Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round Preview: Western Conference

Avalanche vs Predators

Why the Avalanche win: Nathan MacKinnon takes over games. We’ll see if that continues in the playoffs, but he’s on an unbelievable run right now. Add in the fact he’s got two great players running alongside him in Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog, you’ve got your hands full.

Why the Predators win: Predators are the best team in the league, far more dangerous than when they made their run to the Stanley Cup Final last spring. There’s no real weakness on this team.

Player that proves to be the difference: Kyle Turris.. This is the true No. 2 center behind Ryan Johansen that Nashville missed last spring. When Turris was acquired from Ottawa early in the season, the Preds solidified themselves down the middle and really transformed the roster into one of the best in the league.

Something you might want to know: Predators leading scorer this season was Filip Forsberg with 64 points, which checked in at 52 on the NHL’s leaderboard. However, the Predators had six players record 50 points – Tampa Bay and Toronto were the only other teams to have that high a tally of 50-point guys.

What happens: Predators in 5. I think Nashville makes this a quick series. There’s just way too much on the Predators side.

Wild vs Jets

Why the Jets win: Can the Wild keep up? I don’t think they can. Minnesota is going to miss Ryan Suter in this series, though getting Jared Spurgeon back will help things.

Why the Wild win: Suter might be done, but Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, and Matt Dumba will make up for the loss. Minnesota trots out a great shutdown forward line in Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Mikael Granlund while Jason Zucker-Eric Staal-Nino Niederreiter will keep Winnipeg’s hands full. Jordan Greenway adds an element the Wild didn’t have before he signed his pro contract after his junior season at BU ended last month.

Player that proves to be the difference: Connor Hellebuyck.. Hellebuyck’s numbers (44-11-9, 2.36 GAA, .924 save percentage, six shutouts) would be enough to run away with the Vezina Trophy most years. He’s the rock that backstops the Jets and allows Winnipeg to play their quick-pace, run-and-gun style.

Something you might want to know: The city of Winnipeg hasn’t experienced a playoff series win since the 1987 Smythe Division semifinals, when the first iteration of the Jets (who are now, of course, the Coyotes) took down the Flames in six games. Winnipeg is 0-for in the last six seasons they’ve made the playoffs (1988, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1996, 2015).

What happens: Jets in 6. Hellebuyck shuts the door on the back end and the Jets keep up their offensive pace on the other end.

Kings vs Golden Knights

Why the Golden Knights win: Because we said Vegas wouldn’t hold onto the Pacific, would fall off in the second half, wouldn’t be a playoff team, wouldn’t be a good team, wouldn’t land an NHL team. We know nothing. Oh and they’re deep, fast, skilled, and have really good goaltending. That helps too.

Why the Kings win: They look similar to the teams that won it all in 2012 and ’14. Anze Kopitar has been a force all year up front and Jeff Carter has been sensational since he returned. Dustin Brown has reignited his career. Drew Doughty holds down a strong defense and Jonathan Quick has been strong in net of late.

Player that proves to be the difference: Jeff Carter.. In 21 games since returning from an ankle injury that sidelined him for four months, Carter has 13 goals and 19 points.

Something you should know: Four of the top eight players in terms of plus-minus are playing in this series: William Karlsson (1st, plus-49), Jonathan Marchessault (2nd, plus-36), Reilly Smith/Dustin Brown (t-7th, plus-31).

What happens: Kings in 5. It’s not so much clock strikes midnight on Vegas, more that Los Angeles just isn’t a good matchup for this team.

Sharks vs Ducks

Why the Ducks win: Plagued by injuries early on, the narrative was watch out if they get healthy and get in the playoffs. Well, they’ve done both those things. With everyone back – with the exception of Cam Fowler, who was injured last week – the Ducks enter the playoffs 10-1-1 in their final 12 games. This looks like the team we expected to see come April when the roster was ravaged by injuries in October.

Why the Sharks win: San Jose is solid from the top to bottom. The Evander Kane acquisition at the deadline added offense up front. This team is built very well from the net-out.

Player that proves to be the difference: Ryan Kesler.. Most important player on this team. It’s no coincidence that this team reached the Western Conference Final twice in Kesler’s first three seasons in Anaheim. He’s your best defensive forward and your agitator, the daily double of not just shutting down the opposing top line but getting under their skin, knocking them off their game. On top of that, he can be your top offensive producer. He didn’t had a great regular season after returning from hip surgery just after Christmas, but has shown flashes of finding his game of late.

Something you should know: With 118 points in 121 career playoff games, Ryan Getzlaf has the 4th-most playoff points since the 2004-05 lockout, trailing only Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Patrick Kane. Getzlaf has played six fewer playoff games than Kane, 28 fewer than Malkin, and 27 fewer than Crosby.

What will happen: Ducks in 7. Take it a step further and say Anaheim wins Game 7 in overtime. This series is almost too close to call. It’ll be worth staying up for.

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Mark Scheifele starting to get his due among best of NHL

Mark Scheifele has been among the five or 10 best players in the NHL over the past year-plus. And now people are beginning to notice.

The Jets forward extended his streak with multiple points to three on Thursday night with a pair of goals in Winnipeg’s 4-3 win over Dallas, an ‘all-out assault on opposing goalies‘, as Rotowire coined Scheifele’s performance. He has four goals in that three-game span to go along with seven points. He now has seven multi-point games since the start of the new year, and is sixth overall in the NHL with 53 points in 51 games, tied with Alex Ovechkin for third with 25 goals.

Scheifele has been the nucleus of what has been one of the best forward lines in the NHL this season, flanked by super-rookie Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers, the former top-10 pick in the draft that is having a breakout year in his second NHL season, with 47 points in 54 games.  Without that trio, which accounts for 33.7 percent of Winnipeg’s scoring, the Jets would be nowhere near their current standing of trailing St. Louis by one point for eighth place in the Western Conference playoff picture.

This is nothing new. It’s something Scheifele has been up to for quite some time now. Scheifele has 42 goals and 90 points in 84 games over the past calendar year, as TSN analytics guru Scott Cullen points out in Friday’s installment of his daily Statistically Speaking column. Only Sidney Crosby (100) and Connor McDavid (95) have more points over that span, his 42 goals third behind Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, who share the top spot at 47.

If you go back to the start of December 2015, Scheifele has 101 points in 97 games, which trails only Crosby (126), Patrick Kane (120), and Brent Burns (110) on the leaderboard. He’s tied with Joe Pavelski and Nicklas Backstrom for fourth place, but has played nine fewer games than Backstrom and 14 less than Pavelski during that time. Of the 10 players to hit triple-digits in points over that span, he’s the only one to do it in fewer than 100 games.

Scheifele is one of the best players in the NHL, which is why the Jets gave the former seventh overall pick (2011) an eight-year, $49 million deal this past summer, when the 23-year-old was a restricted free agent. It’s also what makes it mind-boggling that he wasn’t among the six forwards representing the Central Division at last weekend’s All-Star Game in Los Angeles, as Jared Clinton of the The Hockey News pointed out in his piece on Tuesday, where he makes the case for Scheifele among the NHL’s best scorers.

Under team control at $6.125 million through the 2022-23 season, according to cap-friendly.com, the Jets have one of the most team-friendly contracts in the NHL, a cap hit Scheifele will almost certainly out-play. In fact, he already is, as his $115,566 value on cap-friendly’s cost-per-point index is the lowest among players making $6 million per season.

And he only appears to be getting better.

 

Ondrej Pavelec back in the NHL

Amidst struggles in the crease, the Winnipeg Jets have recalled once-ace and now highly-paid AHLer Ondrej Pavelec to the NHL club.

The move comes as a surprise but not a shock. Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson have struggled in net for much of the season, and particularly of late. The 23-year-old Hellebuyck, the club’s consensus future of ace netminder, has put up modest-but-not-good-enough save percentage and GAA numbers of .907 and 2.82 while going 16-13-1. Hutchinson, meanwhile, has been an ugly 4-10-3 to go along with .894 and 3.23.

Winnipeg has allowed more than three goals in seven of its last 10 games, the Jets going 3-6-1 over that stretch. The Jets rank 26th in the NHL in save percentage, at .899.

Splitting net time with Eric Comrie for Manitoba, Pavelec has played 18 games in the AHL this season, going 8-7-2 with a .917 save percentage and 2.78 GAA. He’s a veteran of 371 NHL games, and was the team’s go-to netminder for the better part of six years going back to the franchise’s final season in Atlanta before moving to Winnipeg in 2011. He’s 148-154-47 in his career with .907 and 2.85 totals to go along with 17 shutouts.

In the final year of a five-year, $19.5 million deal, Pavelec was the odd-man out in what was a strange goalie controversy that was largely based on financials, with Pavelec’s $3.9 million cap burden the only thing keeping him around. He was waived prior to the season, subsequently clearing waivers and being sent to the AHL.

Thoughts Are My Own: Lots of Highlight-Reel Stuff

Thoughts as we sit exactly one week away from Black Friday:

*He didn’t get much help, but James Reimer turned in what will likely be one of the more putrid goaltending performances of the year. Sometimes it’s just about making that save. He made none of them.

*On the other hand, great night for Steve Mason in the Flyers 5-2 win over Winnipeg. Thirty-save effort, his stoning of Nikolaj Ehlers midway through the second period was game-changing.

*A nice goal by Sean Couturier got things going for the Flyers, as Couturier walked right in after puck-carrying Mark Scheifele lost his feet, leading to the turnover. It looked like Jakub Voracek got away with a trip on the play.

*The Flyers have won six straight against the Jets. Winnipeg hasn’t won in Philly since January 2012, a 2-1 shootout win.

*A play you missed gazing over Mitch Marner’s highlight-reel goal: Matt Read’s diving pass to set up a Michael Raffl goal. Read, in a puck battle with Winnipeg defenseman Josh Morrissey, makes a great read (no pun intended) on the play, seeing Raffl streaking down the middle of the ice, left alone after Morrissey gave chase to the puck after Dustin Byfuglien made a bad pinch that led to the two-on-one. Read’s dive shuffled the pass over to Raffl, who went in and beat Connor Hellebuyck for the easy score.

*Nice gesture by the Senators to acknowledge Mike Fisher’s 1,000th career game (which he did this past March, to clarify). The Predators captain played 675 of those games in Ottawa, from 1999 to 2011. Fisher was a key piece in those great Senators teams of the 2000s, and was integral in Ottawa’s run to the Stanley Cup in 2007.

*Nashville is 5-1-2 in its last eight. Pierre LeBrun wrote earlier this week the Preds appear to be hitting their stride. It would seem that way.

*Devan Dubnyk might be the best player in the NHL nobody talks about. Dubnyk’s league-leading fourth shutout of the season in Minnesota’s 1-0 win over Boston was his 14th since joining the Wild. He has a .952 save percentage and 1.47 GAA this season.

*Another play you missed gazing over Mitch Marner’s highlight-reel goal: Ben Bishop makes a diving save on a Kyle Okposo shot that looked like a no-doubter goal. That said, it was Bishop who threw the puck out into the big ice from behind the net, which met the tape of Okposo. It’s like he wanted the Sabre to score.

*Predators top goaltending prospect Juuse Saros made 35 saves in Milwaukee’s 1-0 win over Cleveland on Thursday night. Saros had a 1.74 GAA in eight games for the Admirals, which trails only Michael Leighton (1.62) in the AHL. His .940 save percentage is bested only Wilkes-Barre/Scranton netminder Casey DeSmith, who has a .963 save percentage but has played only four games.

*A big win for No. 6 UMass-Lowell, who went out to visit ninth-ranked Notre Dame and came out with a 4-1 win. The River Hawks are on the back end of a two-weekend stretch that includes trips to Orono and Indiana.

Mitch Marner’s Goal

As nice a goal as you’ll see. He does a good job getting a step on Panthers defenseman Michael Matheson as he gets the pass from James van Reimsdyk breaking out of the zone. From there, he’s able to create space for himself while outmuscling the big, strong Matheson as broke for the net, dancing around James Reimer and burying the puck.

Game to watch Friday night

N.Y. Rangers at Columbus: A pair of teams that account for two of the three-highest goal differentials so far this season; the Rangers leading at plus-34 while the Blue Jackets are third at plus-14. The Blueshirts do it by scoring (league-high 72 goals) while the Jackets play good defense (Eastern Conference-low 33 goals allowed).

Hat Trick Pick

Sidney Crosby: Sid has 96 points in 55 games against the Islanders, the Penguins opponent on Friday night. Crosby’s 30 goals against the Isles are second only to the Flyers (35). He has 10 goals through 10 games, the closest he’s ever come to a goal-per-game in his NHL career was in 2010-11, when he had 32 goals in 41 games.

Thoughts Are My Own: Trouba Has No Leverage

Thoughts as you realize it’s the first day of November. Woah, it’s the first day of November.

*Jacob Trouba is being Jonathan Drouin-ed. And will continue to be. The Jets want what no team will give for his services. He’s a solid, top four defenseman at 21 years old. He has the size, he has the projection of being a top defenseman. Winnipeg will let the situation ride itself out until the December 1 deadline, where which Trouba will forgo a full season should he not be signed then, which only hurts his value. Ball is in the court of Kevin Cheveldayoff and company.

*Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid facing off for the first time ever is the headliner of Tuesday’s games, and rightfully so; they’re special talents, the two most recent first overall picks, and two of the best in recent memory. But here’s some other matchups that might catch your eye: Tampa Bay at Islanders, Steven Stamkos vs. John Tavares in another showdown of first overall picks; Washington at Winnipeg, Alex Ovechkin vs. Patrik Laine, the greatest goal scorer of the post-lockout years against what looks like the next great goal scorer the game bears witness to; and Anaheim at Los Angeles needs no explanation.

*The matchup (not Tuesday, obviously, but down the road) I find most compelling is Toronto vs. Buffalo. Matthews vs. Jack Eichel in a showdown of the two top American youngsters, two guys who are among the faces in U.S. hockey as teenagers. This is only made better by the natural geographic rivalry that exists with the two franchises fighting for the love of southern Ontario.

*Elliotte Friedman reported on Saturday that there will be no changes to the All-Star Game voting format, which if true is the right decision. Last year’s game was as successful as it had been in quite some time, no need to overthink it. The league has bigger fish to fry.

*Nothing wrong with Mikhail Sergachev, the ninth overall pick in this past June’s draft, being sent back to Windsor. He’d played just three games in Montreal, might as well get another year of OHL experience under his belt. He’ll be on a Spitfires team that features fellow first rounder Logan Stanley on the back line and 11th overall pick Logan Brown up front. Sean Day was a third round pick.

*Ohio State hockey is out to a 5-0-2 start to the season, moving up to No. 11 in the USCHO.com poll. The Buckeyes should only expound on the strong record, with doubleheaders against Robert Morris, UConn, and RPI awaiting in the next three weekends. The big challenge doesn’t come until after Thanksgiving, when Ohio State travels to Minnesota to open its Big 10 schedule.

Links

Dave Tippett has a motorcycle shop in his house.

Bruce Boudreau was ‘grumpy’ at the Wild practice on Monday as Minnesota rode a short bench for multitude of reasons.

The latest in the class-action lawsuit that faces the CHL and threatens to change the landscape of major junior hockey in Canada.

Teams led by Peter Chiarelli and Marc Bergevin benefitting from questionable offseason transactions the two general managers made for the respective organizations, the Edmonton Oilers (Chiarelli) and the Montreal Canadiens (Bergevin).

Jay Bouwmeester reflects upon his career to date as he approaches his 1,000th career NHL game.

Coyotes rookie forward Christian Dvorak gets sent down to the AHL. The 20-year-old had three assists in seven games while averaging 13:45 of ice time per night.

A question nobody has asked, or even thought of – could Matthews/McDavid be the next great NHL rivalry?

In case you missed it: Episode two of the Bobcast with Bob McKenzie. He does a really good job with these, really offers a bit of everything; from inside information to the sharing of knowledge of the game to even veering outside the game. Worth the listen.

Three Stars of the Midweek: Marian Hossa Latest in 500-goal club

NHL

Marian Hossa: Hossa scored his 500th career goal on Tuesday night, a 7-4 win over Philadelphia. He’s the 43rd player in NHL history to reach that mark, but just the third among players that made their debut after the 1994-95 lockout. The other two? Jarome Iginla and Alex Ovechkin.

Mike Green: Goal scoring has never been a weakness for the defenseman, his 123 goals ranking sixth among blue liners going back to the start of the 2005-06 season. He’s the only defenseman to score 30 goals over that span, scoring 31 in the 2008-09 season. On Monday night, he added the hat trick to the list of accomplishments, scoring three goals in a game for the first time in his career.

Patrik Laine: Facing Auston Matthews for the first time, the young Jets sniper registered his first career hat trick as well.

AHL

Anthony Mantha, Grand Rapids: The Red Wings top prospect found the net three time in a 4-3 win over the Iowa Wild on Tuesday night. He now has five goals in three games this season, his third for the Griffins. He played 10 games for the Wings last season. Expect him to be in Detroit at some point this season.

Mark Jankowski, Stockton: The former first round pick and Providence College standout had a goal and three points in a 5-1 win over the Texas Stars on Wednesday.

Nick Ellis, Bakersfield: Another strong showing for a former Providence Friar. The Condors netminder made 30 saves on 31 shots in a 4-1 win over Manitoba on Tuesday night.

CHL

Taylor Raddysh, Erie: The Lightning prospect had two and four points in the Otters 6-5 win over Niagara on Wednesday. He has 21 points in eight games.

Dmitri Sokolov, Sudbury: The Minnesota Wild prospect registered his second hat trick in four games in the Wolves’ win over the Soo Greyhounds on Wednesday. He has eight goals in his last five games.

Reilly Pickard, Acadie-Bathurst: Made 37 saves in a 3-1 win for the Titan over Saint John, who outshot A-B, 38-28.

Thoughts Are Mine Only: How About That Laine Guy?

Thoughts from a quiet yet not so quiet night around hockey.

*You couldn’t have drawn it up any better. Auston Matthews gets stoned on a breakaway by Michael Hutchinson in overtime, Patrik Laine takes the feed from Dustin Byfuglien on the counterattack and puts a laser past Frederik Andersen for his first career hat trick.

*Speaking of which, who did I have in the hat trick challenge last night?

*Laine is unbelievable. His release is in mid-career form already. The first goal he scored on the night may have been his best yet, the poise in tight space along with ability to create space for himself before firing one past Andersen was quite impressive.

*High circle on the left side will now be named ‘Laine’s Office’.

*Going up 4-0 only to lose in overtime is the latest in Maple Leaf growing pains, something they’ve experienced plenty of through three games. Expect more over the course of the remaining 79. Such is expected of a young team flush with talent.

*Mark Scheifele with a three-point night. He’s up to six through four games.

*Jimmy Vesey talked the talk over the summer with his holdout until August 15 deadline for teams to sign drafted players, saying no to the Nashville Predators, who eventually traded his rights to Buffalo, where he said ‘thanks, but no thanks’ again. Signing with the Rangers days after being released into the open market, he’s walking the walk now. He has just one goal through four games, but he’s making things happen on the ice. On a breakaway chance in the first period of New York’s 2-1 loss to Detroit, he did everything but finish.

*Jimmy Howard looked like his old self on Wednesday, stealing the show with 32 saves as the Red Wings managed to win, 2-1, despite being outshot by a 33-18 margin. Since winning 130 games and posting a 2.35 GAA to go along with three seasons of .920-plus save percentages, Howard has won just 58 games with a 2.61 GAA and .909 save percentage in three seasons since. Petr Mrazek might have some competition on his hands.

*Chris Kreider’s three-game streak of multi-point games to begin the season was snapped, but he picked up an assist on Mika Zibanejad’s goal 1:09 into the game. He has points in 10 of 12 games going back to last season. He has 8-8–16 totals in those 12 games.

*Henrik Lundqvist has just an .875 save percentage through three games.

*Lightning prospect Taylor Raddysh with four more points for Erie Wednesday night in the OHL, now has seven goals and 21 points through eight games. The Bolts took him in the second round of this past draft. Can’t Steve Yzerman just catch a break for once?

*Minnesota prospect Dmitry Sokolov recorded his second hat trick in four games for Sudbury. All eight of his goals this season have come in his last five games.

*From the Western Canada U16 Challenge: Mitchell Brown had two goals and four points in British Colombia’s win over Manitoba. Brown, a defenseman already listed at 6-foot-1 and 176 pounds at 15 years old has his rights held by Tri-City. He plays for the Okanagan Hockey Academy in the CSSHL. He has a point in four games this season. He played at the bantam level last season, putting up 22 points in 25 games. Dylan Holloway scored with two seconds remaining to give Alberta the 4-3 win over Saskatchewan.

*First overall pick in the 2016 WHL Draft, Peyton Krebs, had two goals and an assist for Alberta. Krebs, who will suit up for Kootenay next season, has six goals and 15 points for the UFA Bisons AAA Midget team. He spent the last two seasons with the Rocky Mountain Raiders AAA Bantam squad, in which he put up 74 goals and 168 points in 60 games over the two seasons. He had 102 in just 27 games last year.

*Two more assists on Wednesday night for Cal Foote (son of Adam) a top defensive prospect for next year’s draft. He’s got eight assists in 11 games, but no goals.

*Medicine Hat hung 10 on Kootenay on Wednesday; the third time this season the Tigers have broken the seven-goal mark.

*Battle of Connecticut in college hockey as Quinnipiac took on UConn. The fourth-ranked Bobcats won 5-2 in a game closer than the score indicated.

Links

Five general managers around the NHL who might already be on the hot seat.

Here’s an ICYMI: SI media columnist Richard Deistch does his NHL media roundtable. Lots of interesting stuff in here.

Matt Murray returned to the ice on Wednesday. There could very well be a goalie controversy brewing in Pittsburgh.

The Kane-Anisimov-Panarin line carrying the load for the Blackhawks once again.

Elliotte Friedman’s 30 thoughts for the week.