One great thing about the playoffs is the mystique of summertime hockey. “Playing into June” is the goal every team sets for itself at the start of every season, and only two teams achieve that goal. While the coronavirus has been ravaging the United States for the last five months, the NHL has executed their return to play plan flawlessly, and the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs have gone on without a hitch thus far. Twelve teams showed up to the bubble cities of Toronto and Edmonton respectively, and following the first nine days of action, only eight teams remain in each bubble.
The city of Edmonton hosted the Western Conference qualifiers, and each best of five play-in series was decided in four games. Two upsets and two chalky wins have helped form a compelling group of teams looking to secure the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl and represent the West in the Stanley Cup Finals. While the Rangers had draft pick interests tied up in multiple western teams last season, there are no such conflicts of interest present this year. Who Rangers’ fans root for is up to personal preference, so let’s dive into the teams.
St. Louis Blues
After rising from the depths of the league standings to the top of the mountain last season, the reigning Stanley Cup champions came into the 2019-20 campaign looking to prove that least season’s miracle run wasn’t a flash in the pan, and that’s what they did. At the conclusion of the regular season, the Blues were 1st in the Western Conference with a 42-19-10 record. They reached that record in spite of missing superstar forward Vladimir Tarasenko for all but ten contests during the season.
Their subpar play in the round robin meant that they ceded the West’s top seed and the advantageous path through the bracket that comes with it, but St. Louis is still a dangerous team. Jordan Binnington is providing the same solid goaltending he did last spring and Ryan O’Reilly, Jaden Schwartz and Brayden Schenn headline one of the most complete forward groups in the league. Colton Parayko and Alex Pietrangelo will anchor the team’s blue line once again, and they’ll look to lead the Blues to the promised land for the second time in as many seasons.
After back to back seasons of sneaking into the playoffs as the second Wild Card, the Avalanche established themselves as one of the premier teams in the Western Conference this season. Only the Presidents Trophy winning Boston Bruins had more regulation wins than the 37 that Colorado accumulated before the regular season ended, and Jared Bednar’s squad was only two points back of the division leading Blues with a game in hand prior to the break.
Injuries limited two of the team’s big three forwards, as Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen combined to miss 44 games, so Nathan MacKinnon took it upon himself to carry the Avalanche as far as he could. A 35-58-93 stat line earned MacKinnon a top three finish in Hart Trophy voting, while rookie sensation Cale Makar built on his electrifying playoff debut last spring and is likely to be named the league’s rookie of the year following a 50 point performance from the blue line.
Former Blueshirts’ farmhand Ryan Graves has carved out an everyday role as a depth defender in Denver, while Vladislav Namestnikov has made his way to Colorado after a stint in Ottawa following his early season trade out of New York. With superstar talent up front and on the back end, the Avalanche are one of the most exciting teams in the fight for Lord Stanley’s Cup. Seeing this team play deep into September would be anything but a surprise.
Vegas Golden Knights
Here’s neat little tidbit about the league’s standings upon conclusion of the regular season: Both Vegas and the Pittsburgh Penguins had 86 points. However, Pittsburgh reached that number in two less games, so they were seventh overall in the league, while Vegas was eighth. Fast forward five months, and the Penguins are sitting on their couches watching the playoffs from home, while the Golden Knights are the top seed in the Western Conference following an undefeated romp through the round robin. The NHL is a funny league.
Although their record didn’t reflect during the early parts of the season, Vegas has been one of the league’s most dominant teams since October. A mid-season coaching change from Gerard Gallant to Pete DeBoer wasn’t necessary, but DeBoer took over the league’s most talented team and rode them to a first place finish in the Pacific Division. Former Blueshirt Banter fan favorite Nick Holden has established himself as a steady presence on Vegas’ blue line, while Jonathan Marchessault has continued the incredible story of his career that began on an AHL contract in the Rangers’ organization.
No team boasted a better adjusted Corsi For% or Expected Goals For% at 5 on 5 than Vegas did during the regular season, but their goaltending was a weakness. Golden Knights’ goaltenders finished 28th in 5-on-5 Save% and dead least in Save% on the penalty kill, but the trade deadline acquisition of Robin Lehner should address that. If Lehner can provide Vegas with the stable goaltending that Marc Andre-Fleury no longer can, expect to see the Golden Knights as the final team standing.
No team has seen a coaching change lead to a more drastic identity shift than the Dallas Stars, Following Lindy Ruff’s firing in 2017, the Stars have transformed into one of the league’s stiffest defensive teams in spite of going through multiple coaches since then. Ken Hitchcock coached the 2017-18 campaign and laid the foundation for today’s Dallas team, but he retired following that single season. Jim Montgomery succeeded him and led the Stars back to the playoffs last season, but was abruptly fired and succeeded by Rick Bowness on December 10th.
A quick glance at their forward corps shows that the Stars have the firepower to win the 2015 Stanley Cup. Unfortunately for them, the year is 2020, and a lot of their superstar names are just names at this point. Joe Pavelski (14-17-31 in 67 GP) and Corey Perry (5-16-21 in 57 GP) flopped in their first seasons in Texas, while Alexander Radulov (15-19-34 in 60 GP) and Jamie Benn (19-20-39 in 69 GP) failed to put up numbers they’ve been capable of putting up in years past. Tyler Seguin was the only player to clear the 50 point hurdle, compiling a 17-33-50 stat line by season’s end. In spite of that, Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin proved to be the best goaltending tandem in the West, and the Stars will need to ride them as far as they can if they’d like to stick around Edmonton a bit longer.
Since their Game 7 defeat in the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, the Canucks have been one of the league’s most forgettable franchises. Vancouver has made the playoffs on three occasions since then, but is yet to advance past the first round. As Henrik and Daniel Sedin were fading as they inched closer to retirement, the team seemingly lacked any superstars to build their next core around. Vancouver was mired in mediocrity; no longer good enough to contend, but not bad enough to win the draft lottery and land a superstar talent. In spite of that, a pair of homegrown stars, plus one unexpected acquisition, led Vancouver past Minnesota in the qualifying round and into the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
Quinn Hughes, the 7th overall pick at the 2018 Entry Draft, is the engine that makes Vancouver’s blue line go. A stellar rookie season saw the elder Hughes brother score 53 points and finish as the likely runner up in rookie of the year voting, something his brother Jack failed to do after being selected first overall by New Jersey last June. Elias Pettersson, the 5th overall pick at the 2017 Entry Draft, once again finished within spitting distance of a point per game season, posting a 27-39-66 stat line in 68 games.
In spite of that stellar performance, only one Canuck eclipsed the point per game barrier, and that was former Ranger Jonathan Tanner Miller. After trading a first round pick to acquire Miller from Tampa Bay last offseason, Vancouver was rewarded with a breakout season from their shiny new toy. Miller set career highs in offensive categories across the board, and established himself as one of the heads on the three headed monster that leads the Canucks’ offense.
After finishing 1st in the Western Conference and 2nd in the league wide standings last season, the Flames fell back down to Earth this season and hovered around the playoff bubble throughout the season. After grounding a battered and bruised Winnipeg Jets team to punch their ticket to the playoffs, the Flames find themselves in a solid position in the bracket following the qualifying round. Colorado and Vegas are a cut above Dallas and St. Louis, so being able to avoid those teams in the opening round of the playoffs thanks to a pair of upsets below them is a boon for Calgary.
The Flames have qualified for the playoffs in spite of dealing with the most notable opt out stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Defenseman Travis Hamonic decided not to travel to the Edmonton bubble, and the rest of his teammates have picked up the slack on his absence. The best story for the Flames right now has to be that of Milan Lucic, who notched four points in his team’s play-in series and has established himself as a leading voice in a young Calgary locker room. Seeing the team bow out early as they did last spring wouldn’t be unexpected, but look for the Flames to put up a fight no matter who they play along the way.
OK, so we’ve got the Flames as the eight seed in the West, and that should wrap up the playoff teams, right? Normally that’d be the case, but the qualifying round resulted in two upsets, and the Arizona Coyotes were on the winning side of one of those. After making a blockbuster trade for Taylor Hall in December, the Coyotes were jockeying for position atop the Pacific Division. As the season rolled along, Arizona began to fall farther and farther back in the standings, and they finished the regular season 11th in the West whether you go by points percentage or raw points.
The team faced some adversity following John Chayka’s resignation as the team’s general manager prior to heading into the bubble, but they bounced back in emphatic fashion. After shocking the Nashville Predators in the qualifying round, the Coyotes are officially back in the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Franchise pillar Oliver Ekman-Larsson is the only player remaining from that 2012 squad that made it to the Western Conference Finals. He’ll be joined by the aforementioned Hall, Phil Kessel, as well as young guns Clayton Keller, Christian Dvorak, and a number of ex-Rangers as well.
Antti Raanta will start the playoffs with a baseball cap on as he rides the bench, but the Coyotes boast a pair of forwards that have fallen off a cliff since their time on Broadway. Derek Stepan (10-18-28 in 70 GP) and Michael Grabner (8-3-11 in 46 GP) have playoff experience that most of Arizona’s roster lacks, but that experience is only as valuable as the on-ice production they bring. The Coyotes have a tall task in front of them in the form of the Colorado Avalanche to open the playoffs, so aside from rooting for the former Rangers to do well, there’s not much to invest in on the Coyotes bandwagon.
Leave it to the Oilers, the only team that didn’t have to travel hundreds and/or thousands of miles to the bubble, to lose to a 12 seed. The top two scorers in the league are out of the playoffs, but Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Brandon Saad, and the other dudes that Chicago brought to the bubble that you most likely haven’t heard of at least 50% of them are here to stay. Gone are the days of the Blackhawks as one of the league’s elite teams, in their place stands a team that has a solid top six forward group and quite literally nothing else going for them.
Rookie Dominik Kubalik tallied 30 goals en route to being named a finalist for the Calder Trophy. Kirby Dach, the third overall selection following Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko, tallied as many points as Kakko did in two less games. Adam Boqvist, the eighth overall selection in 2018, put together a solid rookie season in the 41 games he drew into. Perhaps there’s something to be said of the playoff mojo you might think Chicago has, but they haven’t been to the playoffs since 2017. They haven’t won a playoff game since 2016, and haven’t won a series since 2015. The mojo is long gone at this point, so bet on the Blackhawks at your own peril.
That covers the eight Western Conference teams still hanging around the playoffs. Stay tuned for the Eastern Conference edition of the guide tomorrow morning.