With no new positive coronavirus cases announced on Monday, the NHL is officially ready for the Play-in’s and Round Robin games to begin this weekend. After reviewing and giving my predictions for the Eastern Conference it is now time to look at the Western Conference Play-in games and who could find themselves leaving the bubble sooner than they would like.
Vancouver Canucks v Minnesota Wild
Canucks have Quinn Hughes so the Wild might as well go home now. Sorry, that might have been just a tad bit sarcastic. The truth is the Canucks are going to need more than Hughes to come through for them. Here’s looking at you, Elias Pettersson. The problem for the Canucks might be the lack of playoff experience for their two star players as game one against the Wild will be their first taste of that environment. Canucks will be hoping Hughes, who is a finalist in the Calder Trophy voting for Rookie of the year, will be able to hit the ground running in a similar style to fellow Calder finalist Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche. Makar entered the playoffs last year straight out of College and proceed to have 6 points in 10 playoff games, including a game-winning goal in his debut. But don’t worry if you can’t match that Quinn. It’s okay to be second best. Okay, I’ll stop the shit-talking now. Reality is the Canucks are good, but whether their depth is strong enough to go all the way might ultimately be the big question. Their window is definitely opening with the young stars they possess and I envision the Canucks only getting stronger in the coming years.
As for the Wild!?! God, I hope they don’t win. I’ll try to keep this impartial but I really don’t like the Wild. Unfortunately for the Canucks they have a very physical team that if they don’t beat you will definitely leave you hurting going forward. They will need better goaltending from Devan Dubnyk, who finished the regular season with a .890 SV%, to hold any chance of progressing. Veteran forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter will also get a chance to earn a chunk of their ridiculous salary. The younger core of the Wild (Kevin Fiala, Joel Eriksson Ek, and Ryan Donato) will be looked upon to spark a new era while Matt Dumba in defense will be looked upon to help Suter shut down top lines.
Ultimately I think the Canucks will have too much for the Wild, but I also think it won’t be without sacrifice going forward.
Canucks to win series 3-1
Edmonton Oilers v Chicago Blackhawks
Connor McDavid has been in the league now for five years, so it’s crazy to think this will be only his second visit to the Stanley Cup playoffs. The same goes for Hart Memorial Trophy finalist Leon Draisaitl. Unsurprisingly for the Oilers, those two will be vital to their success going forward, but then the question becomes do you play them together or try to make two lines? The emergence of Kailer Yamamoto since his call up from the Bakersfield Condors (26 points in 27 games) and the reemergence of James Neal following his trade from the Calgary Flames might make this decision easier. If you are the Oilers you could then fill out your depth by moving Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Andreas Athanasiou down to Center your third line knowing you can put them all back together should you need a big shift?
For Chicago, they will be without veteran defenseman Brent Seabrook who opted out due to recent surgeries on his right shoulder and hips earlier in the year, while Corey Crawford has only one day of training behind him after recovering from the coronavirus. Despite this, the Blackhawks still have Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews to lead another young forward core. After trading Robin Lehner to the Vegas Golden Knights, the Blackhawks will be hoping Crawford can find his footing quickly as Malcolm Subban, who came over in the Lehner trade and played only 70 seconds before the season pause, is a serviceable backup at best. Like some teams from the Eastern Conference just playing in the playoffs will be a huge learning curve for their younger core of Kirby Dach, Adam Boqvist, and Alex DeBrincat.
As a fan, it’s hard to look past Edmonton considering their top-end talent. As a team, overlooking the Blackhawks could see the Oilers make the short trip home earlier than anyone anticipated, and while the Blackhawks may have sneaked into the playoffs that will only entice them more to crash the party.
Oilers win the series 3-1
Winnipeg Jets v Calgary Flames
So let’s make it clear, for the Winnipeg Jets to hold any hope of surprising the Hockey world and win the Stanley Cup goaltender Connor Hellebuyck will need to continue his regular-season form that should win him the Vezina Trophy. However, they will also need their offense to help him out. Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine, and Nikolai Ehlers all had good regular seasons and will look to carry that forward but defensively the Jets are weak. After finishing second in the Central Division last year and losing to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions St Louis Blues in the playoffs, the Jets lost four of their top six defensemen. Jacob Trouba was traded to the New York Rangers, Tyler Myers joined the Vancouver Canucks as a UFA and Dustin Byfuglien failed to report to training camp. He didn’t play a single minute this season before they mutually terminated his contract in April. They also lost Ben Chiarot to the Montreal Canadiens as a UFA. All that means Connor Hellebuyck has stood on his head to get the Jets this far and will need to do so again to get them past the Flames.
They say to win a Stanley Cup you have to go through adversity. The Calgary Flames definitely had their fair share this season with the Akim Aliu allegations against coach Bill Peters which ultimately led to his resignation from the organization. Then there is the Johnny Gaudreau drama that has followed him since his underwhelming performance in last seasons playoff defeat to the Colorado Avalanche where he registered just a single assist. There are also rumors the Flames could be looking to move on from the winger before his contract expires in two years. With all that said if Calgary can get production from Matthew Tkachuk, Sean Monahan, and Gaudreau as well as Elias Lindholm they will fancy their chances against one of the weaker defenses in the Playoffs.
I just can’t see the Jets defense being able to withstand the Flames pressure but with that said if Calgary plays like they did against the Avalanche last season the Jets attack will have a field day. This is a total 50-50 and probably one of the few coin tosses in the playoffs but I am going to go for the Flames but it’s going to be close.
Flames win the series 3-2
Nashville Predators v Arizona Coyotes
NHL Network Analyst Mike Rupp mentioned on Monday why he felt the Predators should go with Juuse Saros as their starting goaltender and honestly it makes a lot of sense. Saros is the future of the franchise, had been hot up until the stoppage in March and if it does go pear-shaped for the youngster there would be less of a panic within the dressing room dropping him for Pekka Rinne than the other way around. One thing is for certain though for the Predators and that is they will need their offense to step up. Only Filip Forsberg had more than 20 goals this regular season and not one player on offense broken the 50 point mark. Luckily they have Roman Josi who is a machine on the back end who stepped up with 49 assists and 65 points. He will likely need to continue that form if the Predators are to have a chance of hanging a banner that actually means anything.
Instead of talking about reaching the playoffs for the first time in eight years, the Arizona Coyotes are instead having to answer questions about the recent resignation of General Manager John Chayka. The news began filtering through over the weekend before the Coyotes made it official on Sunday night saying Chayka had “chosen to quit on a strong and competitive team, a dedicated staff, and the Arizona Coyotes fans, the greatest fans in the NHL.” Chayka hit back by telling the AZ Coyote Insider “I love our players, coaches, staff, and fans and I very much wish I could be with the team in Edmonton. Sadly, the situation created by ownership made that an impossibility.” All this is happening after an underwhelming regular season that saw them four points out of a wildcard spot when the season was halted, despite trading for Taylor Hall and bringing in Phil Kessel during the last offseason. With Hall’s contract up once the playoffs end the Coyotes are all-in for the next few weeks in the hopes of bringing a Stanley Cup to the desert.