What an exhilarating time we had the first full week of August. The qualifying round of matchups in the NHL Bubble in the hub city of Edmonton were fun, educational and worth all the time spent watching and breaking down play. Besides yours truly, who had the bottom two seeds winning their matchups, while making the games fun to watch? Cam Talbot looked like his prime self when he helped Edmonton reach the playoffs in 2017. Vancouver looks primed to be a dangerous team in the future within the Pacific, while still learning and working.
With the four teams of the Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, Arizona Coyotes and Chicago Blackhawks advancing, we will see who’s more consistent and threatening for a deep run versus a one-and-done when things get hard. The top four will play for real now that their positions are settled. So without further delay, it’s time for the analysis and predictions heading into these matchups.
#4 St. Louis Blues v. #5 Vancouver Canucks
What a great way to start off the predictions, beginning with the reigning Stanley Cup Champion Blues against a young and feisty Canucks squad. Yes, a lot of people had Vancouver smacking Minnesota last round and they did well, but the fact they got there and were as high a seed surprised many with the lack of depth on their roster. Goaltenders Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko have been big reasons why the Canucks had competitive games, but rookie-of-the-year candidate Quinn Hughes, along with Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and captain Bo Horvat have done as much as they can with playing better defense, scoring and passing. They’re physical too, so the Blues can’t push them around as much as they could other teams.
This is definitely a team the St. Louis Blues can wake up for and return to their winning ways. Vancouver showed audiences in their series against the Wild they’re feisty, ready to bring fight and want to knock people around. Granted, this plays more to the Blues’ style of play, but St. Louis has looked lethargic and not themselves, much like how the Boston Bruins looked in the Round Robin. Coach Craig Berube wants to know his players are on the same page as he is to recreate the magic of last year’s Blues.
Overall analysis: The Blues get a boost with Vladimir Tarasenko back in the starting rotation. Their best scorer should get hot, but has to take his time since he hadn’t played in a real game since October. Last year’s playoffs MVP Ryan O’Reilly, captain Alex Pietrangelo and Marco Scandella will be needed on the defensive side, especially if the Blues want to give Pettersson and Boeser fits. Once the Blues ease into this series, they should look like themselves before the season paused.
Prediction: St. Louis Blues win series 4-1
#3 Dallas Stars v. #6 Calgary Flames
This might be the funnest matchup of the western conference playoffs, as a vigorous and ready Flames team squares up with the defensive and clutch veteran Stars. The Flames started to find their groove, confidence and depth in their matchup with Winnipeg, and now face a team they went 2-1 against in the regular season.
The Dallas Stars to their credit have shown audiences their instincts of when to go hard and when to score late in games. The additions of Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry should pay off in this series, since both were in the same division as the Flames most of their careers (Pavelski as San Jose’s captain and Perry a feisty scorer in Anaheim), and the return of second-in-command Tyler Seguin is welcomed on special teams and the offense.
There’s a lot to look close at and hype up with Calgary. Yes, the Jets were depleted and got scrappy in their elimination game, but key players stepped up who hadn’t in years prior or unexpectedly. Milan Lucic and Cam Talbot, two players from Edmonton the year prior, look like their old selves. Lucic looks like his time as a Bruin a decade ago, and Cam Talbot shows the full confidence and goalie play he had when he backed up Henrik Lundqvist on the New York Rangers. Sam Bennett, Sean Monahan and Andrew Mangiapane racked up points and showed why Geoff Ward played them in critical minutes. Then there’s the presence of Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau, who command the attention and/or irritation of many opposing teams’ superstars.
Overall analysis: There’s a lot of pressure on Ben Bishop to return to the Stanley Cup finals after his run with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and his team may start or play slow for a good amount of the first few games. The Stars are known to pick up their pace in the middle or late in series/seasons with their defense first philosophy. Captain Jamie Benn has to show up early and often in the first two games for Dallas to show they’re the better team, and their new additions should prove why the Stars paid big money for a long playoff run.
Calgary however, is a physical, fast, and proven team that can take the fight to Dallas where and when it matters most. Even though Cam Talbot is the best goalie for the Flames, he must maintain his spot and continue to show why he was coveted around the league before heading to northern city Edmonton. The bodies in front of him will help whenever possible, but his consistency will resonate and carry the team as far as possible.
It’s important to note that even though the Flames advanced, there was more interest in their rivals in Edmonton. Players on the Oilers who didn’t show up when needed stated that, “not every series or matchup will be like facing Calgary”, and that definitely should light a spark when the Flames take the ice against the Stars.
Upset Pick of the Conference: Calgary Flames win series 4-2
#2 Colorado Avalanche v. #7 Arizona Coyotes
Both of these teams are impressive, just in opposite playing styles. They’re both at full health, physical and fast. Their goal-tenders are the real deal and will present challenges, and when they both score 4 or more goals, both teams clamp down to win. The difference? The Avalanche are more offensive oriented while the Coyotes are more defensive. As predicted, the Coyotes used their physicality to knock out the Nashville Predators, and did it in four games.
The Avalanche are possibly the best team in the whole conference, and don’t look to slow down anytime soon. Nathan MacKinnon showed why he’s been nominated as a Hart finalist (league MVP nominee), as he’s everything you want in an elite player, especially in these playoffs. Broadcasters Pierre McGuire and Eddie Olczyk said rookie-of-the-year candidate Cale Makar is the defensive version of MacKinnon, showing that these two may be with the Avs for a long time. Captain Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Nieto and J.T. Compher are some of the best supporting cast members Colorado could have in the playoffs. Coach Jared Bednar, the goaltending tandem of Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz, additions of Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi, Vladislav Namestnikov and Andre Burakovsky should seem like overkill as both the Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights (more on them later) have one of the deepest rosters in the league.
The Coyotes though, will go toe-to-toe as best they can. They added former league MVP Taylor Hall before the season stopped, but they have much more than meets the regular season eye. Darcy Kuemper is one of the best goalies in the league when at full health, with his captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Niklas Hjalmarsson helping and blocking shots when he can’t find the puck. Offensively, Conor Garland has returned from his leg injury and proved he hasn’t skipped a beat. Phil Kessel is their go-to guy and short-hand specialist Michael Grabner will catch the attention from even the best defensemen in the league.
Additional Notes: This series was a 1-1 tie in the regular season, with both teams grabbing a win, but sadly couldn’t play for the tie-breaker in mid-March. Both games took place last fall when the Coyotes were mostly healthy and played at the pace they wanted. Both teams staying healthy will make this series fun as they learn and adapt to each others’ games often.
Overall analysis: The Coyotes aren’t a pushover team and used the season pause to re-gather health-wise and used it well. Their biggest issue has been offensive consistency, something Colorado doesn’t shy away from. It will be hard for the Coyotes to stay in a series against an opponent that scores often. However, if this defensive oriented team can frustrate the Avalanche and force them to commit an average of three more penalties a game, Arizona can make this a longer series than anyone wants.
Prediction: Colorado Avalanche wins series 4-1
#1 Vegas Golden Knights v. #8 Chicago Blackhawks
Once again, the Blackhawks draw one of the best matchups in the Western Conference playoffs, and this should be an exciting and offensively potent series. The Blackhawks will have a lot more to handle than their last series, as the Knights have a full roster that plays great on offense, defense and special teams.
While Edmonton had a really good first and acceptable second line led by a coach who knows how to make the most out of what he has, the Oilers didn’t play good team defense and sported mediocre goaltending. The Golden Knights are a superior team in every facet compared to the Oilers. The Knights are known for the speed of their roster, physicality, taking chances, and dominating pace with all four of their lines. Peter DeBoer has helped the team get their groove back on offense, and the Knights look to finish how they started: dominating western conference play.
The Blackhawks have one of the best captains in the league in Jonathan Toews, a hot-streak goaltender in Corey Crawford, and some of the best young talent in the league in players Dominik Kubalik, Kirby Dach, Calvin de Haan and Drake Caggiula. Those four players will be critical components moving forward, but the team needs to play better team defense and not exchange open shot opportunities with a team that could set that kind of tone early on. It’s up to the key vets Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith to make sure Vegas doesn’t rupture the defense and score.
Additional notes: Left winger and leading scorer Max Pacioretty should be ready to go when this series kicks off, and that will be needed firepower for Vegas to get after the red hot Crawford. Robin Lehner and Malcolm Subban have both played for these clubs during the season, so don’t be surprised if the original net-minder for the Knights is Marc-Andre Fleury and not Lehner, as Fleury has and can give the Blackhawks problems.
Overall analysis: Despite the heavy veteran presence for the Blackhawks, it isn’t enough to counter the complete depth the Vegas Golden Knights have. The Knights feast on exposing team defenses and then score heavily once they’ve found weaknesses. The Blackhawks aren’t good at team defense, and that could be the back-breaker early on.
Prediction: Vegas Golden Knights wins series 4-1
Western Conference Qualifying Picks: 4-0