Experienced Blackhawks lead field of Cup contenders out West
The Chicago Blackhawks have been here so many times before. They're 16 postseason wins away from a fourth Stanley Cup title in eight years, and their veteran core knows it has the talent and the experience to survive the two-month playoff grind.
Nobody else in the Western Conference playoff picture can say any of that.
None of the other seven teams has won a recent Stanley Cup. In fact, only three of those franchises have raised the Cup at all, and only two players were in their current uniform for it: Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, who won their rings a decade ago.
So is it Chicago's conference crown to lose when postseason play gets underway Wednesday?
The top-seeded Blackhawks have been around for too long to believe anything matters except Game 1 on Thursday night against Nashville.
''I think that energy, that ambition and motivation is back,'' Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said. ''We have that feeling again, that every single moment and every single game matters. It's a lot of fun to play at this time of the year. It's why we work all year to get to this point, and as we have said in the past, the real season begins. Obviously, we want to see what we are made of, and I think we are all pretty confident what we are able to do.''
The rest of the West is about to find out if it measures up.
Here's what to watch in the four first-round series beginning this week:
BLACKHAWKS vs PREDATORS
Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Marian Hossa are just part of the veteran group that propelled the Blackhawks down the stretch to the West's top record and the NHL's third-best performance since New Year's Day (58 points).
Yet these Blackhawks have been refreshed by an infusion of youngsters hoping for their first taste of Stanley Cup glory, most notably Artemi Panarin. The high-scoring Russian is in only his second NHL season, and his first postseason run ended abruptly last year with Chicago's first-round loss to St. Louis.
The Predators were Chicago's first-round postseason opponents before the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup title runs in 2010 and 2015. Nashville's record (41-29-12) was nearly identical to last season's mark, but the Predators have made one big change: P.K. Subban replaced Shea Weber as their top defenseman this season, headlining a blue-line corps including Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis in front of goalie Pekka Rinne.
Chicago knows that if Rinne plays at his all-world best, even the Blackhawks could have trouble scoring enough to win.
WILD vs BLUES
Minnesota was cruising toward the Central Division title before a late-season slump, while the Blues surged into the postseason after firing coach Ken Hitchcock and trading top defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.
Both teams are regular playoff qualifiers, but both are hoping for a breakthrough this spring after years of disappointment. Keep an eye on Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk, whose proficiency against Vladimir Tarasenko and the Blues' scorers could determine this series.
DUCKS vs FLAMES
Anybody who is aware of the Flames' 25-game regular-season losing streak at Honda Center could be excused for thinking the Ducks have an astonishing home-ice advantage in this matchup of the five-time defending Pacific Division champions and the West's top wild card.
The Flames are loaded with young talent, but this series rests heavily on Getzlaf, Perry, Ryan Kesler and the rest of Anaheim's veteran core, which simply hasn't been able to finish: The Ducks have lost a Game 7 at home in each of the last four postseasons.
The Ducks streaked into the postseason on an 11-0-3 roll, and they have more talent and experience. But after Anaheim's first-round flop against Nashville last season, the Flames realize they might be facing some sitting Ducks in their quest for a playoff breakthrough.
OILERS vs SHARKS
Connor McDavid will make his Stanley Cup playoff debut at Rogers Place's first postseason game on Wednesday night, and the hockey world can't wait to see what he does next.
McDavid already won the NHL scoring title and led Edmonton back to the postseason after a 10-year absence. The Oilers even finished above the Sharks, who have much the same team that won the West last season.
San Jose might be far from full strength: Centers Joe Thornton and Logan Couture are out with injuries, and it's unclear when they'll return. But Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski are ready to apply their full range of playoff knowledge against the upstart Oilers and McDavid, who might be at the start of the best chapter yet in his remarkable story.
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