The Stanley Cup playoffs are upon us.
The regular season has ended. Six teams in the Western Conference have already cleaned out their lockers. Now the eight remaining teams prepare to hopefully take their games to another level, all for a chance to capture the most coveted trophy in all of sports.
The skates are sharpened, the laces tied and the pucks ready to drop. But with games starting Wednesday in the opening round, who has the edge?
Every team has their share of adversity to overcome. Some teams (like the St. Louis Blues) are slumping at the wrong time. Others (like the Colorado Avalanche) are dealing with more than their fair share of injuries. Still others (the San Jose Sharks) are trying to snap a streak of early exits.
Only one will emerge from the wild west. Here's a look at each of the remaining teams in the Western Conference,their first round opponent and the key to them playing for Lord Stanley's Cup.
Record: 54-20-8 116 points
In their 20th season, the Anaheim Ducks are flying high heading into the playoffs. They have two potential MVP candidates in Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, both of whom won a goald medal in Sochi with Team Canada. They also have one of the best checking lines in hockey (centered by Saku Koivu). Finally, they have a three-headed goaltending monster in Jonas Hiller, Frederik Andersen and John Gibson.
Andersen will get the nod in game one; but with the options available, expect him to be on a short leash. Anaheim also has balance throughout the lineup, with a good mix of veterans and youngsters. They are tough and skilled, and deservedly finished with the top record in the east.
Key to victory: Wear opponents down.
Especially up front, Anaheim has great size and loves to throw their bodies around. If they win the war of attrition, they are a very tough matchup for everyone. They need to keep the puck down low and use their cycle. Not only can they wear the other team down, once they do, all it takes is one well-placed pass to any of their plethora of snipers to get on the board.
Key performer: Ryan Getzlaf
The captain of the Ducks, Ryan Getzlaf typifies playoff hockey. He is big, skilled and seems to elevate his game in big moments. One of the best playmakers in the entire NHL, he can use his big body to get separation; then squeeze the puck into tight areas, creating opportunities for teammates.
Getzlaf’s chemistry with Corey Perry is undeniable. The question becomes how well can he help to engage others in the offensive attack if defensive schemes limit Perry’s chances. Possessing a pass-first mentality, Getzlaf must also be selfish, and take some of the opportunities for himself, instead of differing to others.
First round opponent: Dallas Stars
Season series: 1-2-0
Record: 52-22-8 112 points
Under the guidance of new coach Patrick Roy, the Colorado Avalanche looked like a completely new team than what has been seen over the past several seasons. They are fast, they are skilled and they are seemingly unfazed no matter the situation.
Still there are question marks. Will their lack of playoff experience haunt them? Unlikely, as they have showed an ability to keep their composure during everything else they have dealt with. Second, how will they compensate with the plethora of injuries they have heading into game one?
Key to victory: A team effort
The loss of Matt Duchene hurts, but they have plenty of other injury concerns. Defenseman Jan Hejda is a question mark after getting hurt in practice. As such, they need players to step up when assuming bigger roles in both the offensive and defensive zone.
If Colorado can remain even-keeled, and get a team effort every night until they get healthy; they could be very dangerous.
Key Performer: Semyon Varlamov
You could make the argument that the goaltender is the key to victory for every club; but none is more important to their respective team than Semyon Varlamov. The 25-year-old Russian lead the league in wins and saves, and should be a finalist for the Vezina Trophy.
They will now need him more than ever. With the injuries the Avs are facing (especially that of Matt Duchene), the Avs may need Varlamov to steal a few games if they are to make it out of the first round. Lucky for them, the higher the pressure, the better Varlamov plays. He was 8-1-1 in games in which he faced at least 40 shots.
First round opponent: Minnesota Wild
Season series: 4-0-1
St. Louis Blues
Record: 52-23-7 111 points
A candidate to win the Presidents Cup a mere month ago, the St. Louis Blues picked a terrible time for a slump. They skidded into the playoffs, losing their last six games. Still, their talent is undeniable. While they may not have an offensive superstar, they have four lines filled with big, talented, two-way forwards and one of the best bluelines in hockey.
The Blues finish every check, are good in their own zone and have an all-world goaltender in the newly-acquired Ryan Miller. With no Stanley Cups in franchise history, this may be their best chance.
Key to victory: Keeping their composure.
The Blues play on the edge. They love to hit, they love to agitate and they don’t always stop when the whistle blows. Teams have shown the ability to use the Blues’ own style against them. Whether it be by a big hit or running their goaltender; if you make the Blues angry, they do have a tendency to lose focus.
They have a veteran bench boss in coach Ken Hitchcock. He and their veteran leadership will have to make sure the team is able to keep their composure.
Key performer: Alexander Steen
Captain David Backes is injured, and may not be ready to go to begin their first round series. Hence, the attention turns to Alexander Steen. This entire team (Steen included) has struggled mightily to score as of late. Steen has a keen hockey sense and a deadly shot. If anyone is to break the Blues out of their offensive slump, it is him.
First round opponent: Chicago Blackhawks
Season series: 3-2-0
San Jose Sharks
The San Jose Sharks are coming off of another successful regular season, but will their season end in yet another playoff disappointment? Another early playoff exit would likely mean wholesale changes for the Sharks, who have been told it was their year for over a decade. That being said, they do have a powerful roster heading into the postseason.
Their scoring depth may be unmatched, they have a goalie who has won a Stanley Cup and a defensive core that can contribute at both ends.
Key to victory: Believe in themselves
The San Jose Sharks have a penchant for early playoff exits. By now, it may be in their heads. They cannot afford it to show in the ice. They were the preseason pick of many experts, and justifiably so. They have a plethora of weapons at every position, presenting constant matchup problems. If they can remain confident, the talent is there.
Key performer: Joe Pavelski
Joe Pavelski can do it all. He can play center or wing. He is equally as comfortable on offense as he is in a shut down role. He is both physical and skilled. The Sharks may need every form of Joe Pavelski to show up if they want to advance.
First round opponent: Los Angeles Kings
Season series: 1-2-1
The Chicago Blackhawks are the defending Stanley Cup champions, so it’s a little surprising to see them this far down in the standings. That is more a testament to their tough division, than evidence of struggle. Don’t be fooled, this team is still very dangerous.
They control the tempo of games, and capitalize on their chances. With names like Hossa, Toews, Kane and Sharp they also have superstars on their top two lines that all know how to win.
Key to victory: Dictate the pace of play
The Blackhawks attack is predicated on control of the puck. They are opportunistic offensively, often waiting until the other team makes a mistake. When they do, they use their great breakout to make teams pay. They cannot afford to be too complacent however, as the defending champs, they will not sneak up on anybody this year.
Key performer: Patrick Kane
Kane is an all-world talent. That being said, he vanished from the score sheet when representing the United States at the 2014 Olympics. The Blackhawks cannot afford him doing the same on another big stage. At his best, he can take over a series. At his worst, he can pack his bags for an early exit.
First round opponent: St. Louis Blues
Season series: 2-1-2
Los Angeles Kings
The Los Angeles Kings do not score many goals. They do not give up many either. They play systematic hockey, using their sound defense to win games. The big question with them is whether they have enough offense to win in the playoffs. They may not need a lot, but some would be nice.
Key to victory: Do not waste chances
They Kings’ defense should be just fine. They have a solid blueline and one of the most clutch goaltenders in the league in Jonathan Quick. At some point however, they will need to put the puck in the net. With Kopitar, Gaborik and Carter; they have the names to do it. They need to attack the middle and not settle for bad shots, but also not force the pass if it is not there.
Key performer: Marian Gaborik
While he has plenty of talent, Gaborik has yet to really find where he fits in the Kings’ system since coming over in a deadline deal from the Columbus Blue Jackets. He seems to also be putting a lot of pressure onto himself. If he relaxes and plays the way he is capable, other teams may be in trouble.
First round opponent: San Jose Sharks
Season series: 3-0-1
Of all the playoff teams, the Minnesota Wild have the worst goal differential (+1). Sure they have dealt with more than their fair share of injuries, but they have also been far too reliant on the play of Ryan Suter, who often logs more than 30 minutes a night.
Lucky for them, they do have a health Mikko Koivu, a clutch playoff performer in Zach Parise and a hot goaltender in Ilya Bryzgalov. If all can perform up to their capabilities, then the Wild can make some noise.
Key to victory: Stand up at the blueline.
Minneota’s first round opponent (the Colorado Avalanche) has blazing speed. If the Wild want to neutralize that, they must force them to slow down before they enter their offensive zone. As well as he has played lately, Bryzgalov is still a question mark in net. The less pressure on him and Ryan Suter, the better.
Key performer: Ilya Bryzgalov
The Wild goaltending situation this season has been a mess. Josh Harding, Darcy Krumper and Nicklas Backstrom have all been hampered by injuries. Although he started slow after coming over from the Edmonton Oilers in a trade, Ilya Bryzgalov was great down the stretch, with two shutouts in his last four games. That being said, he is an enigma, and has let games get away from him in the past.
First round matchup: Colorado Avalanche
Season series: 1-3-1
Record: 40-31-11 91 points
Under the guidance of coach Lindy Ruff, the Dallas Stars have made it back to the playoffs. They play a hardnosed style, but can have lapses defensively. Still, the duo of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn has been incredible all year. More often or not, they do find a way to barely outgun their opponents. We will see if they can keep that up come playoff time.
Key to victory: Act like you belong here.
The Stars have taken a few summers off in recent years. This year, they received an invitation to the dance. Now it is time to boogie. Playoff hockey is a whole different animal. They do have the necessary physicality, but one has to question their commitment to their own zone. Other teams will clamp down on scoring chances, they need to follow suite, do the same and elevate their game to the appropriate level.
Key performer: Tyler Seguin
Always a talented player, Tyler Seguin has really blossomed since joining the Stars in a summer trade. That being said, it was his poor playoff performance (and perhaps a poor attitude) that got him jettisoned from the Boston Bruins. He needs to show he can still play at a high level when it matters the most.
First round opponent: Anaheim Ducks
Season series: 2-1-0