Previewing the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Western Conference Edition
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
This is the moment we have all been waiting for, and man have we had to wait for a while. Four months after the playoffs were scheduled to begin, we are just now getting ready, with five of the top sixteen teams in the regular season watching the games from the couch. After a long stop due to COVID-19, a massive (and so far successful) plan to turn Edmonton and Toronto into hub cities to host the biggest tournament in NHL history, eight teams have been sent home, and the normal sixteen-team playoffs are upon us.
Last year's playoffs were one of the craziest in recent memory, especially early. Every single division winner lost in the first round. In the West, that included the regular season conference champion Flames, who lost four straight after taking Game 1 to a sub-.500 Avalanche team that hadn't won a series since 2008. That included the three-time defending Central champion, 2018 President's Trophy winners, and 2017 finalist Predators, who lost in six to the Stars.
Additionally, Vegas became the second team in NHL history to blow a three-goal lead in the third period of a Game 7, as the Sharks caught every break possible in the first two and a half rounds before bowing out in the conference finals. The team that beat them was dead last in the NHL on January 3, but followed a fourth-string goalie and an 80's pop song they heard at a bar in Philly en route to winning a Stanley Cup for the first time in their 52-year history. Congrats again, St. Louis.
This year's bracket will likely be full of more unpredictably, more chaos, more drama. Having no fans and no travel will change everything, as it truly is up to the players and coaches now. Maybe that means the best team wins with no distractions to deal with. Maybe this unprecedented tournament results in an unprecedented champion.
Whatever happens, it will certainly be entertaining. The qualifiers and (to a lesser extent) the round robin have already created a great foundation for the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Before the lights turn on, the players skate out, and the puck drops with the Cup sixteen wins away, here's a look at the West side of the bracket.
The Matchup: #1 Vegas Golden Knights (39-24-8) vs. #12 Chicago Blackhawks (32-30-8)
Recent Meetings: This is the first playoff meeting ever between these two franchises.
Season Series: They haven't played each other yet in 2020, but the Golden Knights took two out of three (3-2 in a shootout and 5-1) with a Blackhawks 5-3 win on the road in between.
Who's the Favorite: Both twelve seeds have momentum going into this round. Chicago has the added benefit of tons of experience and established names that have been here and won before. Patrick Kane is still one of the top scorers in the NHL. Jonathan Toews is still a tremendous captain. Corey Crawford is capable of stealing a series. Young stars like Alex DeBrincat and Dominik Kubalik will be tough to contain.
But with the exception of 2015, the Hawks have never done well as underdogs, and they're underdogs in 2020 for a reason. The devil is in the defense here. Like everyone else, Chicago struggled to contain Edmonton's electric offense, and while Vegas doesn't have anywhere close to the talent of McDavid and Draisaitl, they have some star power of their own up front (Stone, Pacioretty) and plenty of depth. Vegas' edge on the blue-line cements them as the favorites to me.
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: Usually the higher seed wins this category, and this time is no exception. The Golden Knights are making their third playoff appearance in as many seasons as a franchise. Their first year was full of triumph, starting 13-3 and making the Final. Their second year was full of tragedy, becoming the second team in NHL history to blow a three-goal lead in the third period of a Game 7, which makes it easy to forget they also had a 3-1 lead in the series.
Ever since the Golden Knights realized they were actually good (around January 2018), Vegas has fulfilled their stereotypes and gone all in. They traded three picks for Tomas Tatar, flipped him and one of their prospects for Max Pacioretty, traded another top prospect for Mark Stone, and acquired a defending Vezina finalist in Robin Lehner (and he might not even be their starting goalie). Another early exit would certainly be frustrating, and Kelly McCrimmon has already used his "fire the coach" card.
Stan Bowman also used that card, but he pulled it out over a year ago. Kane, Toews, and Keith already have three rings, but they're certainly hungry for another one. It would be the most Blackhawks thing ever to lull the NHL into a false sense of complacency, then reload in the shadows thanks to great scouting and a draft lottery win to become actually good again. And oh yeah, they traded Robin Lehner to the Golden Knights in February, and now they could either get stymied with him on the bench. Or they might blow past him and prove themselves right. Save us from that fate, Vegas.
Player to Watch For:
VGK - Absent in the round robin because of an injury, it will be intriguing to see how up to speed Max Pacioretty is. After a bit of a disappointing first season in the Sin City, Pacioretty was outstanding, scoring 66 points in 71 games (one point shy of his career high). He's arguably Vegas' best goal-scorer (Jonathan Marchessault is a close second). Chicago will need to shut him down to have a shot at advancing.
CHI - Rangers fans were upset not to see Adam Fox as a finalist for the Calder, but I don't think they can argue after seeing Dominik Kubalik's incredible performance against Edmonton. The 24-year old rookie (sound like a certain Breadman, anyone?) followed up an impressive 30-goal regular season with five points in Game 1 against the Oilers, and added another goal later in the series. He doesn't have the name recognition of Toews, Kane, or even DeBrincat, but Kubalik is one of the most dangerous offensive threats in this series.
The Pick: The Blackhawks will definitely make this a series, and it wouldn't shock me to see them come out with an early lead. But the Golden Knights depth will eventually win the day. Vegas in 6.
Oddly Specific Prediction: Ryan Reaves knocks at least one important Blackhawk out for the series with a questionable hit.
The Matchup: #2 Colorado Avalanche (42-20-8) vs. #11 Arizona Coyotes (33-29-8)
Recent Meetings: Only one since they moved from Quebec and Winnipeg respectively. Colorado won the 2000 Western Conference Quarterfinals in five.
Season Series: Pretty low-scoring, which probably benefits Arizona. Colorado took an October meeting in OT, but the Yotes got revenge a month later win a 3-0 victory.
Who's the Favorite: The Avalanche are in the playoffs for the third straight year, having come one win away from the Western Conference Final last year and nearly knocking off the President's winners without Erik Johnson and Seymon Varlamov the year before. Nathan MacKinnon is a Hart finalist, Mikko Rantanen is healthy again, and the team around them is absolutely loaded. Colorado added a ton of depth over the summer and at the deadline, especially up front (Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi, Vladislav Namestikov, and more).
On the other hand, Arizona hasn't made the playoffs since 2012. Their captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson is the only holdover from that team. Taylor Hall and Phil Kessel are great building blocks on paper, but both struggled massively in their first year in the desert. Darcy Kuemper is good! But that might not be good enough. The Coyotes were a Pacific Division championship contender in January, but in August they're merely an average team happy to be here and hoping to get lucky.
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: I'm actually not going to pick either team. Who's really feeling the heat? Taylor Hall. Free agents in general won't be making as much as we all expected them to this offseason thanks to coronavirus and a flat salary cap. The 2018 Hart winner scored 27 points in 35 games as a Coyote, which is decent for most players but underwhelming for him. Arizona as a team also fell off not too long after he arrived. If Hall is going to get anywhere close to the payday he desires, and if the Coyotes have any chance at pulling off another upset, Hall will need to shine.
Player to Watch For:
COL - His old team was just eliminated from the playoffs, and the main player he was traded for didn't do so well. Despite Tyson Barrie's struggles, Nazem Kadri has been exactly what the doctor ordered for the Avalanche. Kadri put up 36 points in 51 games, usually filling the second-line center void behind MacKinnon, a gap that was wide open the last two playoff runs.
ARI - I predicted he would not score in the first three games against Nashville, then score at least two in the final game. Two-time Stanley Cup champion (and 2016 Conn Smythe snub) Phil Kessel came just one goal away from making me look like a genius. Even though he had a down year, Kessel still has one of the best shots in the league, not to mention a tremendous playoff pedigree (81 points in 91 games). On a young Coyotes team full of guys that have never been here before, Kessel needs to lead by example, which is what he does best.
The Pick: Goaltending is a huge x-factor in this series. Philip Grubauer and Pavel Francouz are both solid, but a healthy Darcy Kuemper could steal this thing. The key word there is could, and at the end of the day, the Avs are the better team top to bottom. Colorado in 7.
Oddly Specific Prediction: The Coyotes jump out to an early series lead, but consecutive overtime wins by the Avalanche flips the series in their favor.
The Matchup: #3 Dallas Stars (37-24-8) vs. #8 Calgary Flames (36-27-7)
Recent Meetings: Only one ever, and it wasn't very recent. The Minnesota North Stars beat the Flames in five to advance to the Final, where the emerging Islanders dynasty ran them over to win their second straight Stanley Cup.
Season Series: Calgary took the first game in OT and the third game by a 5-1 margin in Texas. The Stars won the only meeting in Calgary by a 3-1 final. The Flames will be hoping the trends from the last game continue into this series, but that game was played in December, so who knows.
Who's the Favorite: Both of these teams made the playoffs last year. Calgary had a much better regular season, but Dallas made it farther, winning seven games to Calgary's one and almost beating St. Louis in Round 2. But that was then and this was now. A lot of people picked Winnipeg to upset the Flames, but Calgary looked pretty darn dominant in a four-game series win. Granted, the Jets lost Mark Scheifele early and Patrik Laine late in Game 1, but credit the Flames for taking care of business.
The Stars play-style is built for the playoffs. Dallas is once again one of the top defensive teams in the NHL, finishing 4th in expected goals allowed and 6th in actual goals allowed despite only decent shot suppression. Part of that is their incredible goalie tandem of Ben Bishop (.920 save percentage, 13.29 goals saved above average) and Anton Khudobin (.930 SV%, 17.75 GSAA). The former and leading scorer Tyler Seguin are both unfit to play, but there doesn't appear to be much long-term concern.
However, the Stars looked pretty uninspiring in the round robin. They lost their first two games in uninspiring fashion, and needed a third period rally to take out the Blues in a shootout. It seems like everyone forgets Calgary had 109 points last year and brought back basically the same team, only Cam Talbot is much more consistent than Mike Smith. Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan were much more noticeable than they were in last year's disappointing playoff run (if you can call five games a run). In an eight versus three matchup, it seems crazy to call the eight seed the clear cut favorite, but I'm leaning towards designating the Flames as just that.
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: It's 50-50 on this one. Both teams are facing a decent amount of pressure, but not a ton. Jim Lites' f*cking horsesh*t comments about Benn and Seguin are from a distant world known as 2018 and most people have probably forgotten about them. The Stars appear to be the trendy upset pick, but it wouldn't be a total shock to see them advance a round or two because of their simplicity and strong regular season. Calgary is the eight seed and barely would have made the playoffs in a regular year, if they made it at all. Mark Giordano is running out of time though; at 35, he's never made it past the first round (he was hurt when Calgary advanced in 2015).
Player to Watch For:
DAL - Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg are legit, but it takes more than two great d-men to go the distance. Last year, Esa Lindell was clearly capable of being a heavily depended on shutdown defenseman. Lindell scored a respectable 19 points, but made his money in his own zone, leading the Stars in playoff time on ice (26:58). He took a step forward analytically this season, improving his Corsi by nearly two percentage points and keeping his head above water in terms of shot quality (50.92% xGF). Calgary should test Dallas' defense well, and if Big D is going to hold down the fort, Lindell will likely be leading the charge.
CGY - He's received Selke votes each of the last three years, posted a Corsi For above 51% and scored 45 plus points each of the last five years. And yet, Mikael Backlund is still underrated. Part of that is he plays behind an even better two-way center in Sean Monahan, but Backlund is a player any team would love to have. He'll likely be tasked with one of Dallas' top two lines, and should thrive in that role, just like always.
The Pick: My contract as an amateur hockey writer states I have to pick at least one upset on each side of the bracket. And it's not gonna be Vegas or Colorado (we'll get to St. Louis in a minute). Honestly, the Stars just aren't impressing me that much. They felt like dangerous underdogs last year, but I sense complacency with them right now. Calgary should come out swinging, and I just don't think Dallas' defense will be able to contain them. Calgary in 5.
Oddly Specific Prediction: Both Bishop and Khudobin make multiple starts for the Stars in goal, while Rittich or Talbot (probably Talbot, since he was their starter against the Jets) plays the whole series for the Flames.
The Matchup: #4 St. Louis Blues (42-19-10) vs. #7 Vancouver Canucks (36-27-6)
Recent Meetings: Three all-time: 1995, 2003, and 2009. The Canucks have emerged victorious each time, most recently with a first-round sweep eleven years ago. Then again, both teams have made a Final appearance since their last meeting, but only the Blues came away with the Cup.
Season Series: Each of their first two meetings went to overtime, with the road team winning both; Vancouver in a shootout, St. Louis in 3-on-3. Well, kinda 3-on-3 - you might remember the latter of those being the game where the Blues won with a 3-on-0 goal. The Canucks made up for it with a 3-1 win in the rubber match in January.
Who's the Favorite: One of these teams won the Stanley Cup last year. The other hasn't made the playoffs in five years and hasn't won a round in nine (only Buffalo, Florida, and Toronto have longer active droughts). Sometimes you answer a question just by asking it.
Ok, ok, I'll actually give some analysis. I think the Canucks really play right into St. Louis' hand here. Their defense is pretty meh, with Chris Tanev having a down year (ignore that OT winner) and Tyler Myers somehow being more hated by fans than expected (don't ignore all those penalties). Quinn Hughes is absolutely a game-breaker
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: This is the growing pains year that all young teams go through for the Canucks, so it really can't be them. Then again, the Blues just won the WHOLE THING last year for the first time in 52 tries (ok, 51 - thanks for that caveat, 04-05) and I don't think anyone there has stopped celebrating yet (and I don't blame them). As far as pressure goes, this series is pretty light, although that could change if the Canucks jump ahead early. We all saw what happened to Washington against Carolina last year, and on paper, this looks like it could be part two.
Player to Watch For:
STL - Alex Pietrangelo will be getting all the spotlight and all the ice-time in this tournament, and in the offseason, the Blues captain will be getting all the money. But every big hockey fan knows that Colton Parayko is almost as big a part to St. Louis' defense as Pietrangelo. Parayko is one of the top shutdown defenders in the entire league, and unlike most players with that designation, he's actually good when it comes to puck possession. Vancouver's young guns will have a tough time scoring when either of those two right-handed machines are on the ice, and they will be out there a lot.
VAN - Pettersson, Boeser, and Hughes are great, but the Canucks went as Jacob Markstrom went this season. The former Florida top prospect's potential fully emerged this season. His 11.4 goals saved above average, despite missing a couple weeks in the second half with an injury. Markstrom went 23-16-4 (.581 points percentage); Vancouver's other goalies were 13-11-2 (.538 points percentage). That's about a seven-point standings difference over 82 games. Markstrom is healthy and good as ever heading into this series, where he'll hope to lead the Canucks to the next round and lead himself towards a big pay day in the offseason.
The Pick: There's a reason why Carolina's win last year over the Caps was so shocking - because the young underdog never overthrows the contender, at least not on their first try. If anything, I think going 0-3-0 in the round robin motivates the Blues to throw out their very best. St. Louis in 4.
Oddly Specific Prediction: The series winning goal is being scored on a power-play for a failed coaches challenge. Book it.