Thoughts and predictions on the first round of the West quarterfinals in Edmonton.
(1) Golden Knights vs (8) Blackhawks
Chicago’s upset of Conor McDavid and the Oilers was largely due to veterans like Jonathan Toews coming in clutch in the short series. The world doesn’t work the way old-fashioned sports analysts like to think it does, though, and even if Toews & Co. “know how to win” because they’ve lifted the Cup a few times, it’s not 2013 anymore; the Golden Knights are the better team, and they should win the series. They performed well in the round robin, and they’ll get a boost with the return of Max Pacioretty, their regular-season points leader who hasn’t played in the season restart due to an undisclosed injury. Vegas’s point of uncertainty, though, is goaltending. They acquired former Hawks tender Robin Lehner at the trade deadline, meant to complement the aging Marc-Andre Fleury. Marc-Andre Fleury is no longer a good goaltender. Lehner has been strong this season, and if the Knights can hold off the Hawks he’ll be a big reason why.
It may be the old-fashioned sports analyst within, but something is telling me this will last until the sixth or seventh game. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews do know how to win hockey games.
(2) Avalanche vs (7) Coyotes
Please inject playoff Cale Makar directly into my veins. This should be a great series, maybe the one I’m most excited to watch other than the Bruins’. Arizona is a fairly understated team, but they and goaltender Darcy Keumper, who put up a .933 save percentage against Nashville in the qualifying round, will prove a tough matchup for the high-powered Avs offense. The Coyotes allowed the second-fewest goals in the West this year, and the Avs were the conference’s highest scorers while trailing just behind Arizona with four more goals allowed.
I want this series to go seven, and I think it could as Keumper and the Coyotes frustrate Nathan McKinnon and Colorado’s offensive powerhouse. But we need some playoff Makar beyond the first round, and I trust Cale won’t let us down.
(3) Stars vs (6) Flames
The Flames are an uneven team that relies primarily on a few high-performing offensive talents; their team scoring stats are pretty much all right around the league average, and that likely won’t cut it against the team that’s allowed the fewest goals in the West this season with the goalie duo of Ben Bishop and Anton Khoudobin. Dallas’s offensive output has been dismal, though, and if Calgary can take advantage of the Stars’ relatively high rate of penalties with their better-than-average power play, maybe they can make something happen for themselves. Very much in contrast with the Colorado-Arizona series, this is the one I’m least looking forward to.
Honestly, I’d much rather watch Johnny Goudreau and Matthew Tcachuk in the next round than Tyler Seguin, so I’m going with a Flames upset, but I expect to be wrong. Flames in six.
(4) Blues vs (5) Canucks
I’d very much like St. Louis to lose this series. As a Bruins fan I’m absolutely not over the Cup final last year, and as a former St. Louis resident I’m not swayed by the idea that the city has earned some hockey success. (They got a wonderful new member of Congress just last week in Cori Bush, and I’m very happy for them on that front, but that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten June of 2019.) But I’m going to be disappointed, because despite their weak performance in the round robin, there’s basically no way the Blues lose this series. Both teams have strong power play units and penalty kill units that aren’t really anything to write home about, so if Vancouver can take advantage of special teams situations they may give themselves a better chance. On the goaltending front, though, the Blues have the advantage, and the Canucks can’t be feeling great about Markstrom’s performance in the qualifying series against the Wild.
I’ll be pleasantly surprised if the Blues don’t sweep or take it in 5.