The final two teams out west accomplished what many analysts and fans doubted: getting past the second round of the playoffs. There’s excitement over a Connor McDavid v. Nathan MacKinnon conference finals. Both are top skill players who score and accumulate points in any possible ways. Yet both teams are inexperienced this far in the postseason. It’s time to break down which team has the best shot of advancing to the Stanley Cup finals.
#5 Edmonton Oilers v. #1 Colorado Avalanche
On paper there are many similarities between the Oilers and Avalanche that propelled both teams to the conference finals. Their starting goaltenders at one time played for Arizona, they score a lot of goals, they’re menacing on the power-play, they’re have great first lines, and both added veteran experience at the trade deadline.
On film Colorado’s the superior team. The Avalanche’s depth strengthens on the third line where J.T. Compher, Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Andre Burakovsky flip games and score in needed times. Even the third line defensive pairing of Jack Johnson and Josh Manson can outplay and scrap better than Edmonton’s third line of Tyson Barrie and Brett Kulak.
The deciding factor is fluidity. The Avalanche can be a speedy, high-octane offense or play gritty and punishing. The Oilers aren’t at the dual threat stage yet, but Edmonton’s fans and spectators can be happy the team’s finally in the desired direction.
The NHL’s western conference was a roller coaster. A team from California made it back to the playoffs, Nashville fell to the eighth seed in their season finale against the Arizona Coyotes and the pleasant surprises of Dallas and Calgary should make this a fun playoffs to remember. Only four teams advance to the second round. Time to break down which four have the best chance to move on.
#6 Los Angeles Kings v. #5 Edmonton Oilers
Let’s begin the first round in the west with an easy series matchup. Los Angeles and Edmonton locked into the fifth and sixth spot a week before the regular season ended. The Oilers won all but one regular season game against the Kings. One of the wins was by three goals.
While Edmonton’s duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl faced criticism the past two years for quick first round exits, they were to veteran playoff teams. There are some former champions on this rejuvenated Los Angeles squad, but not the same amount Chicago had, nor is there the veteran depth or better coaching Winnipeg boasted. Goaltending is more stable up north with Mike Smith having a lights-out spring and the Oiler defense playing better. The Kings won’t have Drew Doughty, a critical dual player who defends well and helps the offense find rhythm.
Prediction: Oilers win series 4-1
#8 Nashville Predators v. #1 Colorado Avalanche
Another simple matchup. Had the Predators won against Arizona the last game of their regular season, this would be a different opponent. Nashville would be the one in Calgary and the Dallas Stars in Colorado. Avalanche fans can breathe relief knowing the superior Stars team won’t be the opponent in round one.
A decisive factor in this series is the injury to Predators goalie Juuse Saros. The ankle sprain sustained almost two weeks ago means backup David Rittich gets the start. Nashville’s struggled on defense since Saros’ injury, and Colorado will swarm and take advantage of the change all series.
While first in the league in most penalty minutes, once the Predators dropped out of the top ten in both goals for and goals against, the team cratered. It’s disappointing because Nashville is a team that could go further with Roman Josi, Matt Duchene and Filip Forsberg having career years.
Prediction: Avalanche win series 4-1
#7 Dallas Stars v. #2 Calgary Flames
Maybe the most underrated series, coaches Daryl Sutter and Rick Bowness will have their hands full against deep offenses and solid defenses. This could be similar to the 2020 bubble series where both teams went on runs and the winner scored half a dozen goals in order to win round one.
A lot’s changed in two years. Calgary’s revamped in net while Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau scored 40+ goals each this season. The Flames power-play is top three in the league and has to score knowing Dallas committed the least penalty minutes.
Dallas has one 40 goal scorer in Jason Robertson while Roope Hintz and the ageless wonder Joe Pavelski aren’t far behind. The trio is why Dallas clinched a playoff berth despite a subpar performance by the first line. A plus for the Stars is the addition of Scott Wedgewood in net, who should start the series because Jake Oettinger plays hot and cold.
These two teams played each other three times in the regular season and all three were close. Dallas has more veterans and went through a rougher stretch than Calgary this season. While both head coaches have decades of experience, the veteran Stars may have one long run left.
Upset prediction in the first round: Dallas wins series 4-2
#4 St. Louis Blues v. #3 Minnesota Wild
I personally believe whoever wins this series represents the western conference in the Stanley Cup championship. They’re complete teams that are difficult to beat four times out of seven. Both Calgary and Colorado don’t have the experience in later rounds nor the talent these two have.
Get ready for one of the best series we’ll see this postseason. The goalie tandems of Ville Husso/Jordan Binnington and Marc-Andre Fleury/Cam Talbot will display why Minnesota and St. Louis were top four teams in the west. Forwards and centers Pavel Buchnevich, Robert Thomas, Vladimir Tarasenko, Ryan Hartman, Kirill Kaprizov and Nick Bjugstad ensure depth must step up for either to advance. Don’t be surprised if both team’s depth in every position makes this a long series.
St. Louis barely winning the regular season series sweep adds some bias. However they faced Wild goaltender Cam Talbot in all three games. They’ve yet to play against Fleury and a better defense anchored by Jared Spurgeon and Jared Brodin. The Blues could be in trouble if both Husso and Binnington crack under pressure in the first two games.
That was easier than expected. All eight teams wrapped up clinching spots at the end of March. Columbus and Detroit had good runs until Boston and Washington went on winning streaks. Then the big name teams acquired at least one major player by the trade deadline.
Just because all eight spots closed early, doesn’t mean the playoffs will be easy. Far from it. The east is the deepest of the two conferences. The Sunshine State, Carolina and the New York Rangers have their hands full despite being favorites. It’s time to break down which four teams have the best chance of moving on to the second round.
#8 Washington Capitals v. #1 Florida Panthers
Nothing like starting off with the President’s Trophy winners. The Panthers have six scorers of 20+ goals in the regular season, one being a regular season MVP finalist. Florida lost less than five games since Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux was acquired at the trade deadline. Goaltenders Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight improved after last season’s humiliating first round loss to Tampa Bay. The unit is faster and more physical. They just need to win more series.
Washington and everyone else outside the Sunshine State are relieved Alex Ovechkin will return for the playoffs. If there’s any chance for the Capitals to win the series, the league’s third place all time goal scorer will be a major reason. Goalies Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov aren’t reliable and shouldn’t be trusted against the league’s best offense. The Capitals have to win high-scoring games early in the series, or else face early elimination.
Prediction: Panthers win series 4-1
#7 Boston Bruins v. #2 Carolina Hurricanes
Gone are the days where the Bruins could toy with the fledgling playoff Hurricanes. Carolina’s become a big bad while Boston’s aged. Frederik Anderson’s game seven pains against the Bruins should be exorcised with a more competent defense and reliable, physical playmakers on offense.
The Bruins roster is still top four on goals allowed while eight players scored double digit goals, but Carolina was not only the best team in goals against, they were the best penalty-killing team on the ice. The Hurricanes are loaded with playmakers and their main worry could be how fast they can get Boston out of the first round to rest up and deal with division rivals.
Prediction: Hurricanes win series 4-1
#4 Tampa Bay Lightning v. #3 Toronto Maples Leafs
Somewhere the hockey gods and goddesses are laughing themselves silly. Toronto finally shakes off playing an original six team in the first round of the playoffs and instead draw the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Leafs fans must be sick.
Yes, Toronto beat Tampa Bay in all but one meeting in the regular season. However the Lightning won a decisive regular season finale as if it were a playoff game. Despite some wear on the franchise stars, Tampa’s hungry for a three-peat and a dynasty, something not done since the early 1980s New York Islanders won four straight. This year’s Lightning team is just as talented if not nastier in attitude and physical play. Don’t expect the series to go all seven games.
Prediction: Lightning win series 4-1
#6 Pittsburgh Penguins v. #5 New York Rangers
If you had told any hockey fan or analyst this would be the most even and entertaining series of the four in the eastern conference at the beginning of the season, you’d be silenced or shoo’d away. This is the lone series out east where the predicted winner is a toss-up. Both Pittsburgh and New York have great coaches who dealt with roster issues mixed with up-and-down play throughout the season.
On paper the Rangers have more talent and depth. They’re number two in goals against and boast a 50+ goal scorer. The Penguins however hit their stride at the right time and played better than New York through major roster tooling and injuries. Both looked even in their nationally televised games against each other and won a good number in third periods. Blowouts will be rarer than in the other three.
The deciding factor is depth. New York adding Frank Vatrano (who’s been red-hot since he was traded for) ensures the series could be even after four games. Don’t be surprised if the Rangers tire Pittsburgh into a game seven.