2017 NHL Playoffs: Western Conference Preview

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Bryan Altman

Wednesday night the two-month long odyssey that is the NHL playoffs kicks off, and for fans of 16 NHL teams it’ll be filled with moments of heartbreak and euphoria alike as their team competes for Lord Stanley’s Cup.

However, only one team can come out on top, meaning 15 will be going home unshaven and unfulfilled in their quest for hockey’s ultimate prize.

While there are teams that have the inside track based on stellar regular season play when it comes to hoisting the cup when it’s all said and done, every single team has a chance to get the job done.

MORE: 2017 Eastern Conference Preview

So let’s take a look at each of the eight Western Conference teams remaining in the playoffs and see why they might win it all, and why they won’t win it all before the playoffs get underway.

Chicago Blackhawks – 109 Points – 1st Central Division

 

chicago blackhawks 2017 NHL Playoffs: Western Conference Preview

MONTREAL, QC – MARCH 14: Patrick Kane #88 of the Chicago Blackhawks celebrates his first period goal with teammate Artemi Panarin #72 during the NHL game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre on March 14, 2017 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

The Chicago Blackhawks have been the best team in hockey since the calendar turned to 2017. Buoyed by one of the deepest defensive corps in the NHL and an equally deep and dangerous group of forwards, the Blackhawks have the makeup to win it all once again, especially considering it’s somewhat of a down year for the Western Conference.

Why They’ll Win It All:

Because they have the roster to go along with the championship pedigree that they’ve cultivated in Chicago over the course of the decade.

Patrick Kane is playing incredible hockey and youngster Artemi Panarin has become a bona-fide star. Meanwhile, Jonathan Toews continues to be one of hockey’s best two-way players, Duncan Keith anchors the ‘Hawks’ blue line, and between Scott Darling and Corey Crawford, Chicago has two goalies that can win big games and should be well rested heading into the toughest time of the year.

Why They Won’t Win It All:

Because they’re a little bit too top-heavy, and they don’t have a true No. 1 goalie that’s been stellar all season long.

Are the Blackhawks’ top three lines good enough to carry this team to a Stanley Cup victory? Absolutely. Still, they haven’t gotten much production from their fourth line all year, and even their third line has been a little bit touch and go with some shifting around throughout the year. If they stay healthy, it won’t be a problem, but that’s a big if in the postseason. An injury to a key cog on the top three lines could present problems for this team. Their depth on the defensive end could mask it, but it could be trouble.

In net, Darling has been great when called upon, and Crawford’s seemingly righted the ship after being benched for Darling back in January. While it’s great that Crawford’s played just over 50 games AND that Darling can be relied upon if he’s needed in the playoffs, but we know how important a goalie that can single-handedly win you a game can be. Can either guy do that right now? I’m not so sure.

Minnesota Wild – 106 Points – 2nd Central Division

 

minnesota wild 2017 NHL Playoffs: Western Conference Preview

DALLAS, TX – JANUARY 24: Jason Pominville #29 of the Minnesota Wild celebrates a goal against the Dallas Stars in the first period at American Airlines Center on January 24, 2017 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Years of being on the cusp of greatness in 2013-14 and 2014-15 ended in disappointing losses to the Chicago Blackhawks in the second round of the postseason and last year’s down year led to the dismissal of head coach Mike Yeo.

Now, the Wild have Bruce Boudreau at the helm and are one of the most balanced and deep teams in hockey.

Why They’ll Win It All:

Because they’re the deepest they’ve been in years and have one of the league’s best goalies in Devan Dubnyk

Few teams boast the scoring depth that the Wild have relied on all season long, which is what makes them so tough to play against; every single line can score and gets valuable minutes.

The Minnesota Wild are the second-highest scoring team in the NHL behind the Pittsburgh Penguins with 263 goals scored and they lead the next closest team in the Western Conference (Winnipeg Jets) in the category by 16 goals.

But, incredibly, they don’t have a single 30-goal scorer on their team. Instead, they have seven players with 18-plus goals and have 12 players with at least 10.

They’re also responsible defensively and boast the best goal differential in the Western Conference, second in the entire NHL only to the Capitals (a remarkable plus-81).

This team is built to survive bad individual games through a pack-like mentality where anyone can be the hero on a given night, and as we well know, that’s a vital component of a winning team come playoff time.

Why They Won’t Win It All:

Because Bruce Boudreau only wins in the regular season

Sorry, Bruce, but it’s true. Until Boudreau can prove otherwise, he’ll always be known as a stellar regular season coach who’s teams regularly disappoint come playoff time. In 10 NHL seasons, Boudreau has won his division eight times, but has only made it to one conference final (2016 with Anaheim). That includes a 1-7 record in decisive Game 7s, most of which his team has had home ice for.

Sure, each team is different, but that’s enough of a body of evidence to prove Boudreau’s teams struggle in the postseason and is definitely a concern heading into the playoffs.

St. Louis Blues – 99 Points – 3rd Central Division

 

tarasenko 2017 NHL Playoffs: Western Conference Preview

ST. LOUIS, MO – JANUARY 2: Vladimir Tarasenko #91 of the St. Louis Blues scores a goal against the Chicago Blackhawks during the 2017 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Busch Stadium on January 2, 2017 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

The Blues finally overcame their own set of playoff trouble by taking down the Chicago Blackhawks in the opening round of the playoffs last year; sweet revenge for a team that had been ousted by the ‘Hawks or the Kings three of the last five years.

While this year’s team has fought valiantly in March to get back into the playoffs, the question remains as to whether they have the manpower to do some damage in this year’s postseason.

Why They’ll Win It All:

Because they’re playing well at the right time and their special teams has been solid

The Blues won’t be many — or any — experts’ choice to win it all, but there’s something to be said for the way this team has rallied in the absence of several key players from last year’s run to the conference finals. The Blues are 12-2-2 in their last 16 games and have bested some quality, playoff-bound opponents along the way.

When you’re playing with confidence, as I already mentioned, anything can happen.

On special teams, the Blues have been pretty solid for most of the year. At the moment, their power play is stuck in a bit of a rut (one for their last 20), but their still ranked No. 8 in the league on the power play, converting 21.6 percent of the time. They’ve also done well killing penalties, ranked sixth in the category, killing off penalties 84.4 percent of the time.

Special teams can make or break a team in the playoffs, and assuming the Blues can right their power play woes, that’ll go a long way towards them getting through the playoffs.

Why They Won’t Win It All:

Because they lack the depth and experience to make a deep run

The Blues have been dealing with injuries in an impressive manner the last few weeks, winning games without Paul Stastny, Jori Lehtera, Carl Gunnarsonn and Robert Bortuzzo, which has forced young and inexperienced players into their lineup.

Some — if not all — of these players will return in time for the postseason, but will they be ready?

And if they go down again, do the Blues have the depth to mask their absence when things get intense in the playoffs?

It’s unlikely.

Anaheim Ducks – 105 Points – 1st Pacific Division

 

anaheim ducks 2017 NHL Playoffs: Western Conference Preview

DENVER, CO – JANUARY 12: Jakob Silfverberg #33 of the Anaheim Ducks is congratulated by Ryan Kesler #17 after scoring a goal against the Colorado Avalanche at the Pepsi Center on January 12, 2017 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Speaking of Bruce Boudreau’s former teams… the Ducks have locked up their fifth consecutive playoff berth and are set to play the Calgary Flames in the first round of the playoffs. The question is, do they have the depth and goaltending to get the job done in the playoffs?

Why They’ll Win It All:

Because they’re red hot and are playing their best hockey of the year at the right time

The Ducks haven’t lost in regulation in their last 14 games and are running red hot heading into the postseason. The first half of their late season run was spearheaded by Jonathan Bernier in net, but since then John Gibson has taken over and has been stellar as well.

The Ducks haven’t allowed more than three goals in their last 14 games, and have given up three goals just four times in that span. While the Ducks have their issues spread throughout their roster and have questions in net, what can’t be questioned is the importance of entering the playoffs playing well and confidently. The Ducks might just be the most confident team in the league based on their last month of games, which by the way, includes home and road wins over the Chicago Blackhawks, back-to-back wins over their first-round opponents, the Calgary Flames, and a 5-2 win over the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals.

Not bad at all.

Why They Won’t Win It All:

Because their defense can’t withstand the loss of Cam Fowler for an entire playoff series

Cam Fowler is to the Ducks what Kris Letang is to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and his absence for the next 2-6 weeks (quite a gap there) might be too much for the Ducks to overcome.

Fowler is the Ducks’ top D-man and leads the team’s No. 1 power play unit, and unfortunately there’s not really an adequate replacement on the roster for him.

Hampus Lindholm has also been banged up for the Ducks, which leaves a lot of questions surrounding their defensive corps heading into the playoffs.

Edmonton Oilers – 103 Points – 2nd Pacific Division

 

mcdavid 2017 NHL Playoffs: Western Conference Preview

MONTREAL, QC – FEBRUARY 05: Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers looks on prior to a face-off during the NHL game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre on February 5, 2017 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The Edmonton Oilers defeated the Montreal Canadiens 1-0 in a shootout. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

Years of rebuilding, stockpiling, drafting and developing No. 1 draft picks seems to have finally come to fruition in playoff-hockey-starved Edmonton. It’s been 10 years since their last playoff berth and the Oilers are seemingly set to be a force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future, but could playoff fortune come their way sooner than later?

Why They’ll Win It All:

Because of Cam Talbot and of course, Connor McDavid

Connor McDavid is giving Sidney Crosby a run for his money for the title of best player on the planet and he’s only 20 years old. McDavid will likely take home the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player and has proven that he can single-handedly take over a game and win it for his team multiple times this year.

Another player who’s proven the same is netminder Cam Talbot, who has been nothing short of a revelation for the Oilers in his second full season with the team.

Talbot has made a serious case for himself as a Vezina contender (though he likely won’t win) with an impressive 41-win season and a 2.39 goals against average.

Has his 73-game season tired him out for the stretch run? We’ll see, but either way, these two are difference makers and can steal a game at a moment’s notice.

Why They Won’t Win It All:

Because they’re still too inexperienced

The Oilers have made serious strides this year towards being major players in the Western Conference for years to come, but they’re likely still a year or two away from seriously contending with the likes of the Blackhawks, Sharks, Blues and even the Wild in postseason play.

The Oilers are the third-youngest team in the NHL in terms of average age (25.8) and while they have vets like Milan Lucic and Patrick Maroon along with head coach Todd McLellan, this team might not be ready to win in 2017.

San Jose Sharks – 99 Points – 3rd Pacific Division

 

brent burns 2017 NHL Playoffs: Western Conference Preview

NEWARK, NJ – FEBRUARY 12: San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns #88 celebrates his goal against the New Jersey Devils during their game at the Prudential Center on February 12, 2017 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Even though the Sharks came up short in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Pittsburgh Penguins last year, they made major headway in shedding their label as perennial playoff busts.

This year, as a result, was looked at as their chance to truly break through and finally capture that elusive first Stanley Cup victory for the franchise.

Why They’ll Win It All:

Because their window is rapidly closing, and this might be their last chance

Urgency is a powerful thing and in the Sharks’ race against father time it could prove to be critical. While the Sharks have done a good job of infusing youth into their lineup, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are still centerpieces of this team at age 37. While they don’t post the numbers they used to in their prime, this roster isn’t the same without them. The Sharks’ time for this core is now.

The pieces from last year’s Western Conference championship team are still there and there’s no reason the Sharks can’t make another strong run. They got lucky injury wise with Thornton and Logan Couture, so they should be healthy and ready to roll into the playoffs.

Oh, and they have that Brent Burns guy. You know, sure-fire Norris Trophy winner with 29 goals and 76 points who plays DEFENSE. He’s been unstoppable.

Why They Won’t Win It All:

Because they’re playing bad hockey at the worst time heading into the playoffs  

While the Sharks weren’t exactly scorching hot heading into last year’s playoffs, they certainly didn’t enter having lost nine of 13, including a six-game losing streak that nearly took them into April.

Luckily for the Sharks, the Pacific division bracket is the much easier road to the Stanley Cup Finals as they’ll only have to play the Blackhawks or Wild if they make it to the conference finals, but the way they’re playing that’s a big if.

Calgary Flames – 94 Points – 1st Wild Card

 

calgary flames 2017 NHL Playoffs: Western Conference Preview

WASHINGTON, DC – MARCH 21: Sean Monahan #23 of the Calgary Flames celebrates scoring a first period goal with teammates Johnny Gaudreau #13 and Alex Chiasson #39 against the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center on March 21, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

We all know that you can’t touch a Flame when it’s “red hot,” but when it cools down it’s not really an issue.

The Flames were scorching hot back in February/March, which is why they’re in playoff contention, but they’ve cooled off since and four of six against Pacific division foes heading into the postseason. So, how will they fair?

Why They’ll Win It All:

Because Brian Elliott has turned a corner and a hot goalie can work magic in the playoffs

The Flames have talent throughout their lineup, whether it’s Johnny Gaudreau up front or Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton on the back end, but their netminder Brian Elliott was the key to their surprising and impressive run that propelled them into the playoffs.

Per flamesnation.ca, Elliott sported a .897 save percentage in his first 24 games, but upped his save percentage to .924 over the next 17, which of course directly coincided with his 11-game winning streak that put the Flames back on track.

Elliott was tremendous in net for the Blues during the 2016 run to the conference finals, so if Elliott can keep form, anything can happen for a Flames team that has enough skill to complement their goalie.

Why They Won’t Win It All:

Because the Ducks are their nightmare matchup

The Ducks have absolutely owned the Flames for pretty much the duration of the California-based franchise’s existence. In 2015, the last time these two teams met in the playoffs, the Ducks won in five games.

The Flames have only beaten the Ducks once in the playoffs away from home and that came in 2005. They would ultimately lose that series in seven games.

In fact, they haven’t even won in Anaheim in the regular season since 2004.

The Ducks are playing fantastic hockey right now and while anything can happen, history suggests that the Flames got a bad draw here and might not be long for these playoffs.

Nashville Predators – 94 Points – 2nd Wild Card

 

pk subban 2017 NHL Playoffs: Western Conference Preview

NASHVILLE, TN – OCTOBER 14: P.K. Subban #76 of the Nashville Predators celebrates his first regular season goal as a newly acquired Predator against the Chicago Blackhawks at Bridgestone Arena on October 14, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Sanford Myers/Getty Images)

A quick look through the Nashville Predators’ roster makes one wonder why this team struggled just to get into the playoffs. The Predators’ roster is arguably as stacked as any in the league from front to back, yet they’ve lacked the consistency to make outsiders look at them as a true threat as we head into the playoffs. But can they upend the Chicago Blackhawks and make a run towards to the cup?

Why They’ll Win it All:

Because they’re as talented as any team out there and have one of the best bluelines in the NHL

If defensemen win championships, the Predators are in great shape heading into the postseason. Their top four defensemen, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm are the anchors of a Nashville defense that can not only defend, but can push the puck up ice themselves and create scoring chances as well as any group in the NHL.

While Subban has the name recognition (and skills to back it up), it’s Josi that leads the Predators with 49 points, including seven goals on the power play for the Predators. If they’re going to beat the Blackhawks in round one, it’ll fall on their defense to give Pekka Rinne the support he needs to get the job done and to push play into Chicago’s end of the ice and away from their own net.

Why They Won’t Win It All:

Because the Chicago Blackhawks stand between them and the second round of the playoffs

The Predators’ slow start to the season looks like it will ultimately be the cause of their demise. If they won a few more games in the early going they could be looking at a favorable matchup, one where they’d even have home ice (they’ve been great at home, 24-9-8 this year, compared to 17-20-4 on the road).

Instead they’ll be forced to visit the Blackhawks, who not only have thrived at home, but are grizzled playoff veterans who know how to win, especially against Nashville.

The Blackhawks won the season series over the Preds four games to one this year and were outscored 13-20 in those games.

Unfortunately for the Predators, they face an uphill battle because of the 2016 portion of their schedule. It’ll take some doing to get themselves out of the messy first-round matchup they’ve gotten themselves into.

Western Conference Final Prediction: San Jose Sharks Over Minnesota Wild 4-3

The Sharks won’t have an easy time with the McDavid-led Oilers, but they have the veteran presence and firepower to overwhelm the younger and more inexperienced Edmonton team. From there, they draw the winner of Anaheim vs. Calgary and then onto the Western Conference final. I think the Wild find their way there from the top half of the bracket, but ultimately fall short to a Sharks team that makes its second Stanley Cup appearance in as many seasons.

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