Stanley Cup playoffs: Western Conference preview
Calgary, Winnipeg draw tough opening-round opponents
The West is wide open.
Because the Presidents' Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning reside in the East, there is no clear cut favourite in the Western Conference. There is a handful of contenders, however, beginning with the regular-season conference-winning Calgary Flames.
Next are the Stanley Cup finalist Vegas Golden Knights and the team they eliminated in the West final, the Winnipeg Jets. The Nashville Predators can't be counted out and the St. Louis Blues have been the hottest team in the West in the past two months.
WATCH | Rob Pizzo previews the Canadian teams:
Here is a glance at the first-round matchups in the Western Conference:
Calgary Flames vs. Colorado Avalanche
- Calgary 50-25-7 (107 points).
- Colorado 38-30-14 (90 points).
Season series: Flames won 3-0-0 (Avalanche 0-2-1)
- Oct. 13 @ Colorado — Flames 3-2 (OT).
- Nov. 1 @ Calgary — Flames 6-5.
- Jan. 9 @ Calgary — Flames 5-3.
The skinny: This series pits the two most productive lines against each other. The Nathan MacKinnon-Gabriel Landeskog-Mikko Rantanen threesome scored 106 goals and 261 points for the Avalanche, compared to Calgary's top line of Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm, who combined for 97 goals and 259 points.
It appears the Flames 3M line of Matthew Tkachuk, Michael Backlund and Michael Frolik will get the checking assignment against Colorado's MacKinnon line, which accounted for 41.4 per cent of the Avalanche's 258 goals.
The Flames led all clubs with five players who cracked the 70-point barrier in Gaudreau (99), Monahan (82), Lindholm (78), Tkachuk (77) and Norris Trophy-candidate Mark Giordano (74).
Player to watch: Calgary goalie Mike Smith. He shared the crease in the regular season with David Rittich. But Smith gets the nod, because he is the more experienced playoff netminder. Rittich has yet to play in a post-season game, although Smith hasn't played in a playoff outing since 2012.
Prediction: Flames in seven. This series will be close, but Calgary's depth gives the West regular-season winners the edge.
WATCH | Flames complete series sweep of Avalanche:
Nashville Predators vs. Dallas Stars
- Nashville 47-29-6 (100 points).
- Dallas 43-32-7 (93 points).
Season series: Predators won 3-2-0 (Stars 2-1-2)
- Nov. 10 @ Dallas — Predators 5-4 (OT).
- Dec. 27 @ Nashville — Stars 2-0.
- Feb. 2 @ Nashville — Stars 3-1.
- Feb. 7 @ Nashville — Predators 3-2 (OT).
- Feb. 19 @ Dallas — Predators 5-3.
The skinny: Both teams had strong finishes. The Predators went 8-2-1 to conclude the regular season and lock down top spot in the Central Division. The Stars were 5-1-1 in their final seven games.
Nashville counts on its blue-line for offence. The Predators' defence scored 43 goals and 197 points, led by Roman Josi's 56 points.
The Predators are finally healthy. P.K. Subban, Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg each had extended stays in the team's infirmary in this campaign.
Dallas forward Mats Zuccarello was acquired a few days before the trade deadline but he suffered a broken right arm in his second game. He missed the final 17 games but the former New York Ranger is expected to play in the series opener.
Player to watch: Nashville centre Filip Forsberg. He has turned in to a clutch playoff performer with 22 goals and 42 points in 55 career Stanley Cup playoff games.
Prediction: Predators in five. The Predators have plenty of playoff experience and a defence corps that will be too much for Dallas.
San Jose Sharks vs. Vegas Golden Knights
- San Jose 46-27-9 (101 points).
- Vegas 43-26-7 (93 points).
Season series: Golden Knights won series 2-1-1 (Sharks 2-2-0)
- Nov. 24 @ Vegas — Golden Knights 6-0.
- Jan. 10 @ Vegas — Sharks 3-2.
- Mar. 18 @ San Jose — Golden Knights 7-3.
- Mar. 30 @ San Jose — Sharks 4-3 (OT).
The skinny: The Sharks and Golden Knights meet for the second straight year. Vegas upended San Jose in the second round last spring. But this time there is new wrinkle, pitting former Ottawa Senators teammates Mark Stone and Erik Karlsson against each other.
Karlsson, who missed 27 of the Sharks' final 33 games with groin problems, was acquired last summer. He did return to play in San Jose's finale. Stone helped increase the Golden Knights' offensive production since he landed in Vegas at the trade deadline.
Stone plays on a line with Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty, all new additions to a Vegas lineup that went to the final last year.
Player to watch: Sharks goalie Martin Jones. He struggled this season as evident by his .896 save percentage. Only Los Angeles Kings netminder Jonathan Quick was worse at .888 among goalies who made at least 46 appearances.
Prediction: Golden Knights in six. Vegas has a massive advantage in goal with Marc-Andre Fleury and the experience of their surprise run last year.
WATCH | Marc-Andre Fleury make a great save:
Winnipeg Jets vs. St. Louis Blues
- Winnipeg 47-30-5 (99 points).
- St. Louis 45-28-9 (99 points).
Season series: Jets won 3–1-0 (Blues 1-2–1)
- Oct. 4 @ St. Louis — Jets 5-1.
- Oct. 22 @ Winnipeg — Jets 5-4 (OT).
- Nov. 24 @ St. Louis — Jets 8-4.
- Dec. 7 @ Winnipeg — Blues 1-0.
The skinny: The Jets and Blues were going in opposite directions late in the season. The Blues were last overall on Jan. 2 but went went 23-6-4 after Feb. 1. Only Tampa Bay had a better record during that stretch at 25-5-2.
The Jets, meanwhile, went 14-14-3 in their final 31 outings. But they hung on to second place in the Central Division because of more regulation wins (45-42) in the tiebreaker with the Blues.
A big reason for the Jets middling play was due to a shoulder injury to young defenceman Josh Morrissey. He emerged with strong play in Winnipeg's run to the West final last spring. Morrissey will be ready for the series opener on Wednesday.
A big reason for the Blues second-half success was rookie goalie Jordan Binnington, a Calder Trophy candidate. But can the 25-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., continue to be a factor in his first foray into the Stanley Cup playoffs?
Player to watch: St. Louis centre Ryan O'Reilly. Usually, at this time of the year, O'Reilly is preparing to play for Canada at the world championships because his past teams missed the playoffs. But O'Reilly is back in the playoffs after a four-year absence.
Prediction: Jets in six. Winnipeg has a better lineup top to bottom and knows all about playoff success after its impressive showing last spring.
WATCH | Patrik Laine's monster game against the Blues: