It’s finally time. After the long 82-game marathon known as the regular season, the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs are set to begin Wednesday night. Both the Eastern and Western Conference matchups are set, and every series is ready to have a storyline written, however many games it takes. In the West, there’s a new kid on the block, several teams making their return, and powerhouses ready to steamroll their way to the Cup Final. Here’s the preview of each first-round matchup in the Western Conference Quarterfinals.
Nashville Predators (1) vs. Colorado Avalanche (WC2)
The Nashville Predators path back to the Stanley Cup Final gets an unexpected twist as they face the rebuilt Colorado Avalanche in round one. These two clubs took completely different routes to this year’s postseason.
Following a crushing six-game defeat to the Penguins last June, the Predators have been on a mission from training camp till now. Peter Laviolette’s crew was the top team in the NHL all season, all resulting in the franchise first Central Division Title and President’s Trophy. Nashville’s attack is one of the most well balanced in the game while their blue line (P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm) is revered as the most talented over the past two years. Elite puckstopper Pekka Rinne had a Vezina worthy campaign and put up his best career numbers to date.
No one in their right mind thought the Colorado Avalanche were anywhere close to a playoff team, at least for another two or three seasons. Apparently, they didn’t get the message, clinching a playoff berth on the last day of the regular season. After an early season shakeup (Matt Duchene trade), Avs forward Nathan MacKinnon took the ball and hasn’t stopped running, putting him in talks for MVP.
The Preds and Avs could be a quick series, but a one seed versus eight seed matchup always has intrigue.
Vegas Golden Knights (1.) vs. Los Angeles Kings (WC1)
It’s been 38 years, but an expansion team will make their playoff debut. That first-year club, the Vegas Golden Knights, will be tasked with facing the Los Angeles Kings in round one. These two teams formed a rivalry over the course of this year, resulting in a split of the four games.
The Golden Knights were the greatest story in the NHL this season. Their magnificent start to the season, turning T Mobile Arena into one of loudest home-ice advantages in the league, and their rag-tag group of misfits have all contributed to what was a special year in Sin City. William Karlsson, who only scored six goals before being selected by Vegas, turned in to a 40-plus goal man. Vegas’s firepower and speed throughout the lineup made them exciting to watch every night, playoffs will be no different. Three-time Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury will provide so much needed playoff experience to a raw Golden Knights squad.
Los Angeles is making their return to the postseason after falling short a year ago. The Kings, under new bench boss John Stevens, fought all year long tooth and nail to make the playoffs, while a ton of credit should go the Anze Kopitar, who rebounded wonderfully this season after a down year in 2016-17. LA received another great campaign from linchpin Drew Doughty and the likes of Dustin Brown, Tyler Toffoli, and Jake Muzzin. Jonathan Quick backstopped LA to two Cups in three years. And after the sound season he had, Quick is more than capable of doing it again.
Being this is Vegas first go around in the playoffs, this series will be memorable. But the Kings experience could make for a fascinating program between the two clubs.
Anaheim Ducks (2) vs. San Jose Sharks (3)
It wouldn’t be the NHL playoffs without a California rivalry. Well once again, fans will be treated to an excellent showdown between the Ducks and Sharks. This round will mark just the second time these teams have met in the postseason. The first being back in 2009, where the Ducks defeated the Sharks in six games in the Conference Quarterfinals.
Anaheim is in their sixth straight postseason and second under head coach Randy Carlyle. His Ducks squad played well the entire season, and All-Star center Rickard Rakell led the charge with top veterans Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf on his coattails. Anaheim’s sextet on defense — full of 20 somethings — has performed well all year, all the while turning in to one of the more dependable blue lines in the sport. Goalkeeper John Gibson operated at a Vezina caliber, and he’s looking to carry the Ducks to playoff success.
On the other hand, the San Jose Sharks are only two years removed from their first Stanley Cup appearance in team history. The Sharks kept pace in the Pacific all year but were really put over the top when they acquired Evander Kane at the trade deadline. Beyond the Kane addition, San Jose this year received substantial contributions from Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, and the Beardman, Brent Burns. Martin Jones held the fort down in net with another 30-win season, and he’s pushing to get the Sharks back to the place they were not so long ago.
This is a tough series to predict. But, expect some smash mouth, in your face games that could set the bar in the West.
Winnipeg Jets (2) vs. Minnesota Wild (3)
This series could be described as a heavyweight bout. Winnipeg and Minnesota are Central Division rivals, and if the regular season games they played this year indicate what the playoffs will be like, hockey fans will be glued to every minute. Thursday will be the first time the two teams have met in the postseason. The Jets took the season series 3-1.
This scenario has been coming a long time for the Jets. They made their only playoff appearance back in 2014-15, but they have been building since then for a season that unfolded this year and hopeful playoff run. Boasting the second best goal-scorer in the NHL, Patrik Laine, and a phenomenal top-six, the Jets are top heavy and can score at will. On defense, Winnipeg has a nice mix of old and young that are capable of giving the Wild fits. Sticking with a theme, possible Vezina nominee, Connor Hellebuyck, developed this year into a strong presence in net.
Bruce Boudreau’s Minnesota Wild stuck around the top of the Central all season and proved they are on the same level as Winnipeg and Nashville. The Wild are in the playoffs for the sixth consecutive spring, but this time they are built to go farther than years past. Forward Eric Staal was a revelation from the first drop of the puck, while his mates, Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker, enjoyed their best campaigns as a pro. Missing defensive stalwart Ryan Suter is a blow, but his partner Matt Dumba and the rest of Minnesota’s defense can carry the load. Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk is ready to make his impact felt and lead his team deep into May or June.
Winnipeg and Minnesota were two of the best home teams in the league all season. Whoever finds the way to win on the road, could be the deciding factor.