Gallagher's Western Conference picks: Let’s go with Hawks, Wings, Canucks and Kings
No. 1 Chicago Blackhawks (36-7-5-77 pts) vs. No. 8 Minnesota Wild (26-19-3-55 pts)
Season series: Blackhawks 2-0-1.
Hawks’ keys to victory: As well as having a much better offence, the Hawks also boast a huge coaching advantage with coach Joel Quenneville going up against NHL playoff rookie Mike Yeo. Hard to imagine an upset here if the Hawks get reasonable goaltending and they don’t think of Minny as a team that will be just happy to make the post season. Patrick Kane must also continue his great season into the playoffs as the Hawks appear mentally ready to take another serious run at the big prize.
Wild’s keys to victory: Clearly Niklas Backstrom will have to overcome a less than spectacular year and ignore his 35 years of age and go out and earn himself that new contract he’s been playing for this season. The Wild must also play it pretty tight and try to stay out of the penalty box even though the Hawks’ power play has been one of their lesser strengths this season. They also need to steal a game or two at the United Center and play like they have nothing to lose — because that’s reality.
The call: Hard to imagine the Hawks losing four games to this lot, something the Wild would have trouble achieving if they played each other 20 times. There won’t be many short series in the first round, but Chicago takes this one in five games.
No. 2 Anaheim Ducks (30-12-6-66 pts) vs. No. 7 Detroit Red Wings (24-16-8-56 pts)
Season series: Red Wings 2-1-0.
Ducks’ keys to victory: Coach Bruce Boudreau needs to start the right goaltender and the word is he’s leaning to the more experienced Jonas Hiller over Viktor Fasth. They both had 15 wins but Fasth had the better goals against average (2.18 to 2.36) and save percentage (.921 to .913). So Boudreau would be playing a hunch. The Ducks must try to hammer the Wings about and try to win a game against them at home, since Detroit won twice against them — two nights apart at the Honda Center — in the regular season.
Red Wings’ keys to victory: The Wings have actually played extremely well down the stretch to make the playoffs, and they need to get great goaltending from Jimmy Howard, given the Ducks’ 105-72 shot advantage during the three-game season series. Henrik Zetterberg had 10 points the last four games to get them in but secondary scoring would help; and longtime playoff scoring star Johan Franzen could really help if he carries his late hot steak into the playoffs.
The call: Have to pick this one as something of an upset special, with Detroit taking advantage of the fact the Ducks have a lot of players who are new to the playoffs. When Boudreau was last in the playoffs with Washington, he showed a reluctance to change aspects of his team’s approach when they weren’t working, and that’s fatal in this business, particularly when up against a coach as good as Mike Babcock. Wings in seven.
No. 3 Vancouver Canucks (26-15-7-59 pts) vs. No. 6 San Jose Sharks (25-16-7-57 pts)
Season series: Canucks 0-2-1; Sharks 3-0-0.
Canucks’ keys to victory: Stellar goaltending is a must for this team, almost at all times, and their power play must succeed much more often than it did during the regular season. Ryan Kesler must stay healthy and be a contributor offensively and, of course, the Sedins need to lead the offence and maintain their outstanding five-on-five play, given they’ll likely be matched up against whichever line Joe Thornton centres. Some offensive thrust from the back end, a longtime staple of this team, would also be welcome assistance.
Sharks’ keys to victory: Goaltender Antti Niemi must maintain the great play he’s given this team all season and, based on what happened two years ago, the Sharks have to improve on both their special teams vis-a-vis the Canucks. Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski didn’t get a point in five games last season in the playoffs so you would expect both to be much better. Clearly, this team will have to reverse its regular season habit of getting nothing done on the road.
The call: This one could go either way but whoever wins should be in fair shape to proceed given that while it will be physical, no one team should get murdered, and the travel is minimal. Whichever goaltender ends up playing the best is likely to come out ahead but the Canucks have Kesler now, when they didn’t during the regular season meetings. Vancouver in six.
No. 4 St. Louis Blues (29-17-2-60 pts) vs. Los Angeles Kings (27-16-5-59 pts)
Season series: Kings 3-0-0.
Blues’ keys to victory: Obviously St. Louis has to reverse this tidal wave of negativity associated with the Kings, having lost eight straight games to them and nine of the last 10, including a 4-0 sweep job in the second round last season. The Blues must get great goaltending to stem the flow of goals against, given L.A. scored at least four in every game against them this season, although the addition of Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold to the back end should help. Dave Backes needs to do more than just hit everything in sight and coach Ken Hitchcock has to use this history as motivation for his team, which is playing well.
Kings’ keys to victory: Obviously, L.A. needs to keep doing what it’s been doing, which is to beat the Blues like a drum, but it’s not easy to maintain that kind of dominance. Dustin Brown leads his team into the playoffs having had a two-game rest courtesy a convenient NHL suspension, and Mike Richards should be ready given he was sick Saturday when he left the game, not injured. “They have some big bodies and play a heavy game,” Anze Kopitar told the L.A. Times. “We have some big bodies, too.”
The call: This will be the most physical battle of the playoffs, with two huge teams whaling on each other. But it’s the Kings who always seem to come out on top because of their edge in goal. The Blues have helped their back end but they can’t score. No reason to think the trend will reverse itself, so it’s the Kings in seven.
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