Players typically show little interest in the Campbell Trophy for winning the NHL Western Conference finals
The 2013 NHL season may have been short, but the grind was great and practices few because of its condensed nature. Now that is has come to an end, the real season begins.
Here the NHL will be business as usual, making this Stanley Cup more legitimate than the one handed to the Dallas Stars after a full season in 1999. Seeding may have been corrupted by a short season, and a few teams had more substantial travel than others, but we have seen those things mean little recently.
Teams that could not make it into the playoffs with fewer games can hardly claim they would have been able to win 16 even bigger playoff games. The series in both conferences feature matchups of teams capable of beating anyone in the NHL, and both have four legitimate contenders.
For what it is worth—and that is little at all because I can admit I do not see a lot of Eastern Conference games (if only the media with its East Coast bias could do that)—I do see the Pittsburgh Penguins winning the Prince of Wales Trophy. They are experienced, deep and have the best forwards in the NHL.
This is how I see the Western Conference playing out right through the Stanley Cup finals.
The Minnesota Wild had an historic summer in free agency. Zach Parise was the top forward available and Ryan Suter the top defenseman. Both came to the State of Hockey, and they combined for 70 points.
But their team barely made it into the playoffs. Now they have to play the Chicago Blackhawks. Their summer of 2012 was nothing special, but their season was.
They have the longest streak to start the season without a regulation loss and finished 29 points over .500. Their .802 point percentage translates to almost 132 points in a full season.
The Wild are without Dany Heatley, giving them less at the top and bottom of the forward depth chart. Suter gives them an elite presence on the blue line, but the rest of the unit is pedestrian while Chicago has more elite players and better depth players. Even Niklas Backstrom is not a clear advantage over two capable goalies.
However, Minnesota will steal one of the first two games from a Chicago team that has not played meaningful games in a while. They are good enough to protect their home ice once, too.
Chicago in six.
The Detroit Red Wings needed the entire 2013 season to earn their 22nd consecutive Stanley Cup playoff appearance. They had more than one significant loss at both forward and the blue line last summer, and it showed this season.
The Anaheim Ducks had one of their best seasons, earning 66 of a possible 96 points, a .688 point percentage that would bring 113 points in a full season. They did it with great depth in all three units.
Viktor Fasth took over well for elite netminder Jonas Hiller, their third line was the most productive in the NHL for much of the season and they had three good pairs on the blue line. Detroit is no better, in all three units, among its best players and worse at the bottom of the depth chart.
The Red Wings will not go quietly. They have enough players left who know how to turn it on at this time of the year, and they have had to battle their way in while the Ducks have sputtered while coasting to the No. 2 seed. But they will be lucky to do any better than the Minnesota Wild—steal one of the first two and win one at home.
Anaheim in six.
A lot of Western Conference teams dislike the Vancouver Canucks. After dropping 10 of 13, including a Stanley Cup playoff series to them from the beginning of 2010-11 through 2011-12, the San Jose Sharks hate them a little more.
These two teams know each other, and there will be emotion. For more information about this series, see the preview I wrote for San Jose Sharks Examiner.
San Jose in seven.
The St. Louis Blues were my pick to win the Stanley Cup at the beginning of the season because they have everything it takes. They added to their forwards, could play suffocating defense and seemed to possess the best goalie tandem in the NHL.
That tandem was not playing well for most of the season but has hit its stride. They added tremendous talent at the trade deadline to a blue line that was already one of the most productive in the NHL. That is why they go into the playoffs as the hottest team in the Western Conference.
But the Los Angeles Kings have absolutely had their number. They have virtually the same roster that dispatched the Blues en route to winning the 2012 Stanley Cup.
Still, often regular season results mean little in a series. The Blues should be hungrier, have comparable forwards and a deeper blue line. Both goalies were tremendous last spring but have not played up to par so far this season. This might be the one series that is decided by home ice.
St. Louis in seven.
Antti Niemi has played very well this season in almost every game but was unable to keep the puck out of the net in any of the three against his former team, the Chicago Blackhawks. They have dominated the San Jose Sharks since he was in their net.
Having already survived having an early game stolen in the first round, Chicago will be used to playing games that matter again by the second round. In addition to owning the head-to-head, the 2010 Stanley Cup champions have shown more ability to elevate its game at this time of year.
None of this would matter if San Jose had better personnel. That is the case in net, provided playing in what should be 32 of 33 before the series starts does not wear Niemi down. But Chicago is better on the top end and much better at the bottom of the depth chart among both forwards and the blue line.
Chicago in five.
The Anaheim Ducks did not play particularly well down the stretch of the 2013 NHL season. They rely on several older players facing additional wear-and-tear from a condensed season and an extremely short training camp.
The St. Louis Blues are younger and can rely on greater a blue-line depth that has been key to winning the Western Conference in this millennium. They are hotter and have no more questions in net. They are hungry, and their coach knows how to prepare his team for this time of the year.
St. Louis in six.
These Central Division rivals know each other very well. The Chicago Blackhawks won that division by 17 points for a reason—they have the best personnel in the NHL, especially at the bottom of their depth chart.
But the St. Louis Blues will win this series anyway. Their checking lines are more dependable because of their experience; their blue line is at least as good because it is even deeper than Chicago's and each of their goalies boast a little better resume than their rival's. One of them will steal the key game to take this series.
St. Louis in seven.
The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009, and many of their core players remain. The St. Louis Blues have never won it, but sometimes the added hunger outweighs the pedigree.
This will not be one of those times. Not because the Blues are not capable of upsetting the Stanley Cup favorites but because of the disadvantage of playing in the Western Conference.
Between the extra travel and extra games needed to make it through superior competition—watch how Columbus and Detroit fare in the Eastern Conference next season—after a grueling condensed season, they simply will not have enough in the tank. That will be compounded by playing four of seven finals games away from home.
They may be better at goalie and certainly are on the blue line, but they will not be able to contain the forward strength of the Penguins. Their additions of Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Jarome Iginla will make them extra hungry and help them adapt to the more stifling defense those players are accustomed to out West.
Penguins in seven.