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NHL Western conference playoff preview

The chase begins
The chase begins

The 2013-14 NHL regular season concluded on Sunday, April 13, 2014. On Wednesday, April 16, the "second season" officially begins; it is time for Stanley Cup playoff action. The matchups are all set. The Anaheim Ducks, and Colorado Avalanche finished first and second overall respectively, in the Conference during the regular season and thus will face wildcard teams in the first round. The numbers 2 and 3 seeded division teams will face each other.

Anaheim Ducks vs (8) Dallas Stars (Stars won regular season series 2 games to 1): Anaheim finished with the best record in the conference, and thus play the lowest seeded wildcard qualifier. This may be a fortuitous matchup for the Ducks. Though Anaheim is undoubtedly the stronger team, the unknown quantity about the Ducks, is in goal. Jonas Hiller was the clear number one for most of the season, but suffered a Jose Theodore-like fade down the stretch. As a result, two relatively untested goalies (Frederik Andersen, John Gibson) will be intrusted with the responsibility of providing the last line of defense, at this the most crucial time of the year. If there is a possible weakness to be exploited, it may be the unknown quantity of the Anaheim net. Then again, this may be a coming out party for the next great Ducks' goaltender. Other than that, despite the offensive wizardry of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, Dallas seems to be hopelessly overmatched. Head coach Lindy Ruff has done a terrific job in his first year at the helm of the Dallas Stars. He got the team back in the postseason for the first time in six seasons, which was the goal. Facing the Ducks is quite a dubious "reward". There is no quit in the Stars, but the Ducks will not suffer the same fate as last season when they were bounced in the first round. Prediction - Ducks win in 5 games. ANA/DAL Game schedule: Gm 1 - April 16 (ANA), Gm 2 - April 18 (ANA), Gm 3 - April 21 (DAL), Gm 4 - April 23 (DAL), Gm 5 - April 25 (ANA), Gm 6 - April 27 (DAL), Gm 7 - April 29 (ANA)

Colorado Avalanche vs (7) Minnesota Wild (Avs won season series 4-1): Colorado made a miraculous turnaround this season. If anyone out there still doubts the influence a good coach can have, look no further than the Avs, for proof positive. First year Head coach Patrick Roy has done a terrific job behind the Colorado bench. In Minnesota, the Wild continue their climb back to relevance. Back in the playoffs again this year, the Wild will provide a tougher challenge than many may think. The strong puck possession game may prove to be kryptonite to the Avs' Superman. Though Colorado has more talent, they may not have more grit than the Wild. Coach Roy is going to have to keep his young team focused as they will go through much more fruitless labor than they are used to. Goalie Semyon Varlamov will need to continue his strong play as well. Colorado is favored, and rightfully so, but if they take lightly this team which is anchored by the likes of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the result could be a difficult and painful lesson - Avalanche in 7. COL/MIN Game schedule: Gm 1 - April 17 (COL), Gm 2 - April 19 (COL), Gm 3 - April 21 (MIN), Gm 4 - April 24 (MIN), Gm 5 - April 26 (COL), Gm 6 - April 28 (MIN), Gm 7 - April 30 (COL)

Central division - (2) St Louis Blues vs (3) Chicago Blackhawks (Blues won season series 3-2): Both teams suffered through a late season injury bug. The Blackhawks have been missing both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, while the Blues have had Alex Steen, Vladimir Tarasenko, and T.J Oshie put on the shelf recently. All should be back for the playoffs. The main difference is that Chicago adjusted to the missing stars, and began playing good hockey in spite of it. The Blues on the other hand have gone into a tailspin and lost their last six regular season games, by a combined score of 22-5. Even goaltender Ryan Miller has been woefully subpar of late, and there has been speculation that backup Brian Elliot may get the start in game one. In Chicago, they are expecting to have a full healthy roster for the playoffs. Despite the Blues' great regular season record, this is a case of two teams headed in opposite directions. The defending champs are ready to play, and St Louis is not - Blackhawks in 5. StL/CHI Game schedule: Gm 1 - April 17 (StL), Gm 2 - April 19 (StL), Gm 3 - April 21 (CHI), Gm 4 - April 23 (CHI), Gm 5 - April 25 (StL), Gm 6 - April 27 (CHI), Gm 7 - April 29 (StL)

Pacific division - (2) San Jose Sharks vs (3) Los Angeles Kings (Kings won season series 3-2): This is an intriguing series. The indisputable offensive firepower of the San Jose Sharks against the stingiest defensive team in the NHL. It is almost a shame that one of these teams will be a first round playoff casualty, but it is what it is. Kings President/GM Dean Lombardi built this team especially for the playoffs. Sharks Executive Vice President/GM Doug Wilson has spent the past several seasons searching for the missing ingredient which will put his talented squad, over the top. Wilson obviously thinks that missing ingredient is toughness, ever since he desperately tried to coax then 43-year old Claude Lemieux out of retirement a few seasons ago. Currently the Sharks have Raffi Torres on the roster. Unfortunately for San Jose, the Kings have the advantage in the most important areas. The Kings don't score nearly as much, but up the middle, the trio of Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, and Jarret Stoll, give them an edge at center ice. Drew Doughty anchors a stout blueline, and in goal, Jonathan Quick is almost peerless. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, and Logan Couture are all going to need to be on their game. This would be a particularly bad time for Marleau to pull another one of his postseason disappearing acts - Kings in 5. SJ/LA Game schedule: Gm 1 - April 17 (SJ), Gm 2 - April 20 (SJ), Gm 3 - April 22 (LA), Gm4 - April 24 (LA), Gm 5 - April 26 (SJ), Gm 6 - April 28 (LA), Gm 7 - April 30 (SJ)