The season is young, but not too young for a Conference Finals preview. The Western Conference is extremely competitive and in order to survive until the end a team must have everything fall into place at the right time. The first leg of the 2013-14 campaign has been traveled masterfully by the 5-0-0 San Jose Sharks and the 4-0-0 St. Louis Blues. One comment that has been made when talking about either team in recent years is: It's been a long time coming. With the talent being more evenly spread across the NHL in comparison to every other major sport, every team is provided a certain window of opportunity to hoist Lord Stanley's Cup. Both of these clubs have proven worthy to be in the discussion for several years, but when push comes to shove; they are bounced from the postseason. Both teams have exploded out of the gates this season and are racing toward the same prize that can only be claimed by one. If there has been a game worth watching this season, it is this one tonight on NBCS (8:00 eastern).
San Jose and St. Louis have the hottest sticks this season. Averaging an absurd 4.80 and 4.75 goals per game, it'd be safe to say that tonight will provide a surplus of goals. On the other hand, Both teams are two of the four that have held their opponents under two goals per game. Looking at that stat alone, a low scoring affair could be on the menu tonight in the Scottrade Center. Tomas Hertl has gotten out to a blazing start for the Sharks, posting 8 points (7 g 1 a). St. Louis's Alexander Steen has matched those 8 points (4 g 4 a) and has done so in one fewer game played. Jaroslav Halak is 4-0-0 in goal this year for the Blues; stopping 93.4 percent of the pucks shot his way and has only let seven pucks into his net.Antti Niemi has been in net for all five of San Jose's victories. He has posted a 93.9 save percentage, letting in only 7 goals, with one more game played.
I have been counting down the days until these powers finally met this season and cannot wait to watch on national television. Like every game in the National Hockey League, it's plausible that either team playing could win. Tonight I am giving the edge to the home team: St. Louis Blues. I am predicting that both Niemi and Halak will receive 35+ shots tonight, but turn most of them away. The sole reason I envision the Sharks falling short is their special teams. San Jose's weakness happens to be the Blue's choice of poison this year. St. Louis is second to none when it comes to scoring on the powerplay while the Sharks are second to over half of the league when it comes to preventing powerplay units from scoring. My prediction is St. Louis over San Jose 4-3 in regulation with three of their goals coming on the powerplay. Leave your prediction in the comment box below, if it's accurate, you will receive your favorite NHL team's hat.
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#1- St. Louis Blues (Central Division) : The Blues are one of three unbeaten teams that have survived the first ten days of the season; not that they have been in survival mode. Through their first three games the Blues have outscored their opponents 14-4, including a last second win over the reigning Stanley Cup champions Chicago Blackhawks. St. Louis has been very successful in recent years although they have shared a goaltender issue that is felt by nearly every struggling team. Jaroslav Halak must be tired of sharing the ice with fellow teammate Brian Elliott as he has shot out of the gates (94.8 save percentage / 1.33 goals allowed a game). Halak's performance alongside a hot and veteran offense, there is no ceiling on St. Louis this year.
#2- San Jose Sharks (Pacific Division) : For years San Jose has sat on top of preseason ranks due to the caliber of veterans they have on their roster. With such high expectations, the Sharks have continuously fell short of expectations. The two pieces that they lacked were excellent goal tending and a strong youth. Antti Niemi has blossomed into one of the league's premier net-minders in the last two seasons and serves as a more than qualified Ace for any Cup contending team. To everyone's surprise, the veteran scorers have taken a backseat to the nineteen-year-old Czech superstar, Tomas Hertl, who is leading the team with 7 points and rocked the hockey world with his unprecedented four goal night against the New York Rangers. Outscoring their opponents 21-5, the Shark Tank is on fire and begging any team to try and slow them down. If everyone remains healthy, that will be near impossible.
#3- Colorado Avalanche (Central Division) : Colorado is one of the top contenders for teams that would like a clean slate. With brand new divisions, realignments, rivals, and to a degree an all around new league, the new look Avs are ready for the next chapter. This new team head commanded by the NHL Hall of Fame inducted and bonafide legend, Patrick Roy. Great franchises get out of slumps faster than others because they are excellent losers. Some teams stay in the basement because they struggle with losing. Colorado has spent the last three years losing; and by losing I mean resupplying themselves for another half to full decade long of success. Gabriel Landeskog remains the youngest NHL captain in the league and head the Avalanche who have an overstock of young talent, most recently highlighted by Nathan MacKennon (2013 1st overall pick) as he has posted four early season goals. If Semyon Varlamov has truly revived himself as the Ace that he has proven to be in the past, Colorado will surely return to the V.I.P section of the league for years to come.
#4- Toronto Maple Leafs (Atlantic Division) : There is no doubt that Toronto has the offensive power to swing away with the best, but as the Leafs know all to well; goals does not always lead to success. Toronto has been in the top ten the last two seasons in goals per game, but did not hold their own in the win department. The offense hasn't changed in Toronto, but between the pipes and the pairs that assist the goalie have improved significantly. During the offseason the starting goalie role seemed to be divided evenly between James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier with the hopes that one of them would evolve into an Ace at some point during the full length season. This Monday, Reimer will be a common man Marlies are thankful for while celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving. It appears Mr. Reimer has already shown that he wants to take the ropes this season and guide his team deep into the playoffs. If he stays on his game, success is inevitable for the Maple Leafs; only several injuries could ever slow their offense down.
#5- Pittsburgh Penguins (Metropolitan Division) : The Penguins are taking care of business this regular season, surprised? Since winning the Stanley Cup in the 2008-2009 season, The Penguins have won 183 regular season games; 3 more than the second best Vancouver Canucks. A Penguins fan that is excited about a 3-1-0 start this year is a new Penguins fan. Pittsburgh has been the Tale of Two Teams. In the regular season there has not been a single team that could stand toe-to-toe with the Penguins in a Best of Seven series. Offensive dominance along with solid goaltending by Marc-Andre Fleury has been their weapons of choice in the regular season. Come June their goaltender has gone into a shell and sucked his offense in with him. With Tomas Vokoun out for months, the Penguins will need to call on a rookie goalie to relieve Fleury if he ever shows signs of fatigue. Regardless, Pittsburgh has two of the league's biggest stars in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and are always one of the most entertaining teams to watch during the regular season and hardest to beat.
#6- Calgary Flames (Pacific Division) : If Calgary has had one steady piece to the puzzle over the last decade, it was their golden goalie Miikka Kiprusoff. With his offseason announcement to retire, it seemed inevitable that the Flames were doomed to another year spent watching post-season hockey. Calgary has yet to lose in overtime (3-0-2) and they will be the first to point out the fact that they have no superstars. You won't see any major individual award go to the city of Calgary this season aside from possibly the Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year). Aside from San Jose's Hertl, Sean Monahan leads the league's rookies in points out of the gates. He has proven to be an instant piece to Calgary's puzzle. Although the biggest piece retired this offseason, the puzzle appears to be coming together easier with all of the little pieces. Neither Joey MacDonald or Karri Ramo are turning heads with their play in net and the Flames are not dominating the play on the ice by any means, but when push comes to shove they are getting the job done in the win column. That's what it takes to play through June.
#7- Chicago Blackhawks (Central Division) : The champs are here! And they are playing good hockey. Chicago has spent their offseason determined to not soak up their success too much. Their stars have all said their idea of satisfaction is repeating as champions, a feat that hasn't been accomplished since the Red Wings repeated in the late '90s. The new salary cap sent a lot of good players from good teams to improving teams, but the damage was minimal in the city of Chicago. Michael Frolik was shipped to the Jets, aside from his departure the Hawks seem to be fully equipped and ready for another playoff run. Don't expect a 24 game point streak or anything huge out of Chicago this year. The sheet to keep your eyes on is the Injury Report. If the Blackhawks can stay healthy and keep playing all around solid play, they will be the team to beat this postseason, regardless of what seed they decide to take. 3-1-1 is how the season has started and will most likely go all year. Chicago will get a very quiet 50-55 wins this season.
#8 Tampa Bay Lightning (Atlantic Division) : The Lightning were my preseason sleeper pick to win the Eastern Conference. The first ten days of the season has already been a roller coaster ride. The debut in less than mediocre fashion, but have turned around to win three straight highlighted by a shootout win over Chicago. Their last game saw nine total goals, seven for them. That will be a common trend this year as arguably the most electric duo, and easily the most underestimated duo, will produce week in week out. But, Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis will have little say in the post season fortunes of the Lightning. Yes, they are two of the most prolific scorers in the league, but that's been the case for years. As of now, Ben Bishop has held his own in the net. If he can manage to hold his GAA (goals against a game) under 2, he will the catalyst to Tampa Bay's potential playoff run. Two of the goalies biggest enemies are on his side; that always helps.
#9- Anaheim Ducks (Pacific Division) : An unlikely reason the Ducks have had little late season luck is the fact that they will not return to the slickest looking team in the league. Last season was a successful one for Anaheim, but with success comes higher expectations. There isn't too much more room between the Ducks's departures and the Stanley Cup Finals. With Teemu Selanne returning for one last season, it's hard not to root for this group as they inevitably return to the post-season. Bobby Ryan's departure hasn't impaired the core unit in Anaheim. The only thing holding the Ducks back is injuries, and potentially goaltending. Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth have proven to be worthy of being the Ace on the team, but it seems like once one solidifies himself as the better of the two; the tables turn. Having two excellent goalies that take turns shining is definitely not the worst problem to have. As long as one of them are clicking at all times, The Ducks should easily be the runner up in the Pacific Division.
#10- Carolina Hurricanes (Metro Division) : The Hurricanes have been wheelin' n dealin' for seasons now and all of the pieces are coming together beautifully, but their strongest piece has struggled this year. Jordan Staal left Pittsburgh to play alongside his brother Eric, Alexander Semin brought the success he saw in Washington down to Carolina, Nathan Gerbe has found a new spark since arriving in his new home, and Radek Dvorak is making his potential last stop count; and of course one of the strongest young talents, Jeff Skinner, is continuing to make himself essential to the Canes. The real improvement that will make the Hurricanes a winning team is the young defensive duo Justin Faulk and Ryan Murphy. If those two boys stay healthy, a playoff spot is going to be locked in Carolina; a club most have failed to recognize as a threat. Cam Ward needs to rediscover his game; plain and simple. 2-1-2 is a good start for the Hurricanes, but if Ward returns to the goalie he's been in the past, the wins will come in bulk. Anton Khudobin has taken his small window of opportunity and shined as a stand in goalie. That could come in hand in the postseason when Carolina returns this season.
#11- Boston Bruins (Atlantic Division) : The Bruins are a solid team and playing solid hockey. They finally got Jarome Iginla and he does have big shoes to fill as Tyler Seguin and Nathan Horton were shipped off to improve two teams that are on the rise. Boston has an excellent mix of young talent and veteran minds along with a beast between the pipes. Because of this, they will be a participant in the postseason for years to come. The window of opportunity for another cup to go with their 2011 cup has sailed. Stars have aged and stars have left the city. The youth is promising, but not championship caliber. The Bruins could definitely see their next few season located in the worst part of the standings; too low to be contenders, but too high to benefit from losing.
#12- New York Islanders (Metro Division) : It's been quite some time since the best team in New York weren't wearing Blue and Red. The Islanders are the team of the future. Evgeni Nabokov is the goalie that the Isles have needed for years, but it's not terribly sad that it took so many seasons for New York to have a stable goalie. In the past few seasons, the youngest team has blossomed several current stars and men that will be serious threats for the next decade. It'd be disappointing for the Isles to miss the post season, but surprising if they navigated their way to the Eastern Finals. The future couldn't be brighter.
#13- Columbus Blue Jackets (Metro Division) : Nathan Horton was the biggest winner this offseason. He got out of Boston as a stagnation was in the makes and made his way west to Columbus, where the Jackets are beginning their climb to heights they have never reached as the league's youngest franchise. 3-1-0 and the season opener defeat to the Flames was a game that easily could have gone to Columbus. There is endless power on offense for Columbus, arguably the best defense/goalie combination in the entire east. The Blue Jackets have a clean slate as they transferred conferences in the off season and have endless potential this year and years to come; it's just a matter of Todd Richards figuring out where to place all of the pieces.
#14 Dallas Stars (Central Division) : The Stars are the definition of a team built from the net out. Kari Lehtonen is one of the league's best goalies and works with an offense less productive than most of the other Aces throughout the league. He has three pairs of defensemen that can hold their own against most team's defensive depth. What is holding Dallas back is puck possession and scoring goals. Tyler Seguin was brought to town specifically to assist Jamie Benn with those two categories. Through three games the Stars are 2-1-0 and Seguin is living up to his expectation and leading the team in points.
#15 Vancouver Canucks (Pacific Division) : John Tortorella moved way west from his seat in New York as the Rangers coach as he swapped jobs with the Canucks coach. He has led the Canucks to a 3-2-0 start including a win over his old team. Daniel and Henrik Sedin continue to lead the city of Vancouver and find new ways to dazzle fans. They continue to pull off moves and plays that only twins could perform as smoothly as they do. In the past five seasons Vancouver has only lost three more games than the league leading Penguins. Winning division crowns have become so easy that fans in Vancouver probably stopped counting. With the realignment the Canucks face new, better opponents and will be challenged all season. They should return to the postseason and will probably do great from the position of the cinderella team. Canucks know that earning the top seed in the playoffs has not brought any post season luck. Keep this in mind: Vancouver's only losses both came to San Jose.
#16 Ottawa Senators (Atlantic Division) : Craig Anderson has had his work cut out for him so far this season. He continues to be the best goaltender in the league, in my opinion. Because of him, the Senators are bound to return to the post season as long as the offense picks up. Daniel Alfredsson's decision to leave town was a heart breaking one and left huge shoes to fill for his unspoken replacement from Anaheim, Bobby Ryan. It will take time for the new additions to mesh with and get the ball rolling. For as poorly as the Sens have played they are 1-0-2. Once the ball gets rolling they will be hard to slow.
#17 Phoenix Coyotes- Offense and Goalie, Mike Smith, have been sluggish out of the gates. Still, 3-2-0 start.
#18 Los Angeles Kings- All around decent game from the Kings. A few misfortunes lead to a 3-2-0 start, but on the rise.
#19 Minnesota Wild- Leading the league in face-off circle. Dominating every game except goals. Goals = wins. 1-1-2
#20 Montreal Canadiens- Lars Eller making a name for himself. Once Price settles, big things await. 2-2-0
#21 Detroit Red Wings- A lot of new faces in Hockey Town, but the Wings not make the playoffs? 2-2-0
#22 Florida Panthers- Recent win over Penguins showed a glimpse of Florida's scattered potential. 2-3-0
#23 Winnipeg Jets- Trouba is the best Rookie Defenseman. Now, where's the offense? Blake Wheeler around? 2-3-0
#24 Edmonton Oilers- An absurd amount of young talent. If Ference can guide them and find a goalie... 1-3-0
#25 New Jersey Devils- Ilya Who? No, Kovalchuck's departure is still hurting, but Brunner is helping. 0-2-3
#26 Washington Capitals- Unstoppable powerplay and offense in general. Gotta keep pucks out of their own net. 1-3-0
#27 New York Rangers- If Henrik Lundqvist is the 'King' goaltender, the definition of King must've changed. 1-3-0
#28 Philadelphia Flyers- Well Steve Mason isn't doing to bad in net. Irrelevant if the Flyers never score. 1-4-0
#29 Nashville Predators- Pekke Rinne can only make so many saves. Maybe the Preds should play offense. 1-3-0
#30 Buffalo Sabres- It's okay, Ryan Miller will get better teammates when the Olympics begin. 0-4-1
My Power Ranking All NHL Roster
LW- Alex Ovechkin (Washington) C- Tomas Hertl (San Jose) RW- Damien Brunner (New Jersey)
LW- Thomas Vanek (Buffalo) C- Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh) RW- Radim Vrbata (Phoenix)
LW- Daniel Sedin (Vancouver) C- Steven Stamkos (Tampa Bay) RW- Patrick Kane (Chicago)
LW- Zach Parise (Minnesota) C- John Tavares (New York Isles) RW- Jakob Silfverberg (Anaheim)
D- P.K. Subban (Montreal) D- Dustin Byfuglien (Winnipeg)
D- Alex Pietrangelo (St. Louis) D- Justin Faulk (Carolina)
D- Dennis Wideman (Calgary) D- Brian Campbell (Florida)
G- Semyon Varlamov (Colorado)
G- Jonathan Bernier (Toronto)
With multiple trades and signings during the offseason this year will be a great for hockey. Here are my predictions for the playoffs.
New York Rangers
Last 4 in the playoffs
Nashville New Jersey
San Jose New York
First 4 out
San Jose Tampa Bay
Dallas New Jersey