Welp. No Blackhawks. No Blues. Welcome to the Wild West. The expansion Vegas Golden Knights won the Pacific, besting the Kings, Sharks, and Ducks for the top spot. Heck, they led the West and the NHL for a good chunk of the season. All this with a roster full of players that most NHL fans hadn’t heard much about. It’s a shocking story to say the least.
Also shocking: The Avalanche are back in the playoffs. They had 48 points last year and even lost the draft lottery in a season where they lost anything and everything. This season, they were expected to be ok but not really make much noise. Maybe another rebuilding year. But playoffs? PLAYOFFS? A 30 point improvement would be expected and nice. Instead, the Avs used a 10 game winning streak to get into contention. Although they slipped a little late in the year so did the St. Louis Blues. Somehow the Blues lost to the Blackhawks with less than 8 seconds left. That loss led to the Blues facing the Avalanche in Denver for the final Wild Card spot in game 82 of an 82 game season. The place was jacked and the Avs dominated them to make it in (I was there. It was amazing).
The rest of the teams were not nearly as shocking. The Sharks, Ducks, and Kings are all perennial Pacific powerhouses. The Wild always find a way in. The Jets made enough small improvements to bolster a solid roster. The Predators took the world by storm last year, fueled by an incredible atmosphere. They were the best in the West and got the #1 seed. Nobody expected them last year. EVERYONE expects them this year.
Gone from last year are the Blackhawks, Blues, Flames, and Oilers. In are the Avalanche, Kings, Golden Knights, and Jets. Let’s take a look at the first round matchups:
The Nashville Predators
When your team is out, you hop on a bandwagon. A lot of people hopped on this bandwagon last year. The atmosphere in Nashville was LIT! The crowd was intense, and they nearly won it all. This season, they picked up where they left off. They are the deepest team in the playoffs. They have great goaltending, amazing defense, and skilled forwards. Their defense scores more than any other defensive group in the NHL. 200+ points is unreal. PK Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm are all-world in shutting down the other team. They added Kyle Turris from Ottawa to their forward depth, led by Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and Viktor Arvidsson. Oh and Carrie Underwood’s husband Mike Fisher came back midseason. He’s 37 but still a big part of the locker room. They also have one of the best goaltenders in the league. Pekka Rinne had 42 wins on the season. He had 8 shutouts as well. And he’s dominated the Avalanche.
Matchup: The Colorado Avalanche. Looks like a good matchup on paper, but I was way off the mark last year.
Likely outcome: Stanley Cup Finals. Could very well win it all.
The Colorado Avalanche
They have gone from worst to first before with Patrick Roy. They lost in OT in Game 7 to the Wild (I was there too). This year, nobody gave them a shot, but Gabe Landeskog and Nakita Zadorov said from the beginning that they felt like they could make the playoffs. It came down to the last game of the season, but they made it in. Losing Matt Duchene took the Senators out of the playoffs and rocketed the Avs towards the playoffs. They got draft picks, yes, but they certainly got a huge bump from Samuel Girard, a small skilled defensemen who got the first goal of the night against the Blues that helped get the Avs into the playoffs. Nathan MacKinnon went from meh to HOLY SHIT BEAST MODE when Duchene left. He’s a viable MVP candidate. He has speed, stick handling, and scoring that led him to nearly getting 100 points despite missing 8 games. His bestie is Tyson Barrie, who missed 10 games but ended up with 57 points to end up in the Top 10 of all defensemen. With Erik Johnson injury issues, he’s stepped up and led the team. Also joining him is Nakita Zadorov, a bruising defensemen who is getting more confident with the puck. Throw in dependable veterans like Mark Barberio and Patrick Nemeth, who were waiver wire pickups, and the Avs are better from the blue line than they have been in years. They are the youngest team in the NHL. The young forwards in Alex Kerfoot, JT Compher, and Tyson Jost will need to contribute if the Avs want to win. Nieto-Soderberg-Comeau has been a great 3rd line and penalty killers that led the Avs to one of the best PK’s in the NHL. But…it’s all up to Jonathan Bernier. Varlamov is hurt, again (thanks Blackhawks), but Bernier has played in the playoffs before. How he goes, they will go.
Matchup: The Nashville Predators. The Avs haven’t beat them in 2 seasons. So David meet Goliath? Perhaps.
Likely outcome: First round exit. This team is young and flawed but improving. This is about gaining experience. Anything now is gravy. The kids just out of the NCAA or Juniors have never played 82 games. It’s tough. Nashville is so freaking good. If the Avs win a couple games, it will be huge for their development. This is like the Cubs team that barely won and then got destroyed in the playoffs. Exciting and young but flawed and inexperienced.
Jersey to get: Nathan MacKinnon is a hockey god. Gabe Landeskog has looks that would steal your girl. Nail Yakupov is awesome but gonsies next year. But go Samuel Girard. The 19 year old does things as a defender that forwards wish they could to.
The Winnipeg Jets
Could this FINALLY be the year the Cup comes back to Canada? Quit possibly, yes. The Jets have been reluctant to make big moves, but they got a great two-way forward in Paul Stastny added to an already loaded core of forwards. They aren’t flashy, but they will outwork you. Blake Wheeler had probably the quietest 91 points in the NHL. Patrick Laine is young and working on being a household name. Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers also lead the Jets scoring. They also have Dustin Byfuglien, who can flat out destroy anyone on the ice. He brings the nasty you need to win in the playoffs. Stastny and Byuglien have been in the playoffs for multiple teams and that experience is huge. Byfuglien is joined at the Blue Line by Jacob Trouba, Dmitry Kulikov, and Tyler Myers. Tyler Myers had a quiet 30 assists on the season. This team is as deep as you can find. The defense will shut you down and their forwards can score from any line. Their goalie Connor Hellebuyck did nothing but lead the West with 44 wins this year, tying him with Andrei Vasilevskiy for best in the NHL. A hot goalie can carry a team to the Cup. Connor could be that guy.
Matchup: The Minnesota Wild. Beat them 4-3 in October, 2-1 in October, 7-2 in November, lost 4-1 in January to finish 3-1. The home team should have a huge advantage in this series. It will go deep, probably 7 games.
Likely outcome: Western Conference Finals at least, possibly a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. This team is just solid, deep, and tough. Flashy? No. But they aren’t going to beat themselves. They wear teams out. At the end of an 82 game season? You do not want to face teams like this.
Jersey to get: Patrick Laine. He’s good now and he’s going to be good for a very long time. You will get your money’s worth out of it.
The Minnesota Wild
Always seem to make it in out of the Central. They aren’t always flashy, but they have more skill than the Pacific teams. They took a chance on Eric Staal last year, and he has blossomed in Minnesota. He leads the team with 42 goals and 76 points. He hadn’t scored 70 points since 2011-12 in Carolina and 42 goals is his highest since he scored 45 in 2005. The defense is still there, deep and dependable. Ryan Suter is going to the hall of fame, and he has 45 assists from the blue line. The rest of the defensive core does an excellent job of shutting down the other team with Matt Dumba, Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, and Nate Prosser. They are not household names, but they have the depth you need to always make the playoffs in the toughest division in hockey. It’s the same old Minnesota hockey that the State of Hockey has become accustomed to. Devin Dubnyk is a freak. He’s 6’6″ and has been an amazing trade for the Wild after they got him from Arizona. He won 35 this year after wining 40 last year. His size takes away half the net, and his skill makes the other half of the net hard to find. He doesn’t need to be spectacular, but if he is, the Wild will be a scary team.
Matchup: The Winnipeg Jets. Similar teams and nothing will give. This should be entertaining and the secondary scoring will decide this one.
Likely outcome: Probably lose to Winnipeg. If they win, though, they would love to face the Avalanche and resume the rivalry that was budding a few years ago. Nobody outside of Minnesota is giving this team much of a chance and that could be a huge mistake.
Jersey to get: Eric Staal is going to the Hall of Fame someday. He spent many years in obscurity (of sorts) in Carolina. He’s still got a few years left in him and if the Wild win a Cup, his signing might have been the biggest part of it.
The Vegas Golden Knights
How the holy heck did we get here? A team that did NOT EXIST last year. They had to draft castaways and depth guys. To compete would have been expected. To start out hot and fade in the end would have been reasonable. But they said, f- that and rode a hot start all the way to the top of the Pacific Division. Vegas didn’t seem like an ideal fit for a hockey team but it needed a pro team. Vegas has embraced this team, especially after the tragedy that struck Vegas. The town rallied with the team. A team of destiny? Perhaps. Marc-Andre Fleury was a staple in net for the Penguins for years and hasn’t lost much of a step. He was injured early on but since then he’s been healthy, he’s been as good as when he led Pittsburgh to the Cup. How he goes, they will go. They can’t rely on PK Subban’s brother in net if they want to win. Scoring wise, they are led by William Karlsson who never scored more than 25 points in a season but led Vegas with 78 points. Jonathan Marchessault, all 5’9″ and 174 lbs of him, chipped in 27 goals and 75 points. He went from a -21 in Florida last year to a +36 this year in Vegas. David Perron and James Neal bring a ton of experience to a team that had none. James Neal was part of the upstart Predators team last year. These two guys will be leaned on heavily to lead Vegas in the playoffs.
Matchup: The Los Angeles Kings. The Kings are a playoff lock annually but had to get the Wild Card to get in this year. Still, the Kings will slow you down and grind the game out. It’s ugly hockey, but it wins. That’s not a great matchup for Vegas but it’s not terrible either.
Likely outcome: Lose to Los Angeles in a tough series. They’ve fallen off a bit lately and how much longer can the magic really go?
Jersey to get: Alex Tuch. He’s young, but he’s going to be really really good. He’s 21 and put up 37 points in his first full NHL campaign. That young dude you crush on in fantasy football or fantasy baseball that nobody knows about but you? That’s Alex Tuch.
The Los Angeles Kings
They always seem to be here. Year in, year out. They play the same brand of hockey because it works. Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, and Drew Doughty lead the way along with all-world goaltender Jonathan Quick, one of the best of all time. He’s only 6’1″ but his speed and athleticism are unparalleled. The Kings have always used the same recipe of size and skill to give opponents nightmares. Kopitar has 92 points on the season and will be the most talented skater on the ice when they face Vegas. Dustin Brown chipped in 61 points. Drew Doughty is an incredible defenceman that happened to score 60 points. He’s one of the best in the game. Great defense, a great goaltender, and forward depth makes them a really tough matchup for anyone, especially an upstart team like Vegas. They are experienced and just know how to win.
Matchup: Vegas Golden Knights. The upstart team no one expected. On paper, the Kings will dominate Vegas, but a lot of teams said that this year. You don’t win games on paper, but you do win games with experience. They will win a tough but short series.
Likely outcome: Beat the Knights, lose in the next round.
Jersey to get: Jonathan Quick. Because you owe it to a guy that good for that long. Who knows how many more years he has, but he’s been one of the best in the game and deserves you wearing his name on your back.
The Anaheim Ducks
Just like the Kings, they are here every year with the same style of hockey. Slow it down, control the neutral zone, grind it out. It’s not pretty but, oh boy, does it yield results. Ryan Kesler, Ryan Getzlaf, and Corey Perry have been there for years. Getzlaf and Perry have been in Anaheim since 2005. They will probably end up being there for at least 15 years when it’s all said and done. Ryan Miller has had a great NHL career and is primed for the playoffs, but you also have John Gibson in net. Any team would love to have one of these guys. To have both is almost unfair. Both have been banged up, but either one can win you a game or a series. Back to the skaters, Corey Perry is nasty but was also third in the team in scoring. He’s an agitator and guys like that are big in the playoffs to take the other team off their game and committing penalties. Getzlaf has 61 points, but the team leader is actually Rickard Rakell who has been improving each of his last 4 years and now leading the team with 69 points. Cam Fowler is a nightmare on defense. They got Adam Henrique in a trade with Devils. He had 36 points in 57 games since coming to Anaheim. They made a trade to help their scoring especially in the playoffs. He could be the catalyst.
Matchup: The San Jose Sharks. 30,000,000 time we’ve seen these teams face each other. It will be a nasty series and will go the full distance.
Likely Outcome: Lose in OT in Game 7 to San Jose
Jersey to get: Ryan Getzlaf. He’s been there forever, and he’s not Corey Perry. So advantage Ryan.
The San Jose Sharks
They made it to the Stanley Cup Finals two years ago. They added Evander Kane at the trade deadline this year, and he has been great for them, with 14 points in 17 games. He joins a cast of characters that includes Bret Burns, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, Joe Thornton, and Timo Meier. Unlike the Kings and the Ducks, the Sharks actually have a bit more of an offensive punch. They are tough and physical, but they don’t have to slow it down to win. They are deep in scoring. Burns has 67 points, Joe Pavelski has 66 points, and Logan Couture has 61 points. Timo Meier has 36 points in his 2nd NHL season. They have the scoring to compete with anyone. Martin Jones in net had 30 wins and has had at least 30 wins in all 3 years in San Jose. He had 14 wins when they made their run to the Stanley Cup finals. He’s going to need to be good if they want to make it out of the first round matchup with the Ducks. His success will decide the Sharks success.
The Matchup: The Ducks. It will be physical, but it should be fun as well. Old foes with a long history? Sign me up.
Likely outcome: Lose in the Western Conference Finals.
Jersey to get: Brent Burns because he’s awesome or Evander Kane because he could be the reason they go far in the playoffs.