Los Angeles Kings' Dustin Brown hoists the Stanley Cup last June. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
Wasn’t it just yesterday that the Kings were hoisting the Stanley Cup?
Time flies when you follow a tedious, spirit-sapping lockout with a 48-game season that was crammed into 100 calendar days. The Kings will try to become the first team to win back-to-back titles since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998, but, unlike last season, they won’t take anyone by surprise.
The Chicago Blackhawks, who had to break up their 2010 Cup team almost immediately because of salary-cap concerns, have rebuilt their reserves of talent and character and are the favorites.
But the Pittsburgh Penguins withstood injuries to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to easily lead the East. Crosby, who broke his jaw in late March, was skating last week, but it’s unclear when he will return.
Here’s a breakdown of the Western and Eastern conference matchups:
1. Chicago Blackhawks (36-7-5) vs. 8. Minnesota Wild (26-19-3)
Season series: Blackhawks 2-0-1.
Power play: Blackhawks 16.7% (19th); Wild 17.9% (16th).
Penalty killing: Blackhawks 87.2% (third); Wild 80.7% (18th).
Leading scorers: Blackhawks — Patrick Kane 32-23 — 55. Wild — Zach Parise 18-20 — 38.
Outlook: The Blackhawks dominated the West with a sustained level of excellence. Led by “Captain Serious,” Jonathan Toews, who’s a candidate for most valuable player and the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward, Chicago has depth, speed and the toughness to back everything up. The Wild was lucky to grab eighth, a disappointing finish. Parise and Ryan Suter, who each signed 13-year, $98-million free-agent contracts last summer, had huge impacts. Suter, though only plus-two defensively, merits Norris Trophy consideration for his shutdown skills and overall command. The Wild can’t come close to matching the Blackhawks up front.
Prediction: Blackhawks in five.
2. Anaheim Ducks (30-12-6) vs. 7. Detroit Red Wings (24-16-8)
Records: Canucks 54-19-9, Blackhawks 44-29-9.
Season series: Detroit 2-1.
Power play: Ducks 21.5% (fourth); Red Wings 18.4% (15th).
Penalty killing: Ducks 81.5% (13th); Red Wings 81.7% (12th).
Leading scorers: Ducks — Ryan Getzlaf 15-34 — 49. Red Wings — Pavel Datsyuk 15-34 — 49.
Outlook: The Ducks had a great start but struggled to score during the late stages of the season, and their goaltending swung wildly between superb and lamentable. Jimmy Howard gives the Red Wings steady goaltending and Henrik Zetterberg (11 goals, 48 points) has raised his game. For the Ducks to advance and quiet the big Detroit cheering section that always shows up in Anaheim, Getzlaf, Corey Perry and bruising defenseman Francois Beauchemin must be leaders and the second and third lines must produce.
Prediction: Red Wings in seven.
3. Vancouver Canucks (26-15-7) vs. 6. San Jose Sharks (25-16-7)
Season series: San Jose 3-0.
Power play: Canucks 15.8% (22nd); Sharks 20.1% (seventh).
Penalty killing: Canucks 84.0% (eighth); Sharks 85.0% (sixth).
Leading scorers: Canucks — Henrik Sedin 11-34 — 45. Sharks — Joe Thornton 7-33 — 40.
Outlook: The Canucks got past a goaltending controversy and constant injuries on defense. Goalie Cory Schneider and defenseman Chris Tanev missed time late in the season because of undisclosed injuries and they must be healthy for the Canucks to avoid a second straight first-round upset. The Sharks have never lacked talent — they’ve lacked heart. Defenseman/winger Brent Burns has given them an emotional lift with his aggressive style and Logan Couture is a game-breaker.
Prediction: It’s tough to pick the eternally underachieving Sharks, but they seem grittier. Sharks in six.
4. St. Louis Blues (29-17-2) vs. 5. Los Angeles Kings (27-16-5)
Season series: Kings 3-0.
Power play: Blues 19.5% (12th); Kings 19.9% (10th).
Penalty killing: Blues 84.7% (seventh); Kings 83.2% (10th).
Leading scorers: Blues — Chris Stewart 18-18 — 36. Kings — Anze Kopitar 10-32 — 42.
Outlook: This should be physical, since both teams have big bodies who like to bash and crash. The Blues’ additions of Jordan Leopold and Jay Bouwmeester make them different from the team that lost three regular-season games to the Kings, but the Kings enhanced their depth on defense by adding Robyn Regehr and regaining Matt Greene after back surgery. Goalies Brian Elliott of St. Louis and Jonathan Quick of the Kings have hit their stride after slow starts. They’ll be difference-makers .
Prediction: Lots of bruises on both sides and the Kings winning in six.