Tonight's the night where Canadian hockey fans can unite and watch American teams chase the Stanley Cup. No, Montreal is not going to win it all. *sigh*
Here are my picks, using actual standings for the rank vs. the weird NHL system.
#2 Colorado Crapalanche vs. #7 Minnesota Mild
As an aside, I have loathed the Avalanche for many years, dating back to them beating the Panthers in the Stanley Cup Finals and Clod Lemieux's dirty hit-from-behind on Kris Draper. I dislike the Red Wings with respect, and the Avalanche without it.
Now, they are coached by the megalomanical Patrick Roy, a man with serious anger and ego issues (Just ask his wife). In goal? How about oft-drunk woman-beater Semyon Varlamov, whose sins seem to be swept under the rug because he can stop a hockey puck.
As for the on-ice stuff, the Avalanche have been this season's surprise story in the West, going from laughing stock to finished second in the West. For all of Patrick Roy's faults, his player want to play hard for him (out of fear, perhaps), and they show 10x the emotion the Canucks have.
That said, the Avalanche are the league's luckiest team, and their record is a bit of a mirage. The Avalanche, like the Maple Leafs, are constantly out-shot and out-possessed (is that even a term, Jes?). Although the Avalanche have a lot of skilled players, they have relied far too much on their goaltender to bail them out.
Goaltending: Varlamov, as I mentioned, is the prime reason the Avalanche did so well. His 92.7SV% ranks third in the NHL, and he did it facing many quality scoring chances.
For the Wild, Josh Harding provided the league's best goaltending early in the season, before his battle with MS forced him out of the lineup. Crazy Ilya Bryzgalov was brought in to be his replacement, and he's a clear downgrade. Advantage: Colorado
Defense: I still laugh at how the Blues fleeced Colorado for Kevin Shattenkirk. Erik Johnson is an OK defenseman, but he'll never be the franchise player that was expected of him. Minnesota's D is anchored by Ryan Suter, one of the league's steadier blueliners, and a guy who *did* blossom into a franchise-type player.
Where it comes apart for the Wild is their 78.8% penalty kill, 4th worst in the league. Colorado isn't great on the PK, either, but still better than Yeo's club.
Forwards: Is it Mike Yeo's terrible coaching? The Wild have some really good forwards (Parise, Koivu, Moulson, Pominville), but have, as always, trouble scoring goals. Their +1 goal differential is the worst amongst all Western playoff clubs, and 207 goals for is second worst. Their leading scorer, Pominville, had only 60 points.
Colorado, on the other hand, finished fourth overall in goals scored. Speedster Matt Duchene is out for at least the first round, which hurts a lot, but they seem to be a better-performing group. The Avalanche have five players with 60 or more points, and their Power Play is also one of the league's best.
Patrick Roy knows how to let his dogs out (It was him!).
Prediction: Avalanche in 5. The Wild are relying on a real wild-card in goal, and appear to be the weakest team heading into the playoffs.
#3 St. Louis vs. #5 Chicago
The Blues have long been my *other* favourite team, so this is my one dog in the fight.
Unfortunately, the Blues seem to have run into the most rotten of luck. Besides having to face the powerful and experienced Blackhawks, the Blues limped into the playoffs, losing their final six games. With injuries to Oshie, Backes, and Pietrangelo, it is not looking good for the good guys!
Goaltending: Ryan Miller's save percentage went from 92.4% to 90.3% with the Blues. Ugh! He was traded for to be the OMGAWESOME goalie the Blues have always lacked. Corey Crawford is a steady goalie who provides slightly-above-average 'keeping. I'd give the edge to the Blues, but not with how Miller is playing right now.
Defense: The Hawks have an amazing trio of Keith, Seabrook, and Hjarmalsson, which the Blues match up well with Olympians Bouwmeester, Shattenkirk, and Pietrangelo. The Blues have better depth, but Pietrangelo's injury could even things up.
Forwards: The Hawks have the star power with Kane, Hossa, and Toews, but the Blues have a lot more depth up front. Unfortunately, ex-Sabres Steve Ott and Derek Roy have been terrible for the Blues, giving the lineup a glaring hole. When you trade for players from crappy teams, do you really expect them to do well? This is why the Canucks need to stop trading with the Florida Panthers (David Booth, I'm looking at you!).
Honestly, both lineups are pretty stacked, and both teams could have easily had a better record than they did if not for injuries. With Kane and Toews back from injury, I think this series is the Hawks' for the taking :(
Prediction: Hawks in 7.
#1 Anaheim vs. #8 Dallas
For some reason, Anaheim does not seem like THAT good of a team to me. Yeah, they have talent, but something about their record seems...inflated like Pamela Anderson's boobs. I haven't delved into why I feel this way, but some bacteria in my gut tells me the Ducks aren't as good as their record suggests. Their special teams are middle-of-the-road, for one thing...
Goaltending: Anaheim's greatest weakness is that Jonas Hiller is not that good. Will the Ducks go with rookie Frederik Andersen? He's played much better than Hiller has.
For the Stars, Kari Lehtonen has put behind his groin injury problems and become a very dependable goaltender. This is Dallas' one edge in the series.
Defense: Adding 50-year old Sergei Gonchar and dumping Stephane Robidas did help the Stars make the playoffs, but their group isn't overly impressive. The Ducks are anchored by the underrated Cam Fowler and steady Francois Beauchemin. A slight edge to the Ducks.
Forwards: This is where Anaheim has shined all season. Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau has always been great at getting offensive production from his roster, and the Ducks finished second overall with 266 goals for. The Ducks get good production throughout their lineup.
The Stars have two absolute bombs in Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, but their depth just doesn't compare. Somehow, the Stars think the corpse of Erik Cole is still worth putting on the ice, and Ray Whitney's age has finally caught up to him.
Prediction: Ducks in 6.
#4 San Jose vs. # 6 LA Kings
The LA Kings have quietly been one of the league's most dominant teams, at least according to advanced stats. Darryl Sutter is a great coach for the club, and the Kings possession numbers and metrics suggest their record should be better than it is.
Darryl Sutter, the original "Grumpy Cat"
San Jose, of course, has a Vancouver Canucks-like history of playoff misery.
Goaltending: Quick is a bit overrated, in my eyes, but still battle-tested and dependable. For the Sharks, Niemi is also solid. A fairly even match.
Defense: No team was better than the LA Kings, defensively, as they finished first in goals-against with 174! Drew "Pillsbury" Doughty is one of the league's better 2-way defenseman, and Slava Voynov is tough to score on. San Jose's group is good, but the Kings can't be matched when it comes to team defense.
Forwards: The LA Kings bane has been their inability to score, while the Sharks are loaded with talent up front. If Havlat (big IF) can come back to the lineup and produce, the Sharks may be able to break the dam the Kings will put up.
The Kings are the worst offensive team in the 2014 playoffs, and their stifling system isn't the sole reason. They have a fine assortment of offensive talent (Kopitar, Williams, Carter, Richards), but seem to struggle on the Power Play, with the league's 4th-worst conversion rate.
Marian Gaborik has given the LA Kings a big boost on offense, and he might be the spark they need to retain the throne.
Prediction: Los Angeles in 7 very close games.