CALGARY FLAMES VERSUS COLORADO AVALANCHE
Early in the season, it looked like the Colorado Avalanche were a serious contender for the Stanley Cup. They had a 17-7-5 record, Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog looked like the best trio in the league, and goaltender Semyon Varlamov was looking solid. Then they fell off the rails and it took a late season surge for them to even make the playoffs. So which team is the real Avalanche? The team that was strong in the first third and last bit of the season or the squad that looked like one of the worst in the NHL through the middle of the campaign?
Rather than look at it that way, perhaps it’s better to step back and examine what this team has going for it. The trio of MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Landeskog are their obvious strength. Each of the three finished with at least 31 goals and 75 points. Beyond that though? There’s not a ton to like.
Tyson Barrie is a top-tier defenseman. Carl Soderberg and Alexander Kerfoot are serviceable secondary scorers. Semyon Varlamov and Philipp Grubauer are okay goaltenders that are sometimes great, but too often this season have left the Avalanche wanting. It’s not hard to see how they managed to squeak into the playoffs, but the Flames have everything the Avalanche have and more.
Calgary has an elite trio of its own in Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Elias Lindholm. The Flames’ goaltending is also an X-Factor. David Rittich and Mike Smith certainly have strong stretches, but neither are safe bets. That’s where the similarities end though.
The Flames have arguably the best defenseman in the league in Mark Giordano. Barrie is certainly a top-tier blueliner too, but you have to give Calgary the edge there. The Flames also have an edge in defensive depth with T.J. Brodie, Travis Hamonic, and Noah Hanifin rounding out a very strong top-four. Looking at their forwards, the Flames have a fourth elite option in Matthew Tkachuk, who has 34 goals and 77 points in 80 games. Mikael Backlund is a nice complimentary option, though after that the Flames’ forward core gets thin offensively. Ideally, James Neal will step up in the playoffs of course, but he’s struggled mightily this season so that can’t be counted on. Still, if you want to talk about depth, the Flames have 11 different players with at least 30 points compared to the Avalanche’s seven.
I expect the Avalanche to be able to steal at least a couple games, but Calgary should be able to advance to Round 2 for the first time since 2015.
Johnny Gaudreau-Sean Monahan-Elias Lindholm
Matthew Tkachuk-Mikael Backlund-Michael Frolik
Sam Bennett-Mark Jankowski-James Neal
Michael Frolik-Alan Quine-Austin Czarnik
Mark Giordano-T.J. Brodie
Noah Hanifin-Travis Hamonic
Oscar Fantenberg-Rasmus Andersson
Derek Ryan had four goals and five points in his last five games as well as six goals and 13 points in his last 13 contests. In other words, nearly roughly the goals and a third of the points he scored in the entire season came in his final 13 contests.
This was a breakout campaign for Elias Lindholm with him recording 78 points in 81 contests. He recorded a mere two assists in his final 11 games though.
The Flames tied San Jose for the second best offense in the NHL with 289 goals for. Calgary also allowed the ninth fewest goals in the league.
They're mediocre when it comes to special teams though. Calgary ranked 19th in the league in the power play (19.3%) and 21st when it came to killing penalties (79.7%).
This is just the third time in 10 years that Calgary has made the playoffs, though all three of those berths have come in the last five seasons. This is head coach Bill Peters' first time in the postseason as a bench boss after four unsuccessful campaigns with Carolina.
Gabriel Landeskog-Nathan MacKinnon-Mikko Rantanen
Colin Wilson-Carl Soderberg-J.T. Compher
Matt Nieto-Derick Brassard-Matt Calvert
Sven Andrighetto-Tyson Jost-Alexander Kerfoot
Samuel Girard-Erik Johnson
Nikita Zadorov-Tyson Barrie
Ian Cole-Patrik Nemeth
Alexander Kerfoot scored four goals and eight points during a six-game point streak from March 23-April 2. He was held off the scoresheet in his final two contests, but he's still not far removed from that run.
He's not exactly cold compared to how his season has gone overall, but it's worth noting that moving to Colorado hasn't sparked Derick Brassard offensively. He has four goals and no assists in 20 games with the Avalanche. That's after recording 15 points in 40 games with Pittsburgh and four points in 10 contests with Florida. At his height in 2014-15 and 2015-16 he had 60 and 58 points respectively with the Rangers.
While the Flames will enter the playoffs relatively healthy, at the time of writing, the Avalanche have a big X-Factor in Mikko Rantanen. He's been out with an upper-body injury and while the hope is that he will play in Round 1, it remains to be seen.
The Avalanche ranked seventh in the league with the man advantage (22.0%), but were 25th when it came to killing penalties (78.7%).
This is the first time that Colorado has made the playoffs in back-to-back years since 2003 and 2004. They also made the postseason in 2006 with 2005 being lost to the lockout.
NASHVILLE PREDATORS VERSUS DALLAS STARS
This series certainly features some forwards that could come up big. Dallas features Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, and Jamie Benn while Nashville has Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson. Any of those six are capable of having a big game from time-to-time. They aren’t likely to be what defines this series though. Instead, this is likely to be a goaltending duel.
Nashville allowed the third fewest goals in the league while Dallas ranked second in that regard. Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne won the Vezina Trophy in 2017-18 and was a huge factor in Nashville making it to the Western Conference Final. He hasn’t been quite as good this season, but he’s still a top-tier goaltender with a 30-19-4 record, 2.42 GAA, and .918 save percentage in 56 contests.
Ben Bishop has been even better though when healthy. He’s posted a 27-15-2 record, 1.98 GAA, and .934 save percentage in 46 contests. Bishop hasn’t been in the playoffs since 2016, but he does have a career 2.09 GAA and .927 save percentage in 36 career starts. If the Stars end up stealing this series, it will probably be on the strength of Bishop.
That said I do expect Nashville to ultimately cruise past Dallas. They have an amazing core of blueliners featuring Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattia Ekholm, and PK Subban. That group has been the driving force of the team for years now and they’re still in their prime. Dallas has a developing blueline with John Klingberg and Esa Lindell now joined by one of this year’s top rookies in Miro Heiskanen, but Dallas’ top-four isn’t close to Nashville’s level just yet.
Nashville also has an edge in experience. The Predators have gotten to at least Round 2 in each of their last three years and went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017. Dallas has its veterans, but as a franchise they’ve only been to the postseason in two of their previous 10 seasons, not including this year. They also only won one playoff series over that span. There’s also a huge difference in terms of experience between their head coaches. Dallas’ Jim Montgomery is in his first season as a head coach while Peter Laviolette has coached 1,169 regular season contests and another 137 games in the playoffs. He’s been to the Stanley Cup Final three times and has won a championship.
This season is a step forward for Dallas, but they probably aren’t ready to best Nashville yet.
Filip Forsberg-Ryan Johansen-Viktor Arvidsson
Mikael Granlund-Kyle Turris-Craig Smith
Colton Sissons-Nick Bonino-Austin Watson
Brian Boyle-Calle Jarnkrok-Colton Sissons
Roman Josi-Ryan Ellis
Mattias Ekholm-P.K. Subban
Dan Hamhuis-Dante Fabbro
Pekka Rinne is one of the league's hottest goaltenders going into the playoffs. He's 6-1-1 with a 1.73 GAA and .946 save percentage over his last eight starts.
After getting off to a good start with Nashville, Mikael Granlund has just one assist in his last 11 games. He scored 15 goals and 49 points in 63 games before being dealt from Minnesota to the Predators.
Nashville finished dead last in the league on the power play (12.9%). That's also the seventh worst power-play percentage of any team since the salary cap era started. Of the six teams that finished below Nashville, only the 2008-09 Columbus Blue Jackets made the playoffs and they were swept in the first round.
The Predators also ranked in 28th place in terms of hits (1492) and 25th in terms of blocks (1079).
So what were the Predators' strengths? Well, for one thing they were extremely good at protecting a lead. They ranked second in the NHL with a .880 Win% (22-2-1) when leading after one period and third with a .946 Win% (35-2-0) when leading after two periods.
Jason Dickinson-Tyler Seguin-Alexander Radulov
Jamie Benn-Roope Hintz-Mats Zuccarello
Andrew Cogliano-Radek Faksa-Blake Comeau
Mattias Janmark-Jason Spezza-Tyler Pitlick
Esa Lindell-John Klingberg
Miro Heiskanen-Roman Polak
Taylor Fedun-Ben Lovejoy
Alexander Radulov is going into the playoffs on an eight-game point streak. He has five goals and 12 points over that span.
This has been a rough season for Jamie Benn overall, at least compared to his past success. He had 27 goals and 53 points in 78 contests after recording between 69-89 points in each campaign from 2013-14 through 2017-18. He had just two assists in his final eight contests before the playoffs.
This is the first time Stars made the playoffs since 2015-16 and this is a very different team than that one, even if the many of the key players are the same. In 2015-16 they led the league in goals for, but were 19th in goals against. This year they're tied for 29th place in goals for (209), but finished second in goals against (200).
Despite being relatively weak offensively overall, they did rank 11th in the league with a 21.0 power-play percentage. Unfortunately they ranked 29th in the league in power-play opportunities (214).
Martin Hanzal (back) has only played in seven games this season. It's not known when he'll return, but it probably won't be soon. The Stars are also probably going to continue to be without Stephen Johns (concussion), who didn't play at all during the regular season. Marc Methot has only played in nine games and underwent surgery in January.
WINNIPEG JETS VERSUS ST. LOUIS BLUES
The Winnipeg Jets and St. Louis Blues both finished the season with 99 points, but most are probably looking at the Jets as the clear favorites. Winnipeg did make it to the Western Conference Final and entered the season with higher expectations. They have a strong core of star forwards in Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, and Kyle Connor. If Patrik Laine gets hot too – he’s been incredibly inconsistent – then the Jets will be one of the most dangerous teams in the league.
The St. Louis Blues shouldn’t be underestimated though. They have so many weapons. Ryan O’Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko are the obvious ones. Brayden Schenn got off to a rough start this season, but he has eight goals and 31 points in his last 31 games. David Perron has 18 goals and 35 points in his last 36 contests. Pat Maroon has been a disappointment this season, but he’s going into the playoffs hot after scoring five goals and nine points in 12 contests. On top of all that, St. Louis has a great two-way center in Tyler Bozak to help bolster their third line and Alex Steen, who is another strong bottom-six forward.
Defensively, the Blues aren’t as deep, but Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko are a strong top-two and while Jay Bouwmeester is 35-years-old at this point, he’s still a solid option to have in the postseason.
Despite everything St. Louis has going for it though, they were 17-20-4 in the first half and their goaltending was a big part of the issue. Jake Allen got off to a rocky start and Chad Johnson was horrible in the backup role. Once the Blues got rid of Johnson though and brought in rookie Jordan Binnington, everything finally clicked.
Binnington was the missing piece of the puzzle, posting a 24-5-1 record, 1.89 GAA, and .927 save percentage in 32 games. With him taking over between the pipes, the Blues were one of the best teams in the second half with a 28-8-5 record. The obvious question is if he can stay strong in the playoffs and I certainly think that’s feasible. Antti Niemi, Cam Ward, and Matt Murray have all led teams to a championship as a rookie, so what Binnington is attempting now has certainly been done before. That’s not to say that I expect the Blues to win the Cup, but I do think that they’re being underestimated going into Round 1. I’m looking for them to take this series in seven games.
Kyle Connor-Mark Scheifele-Blake Wheeler
Mathieu Perreault-Kevin Hayes-Nikolaj Ehlers
Andrew Copp-Bryan Little-Patrik Laine
Par Lindholm-Adam Lowry-Jack Roslovic
Nathan Beaulieu-Jacob Trouba
Ben Chiarot-Dustin Byfuglien
Dmitry Kulikov-Tyler Myers
Defenseman Jacob Trouba scored two goals and 11 points in his last 11 games. From March 28th to present, Trouba has also led the Jets in points with six in six games.
Patrik Laine finished with 30 goals and 50 points, but that's largely due to a few amazing stretches. In between those incredible stretches have been prolonged slumps, like the one he's going through right now. He has a goal and an assist in his last 12 games.
The Jets had the fourth best power play in the league (24.8%), but ranked 23rd on the penalty kill (79.1%).
The Jets were among the most effective teams in close games. They had a .613 Win% in one-goal games, which was the third best in the NHL.
This is the second straight season that the Jets have made the playoffs and the third time in five years under Paul Maurice (Maurice also coached in 2013-14, but as a midseason replacement). Maurice has a 34-40 career record in the playoffs with his primary successes being guiding the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup Final in 2002 and the Jets to the Western Conference Final in 2018.
Brayden Schenn-Ryan O'Reilly-Vladimir Tarasenko
Jaden Schwartz-Oskar Sundqvist-David Perron
Robby Fabbri-Tyler Bozak-Pat Maroon
Zach Sanford-Robert Thomas-Alexander Steen
Vince Dunn-Alex Pietrangelo
Jay Bouwmeester-Colton Parayko
Carl Gunnarsson-Robert Bortuzzo
It's been long enough now that this goes beyond being a hot streak, but it's worth highlighting how well David Perron has done after his inconsistent start to the campaign. He has 18 goals and 35 points in his last 36 games and has continued to produce at a steady pace even after missing roughly two months due to a concussion.
St. Louis finished the season on a 9-1-2 run, so unsurprisingly they don't have much in the way of cold players. That said, this wasn't a good campaign for Jaden Schwartz. He had just 36 points in 69 games, down from 59 points in 62 contests last season. Over Schwartz's final nine games before the playoffs, he was limited to just a goal and an assist.
After going 17-20-4 through Jan. 8, St. Louis went 28-8-5 the rest of the way. To compare, the Presidents' Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning went 30-9-2 in the second half. In other words, the Blues only had a slightly worse second half than a squad that tied the NHL record for single season wins.
The St. Louis Blues were the second worst team in the league when down after two periods. They were just 2-23-6 in that scenario (.065%). Only the Los Angeles Kings did worse (2-36-3, .049%).
This is the seventh time in eight years that St. Louis has made the playoffs. They'll be led by coach Craig Berube, who replaced Mike Yeo early in the campaign. Berube had previously been the Flyers' bench boss in 2013-14 and 2014-15, leading Philadelphia to the playoffs in 2014.
SAN JOSE SHARKS VERSUS VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
When these two squads met in the second round of the 2017 playoffs, Vegas eliminated San Jose in six games. This time around, I’m looking for a different outcome.
Obviously one of the biggest changes on either squad is San Jose’s addition of defenseman Erik Karlsson. Combining him with Brent Burns gives the Sharks the best one-two defensive combo in the league. Karlsson has spent a lot of time on the sidelines since mid-January, but he was able to play in San Jose’s season finale and is expected to be fine for the playoffs. As long as that’s the case, San Jose is a very dangerous team.
Of course, the Sharks have a lot going for them beyond the combination of Karlsson and Burns. After years of showing promise without putting it all together, Tomas Hertl broke out this season with 35 goals and 74 points in 77 games, shattering his previous career-high of 46 points. Timo Meier also took a major step forward in his second full season, going from 21 goals and 36 points in 81 games in 2017-18 to 66 points in 78 contests this season. Less dramatically, Kevin Labanc jumped from 40 points in 2017-18 to a career-high 56 points in his third NHL season. Combining those three with veteran forwards Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, and Evander Kane gives the Sharks a strong and deep offense. When you can make a solid case that Joe Thornton isn’t even in your team’s group of top-six best forwards, you know you have luxuries. Just to make that group even stronger, the Sharks added Gustav Nyquist, who finished with 60 points in 81 games, at the deadline.
It’s no wonder San Jose tied Calgary for the second most goals scored this season. It’s hard not to look at the offensive matchup and not give the Sharks a big edge, which was not the case last year. In 2017-18, Vegas had one of the strongest offensives in the league, led by William Karlsson, Jon Marchessault, David Perron, and Reilly Smith, who all recorded at least 60 points. On top of that, Karlsson, Marchessault, Erik Haula, James Neal, and Smith all had at least 20 goals. However, Neal and Perron are gone now while Haula has missed the vast majority of the season on the sidelines and remains out with a knee injury.
That leaves Karlsson, Marchessault, and Smith and among them, only Smith avoided a significant decline in production in 2018-19. Vegas did add Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty over the summer, but even with that, no player on the team reached the 60-point milestone or scored more than 25 goals. As a group, Vegas’ offense was decidedly middle-of-the-road. It is worth noting that the Golden Knights added an elite two-way forward at the deadline in Mark Stone, but he’s been something of a mixed bag in his brief stint with Vegas. In the long run he should be a big asset, but it might take him more time to settle in. The Golden Knights signed him to an eight-year extension, so he’s more than just a late season rental anyways.
If Vegas is to win this series, it’s likely going to be on the back of Marc-Andre Fleury. He hasn’t always been effective this season, but at times he’s been dominate. He’s a veteran presence and he was amazing in the 2018 playoffs with a 2.24 GAA and .927 save percentage in 20 games. In contrast, goaltending is the Sharks’ greatest weakness. Martin Jones hasn’t looked up to the test of fulfilling the Sharks’ Stanley Cup ambitions this season, but Aaron Dell hasn’t been good either, so it really is up to Jones.
I’m very skeptical about Jones, but I do think that the Sharks should be able to at least get past Vegas in six games.
Timo Meier-Logan Couture-Joe Pavelski
Evander Kane-Tomas Hertl-Gustav Nyquist
Marcus Sorensen-Joe Thornton-Kevin Labanc
Micheal Haley-Barclay Goodrow-Melker Karlsson
Marc-Edouard Vlasic-Brent Burns
Brenden Dillon-Erik Karlsson
Joakim Ryan-Justin Braun
Joe Thornton has six assists over his last seven games, but it's just worth emphasizing how much better he's been in the second half of the campaign compared to the first. He had 18 points in his first 34 games and has followed that with 33 points in his last 39 contests.
Martin Jones is the single biggest concern for the Sharks going into the playoffs, especially given his recent play. He has a 2-6-0 record, 3.59 GAA, and .873 save percentage in his last nine starts.
San Jose were tied with the Calgary Flames for the second best offense in the league (289 goals for). The Sharks also ranked sixth in the league on the power play (23.6%).
The Sharks were at their best in the first period, outscoring the competition 102-85 in that frame. After that they were 86-84 in the second, 93-83 in the third, and 8-6 in overtime.
The Sharks allowed the 11th most goals though (258). Among goaltenders that played in at least 30 games, Martin Jones was the fourth worst in save percentage (.896). The only goaltenders below him were Cam Talbot, Keith Kinkaid, and Jonathan Quick and none of them represented playoff teams.
Jonathan Marchessault-William Karlsson-Reilly Smith
Max Pacioretty-Paul Stastny-Mark Stone
Brandon Pirri-Cody Eakin-Alex Tuch
Tomas Nosek-Pierre-Edouard Bellemare-Ryan Carpenter
Nate Schmidt-Deryk Engelland
Brayden McNabb-Colin Miller
Jon Merrill-Nick Holden
William Karlsson broke out with 43 goals and 78 points in 82 contests in 2017-18, but took a big step back this season with 24 goals and 56 points in 82 games. Still, he's going into the playoffs on a high note after scoring six goals and 17 points in his final 17 contests.
While not exactly cold, Mark Stone hasn't been as effective since being acquired by Vegas. He had 28 goals and 62 points in 59 games with Ottawa, but just 11 points in 18 games with the Golden Knights. Stone also has just a goal and three points in his last eight games.
This is just Vegas' second year in existence, but the Golden Knights are already developing a rivalry with the Sharks. They met them in the second round of the playoffs last year and beat them in six games.
The Golden Knights ranked 25th on the power-play (16.8%) and were particularly ineffective at home (15.0%).
Erik Haula hasn't been able to play since Nov. 11 because of a knee injury. That's been a significant loss to the Golden Knights as Haula scored 29 goals last season, but beyond him, Vegas is going into the playoffs relatively healthy.