Let’s keep the machine rolling with the outlook for the Western Conference, entrapped in Northern Alberta.
Vegas Golden Knights (1) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (12)
If ever a series looked to be a ritual killing, it’s this one. While the Hawks were lumped in with the Canadiens in “pulling a major upset” by being a 12-seed that beat the fifth-seeded Oilers, the Oilers were a toxic waste dump that had been a .500 team since the end of October. These are not the Habs who had impressive underlying numbers all season and just couldn’t make them count. Their four-game triumph over a fellow jalopy doesn’t mean the Hawks don’t have major problems for the Knights to tear open and festoon their bed chambers with the Hawks’ guts (which is probably a violation of the NHL’s bubble rules).
The Hawks have the slowest defense in the league and a forward group that isn’t fast enough. The Knights might be the fastest team in the league and certainly play the fastest. There’s a reason the Hawks have beaten the Knights once in three years. While Corey Crawford improved as the series went along against the Oilers, he could run a .930 SV% all series here and still give up four goals per game.
The only chance the Hawks have is Vegas goalie Robin Lehner spends the entire series crafting his next soliloquy to the press to do himself a favor (and he might!) and then Marc-Andre Fleury’s arms fall off. THIS would be the upset of all upsets.
Colorado Avalanche (2) vs. Arizona Coyotes (11)
The hockey press that will lazily reach for any story without actually doing any research before reaching for their next Molson will want to regard the Coyotes’ win over the Predators as some sort of coming-out party for a long-dormant team. The truth is, it’s just another smokescreen thrown up by a team constructed by a fraud, in former GM John Chayka, who ditched out a week before this began perhaps in part because he thought he was going to get found out. Luckily, the Nashville Predators have been such hot garbage all season that they couldn’t locate the resolve to work through the Coyotes’ goalies. Perhaps if they’d hidden it under the donuts, Ryan Johansen would have found it. BUT THAT’S NOT WHY YOU CALLED.
The Yotes were basically mauled by the Predators in all four games, and they can thank Darcy Kuemper’s .933 SV% for their advancement. They’ll get no such break here, as the Avalanche are stocked with far more damaging weaponry than the Preds. If the Knights aren’t the fastest team in the league, the Avs are, and they also have a goalie who is actually over six feet tall in Philipp Grubauer. If the Coyotes surrender over 40 shots per game to this outfit, the Avs will light them up like the light at The Luxor.
Kuemper could channel Medusa or something to make this series weird, but anything short of that and the Avs should quickly send the Coyotes back into the hockey abyss where they belong and they can leave us all alone again.
Dallas Stars (3) vs. Calgary Flames (8)
No one’s sure why the Stars are here and even fewer people are sure why you should care. They got a pass into the round-robin level because of their goalies, then spent the first two games of it getting labeled by the Knights and Avalanche, and then apparently had an agreement with the Blues to see how many people they could get to slam their foreheads on their coffee tables passing out in any attempt to watch more than 10 minutes of it. Truly an endurance test of a game to watch.
What the Stars are exactly is hard to pin down, other than ultra-defensive and boring. They don’t limit attempts that well but do limit chances, meaning they basically collapse around their slot and goalie like a chastity belt and dare you to try and get shots through. It can be more than enough with Anton Khudobin and Ben Bishop both playing as well as they have all season. And the Stars need to keep the margins tight, because past their top line they don’t have very much scoring at all. They’ll struggle to keep up in any game that goes over five combined goals.
What the Flames are is even more of a mystery. They were competent enough to stand aside and watch the Winnipeg Jets chase Matthew Tkachuk all around the rink and most of the Edmonton metro area for four games, but that’s not that hard of a task. In theory, the Flames do possess just enough scoring to break through the iron curtain the Stars put up, it’s just that the Flames have spent most of the season not playing up to their capabilities. Goalie “Spear And Magic” Cam Talbot has amassed a pretty good playoff resume, and if this series is going to be a bunch of 2-1 games he could keep the Flames in it for a while. Much like the Islanders-Capitals in the East, this one feels like six or seven tight games that cause one side of your face to droop down near your shoulder.
St. Louis Blues (4) vs. Vancouver Canucks (7)
A lot like their 2019 Finals opponent, the Blues will be hoping those round-robin games count for nothing figuratively. The Blues looked disinterested and bad for all of them, losing them all. Worse yet is they took the lead in all of them, and then coughed all those leads up. Still, a defending champion, one would think, would know what counts and what doesn’t and what it needs to do in ramping itself up.
They get the perfect opponent to do that, as this Canucks team past three really exciting young players is shapeless goop. Luckily for Vancouver, they got to play a team in the play-in round, the Minnesota Wild, that is all shapeless goop and has been for over a decade. Elias Pettersson (he’s a Pettersson, with a record), Brock Boeser, and Quinn Hughes will likely form the core of an impressive team one day, but it is not this day. Goalie Jacob Markstrom had a very good season out of nowhere, but it’s not likely he’s ready to backstop a toppling of the defending champs.
That said, there is just enough spice on this Canucks team to make things awfully interesting if the Blues remain half-in and half-out of a coma as they’ve looked so far. But they’d have to go some distance out of their way to let the Canucks by them.