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Stanley Cup Playoffs: Western Conference preview

Even though the back-to-back defending Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins reside in the East, the West is the more tasty conference when it comes to contenders this spring. Here is a glance at the first-round matchups in the Western Conference.

Matchups, key players and predictions as the post-season begins

Which Western Conference player will be a deciding factor in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs? (Getty Images/Canadian Press)

Even though the back-to-back defending Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins reside in the East, the West is the more tasty conference when it comes to contenders this spring.

First and foremost there is the Presidents' Trophy-winning Nashville Predators, who hope to become only the third club in the 13-season salary-cap era to win both the regular season and postseason titles.

The Winnipeg Jets have been the best team entering the playoffs with a 15-4-1 record in the final quarter of the regular season. Then, there is the remarkable story of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.

Winnipeg boasts a 3-1 season win record over Minnesota that the team looks to transition into postseason success. 1:23

Here is a glance at the first-round matchups in the Western Conference:

Winnipeg Jets vs Minnesota Wild

Regular-season records:

Season series: Jets won 3-1-0 (Wild 1-3-0)
  • Oct. 20 @ Winnipeg — Jets 4-3
  • Oct. 31 @ Minnesota — Jets 2-1
  • Nov. 27 @ Winnipeg — Jets 7-2
  • Jan. 13 @ Minnesota — Wild 4-1
The skinny: A lot will be made about the Jets lack of postseason experience. Only Paul Stastny (55 games), Dustin Byfuglien (43), Matt Hendricks (34), Matthieu Perreault (25) and Blake Wheeler (25) have more than 20 games of Stanley Cup playoff experience. Thirteen Jets have played in four postseason games or less.

The Wild, however, will be without one of its most experienced playoff performers in defenceman Ryan Suter, who has been lost with a fractured right ankle. Fellow defender Jared Spurgeon has also missed time with a right hamstring tear, but is expected to skate on Monday.

Wild coach Bruce Boudreau has made it past the first round in only four of his nine playoff appearances.

The Jets finished second overall in the league standings and enjoyed the best fourth-quarter record at 15-4-1, compared to the Wild's 10-6-4 finish.

This could be a homer series; Winnipeg had the best record at home at 32-7-2, while Minnesota was next best at 27-6-8.

Player to watch: Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. The 24-year-old Hellebuyck, who set a record for most wins by an American-born goalie at 44, hasn't played in a postseason game since his senior season at UMass-Lowell, losing 4-3 in the 2014 regional final to Johnny Gaudreau and Boston College.

But the Jets goaltender did play in a combined 10 games for the United States at the 2015 and 2017 World championships, going 9-1-0 with a .930 save percentage.

By the way, Hellebuyck and his Wild counterpart, Devan Dubnyk, work out at the same hockey school in the summer.

Prediction: Jets in five. Winnipeg's balanced lineup will be too much for the Suter-less Wild to overcome.

Nashville Predators vs. Colorado Avalanche

Regular-season records:

Season series: Predators won 4-0-0 (Avalanche 0-3-1)
  • Oct. 17 @ Nashville — Predators 4-1
  • Nov. 18 @ Nashville — Predators 5-2
  • March 4 @ Colorado — Predators 4-3 (OT)
  • March 16 @ Colorado — Predators 4-2

The skinny: These teams were involved in a three-way trade with the Ottawa Senators in the fall that moved Kyle Turris from the Senators to the Predators and 19-year-old defenceman Sam Girard from Nashville to Colorado.

The Predators — who lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in last year's Stanley Cup final — won the Presidents' Trophy this season because of a deep lineup that boasts strong centres in Turris, Ryan Johansen, Nick Bonino and Mike Fisher.

Nashville also boasts the best defence in the NHL; the team's defencemen have combined for 56 goals this season, the highest total in the NHL.

The Preds enjoyed a fourth-quarter record of 14-4-2, compared to Colorado's 10-5-4. The Avalanche became only the 13th team in the last 43 years to finish last overall and make the playoffs the next year.

Player to watch: Nashville centre Kyle Turris. One year ago, it was almost Turris and the Ottawa Senators who met Nashville for the Cup — had it not been for a double-overtime goal from then-Penguin Chris Kunitz in the East final.

Prediction: Predators in five. Nashville has more talent and depth as well as determination to return to the final after its six-game loss to Pittsburgh last June.

Vegas Golden Knights vs Los Angeles Kings

Regular-season records:

Season series: Series tied at 2-1-1
  • Nov. 19 @ Vegas — Golden Knights 4-2
  • Dec. 28 @ Los Angeles — Golden Knights 3-2 (OT)
  • Feb. 26 @ Los Angeles — Kings 3-2 (OT)
  • Feb. 27 @ Vegas — Kings 4-1
The skinny: The Golden Knights shattered records for expansion teams, including points (109), home wins (29) and road wins (22). Led by William Karlsson's 43-goal, 78-point campaign, 11 Vegas players enjoyed their career-best years.

Of the 16 playoff teams, however, the Golden Knights and Philadelphia Flyers had the poorest ends to their regular seasons; Vegas went 10-8-2 in the final quarter of the campaign, while the Flyers were 9-7-4.

Meanwhile, the Kings finished strong with a 12-5-3 run and still have 11 players remaining from their 2013-14 Stanley Cup-winning club.

Player to watch: Los Angeles centre Anze Kopitar. The captain bounced back with a Hart Trophy-worthy season with 35 goals and 92 points and will be asked to shut down Karlsson.

Prediction: Kings in seven. It's difficult to bet against the Gerard Gallant-coached Golden Knights since they never faltered in their inaugural campaign. But the Kings have too many clutch players in Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Drew Doughty and netminder Jonathan Quick.

Anaheim Ducks vs. San Jose Sharks

Regular-season records:

Season series: Sharks won 3–0-1 (Ducks 1-1-2)

  • Nov. 4 @ San Jose — Sharks 2-1 (SO)
  • Nov. 20 @ San Jose — Ducks 3-2 (SO)
  • Jan. 21 @ Anaheim — Sharks 6-2
  • Feb. 11 @ Anaheim — Sharks 3-2 (SO)

The skinny: The Ducks finished the regular season 10-1-1 and won their last seven in a row at home, so it was important for them to snatch home ice in this series.

Anaheim in this position despite having 318 man-games lost due to injuries and is still dealing with health questions regarding defencemen Cam Fowler (shoulder) and Kevin Bieksa (hand) as well as goalie John Gibson (upper-body). Fowler will likely miss the first round.

This is the first post-season meeting between to the California rivals since 2009. San Jose is concerned with its 1-4-1 finish after an impressive 8-0-1 stretch. Despite the poor finish, the Sharks went 26-14-7 since they lost Joe Thornton to a serious knee injury. He is doubtful for the series opener.

Player to watch: Anaheim centre Adam Henrique. He's been quite an addition to Anaheim's lineup since arriving via trade with the New Jersey Devils in late November. He has Stanley Cup final experience from his time with the Devils and has contributed 20 goals and 36 points in 57 games with the Ducks.

Prediction: Ducks in seven. Anaheim has plenty of momentum to ride from their late-season play, while San Jose stumbled down the stretch.

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