No upsets will be needed to find two very good hockey teams on the Western Conference sidelines before the end of April.
These Stanley Cup playoffs, in their new format emphasizing divisional rivalries and winners instead of just a one-to-eight ranking in each conference, serve up two clashes of four conference titans right off the bat as the St. Louis Blues meet the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks and the San Jose Sharks face the Los Angeles Kings.
Eyes west, fans. There is no similar (not even close) matchup of excellence in the Eastern Conference and quite possibly this could, and maybe should, be the beginning of some erosion of a natural eastern bias that's reality in the NHL.
Three of the four first-round series in the west feature a two-day break but generally, the lockout post-season of a year ago illustrated playoffs are better without the long, TV-network-catering schedule pauses, and far better with some old-fashioned calendar cadence.
Colorado Avalanche (1) vs. Minnesota Wild (4)
HEAD-TO-HEAD: Avs 4-0-1, Wild 1-3-1; all played by Jan. 30.
STARTS: Thursday in Denver, TSN
WHY THE AVS WILL WIN: The rejuvenated Avs spent a lot of time this season proving their doubters wrong. Their start was no fluke and, in fact, the team continued to rise, not coast, throughout the season, until it was in position to capitalize on the Blues' meltdown in the final two weeks to claim the division's top seed. Colorado's doing it with immense skill on the front lines, though Matt Duchene's team-leading total of 70 points will hardly be considered prolific. Duchene, out with a knee injury, needs to return to this series for the Avs. His supporting cast of captain Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan O'Reilly, rookie Nathan MacKinnon and Paul Stastny in particular, should scare opponents for the swiftness with which their plays are made. Goalie Semyon Varlamov has been good again this season and gets his first acid test here. His competition, Wild goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, has an iffy playoff record, for sure.
WHY THE WILD WILL WIN: Bryzgalov overcomes his post-season history, for starters. If he can, then however much you love the Avs to death in this round, be aware the Wild were only one win from being the West's seventh 100-point team and the season's series wasn't nearly as one-sided as you think. Each of the five games was a one-goal game and two of the Avs victories were salted with empty-net goals. Also note Minnesota, unlike Colorado, suffered a mid-season losing streak and injury crisis that nearly got coach Mike Yeo fired. It's long since been corrected as the Wild's best players have risen to be the best players, namely LW Zach Parise, who came within four points of being the team's leading scorer (who was RW Jason Pominville) despite missing 15 games. Sturdy forwards Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle have big roles to play in this series.
St. Louis Blues (2) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (3)
HEAD-TO-HEAD: The Blues won the first three; 3-2, 3-2 (SO), 6-5 (SO) but lost two after the schedule break, 4-0 and 4-2.
STARTS: Thursday in St. Louis, CBC
WHY THE BLUES WILL WIN: Because they have good memories. Ending the season on a six-game losing streak has left confidence a little shaken in St. Louis, but injuries (David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Alex Pietrangelo) were something of a factor. The trio is likely to return for Game 1 or at least early in the series, great news for the methodical and physical Blues. The deadline deal for G Ryan Miller is another ace for St. Louis and he must be a factor in any St. Louis win. When the late-season slide is forgotten, St. Louis knows how to pay the price to win games. Many have questioned the Blues offence and it might pale in comparison to Chicago's, but Alex Steen's 33 goals this season included many a clutch strike, which continues in any Blues success.
WHY THE HAWKS WILL WIN: They have the Stanley Cup and getting it out of their hands will be no easy chore. Injured captain Jonathan Toews and winger Patrick Kane are back for the start of the post-season and do their thing for the league's best offence heading for this year's playoffs, regardless of how many minefields the Blues put in their way. Chicago's forward depth doesn't stop there. LW Patrick Sharp led the team in scoring with 34 goals and Marian Hossa is too much for most opponents to handle. Chicago's defence is multi-talented and this time led by Duncan Keith's excellent season. Many pundits will give the Blues an edge in goal in this season but G Corey Crawford's only focus should be not beating himself.
Anaheim Ducks (1) vs. Dallas Stars (8)
HEAD-TO-HEAD: Stars won two of three (won 6-3, 2-0, lost 6-3)
STARTS: Wednesday in Anaheim, TSN
WHY THE DUCKS WILL WIN: Do 51 regulation and overtime wins say something to you here? They'd better. The Ducks have it all, size, speed, defence, experience and goaltending. Oh yes, and the second-best offence in the NHL. Their dynamic duo of C Ryan Getzlaf and RW Corey Perry should scare the wits out of most. Sometimes they need just a little opening to create a chance or goal. Rookie D Hampus Lindholm has added maturity and skill to the blue-line. Despite their wandering attention span at times this season, the Ducks have shown the ability to take a punch and respond with a bigger one. The team, despite having less urgency than many others in the late going, put up four wins in a row to end the season to have home-ice advantage for as long as they last in the Western Conference playoffs.
WHY THE STARS WILL WIN: Dallas, forced into the Pacific Division playoffs by virtue of being the final qualifier in the west, took the season's series, with all games played before the schedule break. The Stars are the clear underdogs here, which should help with the pressure, but they aren't outclassed in terms of speed, which should matter. Dallas's top two forwards, C Tyler Seguin and LW Jamie Benn, have shown extraordinary skill and ability of their own this season and could carry the Stars through rough waters. Two musts for Dallas -- G Kari Lehtonen's first real Stanley Cup series (he saw two games for the ill-fated Atlanta Thrashers in 2007) must not be a handicap and Dallas's rats like Antoine Roussel, while important in the competitive aspects of this series, must not give Anaheim any more power plays than they will already earn.
San Jose Sharks (2) vs. Los Angeles Kings (3)
HEAD-TO-HEAD: Kings 3-1-1; Sharks 2-2-1
STARTS: Thursday in San Jose, CBC
WHY THE SHARKS WILL WIN: The Sharks get goals from a lot of places, and that continues. G Antti Niemi gives up no softies, since the games of this series are likely to be tight. San Jose's highly-skilled power play catches fire before the Kings' does (both power-play units in this series are underachievers, statistically this season, both in the bottom half of the NHL). Above all, San Jose must maintain its edge in discipline. The Sharks were shorthanded a league-low 219 times this season, a substantial 26 per cent fewer times than the Kings. And confidence remains high, especially after a very important 2-1 win over L.A. on April 3.
WHY THE KINGS WILL WIN: Much of this team won the Cup in 2012 and won't have forgotten how. Ranging mid-pack most of the season and finishing sixth in the conference just seems low for this collection of experience but it speaks to the competition that exists. The Kings are the lowest-scoring team in this year's playoffs and so G Jonathan Quick's role is again heightened. His regular season wasn't poor by any means (2.07 GAA, .915 save percentage) but needs a step up here to get the job done. L.A.'s back end led by Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov loom large in this series in order to keep the Sharks' momentum on hold. The deadline trade for RW Marian Gaborik pays big dividends at just the right time.