Hockey is, by nature, the most random of sports. Luck, skill and the laws of physics all team up to influence thousands of micro events every game. The precarity of these events lends itself to uncertainty in the most normal of times. You may have noticed, however, that these are not normal times. In fact, they’re quite the opposite.
In a typical year, the playoffs are an extension of the regular season. The style of play is altered, yes, but injuries, streaks and momentum all carry over to the postseason. In 2020 though, the slate has been wiped entirely clean. All teams are starting from the same place, regular season be damned. This can make team evaluations a little scattershot in spots, as we don’t have a large sample size, but the round-robin and play-in rounds should give us enough to work with.
One thing to keep in mind here is that rarely, if ever, does the “best” team win the Stanley Cup. There will be upsets, injuries and controversies. Goaltenders will get white hot or ice cold at exactly the right time, and more often than not, the wrong one. Simply determining which team is the most skilled or well-constructed will only get you so far.
That being said, let’s dig into the Western Conference matchups and see what we get.
Western Conference Matchup Picks
Colorado Avalanche vs Arizona Coyotes
On paper, this isn’t much of a series at all. Colorado may possess the most high-end talent in the Western conference, quite possibly the entire league. Nathan McKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabe Landeskog and Cale Makar were joined this season by Nazem Kadri and a resurging Val Nichushkin to form one of the most balanced and dangerous offensive lineups in the NHL. A 56.09% Corsi share in the round-robin games is pretty much in line with their dominant regular season numbers. So what could possibly stand in the way of this being a traditional first round route for the Avs? Quite simply, Darcy Kuemper.
Kuemper is the type of goaltender that can absolutely steal a series for an outmatched team. The Coyotes’ netminder faced 132 total shots against in the play-in round and stopped 126 of them for an outstanding save percentage of .955. A remarkable number considering the defensive corps in front of him. Kuemper allowed six total goals in the four play-in games, greatly outperforming his xGA of 8.45. Throw in a Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA) of 3.41 and you’re looking at an elite goaltender in every sense of the word. If he stays healthy he gives the Coyotes a fighting chance.
Where this Arizona squad falls short is pretty much every other conceivable area. Lackluster seasons from star acquisitions Phil Kessel and Taylor Hall and a blue line that leaves a ton to be desired render the Coyotes’ skaters nearly helpless against these Avs. A dismal 43.7% shot share in four games against a disoriented Nashville team doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence, 80% High Danger Goals For (HDGF%) Colorado put up against their Western conference opponents in the round-robin games.
I could see Kuemper giving the Avs a scare in a game or two but over the course of a full series, Arizona simply doesn’t have the firepower to do much damage against a team as well-balanced and dangerous as Colorado.
St. Louis Blues vs. Vancouver Canucks
The Canucks escaped their play-in series against the Minnesota Wild with the very definition of average possession numbers. 82 shots for and 83 against for a Corsi rating of 50.16%. Luckily, a spectacular team save percentage of 96.39% stabilized a blue line anchored by rookie sensation, Quinn Hughes.
The defending Stanley Cup champion Blues don’t have many holes across their entire lineup. Their performance in the round-robin games hasn’t really blown anyone’s hair back but there’s a certain leniency given to teams with proven track records. With little turnover since last years’ championship run, there’s no reason to think these guys can’t turn it on whenever they want. Where they might have a real solid chance of putting some separation between them and the Canucks is on the power play. If the play-in round was any indication, they may get a lot of opportunities to try.
The Canucks spent a whopping total of 34:19 on the penalty kill against the Wild, by far the most in the league. You gotta think this was partly a result of a referee group that was as rusty as some of the players and is likely to come down a bit as the rounds progress. Regardless, you simply can’t take that many penalties in a series and expect to come out on top very often. The Wild couldn’t take advantage but you can bet The Blues will. Best not to give them a chance.
The Canucks have some high-end talent in Elias Petterson, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat and the aforementioned Hughes but there are glaring holes in this lineup of a team most view as trending in the right direction but not quite there. I could see the kids putting a scare into a veteran Blues core but St. Louis is simply too deep across their line-up to sustain an attack over the course of a full series. It’s not exciting, but sometimes you gotta defer to the champ.
Western Conference Champion
Las Vegas Golden Knights
At the beginning of the year I picked The Knights to come out of the West and the only thing they’ve done since is shore up their goaltending with the addition of Robin Lehner. This team is a stat-head’s dream and with the exception of Colorado, there is no one in the West who can match their mix of depth and game-breaking talent.
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