NHL Qualifying Round: Western Conference
It feels like a million years ago since we had meaningful hockey. The pandemic put a halt to hockey, and to the world of sports, but on Saturday, we will have meaningful hockey back!
The format for this year is a little different; eight teams will play a best-of-five series to determine who will make it to the next round. The top four teams in each conference will play each other in a round robin tournament, with the winner claiming the top spot in the division. For the bottom eight teams, it’s win three games, or go home. Let’s take a look at those matchups and pick some winners!
If you missed the breakdown of the Eastern Conference, you can find it here.
Nashville Predators Vs. Arizona Coyotes
Prediction: Arizona in 4
This is the series I will probably skip watching on TV. Both teams are unexciting, and to be frank, whichever team wins this matchup, won’t make it far in the second round.
For Nashville, they’ve struggled all season to score goals. Roman Josi has been doing most of the heavy lifting, but outside of him, this roster is mediocre at best. We could always count on the PRedators having strong goaltending this time of year, but both Pekka Rinne and Jusse Saros have been #NotGood, and I don’t think a long layoff has made them any better. We don’t even know if Rinne is still considered the starter!
For Arizona, they went out and acquired Taylor Hall before the trade deadline, but so far, that experiment hasn’t paid off. They aren’t a high scoring team, but having Hall and Phil Kessel might be just enough to put them over the edge here.
Their goaltending situation is also a million times better than Nashville. Darcy Kuemper is expected to get the start in game one, and Antti Raanta has played almost as good as his teammate.
Both teams combined have one player with more than 50-point this season, and it’s Josi. Goals will be at a premium, which means defence will be the key to winning, and a good defence has good goaltending. That’s the difference maker for me here. Maybe I’ll be wrong, but someone will have to tell me because I may not follow this series close enough to know.
Vancouver Canucks Vs. Minnesota Wild
Prediction: Vancouver in 3
I don’t know about you, but the Minnesota Wild are just not that great of a hockey team, and they have one of the toughest matchups in this qualifying round. The Canucks are a very good team, and I expect them to steamroll the Wild in convincing fashion.
Like Nashville, Minnesota hasn’t had good goaltending all season. Devan Dubnyk was the starter at the beginning, but it’s safe to say that he’s lost his job to Alex Stalock, who isn’t having that much better of a season. If you don’t have good goaltending in a short five game series, you’re done. You could get away with it if your offence was able to pick up the slack, but that’s not going to happen here.
For Vancouver, they have all the pieces that make them a fun and exciting team to watch. They are young, but Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson and the rest of the gang are talented, and that talent is going to give Stalock nightmares.
Their defence is also quite good, and Jacob Markstrom is more than capable of making key saves in key situations. His numbers won’t blow you away, but in this series, all he has to do is not be a dumpster fire and his team should take care of the rest.
Calgary Flames Vs. Winnipeg Jets
Prediction: Winnipeg in 5
This is going to be an extremely tight series. I’m not fully sold on the Jets making it to the next round, but they do have a not-so-secret weapon, and that’s Vezina candidate Connor Hellebuyck. As a Habs fan, you don’t have to explain to me what a great goalie in the playoffs can do for a team (If you need some help, just go back and watch Montreal’s 2010 run against Washington and Pittsburgh). Goaltending is the key here, and Hellebuyck has the power to take his team to the next round.
That being said, Calgary is going to be a handful. Despite Travis Hamonic deciding to stay home and not risk his health, the Flames have a very good defence, and an offence that can certainly do some damage. If Winnipeg has the advantage in goal, Calgary has the advantage on the blue line. It’s going to be a struggle for the Jets top six defenceman to contain the likes of Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk, but I think as a team, they will be able to get it done.
Like I said, it’s going to be a close series. I’ll always give the advantage to the team with better goaltending, and there’s no question which team that is here.
Chicago Blackhawks Vs. Edmonton Oilers
Prediction: Edmonton in 4
Grab your favourite snack and fasten your seatbelt, this series is going to be a crazy ride. I can’t wait to watch a team with the best power play take on a team that gives up over 35 shots on goal per game. Both teams are league average in terms of goals per game, but the goalies in this series are going to have a near impossible time trying to limit some of the talent on the ice.
Let’s start with the Blackhawks, a team that is very familiar with winning. They have Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, but I don’t think the support cast is strong enough to help them get past Edmonton. Both Andrew Shaw and Brent Seabrook won’t be taking part in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and Corey Crawford doesn’t look to be 100%. If Crawford is unable to play, that leaves the team with Malcolm Subban, and he ain’t no Robin Lehner. Subban has played a total of 1:10 since being acquired by the team, and there’s a reason for that: he’s just not that good!
On the flip side, Edmonton has two players who are going to do most of the damage. Shutting down two players in the playoffs is possible, but not when it’s Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who combined finished with 207 points. The Oilers also finished the season with a 29.5% power play, 4.3% better than the next closest team (the Boston Bruins).
The question for Chicago isn’t how do you stop McDavid and Draisaitl, it’s more can you limit their damage, and the answer is no. The Hawks aren’t the same team they were when they were winning Stanley Cups, they are a shell of that. Edmonton has their flaws, but their best players are good enough to cover up those holes. If I were Chicago, I’d invest in some sunscreen, because the goal light behind their net might give whoever starts for them a real bad sunburn.