Previewing the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs - Western Conference Edition
One conference down, one conference to go. Time to take a look at what the best of the West has to offer in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Matchup: Calgary Flames (107 PTS, 1st in Pacific) vs. Colorado Avalanche (90 PTS, 5th in Central - 2nd Wild Card)
Recent Meetings: None in recent memory, as both teams have been on the bubble for the last couple years. They have each made two playoff appearances since 2014, but both didn't make it either time.
Season Series: Calgary took all three meetings in a high-scoring season series, winning twice in regulation and once in overtime.
Recent Playoff Success: The Avs have lost in the first round in 2014 (as favorites) and 2018 (as underdogs). Calgary made it to the 2nd round in 2015 but lost handidly to Anaheim, who swept them in the first round in 2017.
Who's the Favorite: No team made a bigger jump in the standings out west than the Flames, going from a mediocre 84 points to their first ever Western Conference regular season championship. The Flames are lead on the backend by an unlikely Norris candidate in Mark Giordano. The rest of the defense is no slouch either. T.J. Brodie is a good puck-mover, and Noah Hanifin met expectations in his first year as a Flame. Up front, the Flames possess skill (Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm) and spunk (Matthew Tkachuk, struggling James Neal). Big Save Dave Rittich is a bit of a wild card in net, but he's held down the fort just fine so far for the Flames. Although apparently they might be starting Mike Smith, whose .898 save percentage would be tied for the lowest of any projected Game 1 starter.
The Avalanche have the luxury of one of the best lines in hockey in Landeskog-MacKinnon-Rantanen (the latter is hurt, but should be back for the playoffs). Other than that, there's not a ton upfront other than deadline acquistion Derick Brassard and the underrated Alex Kerfoot. Their top-four of Barrie, Johnson, Zadorov, and Girard is an excellent mix of physicality and puck movers. Seymon Varlamov and Philip Grubauer have split the Avs crease in a tandem this year. Grubauer is expected (but not confirmed) to start Game 1, though could have a quick hook.
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: Based on market alone, it has to be the Flames. Both teams are young and weren't locks to make the playoffs in October, so there's not a ton of pressure there. But the fact that Calgary won the West with one of their best teams on paper in history, and that they are in Canada, and they have the advantage over an Avalanche team that lost more in the regular season than they won makes them the favorite here.
Player to Watch For:
CGY: The playoffs are all about getting under your opponent's skin, and almost no one does that better than Matthew Tkachuk. It doesn't hurt that he's a pretty good player too; he put a career-high 74 points this year. If Tkachuk can rile up the Avs top line and get them thinking about retaliation instead of offense, this could be a short series.
COL: Nathan MacKinnon is one of the few players in the NHL who are a true treat to watch. The level of skill and creativity are unreal on the reigning Hart Trophy runner-up, as he possesses game-breaking speed and ability, with the potential to embarrass even the best defenses. Calgary will need to have a set of eyes on him at all times, though that just leaves the other two elite forwards on the Avs vaunted top line in a better place to light the lamp.
The Pick: Calgary in 6
Oddly Specific Prediction: James Neal, who had seven goals in the regular season, outscores Johnny Gaudreau who had thirty-six.
The Matchup: San Jose Sharks (101 PTS, 2nd in Pacific) vs. Vegas Golden Knights (93 PTS, 3rd in Pacific)
Recent Meetings: Only one, but that's the max considering this is Vegas' 2nd season. It was an intense second round series that ultimately saw the Golden Knights, who won Game 1 7-0, prevail in six games.
Season Series: Split two games apiece - Vegas won two lopsided affairs, while the Sharks wins (one in overtime) both came by one goal.
Recent Playoff Success: These teams account for two of the three most recent Western Conference championships. Last year, the Golden Knights broke every expansion team record ever by marching all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, losing just three games along the way. Meanwhile, the Sharks have developed a reputation for choking away golden opportunities to finally get over the hump. They have made the playoffs 14 of the last 15 years, gone to the Western Conference Final three times, and the Stanley Cup Final once. Still, like a dead Sonic the Hedgehog, they have no rings.
Who's the Favorite: Both teams have made a series of moves to bulk up since their last playoff run. Vegas added Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny in the offseason to account for the loses of James Neal and David Perron. San Jose stacked their defense by stealing Erik Karlsson from Ottawa, joining another former Norris winner in Brent Burns. At the deadline, the Sharks made a nice depth trade, adding Gustav Nyquist. In a typical Vegas stereotype, the Knights went all in, trading for the best two-way winger in hockey in Mark Stone and immediately extending him. Both have weaknesses; the Knights defense is a little weak, and Martin Jones has been abysmal this year with a .898 save percentage. This is pretty close to a pick-em, but I actually like the Knights here on account of their depth and goaltending.
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: The expectation in Vegas (already) is to win. Granted, they have already achieved that by going to the playoffs in each of their first two seasons, but a first round loss would be deflating after last year's Cup run. That being said, this category obviously belongs to the Sharks. With Pavelski, Nyquist, and Karlsson pending UFAs, an aging core largely on the wrong side of 30, and so many close calls over the years, it's starting to feel like time is running out on San Jose.
Player to Watch For:
SJ: With Alex Ovechkin getting off the schneid a year ago, perhaps no one (other than maybe Henrik Lundqvist and Patrick Marleau) deserves a Stanley Cup more than Jumbo Joe Thornton. One of the best playmakers of his generation, Thornton has been with the Sharks through all of their heartbreak. He looked done due to age and injuries a year ago, missing all ten Sharks playoff games. But he came back strong with 51 points this year, and may be looking to ride off into the sunset with championship number one.
VGK: One of two ex-Senators superstars playing in this series, Mark Stone is one of the smartest players in the NHL. It's the reason why he's scored a career-high 73 points (three 60+ point seasons in the last four years) and might just win the Selke. Stone helped the Knights get on a big winning streak after he was acquired; can he do it again in the playoffs?
The Pick: Vegas in 7
Oddly Specific Prediction: With all the talk about all the big moves George McPhee has made, it's one of his original picks from the Expansion Draft that scores the series winner.
The Matchup: Nashville Predators (100 PTS, 1st in Central) vs. Dallas Stars (93 PTS, 4th in Central - 1st Wild Card)
Recent Meetings: These two have never met in the playoffs, continuing what has become a popular trend.
Season Series: Nashville won four of the five meetings (one in overtime), but no game was decided by more than two goals on either side.
Recent Playoff Success: Smashville has developed a nice pattern of success, qualifying for the playoffs in four straight seasons, with a Finals appearance in 2017 and a President's Trophy a year ago. This is Dallas' first trip since they won the Central in 2016 and lost in the 2nd round to St. Louis in seven. They also made it in 2014, where they lost in Round One to the Ducks.
Who's the Favorite: No question it's the Predators. Nashville still remembers that Cup run two years ago, and they won the Central each of the last two seasons. They feature arguably the best top-4 in the NHL of Subban, Josi, Ellis, and Ekholm. Upfront, it's a bit more balanced, with a combination of Kyle Turris, Ryan Johansen, and Filip Forsberg leading the charge. Deadline acquistions Mikael Granlund and Wayne Simmonds have good scoring pedigrees, though neither has produced much since coming to Nashville. Pekka Rinne has cost the Preds in the playoffs before, but when on is capable of stealing a series (and if not, Jusse Saros is a capable backup). Dallas boasts an elite top line of Benn-Seguin-Radulov, two amazing defenseman in John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen, and a battle tested Ben Bishop in the crease. There's not much behind them though, which is why the Predators are the favorites.
The good news for the Stars is they swept the Lightning in the Finals when I simmed the playoffs in NHL 19, so there's that (the final four were Dallas vs. Colorado and Carolina vs. Tampa Bay, just in case you're wondering if it's really in the game).
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: Usually, Nashville would be the obvious choice. They have greater expectations as a division champion, Pekka Rinne isn't getting any younger, and the fans are disappointed after a second round exit last season. But then you remember Jim Lites, the Stars CEO, and his expletive-laden rant back in December, calling out stars Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. You get the feeling a first-round exit wouldn't excite Lites all that much, especially if Benn and Seguin don't produce. If the Stars go out early, they might be in for a wild offseason.
Player to Watch For:
NSH: Hidden behind the flare of P.K. Subban and captain Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis has been one of the most productive defenseman in the NHL over the past few years. Second amongst defenseman in power play time, third-most on the penalty kill, and yet he produced a career-high 41 points, his 3rd straight 30+ point campaign. With so many deadly options in the Predators fold, it's easy for Ellis to get lost in the shuffle until he fires a lethal clap bomb and all of a sudden becomes the stud that everyone should know he is.
DAL: Don't look now, but Ben Bishop is quietly having another Vezina level series. For a franchise that has had to deal with goaltending struggles in recent memory, Bishop has been a huge stabilizing factor. In fact, his .934 save percentage led the league, solidly ahead of Robin Lehner's .930. If Bishop can channel his 2015-2016 playoff mode, the Preds could be in trouble.
The Pick: Nashville in 7
Oddly Specific Prediction: Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin combine for four or fewer goals, ruining a potentially series-stealing performance by Bishop.
The Matchup: Winnipeg Jets (99 PTS, 2nd in Central) vs. St. Louis Blues (99 PTS, 3rd in Central)
Recent Meetings: None - the Jets have only played in four playoff series since returning to Winnipeg, none of which have been against the Blues.
Season Series: The Jets won three of the four meetings (one in overtime), though the teams have not met since early December.
Recent Playoff Success: After years of mediocrity, the Jets finally broke through last year with their best regular season ever. They kept going in the playoffs, beating Minnesota and President's Trophy winning Nashville before bowing out to the Golden Knights. The Blues were a second-round exit to the Predators back in 2017, but went to the Western Conference Finals the year before. Last year was the first time since 2011 the Blues missed the playoffs, though they won just four rounds in that six year stretch.
Who's the Favorite: Hard to pick a favorite when both teams have the same amount of points, but we'll try. Winnipeg is bringing back most of the team that went to the Western Conference Finals, basically just replacing Paul Stastny with Kevin Hayes. Patrik Laine has been a bit of disappointment, but Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, and last year's Jets playoff MVP Mark Scheifele can shoulder the offense just fine. On defense, the Jets are equally stacked, especially if Josh Morrisey returns for the playoffs as expected. He joins Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, and Dustin Byfuglien, who's probably the last guy you want to face in four to seven playoff games. Connor Hellebuyck has bounced back from a bit of a rough start, putting a .926 save percentage in March, and is capable of shutting down anyone.
Of course, the Blues have plenty of weapons capable of beating any goalie. The Vladimir Tarasenk-show should be on display throughout the series, as the Russian sniper possesses one of the league's deadliest shots. He's complemented up front by Jaden Schwartz, ex-Flyer Brayden Schenn (sorry, had to), and Selke candidate Ryan O'Reilly, the Blues most consistent scorer. Their defense is nothing to slouch at, led by two righties in veteran Alex Pietrangelo and still emerging Colton Parayko (though they don't have the greatest defensive depth). Jordan Binnington is a bit of a wild card in net - on one hand, he's been amazing since being called up in December and is a huge reason why the Blues (last in the NHL in January) made it here. But rookie goalies are always a question mark - will Binnington rise to the occasion, or shrivel up in the spotlight?
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: By process of elimination, it's not St. Louis. They're still shocked at being here, thanks to a comeback that just about makes up for last year's awful collapse. Interim head coach Craig Berube has all but locked up the permanent gig with his success in the regular season. It's not like it's all or nothing for Winnipeg - most of their core is young (sans Wheeler), but quite a few (Laine, Trouba, Connor) are looking for a raise come summer. After their first truly good season in Winnipeg, it would be a disappointment to see the Jets bow out in Round One.
Player to Watch For:
WPG: Mark Scheifele was the straw that stirred the drink for Jets during their playoff run last year. Scheifele led all Jets with 20 points in 17 games, scoring 14 goals, nearly all on the road. He's a gamer, a guy who knows hockey through and through, and makes an impact in all three zones. Look for him to be the focal point of a talented-ladened Jets offense once again.
STL: You know you have a good player when scoring 68 points isn't considered an amazing year. That's the case for Vladimir Tarasenko. Tara has scored 65+ points in each of the last 5 seasons, hitting the 30-goal mark in each (topping off at 40 in 2015-16). He has one of the nastiest wrist shots in the NHL, and should give Connor Hellebuyck everything he can handle. If February Tarasenko (22 points in 14 games) shows up, look out, Winnipeg.
The Pick: St. Louis in 6
Oddly Specific Prediction: Patrik Laine records a hat-trick in one of the first two games in the series, but doesn't score the rest of the way.