Following last night’s frantic finish to the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, we’re down to eight teams left in the chase for the Stanley Cup. As the second round commences tonight in Washington and Las Vegas, it’s hard not to imagine what’s ahead in the next few weeks after how unexpected the preliminary round turned out. In the West though, there are teams on a mission and fresh blood that will take to the ice in the second round for a chance to move on to the Conference Final. But before the games get underway, here’s a preview of what’s on tap in the West in round number two.
Nashville Predators (1) vs. Winnipeg Jets (2)
This is the series everyone has wanted to see in the playoffs since mid-November. It’s almost like the Jets and Predators were destined to meet from the get-go, considering some of the exciting games when they met in the regular season. Some will say they’re upset because this series should have been the Conference Final, but it still has just as much on the line and extremely high expectations as any series in the first two rounds of the playoffs. These two teams were at the top of the NHL all season long, and are ready to put on a show for the ages.
Will start with the Predators, where “Smashville” is ready to get back to the Stanley Cup for the second year in a row. The Preds played a surprisingly hard-fought series against a pesky Avalanche club in the prelims, where they won in six games.
All season long, the Predators proved how balanced of an attack they have in their arsenal, and that didn’t change in their six games against the Avs. Filip Forsberg abused Colorado throughout the opening round, scoring highlight reel goal after highlight reel goal, while Viktor Arvidsson continued to just fly around everyone. Next to Forsberg and Arvidsson, Kevin Fiala, Austin Watson, Colton Sissons, Ryan Johansen, Nick Bonino, and Craig Smith all did great work in the regular season, and have transferred that into the playoffs. The bottom part of Nashville’s attack is strong with Mike Fisher, who are looking to win that elusive Stanley Cup, then Ryan Hartman, and Calle Jarnkrok.
In front of goaltender Pekka Rinne, resides the best defense in the National Hockey League. Norris contender, P.K. Subban, and star Roman Josi, form the top defensive pairing in the league. Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis are severely underrated and played soundly in the first round. Finishing up the blueline, the Preds have an abundance of experience with Alexei Emelin and Yannick Weber.
Last but not least, Pekka Rinne was terrific in goal all season, which earned him another Vezina Trophy nomination. Rinne was quite good in round one, but as he knows from a year ago, the games are only going to get tougher, and the high-flying Jets are in his way.
On the other side of the equation, are the Winnipeg Jets. Many believed that their first-round series with the Minnesota Wild would be a long one, that was not the case. The Jets overpowered Minnesota in five games, outscoring them 16-9.
Out of all the teams remaining in the postseason, the Jets might be the most top-heavy. Patrik Laine did wonders in the regular season, and despite only scoring two goals versus the Wild, he was dangerous anytime he had the puck on his stick.
But Laine is only one of the many weapons that Jets assess. Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Paul Stastny, Bryan Little all are big-bodied forwards that can wear down the opposition. Winnipeg’s youth on offense — Andrew Copp, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Joel Armia — all took major strides this year and were efficient in the five-game win over the Wild. The end of the Jets forward corps does have a good dynamic as well with Brandon Tanev.
On defense, the Jets built for years for the blueline that now exists. Throughout the year, and in the opening round, Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers played like bulls in a china shop. Jacob Trouba — who after recent seasons now doesn’t have to carry the load — has been used on both sides of the puck. Ben Chiarot and Josh Morrissey have been one of the best third-pairing duos throughout the postseason.
No one could have expected goaltender Connor Hellebuyck to come in and have the impact he did. Now a Vezina Trophy finalist, Hellebuyck was magnificent when handed the starting gig and has kept the motor going with round two on the way.
Advantage: Offense: Jets. Defense: Predators. Goaltending: Even.
Vegas Golden Knights (1) vs. San Jose Sharks (3)
I don’t think anyone could have imagined how this series would have come to fruition. Both the Knights and the Sharks swept their opening round series, Vegas beating Los Angeles and San Jose defeating Anaheim. These two Pacific Division rivals could be on the verge of a new rivalry as this series gets underway. This will be the first time these two meet in the postseason, but many should acknowledge that it’s only been two seasons since the Sharks were in the Cup Final and that just 14 months ago, the Golden Knights were slim picking in the expansion draft.
We’ve said it many of times since the regular season, but the Vegas Golden Knights are writing the greatest story in sports. Being the underdog in round one, Vegas was not afraid of the playoff spotlight, and they shockingly ousted the LA Kings in four games.
There wasn’t much surprise that the rag-tag group of Knights forwards continued to benefit from having a chip on their shoulder. William Karlsson, who went from six goals to 40-plus, gave the Kings all types of difficulty and scored more clutch goals in the process. His teammate, James Neal, continues to embrace his role as a leader and find ways to contribute offensively. Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, David Perron, Cody Eakin and Tomas Tatar play with a lot of speed and forecheck like mad. Along with that group, Alex Tuch, Ryan Carpenter, and Tomas Nosek provide sound depth and scoring touch.
Ryan Reeves and William Carrier also provide depth and some grit to the offense and aren’t afraid to mix it up if need be.
Vegas’s defense, everyone thought would struggle. Instead, they’ve turned in to one of the finest in the league. Underrated Nate Schmidt impressed throughout the season and is on the verge of breaking out in the second round. The same sentiment can be used for Shea Theodore who was the leading point-getter for Vegas in round one. Brayden McNabb, Collin Miller, and captain Deryk Engelland round out a very quick group of defensemen.
Puckstopper Marc-Andre Fleury was nearly flawless in the first round. As a three-time Stanley Cup champion, Fleury knows the mental and physical toll it takes to win another round. No reason he can’t do it again.
Quietly, but in a dominant fashion, the San Jose Sharks went down the stretch of the season on a torrid pace. They didn’t seem to slow down in the preliminary round as they extinguished the Anaheim Ducks in four games. No one could have expected a sweep of that nature or the fact that the Sharks would only allow four goals in the series.
A lot of people slept on the Sharks attack this season until it was too late. And in the first round, it was the usual names, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski, that led the way and gave the Ducks D all sorts of headaches. Acquired at the deadline, forward Evander Kane has been a godsend for San Jose. Kane was also impressive in the first round, just like unknown forward Marcus Sorensen. Tomas Hertl, Joonas Donskoi, Kevin LaBanc, Timo Meier, and Melker Karlsson elevated their status in the second half of the year and in the first four postseason games. Bottoming out the Sharks attack, veterans Mikael Boedker and Eric Fehr still have some left in the tank, while Chris Tierney is a good fourth-line guy.
The Sharks have been good for years, and a lot of that credit can go to who they possess on defense. Brent Burns still plays at a Norris caliber level, this year not as much, but has looked that way in the playoffs. Marc-Edouard Vlasic has never been given the praise he truly deserves and did yeomen’s work in the first round. Behind Burns and Vlasic, Brenden Dillon is quietly becoming a sturdy defenseman. Paul Martin and Justin Braun solidify a well-balanced blueline.
In net, Martin Jones was tremendous in the first round including a shutout in game one. He’s right up there with some of the league’s elite. This round will just be another chance to prove that once again.
Advantage: Offense: Sharks. Defense: Golden Knights. Goaltending: Golden Knights.