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  • Harrison Brooks

Predicting the Unpredictable NHL Playoffs: Western Conference

When the NHL and the NHL Players Association voted to ratify the Collective Bargaining Agreement and the Return to Play Protocol on July 10, it sparked excitement from fans across the league. And the closer we get to the first games of the play-in round in August the more the excitement seems to grow.

It’s like back in the day when your mom finally gave your Game Boy back after taking it away for a week except now there’s a chance the end goal is even better than catching a legendary Pokemon - seeing your team win the Stanley Cup.

However, with 24 teams vying for a chance to make it to the big dance instead of the usual 16 and nobody playing a game since March, these playoffs could be the most unpredictable and exciting playoffs in recent memory.

Every trend over the last few weeks of the season and everything we thought we knew about each team is thrown out the window when predicting the five-game play in round winners, but here it goes anyways.

Edmonton Oilers vs. Chicago Blackhawks

This matchup sees the 2nd place team in the Pacific Division taking on the 7th place team in the Central Division. Should be a no brainer, right? Well, not so fast I don’t think this series is as cut and dry as most people believe it will be.

While the Blackhawks defense will no doubt have their hands full with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the Oilers defense will be in equally hot water with Chicago’s lethal attack. The only difference is they don’t have the experience to fall back on like Chicago does. Duncan Keith alone has 27 more playoff games under his belt than the entire Oilers defense.

But despite the experience advantage the entire Blackhawks team has over the Oilers, this series will be won by the Hawks based on the offence. But wait, how can that be when the Oilers have the two top-scoring players in the league this year? It’s because playoff hockey is a different beast.

The Oilers overcame poor team-wide 5on5 numbers this year by having a historic power play, like one of the best ever. But with the re-start, there is no guarantee the power play clicks the same way again, and with whistles routinely being put away in the playoffs they might not have the necessary time to get it back on track.

As long as the Blackhawks stay out of the box I think they are winning this one easy.

Chicago in 4.

Nashville Predators Vs. Arizona Coyotes

Just like the Blackhawks, the Coyotes were firmly cemented outside of the playoff picture but caught a lucky break with the re-start. Unlike the last series, though, this one has the makings of a defensive struggle/goalie battle. Both teams have a strong tandem in net with Darcy Kuemper/Antti Raanta in Arizona and Pekka Rinne/Juuse Saros in Nashville.

However, accounting for playoff experience and strength of their defense led by one of the all-around best defencemen in the league - Roman Josi - the Coyotes only real shot is if Kuemper can steal the show and Rinne flops as he has in the past. But this one should go to the Predators.

Nashville in 4.

Vancouver Canucks vs. Minnesota Wild

This one is a strange matchup because odds are neither team were making the playoffs had the regular season finished. Although to be fair, Minnesota was 7-3 in their last ten so they had a good shot but Vancouver was spinning their tires after losing their starting goaltender Jacob Markstrom and without him surely would have continued to fall.

But because they were still in the hunt and had played fewer games, Vancouver’s winning percentage was actually higher than both the Flames and Jets giving them a Play-in round berth against the lower-seeded Wild.

This matchup gives off similar vibes to the 2015 series between Vancouver and Calgary where the young up and coming Flames team beat the older Canucks who were headed towards a rebuild. Fortunately for the Canucks, the roles are reversed this time around with them being the up and coming youngsters playing against a Wild team who’s best players are all over 30 years old.

But despite having the younger, more energetic offense led by the sensational Elias Pettersen, this series, like many others in the NHL reset, is coming down to goaltending. If Markstrom can regain his form from the regular season I think the Canucks energy will be too much for the Wild. If he isn’t playing at the same All-Star level as before look for Devan Dubnyk to steal this one away from them.

Vancouver in 5.

Calgary Flames vs. Winnipeg Jets

This all-Canadian matchup between fairly evenly matched teams has all the makings to be one of the best series of the play-in round. These are two fast exciting teams who like to put the puck in the back of the net.

With no heavy favorite, this series is going to come down to, simply, who shows up. The Flames forward group is nothing to scoff at with notable names like Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm and uber agitator Matthew Tkachuk. But Winnipeg matches up quite well with their own big four of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine, and Kyle Connor. If the Flames big guns put up another dud like last year this could be over quickly but if they can match the offense they have a great chance.

On paper, the Flames defense led by last year’s Norris Trophy winner, Mark Giordano, is head and shoulders above that of the Jets and is the biggest advantage Calgary has in this series.

The biggest advantage on Winnipeg’s side is in net where Vezina nominated Connor Hellebuyck is holding down the fort. While the Flames tandem has had streaks of greatness this year, it was nothing compared to the consistently great play of Hellebuyck. The Flames have to hope he doesn’t come back in midseason form.

The X-factor in this series, and ultimately the reason I think the Flames pull out the series win will be Mikael Backlund. A year removed from being in the top ten of Selke voting, Backlund needs to come into the series at the top of his game to help shut down at least one of the Jets’ dangerous lines. If he can do that, with help of his linemates Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane, the Flames should have enough offense throughout the lineup to get by the Jets all-world goaltending and advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Flames in 5.

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