Previewing The NHL’s Qualifying Round Playoffs: Western Conference

You can find the Eastern Conference preview, that was posted yesterday, here.

(5) Edmonton Oilers (37-25-9) vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks (32-30-8)

Season series: 2-1 Blackhawks

As you read this, Gary Bettman is probably salivating at the thought of Connor McDavid taking on a 30-win Chicago Blackhawks team in the ultimate five-game qualifying series. In all seriousness, this should be a high-scoring, entertaining series. This because the Blackhawks have veterans with playoff experience and the Oilers have Connor McDavid.

Breaking down the Blackhawks this past season, their defensive play can only be described as unremarkable. 

Of course, the team has Duncan Keith leading the group. Whose still logging 24:23 minutes a game at 36 years old, but it doesn’t get much better than that. There’s Oli Maata and nineteen-year-old rookie Adam Boqvist, both of whom, though talented, spend too much time in their own zone. And Calvin de Haan, who is making his return to camp after not having played since December.

The team’s offense is slightly more exciting, as superstars Patrick Kane and Jonathon Toews alone combined for 144 points in 70 games this year. Add in contributors like Dominik Kubalik, Alex Debrincat, Dylan Strome, and Brandon Saad, that is a solid top-six. 

Edmonton has an equally impressive top-six, with the league’s best player Connor McDavid and Hart Trophy candidate Leon Draisatl. The two combined for an outstanding 207 points this season. It makes sense why they have the best power play in the NHL, which capitalizes on 29.5% of its opportunities.

Not to mention Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is playing great hockey at almost a point per game clip. Andreas Athanisou also brings more speed to a forward group with guys like Zach Kassian and James Neal that can play up and down the lineup. 

Assuming he’s available, Chicago will have Corey Crawford in goal. He has a solid .917 save percentage, but a slightly high goals against average at 2.95. The Oilers, of course, are in worse shape when it comes to goaltending. The team’s veteran, Mike Smith, logged a .902 save percentage this season. As a result, it will probably be the six-foot-seven Mikko Koskinen in net for Edmonton. He had a .917 save percentage and a 2.75 goals against average this year. However, Koskinen has never played in the playoffs before.

Notes:

Edmonton

  • Mike Green has opted-out of the NHL’s return to play.

Chicago

My Pick: Edmonton Oilers

DAB Staff:

  • James V.: Chicago Blackhawks
  • Chris M.: Chicago Blackhawks
  • Leighann S.: Edmonton Oilers
  • Anthony B.: Edmonton Oilers
  • Matt M.: Edmonton Oilers

(6) Nashville Predators (35-26-8) vs. (11) Arizona Coyotes (33-29-8)

Season series: 1-1

This is a premiere matchup for Devils’ fans, as John Hynes is now head coach of the Nashville Predators, and the place of New Jersey’s first-round pick from the Taylor Hall trade will be in the hands of the Coyotes. It makes you want both teams to lose, but you have to remember that if Arizona loses, the Coyotes will have a 12.5% chance at the first overall pick. And if Arizona somehow lands the pick, the Devils’ pick from the trade becomes a 2021 first-rounder.

To discuss this series, we have to begin with the pitfalls of Nashville’s offense. It’s been an ongoing trend for the Predators, and this year it was enough for the front office to move on from Peter Laviolette to John Hynes.

Their top line consists of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and Victor Arvidsson, which is decent, but this year only combined for 112 points. You could even argue that Forsberg carries the line, as Johansen hasn’t eclipsed 20 goals in five years, and Victor Arvidsson had about one point for every four games he played in this season. And whose to say Forsberg puts up his  regular numbers in a matchup against Taylor Hall? Of course, it was a short year, and they played with each other significantly less — by almost 400 minutes — compared to previous seasons. But, I would not bet on the Predators being an offensive powerhouse this postseason.

I am not forgetting about Matt Duchene, Kyle Turris, and Mikael Granlund. But, they are not necessarily better than the Coyotes second-line of Nick Schmaltz, Carl Soderberg, and Phil Kessel. Even down the lineup both teams have solid depth forwards like Nashville’s Nick Bonino and Arizona’s Clayton Keller. So, we will have to look out for how John Hynes tries to create the edge for Nashville’s offense.

Truth be told, their strength is defense. With Norris Trophy candidate Roman Josi (65 points) and Ryan Ellis (38 points) leading the pack. After those two, Nashville has a solid offensive number-three in Mattias Ekholm (33 points), followed by Dante Fabbro, Yannick Weber, and Jarred Tinordi.

The only cause for concern is whether Roman Josi (averaging 25:47 of ice time per game) can keep playing this many minutes during the post-season. Especially, after the long layoff.

Because 37-year-old Pekka Rinne recorded an .895 save percentage and a 3.17 goals against average in 35 starts this season, it’s entirely likely the Predators favor Jusse Saros in the playoffs. Saros had a .914 save percentage and 2.70 goals against average in 34 starts. And though he has never started a playoff game, he’s averaged a .925 save percentage and a 1.67 goals against average in 216 minutes of relief playoff hockey.

Arizona is in even better shape, as the six-foot-five Darcy Kuemper posted a .928 save percentage and a 2.22 goals against average in 29 starts. If need be, the team can fall back on former Ranger Antti Raanta, who is not far behind with a .921 save percentage and a 2.63 goals against average in 32 starts.

But, since I have to pick, I am going to favor Nashville’s playoff experience and shut-down defense over Arizona’s speed and strong goaltending.

My Pick: Nashville Predators

DAB Staff:

  • James V.: Nashville Predators
  • Chris M.: Nashville Predators
  • Leighann S.: Arizona Coyotes
  • Anthony B.: Arizona Coyotes
  • Matt M.: Nashville Predators

(7) Vancouver Canucks (36-27-6)  vs. (10) Minnesota Wild (35-27-7)

Season series: 2-1 Wild

It’s widely established that the Canucks have a pretty good lineup overall. With Christopher Tanev, Alex Edler, Troy Stecher, and rookie of the year candidate Quinn Hughes on the back-end, the Canucks may be one piece away from a top-10 defense.

Plus, the team’s forward group improved immensely from last season. New to the team this year are J.T. Miller, who led the team with 72 points in 69 games played, Michael Ferland, who should recover after suffering multiple injuries this season, and Tyler Toffoli who had 10 points in his first 10 games with the Canucks. This after being traded by the Los Angeles Kings a week before the deadline. Add them to the team’s core of Bo Horvat, Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Tanner Pearson, and Jake Virtanen, and you have a solid top-nine. Not to mention Josh Leivo and Adam Gaudette, who are contributing their fair share of offense at over half a point per game each.

In net, the team will rely on the six-foot-six Jacob Markstrom, who finished the regular season with an eye-opening .917 save percentage and 2.75 goals against average in 43 starts.

On the flip side, Minnesota will have to be extremely disciplined. A tall order for newly named head coach Dean Evason, who took over for Bruce Boudreau in February. He coached just 12 games for Minnesota before the shutdown, winning eight. 

With a 77.2% penalty kill efficiency (29th in the NHL), Minnesota trails Vancouver in offensive talent and special teams play. Therefore, it will fall on the Wild’s defensive core of Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba. As they will have to contain Vancouver’s scorers. It’ll be even more difficult, being that there’s uncertainty in the goal that raises concerns. According to ProHockeyTalk on NBC, “Wild interim coach Dean Evason indicated Saturday that the team will have a three-man competition at goalie leading into the NHL’s upcoming 24-team postseason tournament.”

Alex Stalock, who has never started 30 games in a season before this year, took over for a struggling Devan Dubnyk. He posted a .910 save percentage and 20 wins in 36 total starts. Kaapo Kahkonen, who played five games at the end of 2019, will also be in the mix for the starting job.

Even so, you cannot count out this frustrated Wild team that’s never gotten over the hump: Mikko Koivu is 36, Zach Parise is 35, Eric Staal is 34, Ryan Suter is 34, and Mats Zuccarello is 32. None of them have won a Stanley Cup. So, do not be surprised if those guys bring an edge in this matchup against a younger Vancouver team.

If the St. Louis Blues proved anything in their Stanley Cup run last season, it’s that toughness and grit matters come playoff time. Add in the fact that Minnesota will have the help of established players like Alex Galchenyuk and Kevin Fiala, and their own group of young emerging players, including 22 year old Joel Eriksson Ek, 22 year old Jordan Greenway, and 21 year old Luke Kunin.

My Pick: Minnesota Wild

DAB Staff:

  • James V.: Minnesota Wild
  • Chris M.: Minnesota Wild
  • Leighann S.: Vancouver Canucks
  • Anthony B.: Vancouver Canucks
  • Matt M.: Minnesota Wild

(8) Calgary Flames (36-27-7) vs. (9) Winnipeg Jets (37-28-6)

Season Series: Winnipeg Jets 1-0

This matchup should be interesting, because neither team is particularly distinguishable from the other. Plus, you cannot read too much into their one matchup in October, where Winnipeg won 2-1 in overtime. This is because both teams have changed since then.

To start, Calgary’s former head coach Bill Peters resigned in late November, and the team moved onto Geoff Ward on an interim basis. In 42 games with him, the team has been 24-15-3, going 4-0 in March to finish 3rd in the Pacific division. The team also traded for defensemen Derek Forbort and Erik Gustaffson in an effort to bring size and experience to their defensive group. This while Travis Hamonic was injured. Recently, Hamonic released a statement about his decision to opt-out of the NHL playoffs (see below).

Since Hamonic was averaging over 21 minutes a game for the team, his absence will definitely be a change for the Flames’ defense. It does not mean the team will be completely vulnerable, but you can expect to see more of Michael Stone (16:19 time on ice) and Oliver Kylington (13:42 time on ice).

Winnipeg, on the other hand, has some emerging talent to tout at forward beyond Patrick Laine and Kyle Connor. Andrew Copp has stepped up, tallying 26 points in 63 games played this season, as has Jack Roslovic with 29 points in 71 games. Putting them with Adam Lowry, you have a big, fast third-line that definitely has an edge over Calgary’s combination of Milan Lucic, Derek Ryan, and Dillon Dube.

With that advantage, and Vezina Trophy candidate Connor Helleybuck in net, I’m giving Winnipeg the slight edge in this series.

My Pick: Winnipeg Jets

DAB Staff:

  • James V.: Calgary Flames
  • Chris M.: Calgary Flames
  • Leighann S.: Winnipeg Jets
  • Anthony B.: Winnipeg Jets
  • Matt M.: Winnipeg Jets

Devils Army Cast

For even more analysis and predictions listen to our most recent episode of Devils Army Cast (see above).

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