Wild West: Western Conference Playoff Previews
Now that the inaugural Play-ins are completed we know the matchups for the playoff series that will begin Tuesday, August 11th in Edmonton and Toronto. Some pretty large upsets saw both conferences 12th seed make it past the 5th seeds and continue.
It will be interesting to see if the teams from the round-robin, Vegas, Colorado, Dallas and St. Louis can match the intensity or pace in game one of the other teams that have played to advance.
Vegas Golden Knights (1st seed) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (8th)
Vegas won all three games in the round-robin and scored in bunches (15 goals), without Max Pacioretty who was unfit to play, but will be ready for game one against Chicago. Mark Stone led the Golden Knights with five points and Alex Tuch had three goals to both lead the team in those categories. Shea Theodore led the defense in scoring with four points, closely followed by Nate Schmidt with three. Robin Lehner started two of the three games while Marc-Andre Fleury started one but struggled. I would still start Fleury, as he can shine in the playoffs. Vegas might not score five goals per game, but Chicago has a suspect defense, so they should still put up some points.
Chicago was matched against an inept defensive team in Edmonton and won't nearly have space or chances they had in that series. If they can draw penalties, they are still a danger as their power play even though it struggled during the regular season, can and still should be potent with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, emerging rookies Kirby Dach and Dominik Kubalik and Duncan Keith. Corey Crawford is not what he used to be and will struggle to win this series all on his own.
Chicago might catch Vegas in the first few games, but Vegas should be too good in a seven-game series.
Vegas in six
Colorado Avalanche (2nd) vs. Arizona Coyotes (7th)
Colorado has become my personal favorite to emerge from the West (so you know that won't happen). They seem to be improving in most facets of the game including defense and goaltending and their depth has gotten much deeper when players have been lost to injury this season. Nazem Kadri has seen his power-play time increase during the round-robin and should stick there as he led the team in scoring with three of his four points being with the man advantage. I was surprised to see Nathan Mackinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog and Cale Makar all average over 21 minutes per game in mean nothing games, but they will certainly continue to do so against Arizona. In net, I would say that Philipp Grubauer has a slight edge over Pavel Francouz and should be the starter in game one.
The Coyotes surprised most and upset Nashville in four games. Their big players came up large and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Taylor Hall, Phil Kessel and Clayton Keller will need to continue to do so, to give this team any chance against a much better offensive team in Colorado. Christian Dvorak had two big goals in the Nashville series and could be a contributor as his power-play time is on the up. I think we can assume that Darcy Kuemper will be the starter.
I just can't see Arizona keeping Colorado and it's offense at bay in a seven-game series.
Colorado in five
Dallas Stars (3rd) vs. Calgary Flames (6th)
With their shoot-out victory over the St. Louis Blues in the final round-robin game, Dallas was rewarded with playing Calgary instead of Vancouver. Either way, this team will need to get its sputtering offense going (four goals in three games) or it won't matter who they are playing. Miro Heiskanen was in on all four goals and 36-year old Joe Pavelski had two goals. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin were held scoreless (with Seguin sitting in the St.Louis game). Along with Alexander Radulov, Benn and Seguin will need to improve to move on. It looks like Anton Khudobin will be the starter as Ben Bishop is unfit to play.
Fans in Calgary must be delighted to see Sean Monahan leading the team in scoring after four games with six points. More importantly, all four lines contributed which if carried over to this series will make it very difficult for Dallas to keep the Flames in check for this series. Milan Lucic might not sustain his point per game pace, but he should be passed in the team scoring by Mikael Backlund, Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk soon enough. Cam Talbot has looked very good in the net so far and has solidified his place over David Rittich.
Calgary in seven
St. Louis Blues (4th) vs. Vancouver Canucks (5th)
Craig Berube has been experimenting with his roster during the round-robin more than most other teams as he tries to fit Vladimir Tarasenko back into this lineup after close to ten months, not in the lineup. The team has only managed six goals in their three games and Colton Parayko and David Perron each have two of them. I wouldn't put much stock into this past week for the defending Stanley Cup champs as they proved they enjoy the underdog role from last season. Jordan Binnington will look to bring the magic back to the crease this playoff.
Vancouver's top two lines and Quinn Hughes could pose some problems for St. Louis and the power play will be an important factor throughout this series. The Canucks will need to draw penalties and as we saw in game one against Minnesota when they couldn't do that, they showed the league how easy it was to shut their offense down. Elias Petterson, Bo Horvat, J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser will need to play at the tops of their games and continue to work through the relentless checking that the Blues will bring.
Quinn Hughes and Jacob Markstrom will be the keys to Vancouver moving on. Markstrom will need to bounce back from game four against Minnesota and address a few issues creeping into his game, fatigue and the short-side. If Markstrom is fatigued after three games after four months off, then this doesn't bode well for him having playoff success, and we will undoubtedly see Thatcher Demko before this series is over. I think it was just Markstrom in his head and he should be able to put it behind him.
The way to defend Quinn Hughes seems simple. Just take away his space and hit him. Much like Wayne Gretzky, it is much easier said than done. In watching the Minnesota series, I don't think Hughes took more than one hard hit in the series, and he uses a defender's physical commitment to check him work against the defender, by anticipating it and emerging with the puck more often than not.
It is great to see the Canucks have some success, but this market will have some unfair regret if the Canucks lose this series without a real fight and the team doesn't have their lottery pick this year.
St. Louis in six
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