NHL Playoff Predictions: Who Advances in the West?

NHL Playoff Predictions: Who Advances in the West?

Adam Proteau breaks down his predictions for each Western Conference series in the first round of the NHL playoffs. Spoiler alert: He has some upsets in mind.

Chandler Stephenson and Pierre-Luc Dubois

James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports

The NHL’s current regular season is now over, and after Friday’s games, the first-round playoff picture in the Western Conference has been finalized. 

The following are this writer’s educated guesses on which teams will emerge victorious in the first round and which ones will have their season abruptly ended. 

We broke down the Eastern Conference playoff picture Friday. Today, we’re focusing on the Western Conference.

As we’ve said before, post-season success depends on a few key areas: (a) teams need to be healthy at all positions, as most teams don’t have the degree of depth to thrive despite a major injury; (b) teams must get great goaltending; and (c) teams must be so familiar with their coach’s systems, they’re almost coaching themselves on the ice.

With that said, let’s move on to our picks (individually speaking) for the Western Conference’s first round.

(With conference season rankings in parentheses)

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Vegas Golden Knights (1) vs. Winnipeg Jets (8)

Why the Golden Knights could win: The Golden Knights had their struggles earlier this year, but they finished the regular-season 16-3-3. They earned the top spot in the Western Conference and home ice advantage in the process. And that’s important, as their 25 home wins this season were the third-best total in the conference. 

Vegas didn’t do anything especially well – their goals-against average of 2.74 was 11th-best in the league, while their 3.26 goals-for per game average was 14th-best – but, in their first season under coach Bruce Cassidy, they found ways to win far more often than not.

The biggest question about Vegas is who their starting goaltender will be. The Golden Knights played five different goalies this season – Laurent Brossoit, Adin Hill, Logan Thompson, and trade deadline acquisition Jonathan Quick – but as the playoffs loomed, Brossoit (7-0-3 in 11 appearances) was the likeliest to start Game 1 against the Jets. Quick has been reborn after struggling greatly with the Kings, but Cassidy will turn to him if Brossoit loses his way.

Vegas also gets a well-timed infusion of talent via star forwards Mark Stone and Jack Eichel, both of whom missed significant time with injuries. But the Golden Knights’ offense doesn’t flow through one or two star players – they had 10 players with 14 goals or more this year – and they grind down opponents with their speed and savvy. They’re first in the West for good reason, and on paper, they should beat the Jets, who are a thoroughly-pedestrian 20-20-1 on the road this year.

Why the Jets could win: The argument Winnipeg could pull off a huge upset starts and ends with superstar Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who posted a 37-25-2 record, a 2.49 goals-against average, and a .920 save percentage in 64 games this season. This was a bounce-back season of sorts for Hellebuyck, and while he had help from an effective Jets defense, Hellebuyck was in all-star form for most of the season. His playoff performance hasn’t been at an elite level, by and large, but Hellebuyck is the best goalie in this series, and he has the capability of stealing games for Winnipeg.

The Jets aren’t especially-potent on offense, with the league’s 21st-best goals-for per game. However, thanks in no small part to Hellebuyck, their defense was much better (averaging 2.73 goals-against, the league’s 10th-best team in that category). If it doesn’t get any notable point production from its top players – Pierre-Luc Dubois, Kyle Connor and Mark Schiefele – Winnipeg will probably bow out meekly. But we’ve got an old-fashioned hunch that the Jets can beat Vegas and move on to the second round.

Who is going to win: Winnipeg

The Jets’ defense heading into the playoffs has been exceptional: In all nine of their last nine wins of the season, Winnipeg limited opponents to two goals or fewer. Their defense corps is solid, and trade deadline pickup Nino Niderreiter has been a nice little pickup, with six goals and 13 points in 22 games. The Jets do need more help on offense so that if the Golden Knights can limit Dubois, Schiefele and Connor, someone else can step up and take advantage of the limited opportunities Vegas is going to give them.

Sometimes, good goaltending can be the deciding reason why teams win playoff rounds. We think this series is going to be one of those times. Hellebuyck is in his prime, and this Jets team is playing desperate-but-effective hockey. Don’t be surprised if Winnipeg upsets the Golden Knights. The Jets have what it takes to do it.

PICK: Winnipeg in seven games

Colorado Avalanche (2) vs. Seattle Kraken (7)

Why the Avalanche could win: As of Feb. 14, the Avs were 28-19-5. But something changed immediately after that; Colorado went on a six-game win streak after Valentine’s Day, and later in the season, they’d post another six-game win streak and a five-game win streak. As a result, the Avalanche finished the season 23-5-2 and soared through the Central Division standings to finish first and set up a showdown against the upstart Kraken.

The Avs had a top-10 offense this year (tied for 10th with 3.34 goals-for per game) and a top-10 defense (2.72 goals-against per game). The defending Cup champions are doing it without star forward Gabriel Landeskog, who will be out of action for at least the post-season with a severe knee injury. Nathan MacKinnon (69 assists, 111 points) remains a beast on offense, and so does star winger Mikko Rantanen (55 goals, 105 points) and star defenseman Cale Makar (49 assists, 66 points in 60 games). That’s a lot of players for the opposition to try and keep off the scoresheet.

The Avs now look almost exactly like the Colorado team that won it all last spring. They have excellent balance – their second line is one of the best in the league – and they’re getting sufficient goaltending from Alexandar Georgiev (40-16-6, 2.53 GAA, .919 SP). The Avs can generate more than enough offense to win, and they have the swagger back in their game. Seattle is a great story this season, but the Avalanche look ready to write a final chapter for them.

Why the Kraken could win: As we said early this year, the Kraken are playing with house money this season. Nobody expected they would be in the playoffs, but the patchwork expansion roster, in just its second year of on-ice operation, was consistently good and propelled them into the first wild-card berth. Winning a round or two in the playoffs would be gravy for this franchise. But they’ll need tremendous performances from their top three lines and top two defense pairings to eliminate the Avalanche.

The key here for Seattle is to see how their defense corps adjusts to playoff hockey. Their defense has size – only one defenseman is shorter than 6-foot-2 – and they contribute on offense as well. If they punish Avs forwards who dare to stick around Georgiev’s net, get the puck up ice quickly and make offense happen, the Kraken may put a scare into Colorado. Nobody expected they’d be in this position, and few believe they’ll be in the second round and beyond, but they can play a pressure-free game and, perhaps, make history yet again.

Who is going to win: It doesn’t make any sense to pick Seattle over Colorado this year. The Avalanche have played extremely well as the playoffs approached, and we don’t see them stumbling against the Kraken. Seattle may win a game or two – we’ll see what type of advantage the Kraken’s home fans are in the two playoff games they’re assured of getting – but the Avs are going to be a highly difficult “out” for any team, let alone a team so young and inexperienced as Seattle.

Ultimately, the Avalanche have depth, star power to spare and a goalie who normally gives them enough space to win games. This will be a valuable learning experience for Seattle’s youngsters, but it will more than likely be a losing experience for them. Colorado is the heavy favorite for this showdown, and we can’t disagree with that. The Avs are a better, deeper, more skilled team, and they should move on to the second round.

PICK: Colorado in six games

Anze Kopitar and Cody Ceci

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Edmonton Oilers (3) vs. Los Angeles Kings (5)

Why the Oilers could win: Edmonton employs two of the top five forwards on the planet in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. The Kings don’t have a player of that caliber, and that gives the Oilers a distinct advantage on offense.

As a matter of fact, the Oilers have a clear advantage on offense. They have the NHL’s best goals-for average (3.96), while the Kings are tied for 10th-overall (3.34 goals-for per game) in that category. Their secondary scoring is also excellent, with Zach Hyman (36 goals, 83 points) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (67 assists, 104 points) leading the way. And when it comes to power plays, the Oilers are almost comically better than any other team – their 32.4 percent success rate is well above the second-best power play (Toronto, at 26.0 percent). If they’re going to win this series, they have to do it via offense.

It would be nice if starting goalie Stuart Skinner stole some of Edmonton’s games against the Kings, but the Oilers can’t depend on him as the deciding factor in the series. Their offense has to be the deciding factor. And it is entirely possible that will happen. Still…

Why the Kings could win: The Kings are an intriguing team, but they do have health concerns entering this series. Star forwards Kevin Fiala and Gabriel Vilardi need to be in the lineup for L.A. to have a shot at beating Edmonton. This is a Kings team that has some great young players but not a lot of quality depth. However, if they do get Vilardi and Fiala back for the series, the Kings have a genuine chance at winning.

Also, the Kings’ defense needs to be the primary factor for Los Angeles to move on to the second round. Trade deadline acquisition Joonas Korpisalo has been excellent (2.13 GAA, .921 SP in 11 games), and stay-at-home defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov (six assists, nine points) has also fit in well and fortified the Kings’ defense corps since coming over from Columbus at the deadline. They nearly beat the Oilers in seven games last year, and we think the Kings could be on the bright side of a Game 7 showdown this time around.

Who is going to win: Kings

The Oilers have an enormous amount of pressure to improve upon last season’s run to the Western Conference final. They do have a better team than last season’s team – the acquisition of experienced blueliner Mattias Ekholm was a great move from GM Ken Holland – and the Oilers go into the playoffs as one of the NHL’s hotter teams. But there’s just something about the Kings that makes us think they can upset Edmonton. It’s one of two hunch picks in this file, but it’s a strong hunch.

The Kings are looking for vengeance after the Oilers eliminated them in last season’s first round. L.A. nearly won that series, taking it to seven games before Edmonton won Game 7. The margin for error was razor-thin, and we see the same margin for error in this new matchup. The Kings were 2-2-0 against the Oilers in the regular season, and that’s a harbinger of how close it will be. But this time, we think the Kings will prevail.

PICK: Kings in seven games

Dallas Stars (4) vs. Minnesota Wild (6)

Why the Stars could win: The Stars have one of the very best, incredibly well-balanced top-nine forward groups in the league. They also have a defense corps anchored by perennial Norris Trophy candidate Miro Heiskanen and buttressed by star goaltender Jake Oettinger. They’re outstanding in all the right places.

Dallas finished the season on an 8-2-0 run, and they’ve got the NHL’s third-best defense (averaging just 2.62 goals-against per game) and the league’s sixth-best offense (averaging 3.43 goals-for per game). They have high-stakes game experience (Joe Pavelski, Ryan Suter, Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin) and youthful exuberance (Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz, Wyatt Johnston). They went 2-0-2 against Minnesota this season, with both losses coming in a shootout. And the last time the Wild and Stars played was back on Feb. 17. Two months of no contact between the two teams means there’s going to be a feeling-out process in the first couple of games, but over a seven-game series, the Stars should be able to win out and move on to the second round.

Why the Wild could win: Full disclosure: we haven’t been a fan of the Wild as currently constructed for some time now. Minnesota may have the NHL’s sixth-best goals-against number (2.67), but their offense is in the bottom 10 of the league (2.91 goals-for per game). The Wild have a better-than-average 1-2 punch in net, with Marc-Andre Fleury and Filip Gustavsson making good cases to be Minnesota’s starting goalie in Game 1. But they lost five of their final seven regular-season games this year, and in four of those five losses, Fleury and Gustavsson allowed four goals. Worrisome for Wild fans, to be sure.

There is a drop-off in skill from the Wild’s third line of forwards to its fourth line. And their defense corps isn’t particularly big or imposing. They need to keep Dallas’ top two lines off the scoresheet as much as possible, but we feel like they’re not going to be good at that. It’s not to say it can’t happen; it is to say you have to respect Dallas’ depth and experience at least as much, if not more, than Minnesota’s. The Wild could win, but that’s not our pick for this series.

Who is going to win: Dallas

The Stars are a well-oiled machine entering this year’s post-season. Since Feb. 27, they’ve only once lost more than two games in a row, and even then, that losing streak ended at two games. Dallas went 16-5-1 in their final 22 games of the season, and they’re a better, deeper team on paper than Minnesota is. Oettinger is the best goalie in the series, which is another advantage for the Stars. And Dallas is well-coached with Peter DeBoer at the helm.

This series could go seven games, but we also think the Stars are good enough to make quick work of the Wild. Minnesota will have its moment in the sunshine of victory in the playoffs, but we suspect Dallas will limit that moment and roll over the Wild in short order.

PICK: Dallas in five games

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