A preview of the NHL Western Conference playoffs.
The Calgary Flames were a non playoff team last year but exceeded all expectations this year finishing the regular season with the most points in the Western Conference with 107. How did they do it? On the offensive side they went from 2.6 goals per game the previous year to 3.5 goals this year. The Flames had 3 30+ goal scorers in Johnny Gaudreau, Shane Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk along with 8 other Flames with 10 or more goals during the regular season. David Rittich and veteran Mike Smith alternated in net and both had solid seasons with Smith likely getting the start in game 1 even though statistically Rittich had the better numbers. On the defensive side Mark Giordano had a Norris type season ranking 2nd in points by a defender and was the number one rated player in plus/minus.
A strong finish by the Colorado Avalanche, winning their last 8 of 11, enabled them to grab the last wild card spot. If you had to give a March-April MVP of the league it had to be goaltender Phillip Grubauer who gave up only 16 goals in has last 9 starts and did not lose a game in regulation while winning 7 of those starts. The good news for the Avalanche is that they might have their top line back for the playoffs as Gabriel Landeskog recently returned (34 goals, 41 assists)and Mikko Rantanen out since March 21st might be ready for game 1 (31 goals, 56 assists). Centering that line is Nathan MacKinnon who had another all star season (41 goals, 58 assists) and finished 7th overall in scoring. The Avalanche will need to stay out of the penalty box as they had the worst penalty killing percentage for all playoff teams.
Could the Avalanche as an 8 seed rise up to win this series? They have a lot of things in their favor going into this series. They have the hot goalie in Grubauer, Rantanen should return to anchor one of the most dangerous scoring lines in the league, and for this last month they have been battled tested treating each game like a playoff game just to get into the playoffs. The Flames did beat the Avalanche all three times they met in the regular season and have a defender in Mark Giordano that can control the game. The Avalanche have the potential to pull off the upset but I will go with Calgary.
Flames in 7 games
Which Winnipeg Jets team will show up for the playoffs? The team who made it to the Western Conference finals last year and on paper with enough talent to win the Stanley Cup or the inconsistent side that lost their last 6 out of 9 games and got passed by the Nashville Predators for the Central Division title. Their top line of Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, and Blake Wheeler all scored 30+ goals and Patrick Laine who is part of the top line power play unit also registered 30 goals for a Jets power play that is the 3rd best for all playoff teams. Goaltender Connor Hellebuyck had a solid playoff last year, winning game 7 in Nashville, and won 34 games during the regular season. Dustin Byfuglien should be healthy for the playoffs to help anchor their defense.
After floundering in the first part of the regular season and eventually firing coach Mike Yeo the St Louis Blues caught fire with an 11 game winning streak starting January 23rd and won their last 9 out of 12 to comfortably make the playoffs with 99 points. If you are giving a 2nd half MVP it has to be Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington who at the start of the season wasn't even in the Blues goalie rotation. Once Binnington got in the lineup he won 24 games, pitched 5 shutouts, had a 1.89 GAA, and save percentage of .927. Vladimir Tarasenko led the Blues with 33 goals but their overall leading scorer Ryan O'Reilly had only 77 points. The Blues however did have 13 different players with 10+ goals. The Blues had a myriad of injuries during the regular season but should be healthy for the start of the playoffs.
We have seen many goalies come from nowhere to have a great regular season and carry that over to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Ron Hextall in the 1986-1987 season led the Philadelphia Flyers all the way to the Stanley Cup finals before losing to Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers in game 7 of the finals. Can Jordan Binnington continue his incredible play once the playoffs start or will he wilt under the pressure of the playoffs? Winnipeg won 3 out of 4 games during the regular season but they haven't played since December 7th and Binnington has not faced the Jets this year. I'm going with the small upset and and riding the hot goaltender and hot team.
Blues in 6 games
The Dallas Stars rode the playoff bubble the entire year but finished strong to grab the 1st wild card spot. Defense has been the big story for the Stars as they gave up the least goals per game at 2.44. Ben Bishop, despite some late season injuries, had a Vezina type season leading the league in save percentage at .934 and a GAA of 1.98. Anton Khudobin solidly filled in as a back up with a .923 save percentage and a 2.57 GAA. The Stars offensively only had 3 players over 50 points and 3 of their top 6 scorers were defensemen. They do have a dangerous top scoring line who could get hot in the playoffs with Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alexander Radulov but not a lot of scoring depth. They will need offensive contributions from Roope Hintz and Radek Haska to have a chance to win in the playoffs
The Nashville Predators battled all the way to the last day of the regular season to win the Central Division. A disappointing end to last year's season getting routed at home in game 7 of the 2nd round of the playoffs against Winnipeg 5-1. Much like Dallas they have relied on their defense to carry them through the regular season. Pekka Rinne had another consistent year in net with 30 wins, a 2.42 GAA, and .918 save percentage. They tied for 3rd in Goals against and arguably have the best set of defensemen in the league in P.K.Subban, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, and Norris Trophy candidate Roman Josi. The Predators like the Stars only had 3 players total 50 or more points this year and only averaged 2.88 goals per game.
Statistically this series should be an absolute grinder with both teams rock solid on defense and struggling to put the puck in the net. Absolute must that Ben Bishop stay healthy for the Stars to have a chance in this series. They split the series during the regular season 2-2. The Predators have been knocking on the door to win the Stanley Cup making the finals 2 years ago. I like the Predators experience and with home ice should win a tight, low scoring series.
Predators in 6 games
How do you gauge the San Jose Sharks going into the playoffs? Can they flip the switch once the playoffs start? They lost 9 of their last 12 and played their worst hockey at the end of the season. Talent wise they are as good as any Western Conference team going into the playoffs plus they will get back their premiere defenseman Erik Karlsson for the playoffs after sitting out over a month with a groin issue. The Sharks tied for the 2nd highest goals per game at 3.52 with 4 different Sharks with 30+ goals and Brent Burns again leading defensemen in scoring with 83 points. Defense is the big question mark for the Sharks entering the playoffs as Martin Jones is the only starting goaltender in the playoffs whose save percentage is below .900 and the Sharks have given up the most goals per game at 3.15 of any playoff team.
Tough to top the unprecedented run the Vegas Golden Knights made as an expansion franchise last year making it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals before losing to the Washington Capitols. The Golden Knights like San Jose finished on a sour note to end the regular season losing 7 of their last 8. Marc-Andre Fleury should be healthy for the playoffs as he posted good numbers in the regular season and is probably the most playoff battle tested goalie going into the playoffs. Vegas does have questions on offense as they only had 1 player top 60 points and that was Mark Stone who they acquired from Ottawa near the trade deadline. Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson both had below average seasons offensively and will have to step up in the playoffs along with Stone to have a chance for another run.
The health and effectiveness of Erik Karlsson for San Jose and Marc Andre-Fleury for Vegas could determine who wins this playoff match up. They split the regular season series 2-2. I will go with the better defensive team and the proven goalie and pick Vegas in this series.
Golden Knights in 6 games