Avalanche, Flames are the ever-unpredictable NHL West’s top seeds
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To assess the condition of his Pacific Division champion Calgary Flames, coach Daryl Sutter may have rightly held the unexpected state of the entire Western Conference at the same time when the playoffs begin on Monday.
“We’re fine. We’ve been consistent all year,” Sutter said. “The key is to stay healthy and find out what we’re up against. A big storm is coming here this week.”
Sutter’s point was the Flames’ first-round opponent, the Dallas Stars, who jumped from ninth to seventh in a frantic final week to advance to the play-off berth as the NHL’s final team.
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With the issuance of the storm warning, playoffs have traditionally been a disaster for the West’s top picks, where only one division champion – Vegas reached the Stanley Cup final in its first season of existence, 2018 – as top pick Chicago Blackhawks won the title in 2013. The Blues were fifth in the West after winning the Cup in 2019, the Los Angeles Kings were sixth after winning the 2014 Cup, while Nashville were eighth when they lost the championship to Pittsburgh in 2017.
This year’s field does not include Vegas for the first time in the history of the franchise, when Calgary and Colorado are the top two seeds, but with the recent history of the fall of the early round playoffs. The Kings are returning to the playoffs for the first time in four years.
And prepare yourself for a first-round matchup with Central Division rivals Minnesota and St. Louis that are set to be a bruiser.
In Denver, Central-Division champions Avalanche are looking to pull back a year of past disappointment after the Presidency trophy-winning team was knocked out in the second round by Vegas. Colorado, which has not qualified for the second round since losing to Detroit in the Western Conference Final in 2002, will play eighth-seeded Nashville.
“It’s not something I think about anymore. It’s a new team this year. We have new opportunities and a new challenge,” said defender Cal Makar. “Of course we know what has happened in the last few years and we have managed to overcome the obstacles that have plagued us in the past.”
The history of Flemish’s playoffs is just as checkered. They have won just two of 10 play-off series since losing in the Cup final to Tampa Bay in 2004.
And this is no different for Edmonton, where the second-seeded Eulers advanced to the playoffs for the fourth time since the arrival of Connor McDavid in 2015 and advanced to the first round of a four-game game against Winnipeg a year ago. Edmonton opened against the Kings.
“I think we grew up as a team and learned from it and found a way to make it a little better this year,” said center-run Ryan Nujent-Hopkins on how high-scoring Oilers managed just eight goals against Winnipeg. “Of course, it’s going to be a tough series, a tough-checking series, but we have to find a way to get that extra one or push a little harder.”
1 Colorado vs. 4 Nashville
The Avalanche finished 22 points ahead of the Predators in the standings, and Nashville starter Juice Sarros could have a more distinct edge if he can’t return after missing the final two regular season games with an undefeated injury.
Following the 9-0 winning streak, Avalanche stumbled down the stretch at 1-5-1. Nashville went from seventh to eighth in the standings with a 5-0 lead over Arizona in their season final.
“I’m proud of this team for how we’ve fought, how we’ve fought extensively,” said Predator defender Roman Josie, after the loss. “This defeat is disappointing, but we have to turn the page, get some rest and get excited for the playoffs.”
The matchup featured two of the NHL’s highest scoring defenders in Josie, leading all Blueliners with 96 points, and Makar, who finished second with 86 points.
2 Minnesota vs. 3 ST. Lewis
The home-ice facility could prove the difference in a series that was originally set a month ago.
Wild set a franchise record with 53 wins and 113 points, while finishing third in the NHL with a 31-8-2 home record. The Blues, who closed their season at 14-2-2, have won 23 road games and are ninth in the NHL.
St. Louis has led 12-1-1 in the last 14 meetings over Minnesota, including a 6-4 win at Target Field in this year’s Winter Classic. Seven of those wins, however, were scored by one goal, including five overtime.
Wild defender Matt Dumba said, “You get overtime, it can go either way.” “Yes we have some things to do, and we’ll be more prepared.”
The Blues have a lineup with nine 20-goal-scorers led by the NHL. The Wild Max addressed their goaltending at the trade deadline by acquiring play-off veteran Mark-Andre Fleury with Talbot. Flurry has a 9-2 record since joining Minnesota, where Talbot is 13-0-3 in his last 17 appearances.
1 Calgary vs. 4 Dallas
The teams are facing the play-offs for the second time in three years.
The Stars began their run in 2020 by defeating the Flames in six games of the Edmonton Cowid-19 bubble in the first round of the series – which they lost to Tampa Bay. This time, Flames will get the support of their fans and the home-ice advantage.
“I’ve only played one and a half matches in that series, so personally, I try to forget that,” said Matthew Takachuk, who finished second in the Flemish with a career-best 104 points this season.
While Dallas reached the postseason for a fifth-year, Calgary is making its fifth appearance since 2010.
“Going into this series, they did it, we didn’t, so it gives them a big advantage,” Tkachuk said of the stars who tested the play-offs. “We have to prove it.”
The Stars are an experienced team led by Joe Pavleski, who has reached the top 80 points as the 16th player to reach the age of 37 or older. He finished with 81 points, including 27 goals.
2 Edmonton vs. 3 Los Angeles
Kings coach Todd McLellan faced his former team in the playoffs for the first time since being sacked by Edmonton during 2018-19. Season and Eulers are now coached by McLellan’s former assistant Jay Woodcroft, who took over after sacking Dave Tippett in February.
The Eulers led 26-9-3 under Woodcroft to finish with 49 wins, their highest since 50 wins in 1986-87.
Oilers forward Derek Ryan credits Woodcroft for his problem-solving ability.
“I think we were looking for it at the beginning of the year where things weren’t going our way and it felt like we were being told to work harder and get better,” Ryan said. “We were just looking for more answers and I think Woody did a good job of getting those answers.”
The Kings lineup includes three healthy remaining members from their 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup Championship squad, including forward Dustin Brown, who announced he would retire later this season.
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