The NHL regular season has ended and the playoffs are under way. We have two glorious months to look forward to. Things can and often do change in the playoffs, but where it sits right now it sure feels like the teams in the West are all just playing for the right to lose to Chicago. The Blackhawks, with endless amounts of experience, just seem to be head and shoulders above the rest. Of course, they - or anyone else - are still 12 wins away from the Stanley Cup final, so anything can happen, and it's not like the rest of the teams are pushovers.
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Chicago is clearly best, but beyond that the list of viable contenders runs far deeper than it does in the east. Here's how I see the first round breaking down (odds to win the Western Conference are from Bovada ):
Chicago (+175) vs. Nashville (+1400): Chicago beat Nashville four times in five tries this season, and that lone Nashville win was just the second game of the season, so it isn't particularly relevant. There are a lot of ways in which Nashville is outmatched, but one thing stands out above the rest. The Predators, with a 17-20-4 road record, are the only team in the playoffs that played below .500 away from home. That would be a problem for any team, but it's especially an issue when they have to win at least one - and probably more than that - in Chicago where the Blackhawks are strong. On top of that, Chicago is wildly more experienced - the core of this has won as many Stanley Cups (three) as the Predators have playoff series wins in the entire history of their franchise.
Nashville is a solid team that could do some damage against other teams, but in this matchup there are just too many obstacles. I would pick Chicago in five if I had to pick a number. However, no matter how long it takes, the Blackhawks are a very comfortable pick in this series.
Anaheim (+700) vs. Calgary (+1000): This one could get nasty. In fact, it probably will. The teams played back-to-back contests on April 2 and 4. Anaheim won both. The bigger issue, though, was that in the second two all-star defensemen - Calgary's Mark Giordano and Anaheim's Cam Fowler - had a knee-on-knee collision. Fowler was injured and could miss significant time. The Ducks said it was intentional and Giordano is dirty - which is just plain stupid. In the third period things got totally out of control, with 106 minutes of penalties. The bitterness has spilled into the press, and the high stakes of a playoff series won't help.
I'll put my unavoidable bias aside - I have lived within 10 miles of the Saddledome in Calgary for most of my life - and admit that the Flames have some issues here. After ending a 10-game winning streak they played below .500 for their final 13 games, and issues with defensive depth were again exposed. More significantly, perhaps, they haven't won a game in Anaheim since 2004 - and that's not through lack of opportunity. The absence of Fowler hurts, and Calgary will be no pushover, but Anaheim plays heavy hockey, and it's a really poor matchup for the Flames. Anaheim should win.
Edmonton (+800) vs. San Jose (+700): No one should want to play Edmonton right now. Connor McDavid reached the 100-point plateau in the season finale, and the team won 12 of their last 14. They have really found their way. San Jose, meanwhile, dropped nine of their last 13, and they seem to be a team in the hunt for an identity.
Edmonton beat the Sharks twice in the last six games to build confidence here. There are obvious concerns for the Oilers. They haven't been in the playoffs for about 95 years, and their core is all new to this. San Jose, meanwhile, won the West just last year.
Still, Edmonton isn't working with a mortal player at their core, the Oilers have better goaltending right now, and head coach Todd McLellan coached the Sharks for seven years before last season, so he knows how to get into the heads of the core of this team better than anyone outside of Northern California. This should be a tough and interesting series, but the Canadian squad will come out on top.
Minnesota (+400) vs. St. Louis (+1400): Up until the end of February I was fairly high on Minnesota. Under Bruce Boudreau I thought they were very strong Cup contenders. And then the wheels fell off. Since the beginning of March the team is a dismal 8-11-2, and even that is flattering because they had the impossibly easy final run of four games that included two against Colorado and one against the Coyotes. You couldn't pick a more pathetic set of opponents than that. This team is just not in a good place right now, and it's a rough way to head into the playoffs. And it's not like Boudreau has a long record of playoff overachievement, either.
The Blues aren't exactly good at meeting playoff expectations, either, but they have gone 15-4 in their last 19 to ride a wave of confidence into the postseason, and I like their chances of pulling off the mild upset here.
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