Crash for the Cup: NHL West Powers on Collision Course
All during the NHL's regular season, the heavy artillery was found in the West.
The powder's dry, so the fireworks will be fast and furious when the first round of the conference playoffs start on Wednesday.
If there's a short series, expect it to be the top-seeded Anaheim Ducks over the glad-to-be-here Dallas Stars. Anaheim finished second overall in the league with 116 points, just one point behind the league-leading Boston Bruins. The Ducks have solid goaltending in Jonas Hiller and Frederik Andersen, a solid defensive corps, and are led up front by forwards Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. They'll be looking to send out the retiring Teemu Selänne with another Stanley Cup ring, just as they did in 2007.
Surprising Colorado was the other division winner in the West, and they're paired with the Minnesota Wild, or should we say, Wild Cards? The Avalanche, which finished last in the conference last season, jumped all the way up to second this year. Patrick Roy took over behind the bench this season and worked wonders, but he'll be without leading scorer Matt Duchene for the series due to a knee injury sustained in March.
Nathan MacKinnon, who is one of the favorites to win the Calder Trophy, will have to pick up the slack. However, goals may be hard to come by as the Wild now have Ilya Bryzgalov in net. Bryagalov came over from Edmonton in March and was a big reason -- along with Jason Pominville and Zach Parise -- that the Wild qualified for the post-season.
The St Louis Blues were on their way to a division title and even the Presidents' Trophy before losing their final six games. The defending champion Chicago Blackhawks were expected to be near the top of the conference, but two of their top players -- Jeff Toews and Patrick Kane -- were injured in the season's closing throes. It's still not know if they'll be ready next week as the Blues and Blackhawks face off in a tough first-round battle.
The Blues have Ryan Miller in goal, and the pressure is on him to get St Louis into the second round. There are many injury questions, however, as David Backes, TJ Oshie, Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka, and Brenden Morrow all could miss some of the series. Chicago has goalie Corey Crawford, who won the Stanley Cup last year, but in order to advance, they need Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews back in the lineup.
St Louis was one of the original expansion teams in 1967. They're the only one that has yet to win a Cup; the California Golden Seals became the Cleveland Barons and ultimately merged with the Minnesota North Stars, who then moved to Dallas, which won the Stanley Cup in 1999. Now, the Blues believe this is finally their year.
The final series is an all-Cali battle as the San José Sharks will try to advance to their first Stanley Cup final but first must get by the 2012 champion Los Angeles Kings. The Sharks finished with 111 points and will pin their hopes on goalie Antti Niemi, banking that he can do what he did for the Blackhawks in 2010 when he backstopped them to the Cup. The Kings have Jonathan Quick in net, who was the key in 2012. These teams met last year in the playoffs and it went seven games. There is no reason to think it will not again this season.
The West is loaded from top to bottom. Wild cards Dallas and Minnesota have the talent to pull upsets and knock a top-seeded team out of the playoffs early. The first couple of games are key, as none of the top teams want to lose home ice advantage.
All of which means that, while all Stanley Cup first-round battles are destination viewing for even the most casual hockey fan, the Western pairings will virtually demand our attention. The bombardment of intensity is an experience not to be missed.