Dallas vs. St. Louis
This, my friends, is going to be a good one! At the end of the day, this is the Western Conference finals, because the remains of the Pacific Division are quite terrible once you strip Anaheim and Los Angeles out of the equation.
The Stars were clearly the best team in their series against the Minnesota Wild despite the nutty Game Six and the fact that you still can’t fully trust Antti Niemi in playoff games anymore. Meanwhile, the Blues exercised their demons the best way possible against their arch rivals Chicago.
The Blues did so with some of the most spectacular goaltending in the playoffs from Brian Elliott. In the seven-game series, the 31-year old went on to give up only 10 Blackhawks goals at even strength when they were actually expected to give up 15.18 according to corsica.hockey. Along with that, Chicago had no answers for St. Louis’ two best offensive forwards in Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko, as well as defensemen Alex Pietrangelo as both racked up six points or more each. What would be troubling is to see the rest of the forward groups getting eaten alive in that series and it will be important to have them regroup against another team full of talented forwards.
The Stars were fortunate to not face an opponent that would take advantage of the absence of ailing forward Tyler Seguin, but that didn’t stop Jamie Benn terrorizing defenses and finally proving it on the big stage that he is one of the best players in the world. It will be interesting to see what would happen to Lindy Ruff’s line combinations if Seguin becomes completely healthy from his lacerated achilles. Otherwise, St. Louis’ shutdown pair of David Backes, Patrik Berglund and Alexander Steen will have to be ready to make each Stars forward’s life miserable, no matter who’s name is on the back of the jersey.
Wierdly enough, I like the structure of the Blues, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if Dallas can shove tell everyone with their hockey that their negatives perceptions about them can shove it. It will be a close series and a fun one too if Tarasenko vs. Benn turns into a poor man’s Crosby vs. Ovechkin rivalry. At the end of the day, I like St. Louis’ defense and goaltending just a tiny bit better.
Blues in Seven
Nashville vs. San Jose
Overall, this will be a very strange series between two teams that made it to the next round under strange circumstances. For Nashville, they faced a much better Anaheim team where both teams nearly played it to the book in series-wide expected goals, but it was the Predators who mostly came out on top at even strength puck possession. For the Sharks, they absolutely dominated a Los Angeles Kings side who, by far, were the best puck possession team in the NHL and completely ruined any remains of invincibility that Jonathan Quick ever had.
Along with not having Pekka Rinne turn into the eternal mush that he was expected to be, Peter Laviolette’s systems worked much better over Boudreau’s. Even though having Corey Perry on a score-first third line was one of the dumbest coaching decisions in the playoffs, Laviolette has to be given credit for unleashing two forward lines that ended up winning series. The top line of Ryan Johansen, Calle Jarnkrok and James Neal absolutely pinned to living daylights out of supposedly the best shutdown line in the NHL in Andre Cogliano, Ryan Kesler and Jakub Silfverberg. With that massive advantage, it allowed the rest of Nashville’s forward lines to feast on much weaker Ducks combinations when the margins were close. The biggest example was the Colin Wilson-Mike Fisher-Viktor Arvidsson line where the trio had 64.4-percent puck possession at even strength in the playoffs.
For the Kings, they only line they couldn’t shutdown was San Jose’s top forward line of Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Tomas Hertl. To go along with that, Brent Burns’ booming slap shot couldn’t be stopped as the defenseman picked up two goals and eight points in the five game series. It will be important for the rest of the team to step up this next series, because like the Kings, the Predators can role out four lines and three defense pairs. If Martin Jones can gain the upper hand in goal, the Sharks can win this series.
One matchup that could end up getting interesting is Nashville’s penalty kill against San Jose’s power play. The Sharks ended up putting the exclamation point in their first round series with six power play goals and 4.12 expected goals past Quick. However, their shot attempt rate has been falling as the rest of their best players have begun to age. For Nashville, their penalty kill units may have given up six goals and 7.99 expected goals against the Ducks, but two of those actual goals came from the last two games of the series where Anaheim were in desperation mode from struggling miserably to find the back of the net at even strength. During the regular season, Laviolette’s team went on to be the third best shot suppression team in the league at 87.5 attempts per hour.
Lot’s of factors could come into play in an underrated and intriguing series, but I just feel like Nashville is a deeper, younger and more talented team; even with Pekka Rinne’s aging flaws. It would also be quite fitting after all that has happened since the current edition of divisional alignment in the NHL to call a Central Division team Pacific Division champions.
Predators in Six