The realignment necessitated by COVID-19 travel restrictions shook up the Pacific Division much like it did the old Central Division. Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver were replaced by St. Louis, Colorado, and Minnesota for the 2020-21 campaign, and these three teams joined the California and Mojave teams in the newly formed Honda West Division. Much like how this season’s Central Division is reminiscent of the old Southeast Division, the Honda West playoff bracket looks a lot like something you might see in the normal Central Division moving forward.
For all the talk of how incredible and revolutionary and super special awesome New York’s rebuild has been, the Avalanche have turned themselves from the worst team in the league to the best team in four years flat. Finishing the 2016-17 campaign in the basement of the league by an impossibly large margin of 21 standings point, the Avalanche have been on an upward trajectory since then. In spite of trading franchise pillar Matt Duchene for futures a month into 2017-18 season, the Avalanche snuck into the playoffs as a Wild Card and gave the Presidents Trophy-winning Nashville Predators a scare as they fell in six games.
The Avalanche claimed a Wild Card spot once more during 2018-19, and they knocked out the top seeded Calgary Flames in five games before pushing the San Jose Sharks to a Game 7 the following around. Colorado dominated the Arizona Coyotes to open the 2020 playoffs and once again fell in a second round Game 7, this time to the eventual Western Conference champion Dallas Stars. Now, the Avalanche have begun the playoffs as the Presidents Trophy winners this spring, and are the runaway favorite to win the Stanley Cup.
With an exciting, young core led by Nathan MacKinnon up front and Cale Makar on defense, the Avalanche will be must watch TV as deep into the playoffs as they go. Former Blueshirts’ prospect Ryan Graves has established himself as a member of Colorado’s defense corps, and one time top six fixture Jayson Megna also drew into the lineup seven times during the regular season.
Vegas Golden Knights
The Knights had an opportunity to secure their first Presidents Trophy with a victory over Colorado during the final week of the regular season. Instead, Pete DeBoer’s squad dropped that contest, lost control of their own destiny, and now find themselves as divisional runner-ups. Rather than a cakewalk of a series against St. Louis, the Golden Knights have been matched up with the Minnesota Wild, the team who has experienced the most success against them since joining the NHL.
The league’s division-based playoff format always manages to screw over at least one team, and the wheel of misfortune has landed on Vegas this time around. In spite of finishing second overall in the league standings, the Golden Knights’ path to the semi-finals is likely to be a home series against the 9th place league wide finisher, followed by a road series against the league’s top team. Meanwhile, a team like Toronto that finished 6th and was fortunate to play in the NHL’s charity division, opens the playoffs with a home series against 18th place Montreal, and will need to defeat either 11th place Edmonton or 14th place Winnipeg to make the semi-finals. Talk about bad luck.
Jonathan Marchessault had yet another strong season in the desert, finishing third in scoring on the team to pour more salt in the wound for Rangers fans wondering what could’ve been. Nick Holden is still in Vegas as a reserve defender, as he skated in 17 games and notched a pair of assists this season. the Golden Knights might very well be the 2nd best team in hockey, but that doesn’t mean much when you share a division with the best team.
Much like how the Florida Panthers were the surprise of the Central Division, no team surpassed expectations in the West Division quite as much as the Wild did. After being bounced out of the playoff bubble in the qualifying round last summer, Minnesota was a bit of a mystery coming into the season. Colorado and Vegas were the two best teams, and the Blues returned a majority of the team that won the Stanley Cup two years ago and finished fourth in the Western Conference last season. Sneaking into the fourth spot wasn’t out of the question, but the Wild found themselves much closer to the top two teams than the rest of their divisional foes.
Kirill Kaprizov’s arrival gave Minnesota the game-breaking talent they had previously lacked. The likely Calder Trophy winner posted a 27-24-51 stat line in the first 55 games of his North American career, The team’s 5th round pick in 2015 took his sweet team arriving in the NHL, but led his team in points this year to more than justify the wait. Aside from him, the Wild are a team predicated on a defense first mindset, suffocating opposing shot quality while giving up high quantity. They’re not an exciting team outside of Kaprizov, but they can hang with elite teams.
A pair of former fan favorites in New York currently call Minnesota home. Mats Zuccarello notched 35 points in 42 games to finish 3rd on the team in scoring, and 2nd behind Kaprizov in points per game. Cam Talbot is the team’s 1A goaltender, as the former Blueshirts’ backstop seems to have found a long term home after bouncing around after being traded by the Rangers.
St. Louis Blues
For as down as people are about the Blues, you wouldn’t think a majority of the current Blues’ roster won the Stanley Cup two seasons ago. In spite of that accomplishment, St. Louis is as close to a literal sacrificial lamb being served up to a superior opponent as you’re going to see in an NHL playoff series.
Vladimir Tarasenko has been hampered by injuries throughout the season. David Perron and Ryan O’Reilly were both fantastic, but this team is only going as far as those latter two players take them. The team’s decision to let former captain Alex Pietrangelo walk in free agency and replace him with Torey Krug has gone about as well as one might expect. There isn’t a whole lot to say other than that this team is clearly over matched, and will be making a quick exit, possibly via the broom.
If you could pick any division to produce a Stanley Cup champion, it’d be the West Division. Heck, if you had to pick one division against the field to field that champion, taking whoever emerges from this bracket wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world. The divisional finals could be the best series of the playoffs, and Colorado and Vegas meeting could give fans the epic deathmatch of a series they were robbed of in last season’s Western Conference Finals. No matter the outcome, the West Division is bound to produce great playoff hockey.
Who would you like to see emerge from the Honda West Division playoff bracket
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Vegas Golden Knights
St. Louis Blues