The Predators have the Presidents’ Trophy, and the NHL-expansion Golden Knights carry the buzz entering the Western Conference playoffs, which have the potential of resembling nothing from the past.
So step aside Chicago, which missed the playoffs for the first time in nine years, and say bye to the Blues, whose six-year playoff run is over.
The changing of the West’s guard begins at the top, where Nashville clinched its first Central Division title by running away with the league’s best record. And then there’s Vegas, which broke every measureable NHL expansion record for success by going 51-24-7 to win the Pacific Division.
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Add in the talent-laden Winnipeg Jets, making their franchise’s third playoff appearance, and youth-filled Colorado Avalanche, who clinched their second berth in eight years, and it results in three of four first-time postseason matchups: Nashville versus Colorado, Vegas versus Los Angeles and Winnipeg facing Minnesota.
The fourth matchup has Anaheim facing San Jose for only the second time after the Ducks eliminated the Sharks in six games during a 2009 first-round series.
Of the eight teams, only three have won the Stanley Cup (Colorado, Anaheim and Los Angeles), while two have never won a playoff game (Vegas and Winnipeg, formerly Atlanta).
The weight of expectations falls mostly on the Predators , who won’t be underestimated a year after the eighth-seeded team’s surge to the Final ended in a six-game loss to Pittsburgh. It was a run Nashville began against Chicago in becoming the first team to sweep a No. 1 seed in the opening round since the current playoff format was set in 1994.
”I think our guys are well aware of what went on last year,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. ”For me, this group is looking down the tunnel at something, and all that other stuff is noise.”
That’s not to say Laviolette didn’t play the ”everyone’s picking Chicago” card as motivation a year ago.
”I might have used it,” he said with a wink.
The Avalanche know their history, with forward Gabriel Landeskog listing how several No. 8 seeds have made deep playoff runs, including the 2012 Cup champion Kings.
”Anything can happen in the playoffs. That’s kind of the mindset we’ve had,” Landeskog said of the Avalanche , who enjoyed a 47-point turnaround after finishing last a year ago. ”This is a big accomplishment to make after such a tough season. We’re not done.”
Nashville finished seventh in the league with 261 goals without any player scoring 30. The Predators’ balanced attack is fueled by a group of speedy, playmaking defensemen who combined for a league-best 206 points (56 goals, 150 assists). Pekka Rinne went 42-13-4 to finish third in victories, and his 2.31 goals-against average was third among goalies playing 40 or more games.
Though Nashville has won 10 straight against Colorado, beware of the Presidents’ Trophy curse. Of the 31 teams to finish first since 1986 when the trophy was established, only eight have won the Cup, the last being Chicago in 2013.
Nathan MacKinnon entered the MVP discussion by leading Colorado with 97 points, including a league-leading 12 game-winning goals. Colorado tied with Arizona with the youngest roster at 25.8 years old.
A Golden Knights team put together with other teams’ discards spent the season using a ”why not us?” mantra in setting expansion-team records for most wins (51), home wins (29), road wins (22) and longest point streak (10-0-2). Vegas features six 20-goal-scorers, including trade-deadline addition Tomas Tatar.
The Golden Knights closed the season 6-3-2, with the regulation losses coming against non-playoff teams: Arizona, Edmonton and Calgary. Marc Andre-Fleury went 29-13-4, but allowed six goals on 18 shots in a season-ending 7-1 loss at Calgary.
The defensive-minded Kings allowed a league-low 202 goals and had the league’s best penalty-killing unit. Jonathan Quick’s 2.40 goals-against average was sixth among goalies appearing in 40 games.
JETS vs WILD
The Jets closed their most successful season in both victories and points on a 20-5-1 run, including winning the final nine home games. Winnipeg is still searching for its first playoff victory after being swept in two previous appearances: by Anaheim in 2015, and by the Rangers in 2007, when Jets were based in Atlanta.
Paul Stastny’s trade-deadline addition provided the NHL’s second-best offense with six 50-plus point producers. Third-year goalie Connor Hellebuyck went 44-11-9, and broke the single-season record for victories by U.S.-born goalies set by Tom Barrasso.
The Wild limp into their sixth straight playoff appearance with defensemen Ryan Suter (broken right ankle) and Jared Spurgeon (torn right hamstring) sidelined, though Spurgeon is expected back from a 17-game absence in this series. Eric Staal’s 76 points (42 goals, 34 assists) were third-most in team history.
DUCKS vs SHARKS
The Ducks earned home-ice advantage with a 3-0 season-ending win over Arizona, coupled with the Sharks’ season-ending 6-3 loss to Minnesota. Anaheim went 25-10-4 since the bye break, and is 14-1-2 at home since Jan. 23. Goalie John Gibson went 21-7-3 in his final 31 decisions, but missed the final week and is listed day to day with an upper body injury.
The Sharks went 19-13-3 over their final 35 games since Joe Thornton was sidelined with a knee injury. Martin Jones allowed five goals on 19 shots against Minnesota, and is 1-4 in his past five while allowing 17 goals.
CONFERENCE FINAL PREDICTION
Nashville over Anaheim in five games. Nashville’s too deep and talented to avoid a letdown, while the Ducks have the experience to get through the injury-depleted Pacific and untested Vegas. Too bad the Predators and Jets face a potential second-round matchup more befitting of a West final.
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno and sports writers Teresa M. Walker and Pat Graham contributed.