2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs Bandwagon Guide: Western Conference Edition
For the first time in eight years, the New York Rangers failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. As such, the residents of Rangerstown won’t have any vested interest in who wins what series for the next two months. Some fans hockey season ends when their team’s season comes to a close, but the playoffs are the most exciting time of the hockey season, rooting interests or not. If anything, there’s something to be said about being able to enjoy the intensity of playoff hockey without being on edge for 60+ minutes of watching your own team teeter on the edge of victory and defeat.
If you plan on watching the playoffs anyway, picking a bandwagon to hop on is fun. Of the sixteen teams competing for the greatest trophy in sports, all of them have compelling reasons to root for them, some more than others. Rooting for teams in the Western Conference is sure to be easier than some of the Eastern teams, so examining them first should be easier on the heart strings:
As the reigning Western Conference Champions, as well as earning their first Presidents Trophy in franchise history this season, Nashville has come a long way over the last twelve months. Entering last year’s playoffs as the West’s second Wild Card, as well as the NHL’s 16th place team, the Predators made history by becoming the first Wild Card to advance to the Cup Finals (as well as Conference Finals) in the Wild Card playoff era, as well as the first 16th place squad in league history to advance to the Finals.
Most of the familiar faces from last year’s Cindarella team are back. P.K Subban is still one of tea’s most vibrant characters, Mike Fisher signed in February to take one last run at a ring, and David Poile is hoping the blockbuster trade that landed Kyle Turris turns out to be the final piece that puts Nashville over the top. As a team still looking for their first championship, Nashville is an easy team to root for, making them a solid bandwagon choice.
If you’re a Rangers fan who also roots for the Jets, you probably experience a wide range of similar emotions. Despair, bitterness, jealousy of your rivals’ success, constant cynicism, etc. Fortunately for you, the 2017-18 Winnipeg Jets haven’t caused any of those emotions for their fans. Winnipeg’s record of 52-20-10 and 114 points blew away their previous franchise records of 43 wins and 99 points. Led by a nucleus of young, dynamic talents such as Nikolaj Ehlers, Jacob Trouba, Kyle Connor, and Patrik Laine, the Jets finished 2nd in the NHL, winning only one game less than the Predators.
Like Nashville, the Winnipeg franchise is yet to win a Stanley Cup. Of all 30 teams in the NHL prior to this season, Winnipeg is the only organization to have never even won a single playoff game, dating back to their time in Atlanta. With the most talented group of players in franchise history, the Jets look poised to do a lot more than win a single playoff game.
Vegas Golden Knights
The Golden Knights have been setting records throughout the season. Pundits across the league pegged the first-year franchise as a cellar dweller heading into the season, with their expansion draft selections being made with an eye towards the future. All they’ve done since then is become the first expansion franchise in the four major sports to make the playoffs in the first year, and they did it in style. Vegas became the first team to knock the Anaheim Ducks off their perch as kings of the Pacific Division, winning 51 games en route to a Pacific Division title.
The team is filled with fantastic stories of nobodies becoming key contributors. William Karlsson went from a six goal scorer last season who Columbus left exposed in the expansion draft, to third in the NHL with 43 goals. He teamed up with Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault, two players Dale Tallon quite literally gave away to Vegas, to form one of the league’s best lines. The Golden Knights winning the Stanley Cup would give general managers around the NHL plenty of reason to re-evaluate their own rosters, and make each of them realize how flawed their thought processes are. Aside from being a fun story, a deep playoff run from Vegas could be for the good of hockey.
The Wild are arguably the most consistently good, under the radar team in the National Hockey League. They don’t have the vibrant personalities that a team like Nashville or San Jose has. They aren’t oozing superstar talent like Winnipeg and Los Angeles are. In spite of that, here they are in the playoffs for the sixth consecutive spring. Bruce Boudreau gets another crack at shaking the (wholly undeserved) reputation as a playoff choker, but he’ll be in tough sledding this year.
For starters, Minnesota’s most likely path to escape the Central Division bracket will travel through Winnipeg and Nashville, which could spell disaster for Boudreau’s team. As if knocking off the West’s two best teams wasn’t difficult enough, the Wild will have to do it without top pairing stalwart Ryan Suter, who won’t be skating in the playoffs due to an ankle injury. Calling a team that finished with 101 standings points a plucky underdog may not fit under most circumstances, but that’s exactly what the Wild are as they take another shot at earning the State of Hockey its first Stanley Cup.
Much like the Wild, the Anaheim Ducks are making their sixth consecutive playoff appearance. Unlike the Wild, the Ducks are far from rootable underdog that’s just happy to be there. After winning the Pacific Division for the past five seasons, Anaheim was usurped by the Golden Knights as the division’s top team, so Randy Carlyle’s team will begrudgingly be settling for home ice in the first round only.
The Ducks are led by a cavalcade of players fanbases around the league love to hate. Corey Perry, Ryan Kesler, and Kevin Bieksa have returned from last year’s Western Conference finalist, and they’re joined by Rangers killers Adam Henrique and Jason Chimera. While they have a fair number of OGWAC’s such as Kesler, Bieksa, and longtime Buffalo Sabres’ netminder Ryan Miller, the Ducks don’t have much going for them otherwise. As one of three California teams to qualify for the playoffs, perhaps it’s best to look to the state’s other franchises, such as.......
San Jose Sharks
For the 18th time in the last 20 seasons, as well as 13th in the last 14, there will be playoff hockey at the Shark Tank. It seemed like only yesterday when San Jose’s run of success seemed to come to an end, blowing a 3-0 series lead to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions in 2014 before missing the playoffs altogether the following year. Since then, the Sharks have finished 3rd in the Pacific Division for three consecutive years, and are set to clash with their rivals from SoCal for the first time in nine years.
San Jose is led by the same cast of characters as usual. Joe Thornton, (who’s been out of commission since late January) Joe Pavelski, Marc-Edouard-Vlasic, Brent Burns, and Blueshirt Banter folk hero Logan Couture all picked up enough slack to make Sharks fans forget about Patrick Marleau’s departure to Toronto. For Rangers fans in particular, a San Jose Cup victory offers hope for the future. After a few rough years, the Sharks didn’t trade away all of their star players in the name of prudence and begin again. General Manager Doug Wilson realized what he had on his roster, and correctly decided that a re-tool was all that was necessary to vault the San Jose back into contention. Granted, New York doesn’t have as much talent as the Sharks did during their low years, but San Jose’s model is one Jeff Gorton could follow if he wants to avoid years of prolonged losing and mediocrity. A parade in San Jose would only confirm the viability of a quick reload, rather than a long, painful rebuild.
Los Angeles Kings
After winning their play-in game against the St. Louis Blues, the Avalanche completed one of the best single season turnarounds in NHL history. After finishing dead last in the league with 22 wins and 48 points last season, the Avalanche jettisoned malcontent Matt Duchene to Ottawa in November, and recorded 43 wins and 95 points en route to the second Wild Card spot in the West. While the odds of them overcoming the Presidents’ Trophy winning Predators are long, the Avs have plenty of exciting players that could turn a lopsided series on paper into appointment television on the ice.
Nathan MacKinnon exploded onto the national stage, scoring 97 points and putting himself into the conversation for the Hart Trophy. Sophomore Mikko Rantanen joined MacKinnon and team captain Gabriel Landeskog on Colorado’s top line and scored over a point per game throughout the season. As the NHL’s 16th ranked team, Colorado will be looking to replicate what Nashville did last year and shock the hockey world. Even though they aren’t much more than first round cannon fodder, the Avalanche will definitely make the playoff more enjoyable than the Blues would have.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s guide on the Eastern Conference teams.
Who do you want to win the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl?
|Vegas Golden Knights||104|
|San Jose Sharks||18|
|Los Angeles Kings||14|