As quickly as it started, the first round of the NHL playoffs is over. As with every year, there has been drama, jubilation and despair in equal measure. With eight of the 16 teams having already bitten the dust, and with the 2015 Stanley Cup winners just 12 wins away from lifting the biggest prize in the sport, we look at the Western Conference semi-final match ups and consider which teams are in the best shape. We look at their history, the form of their star men and the players likely to make the difference in the final few weeks of the season before giving our judgment as to who looks most likely to make it through to the Conference finals.
Calgary Flames v Anaheim Ducks
Having defeated the Winnipeg Jets 4-0 in the first round of matches, the Anaheim Ducks will go into the semi-finals full of confidence and well rested. In truth, the Ducks were never really tested by the Jets, losing just three of the 12 periods of play during the four-game series and, whilst they will be glad to have made it through the quarter-finals, they may have appreciated a sterner challenge and they may be a little undercooked when they meet the Flames. Right wing Corey Perry, who scored three goals and was also credited with four assists during the series against Winnipeg looks likely to have a key role to play in the semi-finals.
Calgary Flames had a far tougher ride than the Ducks in the first round, eventually defeating the Vancouver Canucks 4-2. Having picked up an unlikely 2-1 win in the first game at the Rogers Arena, the Flames’ confidence grew and grew in the series and they proved that they are capable of overcoming home ice advantage. Key to the Flames’ success was their resilience, overturning first period deficits in two of their four victories over their West Coast rivals. Center Jiri Hudler was pivotal to the Flames’ success, scoring three goals and achieving three assists in the series and he will be vital if the Flames are to defeat the Ducks.
In their five regular season meetings the Ducks hold a 3-2 lead for 2014-15, although the Flames won the most recent meeting back in March. The Ducks headed into the playoffs as top seeds, high up in the betfair odds having finished two places above the Flames in the Pacific Division and nothing that we have seen so far suggests that was undeserved. The Flames can be expected to put up a much better fight than the Jets but on current form it is hard to see the Ducks being beaten.
Minnesota Wild v Chicago Blackhawks
Minnesota Wild overcame St Louis Blues 4-2 in the conference quarter-finals, overcoming the Blues’ home ice advantage to record an impressive win and to reach the Conference semi-finals for the second successive year. The Blues matched the wild every step of the way over the first four games, even recording an impressive 6-1 victory at Minnesota in game four, but the Wild showed their strength of character to bounce back and win games five and six 4-1. The win over St Louis, who finished three places above them in the Central division, will give the Wild a huge confidence boost going in to the match up with the Blackhawks and, if Zach Parise can continue his rich vein of form, and add to the three goals and four assists against the Blues, then they could spring another surprise.
Chicago will have home ice advantage against the Wild and they will be desperate to make the most of it having caught the Predators off-guard in the Conference quarter-finals. Their victory in overtime in game one set the tone for the rest of the series and they were able to make the most of the Predators’ inability to close games out. The men from Nashville gave up the lead in three games of their 4-2 series defeat. Center Jonathan Toews enjoyed a particularly impressive series against the Predators, scoring three goals and being credited with five assists, and if the Wild are to have any hope of progressing they will be keen to minimize his influence over proceedings.
The season of 2014-15 is the third straight that the Wild have found themselves up against the Blackhawks in the playoffs. In 2013, they were defeated 4-1 in the Conference quarter-finals and were then defeated 4-2 at the semi-final stage a year later. Common sense suggests that the Blackhawks will end the Wild’s season for the third year, but if Minnesota can come away from Chicago level after two games then they will be confident of progressing and they will draw inspiration from their impressive win over the Blues. This could be one of most intriguing Conference semi-final match ups and it could go down to the last game.