The Western Conference in the National Hockey League has been clumped together for most of the 2019 season. Teams like the Edmonton Oilers and the Chicago Blackhawks lasted as long as they did because a lot of the teams better than them were ahead by a handful of points. Now that those teams are filtered out, it’s time to predict the four first-round series.
#1 Calgary Flames v. #8/WC2 Colorado Avalanche
This matchup is pretty hard to predict. Don’t get it wrong, Calgary has been by far and away the most consistent team in the West, but there are a lot of questions on their end. Like last year, the Avs get the 8th seed, and they must be relieved to play a team that isn’t as skilled as the Nashville Predators (They’re up next in the predictions by the way). Colorado proved pesky in last year’s six game series against Nashville, and wound up slowing the Preds to the point where they faltered against Winnipeg and were eliminated. This is NOT meant to take anything away from the Flames, who seem to have fixed their biggest issue in goaltending with the tandem of Mike Smith and David Rittich, though it could be a lot better. The Flames look like a complete team so far, but they need to keep their foot on the gas and win the matchups that clearly favor them. This will be offensively oriented though, since both teams were in the top 10 in goals scored. Philipp Grubauer, the former backup behind Braden Holtby, could possibly keep the Avs in this as long as possible.
Prediction: Flames take this in 7, 4-3
#2 Nashville Predators v. #7/WC1 Dallas Stars
Speaking of goalies, this series is going to be heavily centered around them. Both of these teams were in the top three in goals allowed. Just 3 years ago, Dallas was an offensive juggernaut that had horrible defense and net-minding, a 180 from what it is now. The two goalie system seems to work with net-minders who aren’t so-so. The tandem of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin make a solid wall, as they gave up only 200 goals in the regular season. What may be a deciding factor is the power play (when one team has a one, two or more man advantage because of a penalty committed by the opposing team. The player/s must sit in a box isolated for at least two minutes each), where Dallas sits comfortable at 11th, but Nashville is dead last. It doesn’t help that the Predators’ renown goalie Pekka Rinne is now 36. He’s played like it especially in divisional games against the Blues, Blackhawks and Jets, whereas Dallas’ penalty kill is in the top five. The Stars will find ways to rely on their defense and score just enough to advance, especially if there are power play opportunities.
Upset pick Western Conference 1st Round: Stars win in 7, 4-3
#3 San Jose Sharks v. #6 Las Vegas Golden Knights
It’s a confidence builder for San Jose that they beat the Golden Knights at home in overtime on March 30th, especially since they struggled with the last month and a half with their schedule. Perhaps they have playoff fever and will break out. Unfortunately, they have two obstacles in their path. The first one being that the star they acquired before the 2019 season began in Erik Karlsson may not be back in time during the first round. While the chemistry with his new teammates is still in progress, it’s one less major player making a difference. The second and most important obstacle is the opponent they’re playing. If this was an opponent such as Dallas or Colorado, the Sharks could/would find a good groove back. The Golden Knights have been on a tear ever since they too poached the Ottawa Senators’ roster and landed Mark Stone on the last day of the trade deadline. The Knights seem to have their power and speed back close to the levels they had in last year’s Stanley Cup run, and while San Jose might take a game, the Knights will find a way to take advantage of the offensive issues the Sharks have had and expose the open wound that is San Jose’s goaltending.
Prediction: Knights win this round 4-1.
#4 Winnipeg Jets v. #5 St. Louis Blues
A part of me wonders if the Jets didn’t purposely get cold at the right time so they could find the right first round matchup. While St. Louis has been the hottest team in the second half of the season (they beat Tampa at least once, so that’s saying something), there are valid critiques and concerns of the Blues trying to keep that going in the playoffs, especially from what we know given their past postseason runs this decade (they mostly have ended past the second round). This will be a matchup that heavily favors the Jets in a lot of ways, but mostly in health as a few key players such as Dustin Byfuglien make a full return.
While Jordan Binnington has been a remarkable find in the net does help, one does not want to face the number four power play unit in the league, especially a unit as physical and persistent as Winnipeg.
For the Jets, Connor Hellebuyck has to be consistent and not let in four or five goals a night. St. Louis was 15th in scoring this season, and Connor gave up only one goal in the only loss the Jets had to the Blues.
Prediction: Jets win 4-2