1. VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS – By Brian Costello
The Golden Knights were one of the league’s best teams under new coach Peter DeBoer. Who knew Gerard Gallant was such a big problem this season? We jest, of course, about Gallant being the albatross, but clearly the message DeBoer started delivering really hit home.
The Golden Knights were Corsi darlings, cruising along at a league-leading 54.8 percent when the league shut down. Vegas was far and away the NHL leader in shot differential – averaging 34.5 per game (ranked first) and allowing 29.3 per game (tied for second-best). That’s a differential of 5.2 shots per game. Carolina was the runner-up, but way back at 4.0.
The Knights did it at both ends of the ice. They’re close to a half goal better offensively under DeBoer and close to a half goal stingier under the new coach’s defensive scheme. The result is almost a goal difference per game, and it showed in the standings. Under Gallant, the Golden Knights were running fifth and out of the playoff picture in the Pacific Division with a .551 points percentage (24-19-6). In 22 games under DeBoer, Vegas rose to first in the division with a .727 points percentage (15-5-2). Only three other teams had a better record since the Jan. 15 coaching change.
A balanced scoring attack resulted in four forwards on Vegas’ top two lines potting 20-plus goals, with William Karlsson and Paul Stastny close to that pace. The depth will be important with star left winger Max Pacioretty still on the “unfit to participate” list to start the post-season. The addition of Alec Martinez on the back end nicely rounds out a blueline that is seven-plus deep with experience.
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury struggled for a good chunk of the season and posted his worst save percentage in a decade. Part of that has to do with Fleury’s sluggish starts to games, and that had the Golden Knights chasing the majority of times. Vegas led the league in goals allowed in the first period, a dubious distinction. The arrival of Robin Lehner from Chicago stems that tide.
X-factor: We’re still not sure on the deep meaning behind the acquisition of Lehner at the deadline. Was it simply depth because the backup options weren’t cutting it? Or is it to shorten the leash on Fleury, who has been mediocre? Lehner won all three of his starts after arriving – with a .940 SP and 1.67 GAA – while Fleury won one and lost two. It’s hard to see Fleury on the bench when the playoffs begin, but it isn’t hard to imagine Lehner in the crease when the season ends, one way or another. When he coached San Jose, Pete DeBoer had no qualms about turning to backup Aaron Dell when Martin Jones’ game went south. The Golden Knights aren’t expected to name their starter until after the round-robin.
2. ST. LOUIS BLUES – By Jared Clinton
There was ample reason to believe the Stanley Cup hangover was going to scuttle St. Louis’ shot at repeating as champions. The roster saw little turnover, and some believed the stagnation made the Blues ripe for a fall in the Central Division.
But this season has been the opposite of a decline for the organization. The club residing in the Show Me State made it clear it’s to be taken seriously as a contender once again.
Most impressive about the Blues is that they’re a multi-faceted team, relying not on one aspect of their game but playing effectively in all three zones. Offensively, St. Louis is a middle-of-the-pack group and hasn’t exactly won by scoring in volume game in and game out.
Several players paced the Blues attack. They finished with six 40-point players, and five more were on pace to reach 30 points. That offensive depth helped give St. Louis one of the top power plays in the league, an asset that aids any legitimate contender in the playoffs.
That said, much of the Blues’ success is predicated on defending, led by No. 1 blueliner Alex Pietrangelo and a loaded defense corps that includes Colton Parayko, Justin Faulk and deadline pickup Marco Scandella. Together, alongside goaltender Jordan Binnington, the defensive group helped St. Louis to a top-five goals-against average.
And you can never rule out the importance of experience. Having just won the Cup, this group knows how to survive the playoff grind.
One word of warning, though: Binnington wasn’t quite himself down the stretch. From Jan. 1 until the season was stopped, he had a sub-.900 save percentage and ranked 42nd among the 53 goaltenders with at least 10 games played over that span. He became a part of Blues lore with his play en route to the 2018-19 championship, but if Binnington stumbles, St. Louis could be in for a brief post-season stint this time around.
X-factor: After sustaining a shoulder injury in October that needed surgery, it was possible Vladimir Tarasenko would have missed at least the first round of the playoffs had they started when they were scheduled. But now the Blues will have the sharpshooting winger from the start, and that adds a lethal 40-goal scorer to an attack that is already among the league’s deepest. It also gives the league’s third-best power play yet another weapon. Already a stingy defensive outfit, the Blues will have the ability to overwhelm any opposition at both ends of the ice with Tarasenko, who scored 11 playoff goals last season, in the lineup.
3. COLORADO AVALANCHE – By Jared Clinton
How quickly things can change. Three seasons ago, the Avalanche were viewed as a moribund franchise. Now, under the guidance of coach Jared Bednar, Colorado is considered among the NHL’s deepest and most dangerous offensive outfits. And everything funnels through Nathan MacKinnon.
With each passing season, MacKinnon develops into a more dominating talent, one capable of changing a game with a single possession. He is unquestionably the straw that stirs the offensive drink in Colorado.
However, the adjustments GM Joe Sakic made in the off-season to strengthen and deepen the Avalanche attack have paid incredible dividends. From big-name additions such as second-line center Nazem Kadri to low-risk, high-reward inkings such as Valeri Nichushkin, the Avalanche have received more than 75 goals and 160 points from a quintet of notable summer acquisitions. The result? Nearly unrivalled offensive firepower. Colorado ranks among the five best teams in per-game goal scoring, and if MacKinnon doesn’t get you, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog or Andre Burakovsky will. Plus, no team may have benefitted more from the NHL’s suspension of play, as the Avs would have had plenty of injury concerns had the playoffs started as scheduled.
One worries about the Avalanche’s ability to win games that don’t become end-to-end affairs, however. Despite some defensive weapons, Cale Makar chief among them, what Colorado lacks is a true shutdown pairing that can match up against the opposition’s best. And how will the Avalanche hold up in grind-style games? The hope is Colorado can make the most of its opportunities when they become available in low-scoring contests, perhaps on the power play. Surprisingly, though, special teams play hasn’t been a strong suit. The last thing Colorado will want is a series that turns into a slog.
X-factor: Goaltending can be the position of most importance in the post-season, but it may be the position at which the Avalanche are least confident. Philipp Grubauer, who was sidelined down the stretch, has only 16 games experience in the post-season and a wholly unflattering career .909 save percentage. Meanwhile, Pavel Francouz, he of an ugly .895 SP and 3.31 GAA in four AHL playoff games last season, has never seen post-season action in the NHL. Against a defense-minded opponent, goaltending will swing the series, and if either Grubauer or Francouz shows cracks, it will spell disaster for the Avalanche.
4. DALLAS STARS – By Jared Clinton
The Stars want to smother and suffocate every opponent who crosses their path. That is the goal.
While coach Rick Bowness’ group wasn’t tops in the league in suppressing shots or preventing attempts on net, where Dallas thrives is in limiting prime opportunities against. Led on the blueline by the woefully underrated trio of Miro Heiskanen, John Klingberg and Esa Lindell, there are few teams across the league that give as little to the opposition as the Stars. Dallas was so good at insulating its crease that Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin have among the best individual statistics of any goaltenders in the league. It’s no wonder their combined save percentage is better than that of any other duo.
We’ve seen how effective the Stars’ defensive style of play can be in the post-season, too. It was just last year that Dallas nearly toppled the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues in the second round. The two teams were so evenly matched that it took double overtime in Game 7 to decide the series. Had it not been for that OT goal, who knows where the Stars’ playoff run would have ended?
The issue, however, is that that Dallas at times becomes so transfixed with its own-zone play that it almost entirely foregoes offense. Only five teams scored fewer goals per game than the Stars, and only one of those clubs – the Columbus Blue Jackets – made the playoffs.
It’s no wonder, then, that rookie Denis Gurianov was Dallas’ only 20-goal scorer, and Tyler Seguin was the only Star to exceed the 40-point plateau. In playing such staunch defensive hockey, Dallas puts itself in danger of offensive lulls that are difficult to shake. It can be a chore for the Stars to flip the switch offensively in times of need when they’ve spent the majority of an outing providing a shell for their netminders. All of which is to say: jumping out to an early lead is crucial.
X-factor: Few players wear their heart on their sleeve quite like Joe Pavelski, the former Sharks captain who was a cap casualty in San Jose. After signing in the summer, he became a key middle-six cog in Dallas. Though the veteran center has had a modest offensive output, he remains a premier net-front player – and perhaps no one in the league is as adept at high-slot tips as the 36-year-old. His play in all three zones has been a boon to the Dallas lineup. He came oh-so-close to winning a Stanley Cup in San Jose, and he’s in the twilight of his career. He can be a player the Stars rally around, and his play is sure to inspire.
Sunday, Aug. 2, 6:30 p.m.: Blues vs. Avalanche
Monday, Aug. 3, 6:30 p.m: Stars vs. Golden Knights
Wednesday, Aug. 5, 6:30 p.m.: Avalanche vs. Stars
Thursday, Aug. 6, TBD: Golden Knights vs. Blues
Saturday, Aug. 8, TBD: Golden Knights vs. Avalanche
Sunday, Aug. 9, TBD: Stars vs. Blues
(all games listed in eastern time)
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