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First Round Playoff Preview: Pacific Division

The Pacific Division came down to the extra day of the regular season when the Anaheim Ducks defeated the Washington Capitals who were already preparing themselves for the Stanley Cup Playoffs with both the Presidents Trophy and top spot in the Eastern Conference locked up.  As a result, Anaheim leapfrogged over the Los Angeles Kings to take the Pacific Division crown, completing a long journey to first place after finding themselves in the cellar early in the season.  When it comes to the Los Angeles Kings, we expected them to focus on just making the playoffs and battling their way to obtaining yet another Stanley Cup, but will have to face a familiar foe first before they even start thinking about that.

Anaheim Ducks vs. Nashville Predators

The Anaheim Ducks are a team that had high expectations heading into this season, but stumbled out of the gate, leaving people wondering if they could recover and even thinking maybe a coaching change was necessary for that to happen.  Today, Bruce Boudreau is still behind the Anaheim bench, they just won the Pacific Division after being 15-15-7 on January 1st.  They went on to finish the season 31-10-4 and ended up with a 46-25-11 record.  Now that the regular season is over, it is time to reset and prepare for their first opponent, the Nashville Predators.  A big reason behind the comeback by the Ducks was their offense.  Despite not much changing from seasons past, it was just a matter of time before players like Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Ryan Kesler and Jakob Silfverberg got things rolling.  Getzlaf and Perry finished the season with a combined 125 points (47 goals, 78 assists), leading the team’s offense.  The Ducks weren’t just satisfied with the team they already had, but added more fire power by acquiring Brandon Pirri from the Florida Panthers and Jamie McGinn from the Buffalo Sabres in separate trades.  Offense wasn’t just coming from the front three as we’ll see that’s quite the pattern in this Division with defensemen Sami Vatanen, Cam Fowler and Hampus Lindholm creating opportunity when they could on offense.  Looking at the goaltenders, Frederik Andersen and John Gibson pretty much split time this season, carrying a combined 2.17 goal-against average, .919 save percentage and seven shutouts while standing tall for this team on the back end. Boudreau has yet to reveal who will get the start for Game 1 for the Ducks, but I would have to say it will be Gibson who gets the nod.

This season, the Nashville Predators were up against some stiff competition in the Central Division, finishing with 96 points behind the Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks, earning them the first wild card position in the Western Conference.  The first thing that comes to most people’s minds when they hear the Nashville Predators is goaltender Pekka Rinne, who appeared in 66 games this season, held a 34-21-10 record with a 2.48 goal-against average and a .908 save percentage, which is actually above his career average but it is not off by much.  He is certainly an important piece to the success of this Nashville team and will need to stand tall against a fierce Anaheim team who looks to remain hot heading into the playoffs.  Forward Filip Forsberg recorded two hat tricks this season and had a total of five multi-goal games, leading the charge this season for the offense in Nashville with 64 points.  It’s great when you can see the puck being spread around the ice among forwards and defensemen.  In this case, defenseman Roman Josi was just three points behind Forsberg in points with 14 goals and 47 assists.  Josi and teammate Shea Weber will be a dangerous threat in this postseason as they look to get some open lanes from the point, and if you’re blocking the lane you’re going to pay the price taking a shot off the stick of Weber.  In order to help out up front with Forsberg, James Neal, and Mike Riberio, Nashville general manager David Poile pulled the trigger on a blockbuster deal that sent the fourth overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, defenseman Seth Jones, to the Columbus Blue Jackets in order to acquire forward Ryan Johansen, which has been seen as quite a good trade for the Predators up to this point. I believe the Predators are a strong team coming out of that powerhouse Central Division and could potentially even be considered a sleeper for the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but I do not think they’ll be able to take down the Ducks.

Series Prediction: Ducks in 6

 

Los Angeles Kings vs. San Jose Sharks

Both teams return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs after missing the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs and it’s only fitting that they meet again in the quarterfinals as they did back in 2014 when the San Jose Sharks got out to a demanding 3-0 series lead before the Los Angeles Kings came roaring back, winning the series 4-3 and going on to claim their second Stanley Cup in three seasons.  For Los Angeles, it’s been a strong year led by Anze Kopitar, who recorded 74 points this season but was certainly not alone with four other players recording 50 or more points; Jeff Carter (62), Tyler Toffoli (58), Milan Lucic (55), and Drew Doughty (51).  Toffoli, 23, has certainly emerged up front, surpassing his season totals from the 2014-15 campaign by tallying eight more goals and one more assist in 2015-16.  He will certainly be a key component to this offense heading into the playoffs.  During the 2014 playoffs, Toffoli recorded seven goals and seven assists in 26 games played, and with Carter, Kopitar and Lucic taking up most of the attention of the top opposing defenders, Toffoli should have some good chances to get the puck into the back of the net.  Speaking of Lucic, who was acquired last summer from the Boston Bruins in exchange for goaltender Martin Jones (now with San Jose), prospect Colin Miller and the 13th pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, he has definitely made this trade look like a good one for the Kings.  He will be an important in-your-face type player not just in this series, but is capable of being a menace throughout the playoffs.  It has been said that defense wins championships, and when you look at the way the back end of this Kings team is built, not only are they equipped to help keep the puck out of their own zone, but are capable of stepping up into the play while on offense.  Kings defenders Drew Doughty, Jake Muzzin, Alex Martinez, Brayden McNabb, Luke Schenn and Jamie McBain have a combined 156 points and carry a plus-65 player rating, which is phenomenal.  The last line of defense for the Kings couldn’t be any better with Jonathan Quick between the pipes as he looks to pad those playoff stats of his.  Quick, 30, has played in 76 career playoff games, holds a record of 45-31 with nine shutouts, a 2.58 goal-against average and .911 save percentage.

For the San Jose Sharks, it will be important to focus on the present and not worry about what happened two seasons ago against Los Angeles if they want to have success in these playoffs.  Just like the Kings, the Sharks have top players they’ll rely on up front in Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski who recorded a combined 16o points this season.  They’ll look to get some additional help from forwards Patrick Marleau, Tomas Hertl, and Joel Ward, who each recorded over 40 points this season and we have all seen what a player like Ward can do in the Playoffs.  The Sharks scored 237 goals this season and allowed 207, and will look to players like Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic to not only defend, but look for opportunities to contribute on offense.  You certainly don’t have to tell Burns that, as he put up 75 points (27 goals, 48 assists) during the 2015-16 campaign.  The goaltending situation has been an interesting one this season with Antti Niemi being moved to the Dallas Stars on the second day of the 2015 NHL Draft, followed by the Sharks acquiring Martin Jones from the Boston Bruins in exchange for a first round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft and forward prospect Sean Kuraly.  On February 27th, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson made a move to acquire goaltender Jame Reimer and forward Jeremy Morin in exchange for goaltender Alex Stalock, forward Ben Smith and a conditional fourth round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft.  Jones, 26, will have the opportunity to face his old team in Los Angeles after getting named the started for Game 1 on Monday.  I think regardless, if Jones suffers a loss in the first game of the series you go back to him for Game 2 before even thinking about tapping Reimer.  There are some really great first round series this season, and this one is one of them, so it’ll be interesting to see how this one plays out.

Series Prediction: Kings in 6

PREDICTIONS FOR THE REST OF THE STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS

Eastern Conference Sleeper:  New York Rangers

Western Conference Sleeper:  San Jose Sharks

Eastern Conference Bust:  Tampa Bay Lightning

Western Conference Bust:  Chicago Blackhawks

Eastern Conference Champions:  Washington Capitals

Western Conference Champions:  Anaheim Ducks

Conn Smythe Winner:  Ryan Getzlaf

Stanley Cup Champions: Anaheim Ducks

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