of scenery will get some of his best play out of him again.  Or will it?  Let’s face it, Buffalo is a great hockey city, but nobody has picked the Sabres to do anything for a while.  The Blues, on the other hand, are considered cup contenders right now.  I guess my worry is how Miller can handle the pressure.  He was wonderful 4 years ago in the Olympics, but that seems like ancient history at this point.  My hope is he can live up to expectations and be the Miller of old, but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

This is simple, no team has made it to back to back finals since Detroit and Pittsburgh in 08/09.  No team has repeated as Stanley Cup champions since Detroit in 1998, which wasn’t even in this century.  🙂  See, phrasing it like that makes it sound super old.  Essentially, history is not on the side of Chicago, especially given their tough, at least when healthy, first round opponent.  I will say that of all the teams that have made it to the finals, I do believe that both Chicago and Boston have the best opportunities to make it back this year.  They are arguably the top two teams in hockey depending upon your point of view, but there is a reason it hasn’t happened in so long.  It’s damn hard to do.

VERDICT

I think that both of these teams, again when healthy, are quality hockey teams and I reiterate my sadness over one of them getting dumped after this opening round.  As we have discussed, they’re seasons have played out relatively similarly and neither is playing their best hockey right now.  Still, the Blackhawks did win their final two games of the season and are a little healthier than the Blues.  Combine that with some worry for Miller that I just can’t seem to shake and I’m afraid it’s looking as if St. Louis may be drawing the short straw in this series.  It’s going to be long and very entertaining, but I just can’t dismiss the defending champs this early.  ‘Hawks in 7.

playoff-beard-2

Ok, it’s official.  I can’t cheer for the Blues.  Clearly we can’t allow the people of SL to get their playoff beards out of control.

Well, that’s all for now folks.  As always I hope you enjoyed this edition of Bench Warming.  Enjoy the first round and I will see you again for round 2.  Until then, you have been warmed.

(Note from the author:  Sports incite great passion and emotion in all of us, which is why they are so popular the world over.  I encourage you to share your opinions in the comments section, on Twitter or Facebook, but please do it responsibly.  I have no agenda with Bench Warming other than to share my love of sports and perhaps get a few people to grin from time to time.  Thank you for stopping by and I hope you enjoy reading this column as much as I enjoy writing it.)

TheAK21                   Twitter:  TheAK21                   Facebook:  Bench Warming