- A budding rivalry in one series and teams that have never faced off in the playoffs before in the other three make the Western Conference wide open in the first round.
The Stanley Cup playoffs have finally arrived and three of the eight first-round series get underway on Wednesday, with three of the four series starting on the first night for the Western Conference.
With things seemingly wide open in the West, there is quite a bit of intrigue: the Golden Knights are making their return and taking on budding rival San Jose again, but the other three series will be the first time the two teams have met in the postseason, and two of the three playoff-bound Canadian teams will be looking to end Canada’s Cup drought. But before it all begins, here is a quick breakdown of each Western Conference matchup for Round 1.
Calgary Flames vs. Colorado Avalanche
Finishing as the best in the West, Calgary had five players—Johnny Gaudreau (99), Sean Monahan (82), Elias Lindholm (78), Matthew Tkachuk (77) and Mark Giordano (74)—that notched 70 or more points this season. Giordano, who led the Flames in time on ice, was the league’s second-highest scoring defenseman. For all of Calgary’s offensive weapons, it will need more consistency in net as Mike Smith and David Rittich have split duties pretty evenly this year and will have a formidable top line to deal with in the Avalanche. Nathan MacKinnon had a career-best 99 points this season and his linemates Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog weren’t too shabby either, finishing with 87 and 75 points respectively.
Goaltending: Calgary didn’t have a clear starter for most of the season, but the veteran Smith will likely get the nod for this series after finding a more consistent groove late in the season, posting a 1.94 GAA and .916 save percentage in his last 11 games, and finishing with a 2.73 GAA and .898 save percentage on the season. Rittich went 27-9-5 with a 2.61 GAA and .911 save percentage.
Although Semyon Varlamov played in all three of Colorado’s games in net against the Flames, Philipp Grubauer has since emerged as the Avalanche’s starter. Grubauer finished the season with a 2.64 GAA and .917 save percentage.
Season series: Calgary 3-0-0; Colorado 0-2-1
Vegas Golden Knights vs. San Jose Sharks
Another season, another playoff berth for the Golden Knights, who return to the postseason after riding their inaugural wave all the way to the Stanley Cup Final last season, eliminating the Sharks in six games along the way in Round 2. Vegas had a bit of a sophomore slump to start the year, but since landing Mark Stone at the trade deadline, it has gone from averaging 3.00 goals per game to 3.32. Scoring is also a familiar feat for San Jose, which had eight players end the regular season with at least 50 points, the most in the NHL. The Sharks also had the league’s sixth-best power play at 23.6%. The Sharks are hoping defenseman Erik Karlsson is in tip-top shape after a groin injury kept the Swede out of the lineup for 17 straight games before playing in San Jose’s final game of the season.
Goaltending: Marc-Andre Fleury was a huge factor in Vegas’s playoff success last year, posting a career-best four shutouts, with two of them coming against the Sharks. Fleury finished the 2018–19 season with a .913 save percentage and 2.51 GAA.
Martin Jones’s regular season saw him finish 36-19-5 with a 2.94 GAA and an unimpressive .896 save percentage, but luckily for him, his team was tied for third in goals per game to help make up for it. Backup Aaron Dell went 10-8-4 with a 3.17 GAA and .889 save percentage.
Season series: San Jose 2-2-0; Vegas 2-1-1
Nashville Predators vs. Dallas Stars
After seeing top players P.K. Subban, Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg go down early in the season with injuries, the Predators put things together at just the right time, going 8-2-1 in their last 11 games to claim the Central Division title for the second straight year. Boasting the league’s most fearsome defense, Nashville tied the Bruins for the third-fewest goals allowed. But its blue line also combined for 197 points this year, with defenseman Roman Josi finishing second on the team with 56 points. Scoring may not come quite as easily for the Predators against Dallas, however, with Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin in net. Dallas’s 2.44 goals against per game was second in the league, and its 1,291 blocked shots was fifth. Speaking of blocked shots, Mats Zuccarello still hasn’t played a full game for the Stars after taking a shot to the arm in his first game since being traded from the Rangers. Zuccarello played several weeks later against the Flyers, but left the game early as a precautionary measure.
Goaltending: Pekka Rinne followed up his Vezina Trophy year with another solid season, finishing 30-19-4 with a 2.32 GAA and .918 save percentage. His backup is Juuse Saros, who went 17-10-2 with a 2.62 GAA and .915 save percentage. Saros was also 2-0-0 against the Stars this year.
Bishop is expected to get the start in the series after going 27-15-2 with a 1.98 GAA and a league-leading .934 save percentage. Khudobin went 16-17-5 with a 2.57 GAA and .923 save percentage.
Season series: Nashville 3-2-0; Dallas 2-1-2
Winnipeg Jets vs. St. Louis Blues
After finding themselves in last place at the beginning January, the Blues cruised into playoff contention thanks to an 11-game winning streak and rookie Jordan Binnington emerging as the starter in net. In front of him, the Blues allowed the fourth-fewest shots on goal this season.
Vladimir Tarasenko saw an increase in production in the second half of the season and finished with a team-leading 33 goals, while Ryan O’Reilly finished with 77 points. This will be St. Louis’s first-ever playoff series against Winnipeg, which returns to the postseason after making it to the Western Conference finals last year. Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor and Mark Scheifele each had a 30-goal season, while Blake Wheeler led the Jets in scoring with 91 points.
Goaltending: Binnington turned into a strong Calder Trophy contender, finishing the season 24-5-1 with a 1.89 GAA, .927 save percentage and five shutouts. Jake Allen went 19-17-8 this wear with a 2.83 GAA and .905 save percentage.
Connor Hellebuyck didn’t turn in quite as strong of a showing this year compared to his run that saw him as a Vezina Trophy finalist last year, but finished 34-23-3 with a 2.90 GAA and .913 save percentage and went 6-3-1 in his last 10 games.
Season series: Winnipeg 3-1-0; St. Louis 1-2-1