Western Conference Playoff Preview: First Round Breakdown and Predictions
Strap yourself in, fill up that beer fridge, and welcome to the most wonderful time of the year.
Yes, my fellow hockey nutjobs, the NHL playoffs have finally arrived and this season has been the normal, totally predictable NHL. We have a first-year expansion team as the top seed in their division, a team that finished dead last a season ago in a wildcard spot, and a team that I affectionately refer to as “Taylor Hall and a bunch of other guys” back in the playoffs for the first time since 2011-12. The Penguins are looking for the threepeat, the Predators are looking for sweet revenge, the Maple Leafs are looking to exorcise some demons, and the (new) Jets are looking for their first playoff victory.
I’ll be breaking down every series, matchups to watch, who I think will advance to round two, and other interesting storylines/tidbits for the Western Conference in the first round. Fellow Bench-Lifer Cameron Burgess is covering the East so be sure to watch out for his article as well. Let’s go!
(C1) Nashville Predators [53-18-11] v. (WC2) Colorado Avalanche [43-30-9]
Season series: NSH 4-0-0; COL 0-3-1.
Breakdown: Last season the Predators found themselves in a position quite similar to where Colorado is right now. They were a heavy underdog against Chicago, yet promptly swept them and made a run all the way to the Cup Final. While I’m not suggesting the same events will transpire here, I will say that seeding is somewhat meaningless once the playoff puck drops. Regardless, the Preds are unquestionably one of the favourites to win it all and for good reason. Their roster is almost identical to a season ago plus Kyle Turris, Nick Bonino, Ryan Hartman, and perhaps Eeli Tolvanen. They are deep up front (13 players with 10 or more goals), loaded on the blueline, fully healthy aside from Calle Jarnkrok, and Pekka Rinne is in the midst of the best season of his NHL career. Oh, and they have arguably the biggest home-ice advantage in the NHL. Have fun beating that team.
The Avalanche even being in this position is truly remarkable. Just last year they had the worst season by any team since 1999-00 as they posted a miserable 22-56-4 record. Now, they find themselves as heavy underdogs in the first round but in the playoffs nonetheless. A large portion of this success can be attributed to Hart Trophy candidate Nathan Mackinnon. He was sensational this season with 39 goals and 58 assists and finally harnessed the game-breaking ability that made him the first overall pick in 2013. Super sophomore Mikko Rantanen (29G/55A) and team captain Gabriel Landeskog (25G/37A) round out a potent top line that carried the Avs’ offense on most nights. Unfortunately for Colorado’s upset hopes, starting goalie Semyon Varlamov and top defenseman Erik Johnson were both injured just before the playoffs and neither will play in the first round. Jonathan Bernier will have to be huge in the crease for the Avs to keep up with the Preds.
Predators – While Ryan Johansen’s injury in the Western Conference Final was the biggest blow to the Preds cup run last season, they also lost a guy in the first round who looked like he was enjoying a playoff breakout. Kevin Fiala recovered from the fractured femur and carried his momentum into the regular season. Playing primarily in a top-six role, he set career highs with 23 goals and 25 assists. While Forsberg, Johansen, Subban, and Josi could be considered stars, the Preds are still a team that gets it done by committee. Fiala, who’s slated to play alongside Turris and Craig Smith, will be a massive part of the Preds’ secondary scoring. His playoff run was stolen from him last season but now he has another opportunity to impress.
Avalanche – Nathan Mackinnon will be the biggest reason why the Avs win any games but I am going to go a different route. The injury to Erik Johnson leaves a gaping hole on the blueline and Samuel Girard is the guy to fill it. The rookie was acquired from the Predators in the Turris/Duchene three-way deal and he has impressed Avs fans with his poise and smooth skating. He will have extra motivation playing against his former team and is in line to play upwards of 23+ minutes a night. He already stepped up in a big way in Colorado’s must win game against St. Louis to end the season as he was the best player on the ice. Again, the Avs are the biggest underdog in the first round but the playoffs are a different beast. Girard’s play will go a long way for the Avs if they want to make this a close series.
Prediction: Predators in 5.
Nashville just simply outmatches Colorado in every single aspect of the game. The forward core is deeper and more experienced, the blueline is an embarrassment of riches, and Pekka Rinne is a wall in net. If Varlamov and Johnson were healthy I could maybe stretch it to 6 games but I cannot envision a scenario where the Preds bow out this early. I do think Nathan Mackinnon is going to single-handedly will the Avs to a victory on home ice but that is about it. Preds roll.
(C2) Winnipeg Jets [52-20-10] v. (C3) Minnesota Wild [45-26-11]
Season series: WPG 3-1-0; MIN 1-3-0.
Breakdown: Both of these teams have been great since the calendar flipped to 2018. The Jets have ridden a balanced roster to one of the better records in the league. They have one of the strongest forward cores in the playoffs with stalwarts Schiefele (23G/37A), Wheeler (23G/68A), Laine (44G/26A), and Ehlers (29G/31A) leading the way. The trade deadline acquisition of Paul Stastny also worked out admirably as he recorded 13 points in his 19 games with the Jets. They have a stout defense which is evidenced by Jacob Trouba, Dustin Byfuglien, and Tyler Myers all being on separate pairings. If that isn’t enough, perhaps the biggest key to the Jets success was in net. Connor Hellebuyck, who was projected to be Steve Mason’s backup at the start of the season, has turned in a Vezina-caliber campaign with a sparkling 44-11-9 record, a .924 SV%, and a 2.36 GAA.
The Wild were their typical consistent self as they made the playoffs for the sixth straight year. Eric Staal, who has enjoyed a career renaissance in the Twin Cities, was a force centering the top line as his 42 goals and 76 points paced the team. Jason Zucker benefitted greatly from Staal’s presence as he chipped in a surprising 33 goals. Mikael Granlund also enjoyed a solid year with 46 assists and 67 points. Defensively, Ryan Suter was the stamina superstar again averaging 26:46 TOI per game but he fractured his ankle right before the start of the playoffs leaving a massive hole on the blueline. Luckily for the Wild, Matt Dumba broke out in a big way this season averaging 23:46 TOI per game while chipping in 50 points. Between the pipes, Devan Dubnyk’s underlying numbers were not as good as years past but he still managed an impressive 35-16-7 record.
Jets – I purposely left rookie Kyle Connor out of the initial blurb because I think his performance is critical for the Jets in this series. He had 31 goals and 26 assists in his first full season of NHL action. He benefits from the opposition zeroing in on his linemates Schiefele and Wheeler when the unit is out on the ice. He is a battler and finds ways to get to open areas while the all-star duo commands all the attention. In what should be a tight-checking series, his opportunistic style of play will be massive for Winnipeg. Connor also has a knack for scoring big goals as he tallied 7 game winners (3 in OT) this season.
Wild – Although he battled injury for a quarter of the season Nino Niederreiter will need to improve on the disappointing year he has had thus far. 18 goals and 14 assists are simply not enough from a top-six winger for a team that can struggle to score at times. Luckily, the playoffs are a clean slate and El Nino will be playing on the top line with Zucker and Staal. That trio is key for the Wild in this series as their solid puck possession numbers will wear down the Winnipeg D and lead to offensive opportunities. The big Swiss winger has a necessary net-front presence and a heavy shot. He was the best 5-on-5 Corsi player (52.94%) for the Wild by a wide margin which suggests he is playing good hockey, just not converting his chances.
Prediction: Jets in 6.
If Ryan Suter was healthy this series would be a complete toss-up in my book but losing a guy that plays almost half the game each night is too big of a hole. I love Matt Dumba but I am not very confident in a Nick Seeler/Nate Prosser pairing against one of the best offensive teams in the league. Winnipeg was second in goals for league-wide while also being fifth stingiest in goals against. The Jets power play is also one of the biggest advantages in the series as they scored on 23.4% of their opportunities (5th in the league) while the Wild scored on just 20.4% (18th in the league). Not only will the new Winnipeg Jets get their first ever playoff win, they’ll also be getting their first ever series win.
(P1) Las Vegas Golden Knights [51-24-7] v. (WC1) Los Angeles Kings [45-29-8]
Season series: VGK 2-1-1; LAK 2-1-1.
Breakdown: Well, I have to say I definitely did not imagine we would see the Golden Knights playoff debut in their inaugural season but here we are. The Knights rode a fairytale roster to the top seed in the Pacific and looked like one of the best squads in the league for most of the year. Vegas was led by Columbus castoff William Karlsson (43G/35A), Panther pariah’s Marchessault (27G/48A) and Smith (22G/38A), and parted Penguin Marc-Andre Fleury (29-13-4/.927SV%/2.24GAA). Even when there were injuries to three of their starting goalies the Knights did not slow down. They seemed to get contributions from a different part of their lineup every single game as they had six players with 20+ goals. Head coach Gerard Gallant deserves a boatload of credit for what he has done with this team. They can skate, they can score, and they can come at you in waves.
The Kings style of play is contrarian to that of the Knights. While Vegas has a speed and offense approach, the Kings are playing that old-fashioned barricading defense. They were the stingiest team in the league only allowing 2.46 goals per game and they also had the best penalty kill at 85% effectiveness. Jonathan Quick has been here before and knows what it takes to win in the postseason. He did not have a great year which is evident by his 33-28-3 record but that can quickly be forgotten during a sublime playoff run. Offensively, Anze Kopitar had a herculean season setting career highs in goals (35), assists (57), and points (92). The Slovenian will be in the running for league MVP as well the Selke for best defensive forward. Furthermore, Dustin Brown (28G/33A/61P) enjoyed a bounce-back year with his highest totals since 2010-11 and Jeff Carter, who only managed 27 games this season, is back and healthy for the playoffs.
Golden Knights – Tomas Tatar was George McPhee’s big splash at the trade deadline and the review is not good so far. The Knights paid a hefty price for the Slovakian winger who has only managed 6 points in 20 games wearing the gold, black and white. Tatar is deft and creative with the puck which should fit in perfectly with the high-octane offense but he cannot seem to find his footing. The Kings do not make it easy on opposing teams and goals will be hard to come by. The Knights need the veteran Tatar to show up and help lead the attack.
Kings – Adrian Kempe (16G/21A/37P) was one of the hottest Kings at the start of the season but has bottomed out as the year dragged on. Perhaps the grueling grind of an NHL season has taken a toll on the young Swede as he has not scored a goal in 28 games. With Carter back in the fold, Kempe has moved down to the third line which should offer more favourable matchups. If the Kings are going to keep up with the scoring prowess of the Knights they need Kempe to find the offensive fire that saw him snag 9 points in his first 10 games of the year.
Prediction: Kings in 7.
It is the classic battle of offense meets defense and although I think T-Mobile Arena will be a formidable place to play I have to take the defense in what looks to be a very close series. I think that over the course of seven games L.A head coach John Stevens will be able to effectively deploy his defense in a way that mitigates the Vegas attack. Kopitar and Drew Doughty are big game players and although the Knights have enjoyed productivity all season long the playoffs are a different beast. The series may just come down to the battle between Fleury and Quick. Strap yourselves in for a mean, hardfought war.
(P2) Anaheim Ducks [44-25-13] v. (P3) San Jose Sharks [45-27-10]
Season series: ANA 1-1-2; SJS 3-0-1.
Breakdown: California cities and Pacific Division rivals collide in this evenly matched tilt. The Ducks are scorching hot right now ending the season on a 10-1-1 run. They lost 317 man games due to injury throughout the year including extended stints on the shelf for key contributors Kesler, Getzlaf, Perry, and Lindholm. They are relatively healthy now aside from Cam Fowler (who is expected to miss the first round) but the top two D pairings of Lindholm-Manson, and Beauchemin-Montour are set. The biggest advantage for Anaheim in this series is John Gibson, who vaulted into the best goalie in the league discussion with his phenomenal play this season. Gibson made 37 of 39 saves in a 3-2 win against the Blues in November with THIS TEAM playing in front of him:
If that isn’t enough to convince you about Gibson, nothing is. Regardless, since the all-star break Gibson leads the league in SV% (.937) and GAA (1.95). Offensively the Ducks should be fine with Getzlaf (11G/50A/56GP) and Kesler now back and healthy. Adam Henrique was acquired earlier in the season from the Devils and scored 20 of his 24 goals with the Ducks.
Moving onto NorCal, the Sharks are on the hunt for another playoff run after last year’s early exit against Edmonton. The usual suspects were the top producers for San Jose as Burns (12G/55A), Pavelski (22G/44A), and Couture (34G/27A) were 1-2-3 in team scoring. The Sharks are also dealing with an injury issue themselves as Joe Thornton is likely to miss Game 1 of the series due to the knee ailment that has cost him 35 games this season. Evander Kane was a big addition for the Sharks at the deadline and he has been solid so far with 9 goals and 14 points in 17 games. The team depth was exposed last season but they’ve received important contributions from players like Timo Meier, Joonas Donskoi, Kevin Labanc, and Tomas Hertl this year. The top two pairings of Burns-Martin, Braun-Vlasic are dependable and log heavy minutes. Martin Jones won 30 games for the third straight season but he struggled for stretches this campaign.
Ducks – While some of the Ducks biggest point producers were mentioned in the opening paragraph it is the unheralded 22-year-old out of the Czech Republic who will be key in this opening series. Ondrej Kase recorded the first 20 goal season of his young career and will be a key source of secondary scoring on the third line for Anaheim. He has disgusting hands and quick feet which makes him more than capable of scoring a highlight reel goal at a crucial juncture of the game.
Sharks – The most criminally underrated defensive defenseman in the league is my x-factor for the Sharks. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is a rock in his own zone and will be key to stymying the Anaheim offense. He logs heavy minutes on the penalty kill and against the top performers of the opposition. Both of these teams have talented forwards and are capable of scoring in bunches so defensive capability will be everything.
Prediction: Ducks in 6.
It is all John Gibson for me. I think he is one of the most talented goalies in the world and he looks on track to play in Game 1. Cam Fowler is a third pairing d-man on the Ducks and although they would like to have him on the power play I do not think his absence is as big of a loss as some people are saying. I like the Ducks offensive options a little bit more than San Jose. Realistically though, this is a very even series and one of the biggest differences could be what penalty kill performs best. The Sharks had the second most effective unit in the league (84.8%) while Anaheim had the fifth (83.2%). Special teams play a huge role in a playoff series and that could be a determing factor.