This is a companion piece to our podcast episode! Check that out here: Clappercast Episode 54: Western Conference Play-in Previews.
For the Eastern Conference Previews, click here!
Welcome back, hockey fans! It’s an exciting time as we get set to resume the 2019-20 NHL season. As a summary, on Saturday, August 1st the NHL will restart their season with a 24-team “playoff” format. The top 4 teams in each conference get a bye through the first round, which is dubbed the play-in round. The remaining teams will play a best-of-5 play-in series to determine playoff qualification status (you win, you’re in). The teams that received a bye will play in a round robin tournament to determine seeding for the actual playoffs. After this, teams are reseeded and the playoffs formally begin as normal.
To get you all set for the upcoming action, we’ll get you prepared with our 2019-20 NHL Play-in Round Previews, moving into the Western Conference.
Arizona Coyotes vs. Nashville Predators Preview
This series may need to be decided by who scores first, and that’s only a slight exaggeration. Arizona has perennial scoring problems, with 2019-20 being no different. They sit tied for 22nd in goals for during the regular season with 190, only 13 more than the 30th place Los Angeles Kings (Detroit was last with 142 but they are the outlier so I excluded them). Though Nashville was an average offensive team this season with 212 goals, their main offensive weapons struggled and they’re going up against a team defense first system with strong goaltending in Arizona.
Over this regular season, the Nashville Predators’ leading scorer was Roman Josi with 65 points. Their forwards, including names like Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, Victor Arvidsson, and Matt Duchene, didn’t even break 50 points. That is troublesome, though the team did at least have a lot of players in the 30 point range indicating they can score by committee. They will find themselves in tough against Arizona. The Coyotes are a team that play hard, gritty, physical, shut down hockey that will make things difficult for the Predators.
The main advantage Nashville has is the defenders on their roster. The aforementioned Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm are all elite level defenders with a great supporting cast including Dante Fabbro, Dan Hamhuis, and Yannick Weber. This has been Nashville’s strength for years and is often the foundation of their roster. That is no different this season as Josi’s performance leads this team.
A question mark for the Predators is who will get the start in net. Pekka Rinne struggled this season and was replaced as the starter by Juuse Saros. Will the Preds stick with Saros as the number 1 or defer back to Rinne with his experience and the break to reset from a difficult year? I say start Saros with the knowledge and comfort of having an experienced backup in Rinne if needed.
The Coyotes will need Taylor Hall and Phil Kessel to step up offensively to help propel them through this round. Hall did well enough for his statline once arriving in Arizona, with 27 points in 35 games. Kessel on the other hand, did not. 38 points in 70 games and only 14 goals. That is not enough from a player like him. Arizona will be trying to grind the Predators down to battle their way to their handful of high quality chances per game. Hall, Kessel, Conor Garland, Christian Dvorak, and Clayton Keller will have to be nearby to help capitalize because they will not get that many chances with the defensive lineup the Predators ice.
Arizona’s roster strength lies in net. Darcy Kuemper is one of the most underrated goalies and players in the league right now, and with the combination of his athleticism and the defensive style the team plays allow for him to put up unreal numbers. Antti Raanta, the team’s backup right now, is no slouch either. The Coyotes have two excellent options in net. With the Predators’ offensive struggles this season, Arizona is well set up to limit the Predators to a goal or two per game.
Arizona Coyotes vs. Nashville Predators Predictions
Burke: Arizona in 5
We are in for a long, hard fought series between these two teams. It is likely to be an exciting battle between the Predators’ offensive pressure and the Coyotes defensive system and goalies. Ultimately, Arizona has enough to keep the Predators off the scoresheet and pull through.
Sean: Nashville in 4
Assuming the offseason gap was long enough for Nashville to reset, they will be coming into this fresh, refreshed, and hopefully over the struggles of the regular season. Also, the Coyotes have lottery ball specialist Taylor Hall on the roster, and since the number 1 overall pick is up for grabs in the NHL Draft for play-in round losers, it’s only fitting that the Coyotes are in that draw.
Vancouver Canucks vs. Minnesota Wild Preview
The Vancouver Canucks have an exciting roster that will be fun to watch in this postseason and are easy to see as a dark horse to make a bit of a run if the right players get hot. They have the youthful energy and a gamechanger/gamesaver goalie in Jacob Markstrom to help mitigate their defensive problems. On the other hand, the Minnesota Wild have an aging core with very little offensive flair and struggled in net this season.
The Canucks’ main knock is the lack of defensive prowess on the roster. The top end forwards are mostly offensively minded and none of the defenders are really elite level, shut down defenders. Quinn Hughes is the best defenseman and he plays defense by being on offense. This is where the strength of Jacob Markstrom comes into play. Jacob has shown through the regular season that he can bail the team out when needed and make big saves to keep the Canucks competitive. When he does this, Markstrom gives the offense the ability to play their game with confidence and knowing that they don’t have to worry because there is a rock solid presence covering their asses. It would be great if the defense helped out a bit and limited high danger chances, however, because they did not do very well at that through the regular season.
Looking at Minnesota, they are offensively unimpressive with only Kevin Fiala having much of a scoring flare this season, being the only 50 point scorer on the roster. Eric Staal and Zach Parise can be great with the puck as well, but they are part of the aging core that probably won’t be able to match the exuberance of the Canucks’ roster.
Where the Wild do shine, however, is on defense. If this team is going to do anything in the play-in series, it will be because the defense shut down the Canucks offense. Jared Spurgeon, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, and Matt Dumba comprise one of the best defensive top-4’s in the league, with Jared Spurgeon being one of the most underrated defenders out there. These four have the ability to negate the Canucks offense and limit their chances. With the questionable goaltending in Minnesota lately, the defense becomes even more important.
The Wild should start with Alex Stalock, who had the far better regular season than the regressing Devan Dubnyk. But, with Dubnyk being the longtime starter in Minny, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get the nod.
Vancouver Canucks vs. Minnesota Wild Predictions
Burke: Vancouver in 4
The Canucks are likely to lose at least one game just due to the weird start to everything and the different tone to playoff hockey but Vancouver will learn quickly and adjust to the wakeup call as they transition into the rest of the playoffs.
Sean: Vancouver in 4
I highly doubt this will be a sweep but I do think Vancouver takes this on the backs of their offense and Jacob Markstrom. Minnesota may come out stronger in the first game with the experience advantage (especially seeing how Vancouver’s defense played in the exhibition game), but the Canucks will learn their lesson quickly and turn it around after that.
Calgary Flames vs. Winnipeg Jets Preview
Is anyone else super hyped for this series above all others? It is going to be a blast to watch! We’ve got two high-powered offensive teams, an elite, game changer goalie, and a Prarie province/geo-rivalry escalating the competitiveness of both teams.
Winnipeg being in this competition is a surprise to many. They’ve had a much publicized decimation of their defensive lineup over the previous offseason and many expected significant regression because of that. However, Connor Hellebuyck happened. He was an absolute monster in net for the Jets this season in his Vezina favourite and dark horse Hart candidate season. Tied for most games played, leading the league in shots faced and saves, led the league in shutouts, and a very close second in the league in goals saved above average. Without his stellar performance this season, Winnipeg would not have been anywhere near the playoffs.
Credit where credit is due to Winnipeg’s offense, though. With two high powered scoring lines led by Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers, and career seasons from Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor helped the Jets outscore some of their problems. Moving into the play-in and playoffs it will be interesting to see if the historically streaky Laine can stay hot or find some productive consistency in his game.
The biggest challenge for the Jets in this series will be getting Hellebuyck ready and playing at the same level as he did through the regular season, since they do not have the defensive prowess to cover an average performing goalie.
Calgary is a strong competitor for this series despite some struggles in the regular season. Their main offensive line of Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm, and Sean Monahan slumped bigtime. Gaudreau and Monahan dropped approximately 40 points and Lindholm 20 year over year. With last postseason’s struggles for that line in mind, those three are going to have to start strong to bounce back and to avoid getting overwhelmed by the Jets’ dominating style of offense. They will be given a great opportunity to generate goals with Winnipeg’s defense, as well.
The Flames also have question marks in net. The de facto starter is David Rittich, a position he has taken over the past couple of seasons. However, he struggled through the 2019-20 season and near the end, was surpassed by Cam Talbot in relief. Talbot himself has not been the same since his playoff appearance with Edmonton back in 16-17. One of these two will need to step up early to not fall too far behind Winnipeg in the goalie battle and to be able to shut down Winnipeg’s offensive weapons. Calgary may have a slight advantage in the back-to-back games of the series with two potential options to rotate through, compared to Winnipeg who does not have a great option at backup right now.
Calgary Flames vs. Winnipeg Jets Predictions
Burke: Winnipeg in 5
For the sake of hockey fans, I think and hope it will be a long series because it will be entertaining hockey. Quite simply, the Jets have more firepower, and Calgary doesn’t have the scoring depth Winnipeg does and that will make it hard for them to overpower the Jets lineup over the course of a full series.
Sean: Calgary in 5
This series is close and will probably go all the way. It features two tough teams and will likely be close games. The question mark for me is that the Jets are relying heavily on Hellebuyck continuing his play from the regular season. Sometimes it takes goalies a bit to get in the groove early on and with Hellebuyck specifically he historically has one good year then one bad year. We’ve had an offseason length gap here; will his magic have run out?
Edmonton Oilers vs. Chicago Blackhawks Preview
This series is set up to be an absolute barn burner. Edmonton is not a great possession team, they give up a lot of shots and aren’t in control of play for long periods of time. Then you have Chicago who gives up the most shots in the league per game. Goaltending and shot blocking are bound to be major parts of this series.
Chicago’s roster has had a lot of turnover and they do not have the depth they once had beyond Toews, Kane, Keith, Saad, and newcomers Debrincat and Kubalik. This lack of depth is especially apparent on defense.
The team doesn’t really have trouble scoring, especially with Patrick Kane and Dominik Kubalik around. Kane especially will be an important player with his ability to control the puck and play in the offensive zone. He can easily navigate through the Oilers defense and generate shots.
The tricky part for Chicago is finding two shut down lines (offense and defense) to handle McDavid and Draisaitl on separate lines. For us, this is where the Blackhawks will struggle as they can send Toews out against one of them, but the other is going to be let loose.
A huge sigh of relief for Blackhawks fans is the return of Corey Crawford. He has battled injury and concussion issues a lot over the last few seasons, and after missing the start of training camp, fans were worried. Especially after trading Robin Lehner at the deadline. But, Crawford returned near the end of training camp and will be ready to go for this series. Corey is used to facing high danger scoring chances and is quite proficient at handling them, as he is top-5 in the league for both stats.
The Edmonton Oilers have the on paper advantage by far. Their top offensive lines featuring Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are among the best in the league. Despite their bottom forward lines not always being overly offensive, they are now solid enough to prevent goals instead and most of the players on those lines are versatile enough to jump up and down the lineup as needed.
An underrated part of the Oilers lineup right now is the strength of their defensive unit. A top-4 featuring Oscar Klefbom (the league leader in blocked shots), Adam Larsson, Darnell Nurse, and Ethan Bear (the incredibly impressive rookie) can handle almost any situation. The bottom pairing has a handful of capable defenders, including Kris Russell, Caleb Jones, Matt Benning, and rookie Philip Broberg will even get some chances.
Edmonton’s special teams are head and shoulders above Chicago’s. Their combined PP and PK percentage was top in the league (29% PP, 84% PK) and one of the best in history as well. Chicago is going to have to play incredibly disciplined hockey as a powerplay as proficient as Edmonton’s is bound to capitalize at least once a game when given the chance to.
The goaltending tandem of Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith has served the Oilers well this season. Koskinen, fresh off a huge extension last season, came into 2019-20 with a full summer of work on some flaws in his game and he has impressed. Free agent signing Mike Smith gives the team a unique weapon from the back end with his playmaking abilities, though they are risky at times. His playoff experience will be incredibly valuable. Either option has the confidence of the players on the ice, which helps them play their games without having to worry about the goalie.
Edmonton Oilers vs. Chicago Blackhawks Predictions
Burke: Edmonton in 3
Chicago doesn’t stand much of a chance here, honestly. They are outmatched at nearly every position and it would be a major upset if Chicago pulls through and wins.
Sean: Edmonton in 4
As a longtime Oilers fan it is hard to see this team as favourites and ‘theirs to lose’ in playoffs. Especially against a team with a core that has the intangibles and winning pedigree that has come through Chicago over the same time period. However, Edmonton has the stronger roster. It won’t be as easy as everyone thinks for this series, so people should probably lower their expectations a bit.
There you have it, Clappercast’s Western Conference Play-in Previews! We are stoked for hockey to be back, glad it seems to be going safely, and are excited for what the next couple months brings.
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