Western Conference Play-In Preview

Andy Devlin:Getty ImagesPhoto: Andy Devlin/Getty Images

The NHL announced that the Stanley Cup Playoffs will begin with 24 teams. While there are many boxes to be checked before play begins, Commissioner Gary Bettman said that the playoffs could begin as early as late July. While eight teams in the Western Conference will play in a best-of-five play-in round to advance, the top four seeds (St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights, Dallas Stars) will play a three-game round-robin against one another to determine tournament seeding. With the play-in matchups set, NoVa Caps takes a look at each play-in series in the West.

#5 Edmonton Oilers vs. #12 Chicago Blackhawks

Oilers Leaders: C Leon Draisaitl (43 goals, 67 assists, 110 points), G Mike Smith (19 wins)

Blackhawks Leaders: F Patrick Kane (33 goals, 51 assists, 84 points), G Corey Crawford (16 wins)

Oilers Stats: 3.14 goals-per-game (T-14th), 3.03 goals-against per game (15th), 29.5% power-play efficiency (1st), 84.4% penalty-killing rate (2nd), 29.6 shots-per-game (29th), 32 shots-against per game (20th)

Blackhawks Stats: 2.97 goals-per-game (18th), 3.06 goals-against per game (T-16th), 15.2% power-play efficiency (28th), 82.1% penalty-killing rate (T-8th), 31.8 shots-per-game (13th), 35.1 shots-against per game (31st)

Regular-season series: 2-1-0 Blackhawks (Chicago had a +1 goal differential in the series)

Outlook: This series features a lot of star power with Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Patrick Kane, and Jonathan Toews. However, the Oilers had only one 20-goal scorer besides Draisaitl and McDavid (center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: 22). Rookie forward Dominik Kubalik posted 30 goals in 68 games with the Blackhawks.

The fact that the two teams performed similarly defensively this year could make this matchup even more intriguing. The Blackhawks improved on the penalty kill after being among the league’s worst a season ago, but Chicago will still have its hands full with the Oilers’ deadly power-play, which, at 29.5%, was 4% better than the second-best power-play in the NHL.

While the Blackhawks defense improved, their top-two defensemen (Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, who played only 32 games this season) are both over age 35. Will they be able to keep up with McDavid, Andreas Athanasiou, and the other speedy Oilers? That will be the key storyline throughout the series. Meanwhile, the Oilers’ defense has plenty of depth with Darnell Nurse, Adam Larsson, and Oscar Klefbom leading the way.

The Blackhawks have the edge in goal with Crawford, who posted a .917 save percentage and a 2.77 goals-against average this season, healthy and experienced with two Stanley Cups already under his belt. Though Oilers goaltender Mikko Koskinen had an impressive season, matching Crawford’s save percentage and recording a 2.75 goals-against average, he has only 97 games of NHL experience. Smith, who played two more games than Koskinen in the regular season, posted a .902 save percentage and a 2.95 goals-against average.

While the Oilers should be the favorite in this series, players like Kane and forward Alex DeBrincat should give the Blackhawks a chance.

Series X-Factors: Keith (Blackhawks), F James Neal (Oilers)

Prediction: Oilers in 5

#6 Nashville Predators vs. #11 Arizona Coyotes

Predators Leaders: F Filip Forsberg (21 goals), D Roman Josi (49 assists, 65 points), G Pekka Rinne (18 wins)

Coyotes Leaders: F Conor Garland (22 goals), F Taylor Hall (36 assists, 52 points), G Darcy Kuemper (16 wins)

Predators Stats: 3.07 goals-per-game (16th), 3.10 goals-against per game (15th), 17.3% power-play efficiency (T-24th), 76.1% penalty-killing rate (T-28th), 33.1 shots-per-game (5th), 31.3 shots-against per game (16th)

Coyotes Stats: 2.71 goals-per-game (23rd), 2.61 goals-against per game (T-3rd), 19.2% power-play efficiency (18th), 82.7% penalty-killing rate (5th), 31.7 shots-per-game (14th), 32.4 shots-against per game (23rd)

Regular-season series: 1-1-0 (Arizona had +2 goal differential)

Outlook: The Coyotes started the season off hot and sat in first place in the Pacific Division with a 19-12-4 record. But then, Kuemper, who was having a Vezina Trophy caliber season with a .928 save percentage and a 2.22 goals-against average, missed the next 28 games and the Coyotes went 11-13-4 to fall out of the top-eight in the Western Conference. Meanwhile, the Predators won three straight games only three times and went 21-19-6 after a 9-4-2 start.

While the Predators’ defense did not perform up to its standards this season, it is still deep with Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Matthias Ekholm. The Coyotes counter that with one of the league’s best bluelines with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Jakob Chychrun, and Nicklas Hjalmarsson, making this series an interesting one for those who love good defense.

Though the Coyotes’ .929 save percentage this season ranked fourth in the NHL, and Pekka Rinne lost the starter’s job in Nashville after posting a .895 save percentage this season. While Juusse Saros performed admirably with a .914 save percentage and a 2.70 goals-against average, he has just seven games worth of Stanley Cup Playoff experience.

While the Predators may have produced more offense than the Coyotes, they do not have as much firepower upfront as the Coyotes do with Hall and Phil Kessel. While Kessel may have had a down year with 14 goals, 38 points, and a -21 rating, but he remains dangerous. While the Predators have some talented forwards with Forsberg, Victor Arvidsson, and Matt Duchene, none possess the scoring touch that Hall and Kessel do.

The Coyotes also have experience behind the bench with Rick Tocchet having two Stanley Cups under his belt while John Hynes has made the Stanley Cup Playoffs only once in his NHL coaching career. With defense and goaltending favoring the Coyotes, they should be the favorite to advance.

Series X-Factors: D Dante Fabbro (Predators), Kessel (Coyotes)

Prediction: Coyotes in 4

#7 Vancouver Canucks vs. #10 Minnesota Wild

Canucks Leaders: F J.T. Miller (27 goals, 45 assists, 72 points), C Elias Pettersson (27 goals), D Quinn Hughes (45 assists), G Jacob Markstrom (23 wins)

Wild Leaders: F Zach Parise (25 goals), D Ryan Suter (40 assists), F Kevin Fiala (54 points), G Alex Stalock (16 wins)

Canucks Stats: 3.25 goals-per-game (8th), 3.10 goals-against per game (T-19th), 24.1% power-play efficiency (4th), 80.5% penalty-killing rate (16th), 31.2 shots-per-game (18th), 33.3 shots-against per game (28th)

Wild Stats: 3.16 goals-per-game (12th), 3.14 goals-against per game (T-23rd), 21.3% power-play efficiency (11th), 77.2% penalty-killing rate (25th), 30.1 shots-per-game (25th), 30.7 shots-against per game (11th)

Regular-season series: 2-1-0 Wild (even goal differential)

Outlook: The Wild were starting to find their footing after assistant Dean Evason replaced head coach Bruce Boudreau as the interim on February 14 as they went 8-4-0 after the coaching change. However, he barely has a month of experience as an NHL head coach, and while the Wild’s defense is pretty good, they lack offensive depth and firepower.

Meanwhile, the Canucks have plenty of forwards who can provide firepower with Miller, Pettersson, and Brock Boeser in the lineup. Fiala and Parise have provided the offensive firepower this season in Minnesota.

On defense, the Wild have a solid top-four corps with Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, and Matt Dumba. However, the Canucks’ defense isn’t too shabby either with Hughes, Tyler Myers, Chris Tanev, and Alexander Edler leading the way.

While Devan Dubnyk lost his starting job, Stalock had a nice season, going 20-11-4 with a .910 save percentage and a 2.67 goals-against average, but he only has four games of Stanley Cup Playoff experience, including only one since 2014. Markstrom should be ready to return from a knee injury that cost him the Canucks’ final eight games before the NHL pause and he had a phenomenal season, going 23-16-4 with a .918 save percentage, and a 2.75 goals-against average. While he has no postseason experience, his performance this season combined with Dubnyk’s down season for the Wild should give the Canucks the edge in goal.

With the Canucks’ firepower on offense and a Vezina Trophy-caliber goalie, two of the Wild’s main weaknesses, Minnesota could find themselves in for a very long (but very short) series.

X-Factors: Hughes (Canucks), F Eric Staal (Wild)

Prediction: Canucks in 3

#8 Calgary Flames vs. #9 Winnipeg Jets

Flames Leaders: F Elias Lindholm (29 goals), F Johnny Gaudreau (40 assists), F Matthew Tkachuk (61 points), G David Rittich (24 wins)

Jets Leaders: F Kyle Connor (38 goals, 73 points), C Mark Schiefele (44 assists, 73 points), G Connor Hellebuyck (31 wins)

Flames Stats: 2.91 goals-per-game (20th), 3.06 goals-against per game (T-16th), 21.2% power-play efficiency (12th), 82.1% penalty-killing rate (T-8th), 31.6 shots-per-game (15th), 32.4 shots-against per game (T-23rd)

Jets Stats: 3.00 goals-per-game (17th), 2.83 goals-against per game (10th), 20.5% power-play efficiency (15th), 77.6% penalty-killing rate (22nd), 31.3 shots-per-game (17th), 32.6 shots-against per game (25th)

Regular-season series: 1-0-0 Jets (Winnipeg had a +1 goal differential)

Outlook: While the Jets’ statistics this season might not show it, they have a dynamic offense, with Schiefele, Connor, Patrik Laine, and Blake Wheeler leading the way. While the Flames have talent upfront with Gaudreau, Lindholm, Tkachuk, and Sean Monahan, the fact that they scored fewer goals than an underperforming Jets offense further shows that they cannot match Winnipeg’s firepower.

While the Jets’ defense performed well this season, the Flames acquired defensemen Erik Gustafsson (from the Blackhawks) and Derek Forbort (from the Los Angeles Kings) at the trade deadline to further bolster a defense that already has Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie, and Noah Hanifin. The Jets added Dylan DeMelo at the trade deadline to improve their blueline, which was second in the NHL with an average of 1.57 goals-against per game (Kings: 1.29) after the deadline, but they allowed an average of 32 shots-per-game after that point and were 25th in the NHL in that category throughout the season.

The Jets clearly have the edge in goal with Hellebuyck, who posted a .922 save percentage (tied for ninth with Los Angeles Kings’ Cal Petersen), a 2.57 goals-against average (16th), and a league-high six shutouts.  Rittich, meanwhile, posted a save percentage of just .907 and doesn’t have any Stanley Cup Playoff experience under his belt. Hellebuyck, in contrast, took his team to the Western Conference Final two seasons ago.

Flames interim head coach Geoff Ward faces one of the best coaches in the NHL this year in Paul Maurice for the Jets. Despite Ward’s good work pulling his team back into the Stanley Cup Playoff picture after an 11-12-4 start to the season, the Jets have an advantage with Maurice.

Both teams have exemplary bluelines, but with the Jets having a more dynamic offense and a possible Vezina Trophy favorite in Hellebuyck, it could be a big hill to climb for the Flames.

Series X-Factors: Rittich (Flames), D Josh Morrissey (Jets)

Prediction: Jets in 5

Eastern Conference Play-In Preview

By Harrison Brown

About Harrison Brown

Harrison is a diehard Caps fan and a hockey fanatic with a passion for sports writing. He attended his first game at age 8 and has been a season ticket holder since the 2010-2011 season. His fondest Caps memory was watching the Capitals hoist the Stanley Cup in Las Vegas. In his spare time, he enjoys travel, photography, and hanging out with his two dogs. Follow Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonB927077
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