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NHL Playoffs 2014: Western Conference First Round Preview

Ben Ebert |
April 13, 2014 | 10:48 p.m. PDT

Staff Writer

The new bracket format helps narrow down potential Second Round matchups (Facebook / NHL).
The new bracket format helps narrow down potential Second Round matchups (Facebook / NHL).
The 2014 playoff picture for the Western Conference of the National Hockey League is finally set, at least for the first round. The matchups were confirmed after the St. Louis Blues lost to the Detroit Red Wings Sunday afternoon, surrendering the Central Division crown to the Colorado Avalanche. As the anticipation builds over the next three days before the puck drops for the First Round, here is a preview of each Western Conference First Round matchup, with some key factors to watch out for.

Minnesota Wild vs. Colorado Avalanche

The Central Division champion Avs have made an incredible comeback from last season, going from last place in the West in 2013 to finishing second in the West this year. Much of this success can be attributed to rookie head coach and Avalanche Hall of Famer, Patrick Roy, as well as a talented roster featuring players such as Paul Stastny, Gabriel Landeskog and rookie Nathan MacKinnon. The Avs are expecting a deep run into the postseason as their goaltender, Semyon Varlamov, has posted Vezina-caliber numbers this year and will have veteran Jean-Sebastien Giguere to back him. Although P.A. Parenteau recently returned from a knee injury, Colorado will still be without top forward Matt Duchene, who is expected to miss the entire First Round after a knee-collision with teammate Jamie McGinn back in late March.

The Minnesota Wild have had their own injury and illness woes to cope with this season, losing netminders Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom, forcing rookie goalie Darcy Kuemper to keep the Wild above water, as well as losing top forwards Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise at one point. Fortunately for the Wild, those forwards have returned and trade deadline acquisition Ilya Bryzgalov has been at the top of his game between the pipes. Ryan Suter and the rest of Minnesota’s defense will have to slow down the speedy play of the Avalanche if the Wild hope to avoid a first round elimination two years in a row.

Chicago Blackhawks vs. St. Louis Blues

These two rivals may not be facing each other with their full-potential rosters as both teams have key injuries to watch out for. The reigning Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks have been without top stars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews for weeks. The good news for Chicago fans is that head coach Joel Quenneville was quoted saying they’re “absolutely ready” to go for Game 1 of the playoffs. We shall see just how ready Kane and Toews will be as both will have to immediately adjust to playoff-intensity hockey. But with the amount of playoff experience this team has, Chicago should expect a strong performance regardless.

The Blues are struggling at the worst possible time, having lost six games in a row to close out the regular season. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Blues’ lineup has recently taken some huge blows, as the team will be without Captain David Backes and possibly top forward T.J. Oshie for Game 1. Goaltender Ryan Miller has logged five consecutive losses, although the Blues’ offense hasn’t offered much help. Miller wanted to be between the pipes for a legitimate Cup-contending team, which is why he now wears the blue and gold of St. Louis rather than Buffalo. Let’s see if Ken Hitchcock can coach through the setbacks and lead his team past their archrival. If he can’t, St. Louis fans will be singing the blues until next season.

ALSO SEE: Making Sense Of The New NHL Playoff Format

Dallas Stars vs. Anaheim Ducks

The Dallas Stars finally ended their playoff drought, having previously not made the playoffs since 2008 when the team made it to the Conference Finals. Dallas got some help from the Phoenix Coyotes faltering late in the season. However, much credit can go to the Stars’ dynamic duo of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. Seguin, acquired from the Boston Bruins last summer, has proven himself as one of the most talented young forwards in the game, scoring 37 goals this season. He also has playoff experience, as the Bruins went all the way to the Finals last year. Kari Lehtonen has been solid in net and will need to continue that going into the First Round. If he doesn’t, the Stars may have to rely on veteran Stanley Cup champion Tim Thomas.

On the other end of this matchup, the Anaheim Ducks have a dynamic duo of their own in Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry; Perry holds second place in goals this season with 43, while Getzlaf sits at fifth in assists with 56. The Ducks are a fast-paced, hard-hitting team with lots of playoff experience, characteristics that should prove beneficial to Anaheim in a matchup with Dallas. Expect inspiring play from veteran forward Teemu Selanne as he is in his final NHL season. The Ducks should have no problems between the pipes as they have three solid netminders in Olympian Jonas Hiller and rookies Frederik Anderson and John Gibson.

We'll see if the Stars can legitimize themselves as real contenders this postseason with an upset of the Western Conference Champion Ducks.

San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings

This was the first confirmed playoff matchup this year, and what a heated one it will be. The Sharks and Kings are two teams that just do not like each other, and that’s putting it lightly. This will be the third time in four years these teams have met in the postseason, with the Sharks eliminating the Kings in 2011 and the Kings knocking out the Sharks in 2013. Last year’s series was one in which home ice seemed to make all the difference, as the Kings won all four games at Staples Center to advance to the Conference Finals. However, this year San Jose holds home ice advantage and will get four games at SAP Center if need be.

The Kings are hopeful defenseman Drew Doughty will be back at full strength for game one, having not played since April 3rd due to a shoulder injury. With Doughty in the lineup, the Kings are one of the toughest defensive teams in the league. Their offense will be looking for better results, having struggled despite possessing top forwards like Marian Gaborik, Jeff Carter and Anze Kopitar. In addition, Jonathan Quick will have to continue his dominating play if the Kings expect to go on another deep playoff run.

The Sharks will be out for blood in this series. Not only did the Kings knock San Jose out of the playoffs last season, but Kings' captain Dustin Brown was the one responsible for sidelining rookie sensation Tomas Hertl for the majority of this regular season. Luckily for the Sharks, Hertl returned for the last couple regular season games. Raffi Torres is also expected to be back in the lineup for game one, having returned after the Olympic break from right-knee surgery but then sitting out the remainder of the regular season due to soreness. Torres was a missing key factor for the Sharks’ physical play in last year’s playoff series with the Kings; Torres was suspended for an illegal check to Jarret Stoll. If the Sharks want to get past L.A., they’ll require production from the top line of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Brent Burns. Joe Pavelski will also play a key role as he is having a career year with his first 40+ goal season. Antti Niemi, while ranking second in the league with 39 wins, has been inconsistent in net as of late. He will have to outplay Quick on the other end, or suffer seeing his starting role passed onto Alex Stalock. Grinders Brad Stuart, Tommy Wingels, and Andrew Desjardins will also need to be ready, if the Sharks hope to match the Kings hard-hitting physical play.

This is sure to be an intense series with emotions running very high. Could this be the year Team Teal silences the skeptics?

The NHL playoffs begin Wednesday, April 16th.

Reach Staff Writer Ben Ebert here.



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