Playoff Primer: West Division Preview

Playoff Primer: West Division Preview

This article is part of our Cap Compliance series.

Following a modified 56-game schedule that exclusively featured inter-division matchups, the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs are about to bring us two more rounds of divisional clashes. RotoWire will bring you a breakdown of each division ahead of the start of postseason play. Shawn Hutchinson will provide a deep dive into the West Division matchups below.

Colorado Avalanche (1) vs St. Louis Blues (4)

The Avalanche posted a 5-3 record over the Blues in the regular season, but it was the Blues who won the last two games on April 24 and April 27. The Avalanche held a 26-21 advantage in goals. Another factor in favor of Colorado: a 22-4-2 home record, tied for the best in the NHL with the Penguins. That advantage could be partially mitigated by the Blues' 15-9-4 road record, which was better than the 12-11-5 mark they posted at home. 

Up Front

Avalanche: The Avalanche boast one of the most productive lines in the league with Nathan MacKinnon (undisclosed) flanked by Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. All three star forwards reached the 20-goal mark this season. MacKinnon is also the only player in the league to exceed 60 points despite playing fewer than 50 games. Further down the lineup, look for red-hot Andre Burakovsky (12 points in his last eight contests) and Joonas Donskoi (17 goals, 14 assists in 51 outings) to supply some scoring depth on the wings. 

Blues: Led by the top-line duo of Ryan O'Reilly and David Perron, the Blues aren't short on talent. Both forwards flirted with a point-per-game pace this season, with Perron (19 goals, 39 assists) ultimately achieving that mark. Beyond that, the Blues received inconsistent efforts from Brayden Schenn, Mike Hoffman and Jordan Kyrou – all three reached the 30-point mark, but each forward also endured a dry spell of at least five games. Getting the middle six involved will be crucial if St. Louis is to advance past the first round. Vladimir Tarasenko (lower body) could provide a scoring boost, but his status for Game 1 is up in the air. 

The Blue Line

Avalanche: Cale Makar headlines the Avalanche's defense – much like MacKinnon up front, Makar (44 points in 44 games) was able to put up elite point production at his position despite missing a dozen games to injury. Samuel Girard and Devon Toews also provided solid two-way play for an Avalanche defense that allowed only 25.4 shots per game, the lowest total in the league by a wide margin. With three 30-point defensemen in the lineup, the Avalanche are capable of getting plenty of offense from the blue line. 

Blues: Torey Krug and Justin Faulk have worked as a successful top pairing for the Blues this season. Krug exceeded 30 points, although it took him some time to settle in with his new team after signing in St. Louis in the offseason. Faulk, in his second year with the Blues, enjoyed a bounce-back campaign and is likely to provide as much physicality as scoring potential during the playoffs. Colton Parayko (undisclosed) and Vince Dunn (upper body) are question marks heading into the postseason – this could leave the Blues thin on the blue line against a top-five offense in the first round. 

Between the Pipes

Avalanche: Philipp Grubauer will be the unquestioned No. 1 goalie for the Avalanche in the postseason. He recorded 30 wins in 40 games this season, just one victory behind Tampa Bay's Andrei Vasilevskiy. Grubauer also co-led the NHL with seven shutouts, tied with the Islanders' Semyon Varlamov. Thanks to the aforementioned suffocating defense, Grubauer remains well protected from dangerous chances in the crease.

Blues: Jordan Binnington will lead the way for the Blues in the postseason. He's had a solid season with a 2.65 GAA and a .910 save percentage, but the 27-year-old fell short of the 20-win mark in 42 outings. He's got Stanley Cup experience under his belt, but that may not be enough after two straight seasons of middling play. Ville Husso will back up Binnington – the latter isn't likely to sit out unless he gets hurt.

Series Prediction

It's going to be tough for anyone to break down the Avalanche's defense without leaving themselves exposed in their own zone. This could lead to some grinding hockey, but the Avalanche's elite skill players and sturdy defense should prevail in five games, despite the Blues' momentum entering the postseason with a 6-1-3 record in their last 10 games.

Vegas Golden Knights (2) vs Minnesota Wild (3)

The Golden Knights are a popular pick to at least reach the Stanley Cup Final, but the first obstacle in their playoff journey is a Wild team that carried a winning record in the season series. Minnesota was 5-1-2 against the Golden Knights this year, while Vegas posted a 3-4-1 record in the season series. There's no doubt these two teams played each other close – the goal totals were even at 24 apiece. Low scoring battles were rare, which should make this an exciting series regardless of which team prevails. Both teams had matching 21-5-2 records at home, but the Golden Knights' 19-9-0 record on the road gives them an advantage compared to the Wild's 14-11-3 record in their travels. 

Up Front

Golden Knights: The Golden Knights' forwards are led by two dynamic wingers in Max Pacioretty (undisclosed) and Mark Stone. Pacioretty's status ahead of Game 1 isn't clear, but he'd provide a big boost to the offense – he led Vegas with 24 goals and added 27 assists in 48 games. Stone led the team with 61 points in 55 outings. The Golden Knights are far from a one-line team – look for Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith to chip in some supporting offense from the second line. Smith in particular could be an interesting player, as he finished the regular season with five goals and four assists in seven May outings. Third-line winger Alex Tuch (undisclosed) is expected to be fine for the postseason, and his steady offense (18 goals, 15 assists) will put him in the mix for power-play time.

Wild: Led by Kirill Kaprizov, the Wild transformed into an exciting, high-octane offense that averaged 3.21 goals per game this year, good for ninth in the league. The Calder Trophy favorite Kaprizov racked up 51 points (27 goals, 24 assists) in 55 games. Kevin Fiala (40 points in 50 games) and Mats Zuccarello (35 points in 42 games) also enjoyed strong seasons in top-six roles. Minnesota can functionally roll four lines – none of them are elite, but they can all hold their own. Look for the trio of Jordan Greenway, Joel Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno to serve as the most well-rounded and physical line on the team.

The Blue Line

Golden KnightsShea Theodore has shined on the blue line for the Golden Knights with 42 points and a plus-28 rating in 53 contests, although he enters the postseason on a five-game point drought. The 25-year-old will be supported by veterans Alex Pietrangelo and Alec Martinez (foot). Pietrangelo is solid at both ends of the ice and finished with nine points in his last 10 outings, while Martinez, if he's healthy, is coming off of a 32-point, 168-blocked shot bounce-back regular season. Deeper in the lineup, Nicolas Hague (five goals, 12 assists) will provide a little of Vegas' patented toughness in a third-pairing role.

Wild: Despite down years from Jared Spurgeon, Ryan Suter and Matt Dumba, the Wild have plenty of name-recognition on the blue line. Getting them involved in the offense may be tricky – the trio of defensemen combined for only 64 points this season, compared to 104 last year. They'll likely monopolize the power-play time on the back end. Carson Soucy picked up some of the scoring slack with 17 points and a plus-21 rating in his second NHL campaign, but he's unlikely to work above the third pairing.

Between the Pipes

Golden Knights: Vegas may have one of the top-3 goaltending duos in the league – the team allowed just 122 goals all season, which led to Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner sharing the William M. Jennings Trophy. While some teams have only one tried and true option in net, either of the Golden Knights' masked men could be a No. 1 on many other teams. This makes them more injury proof, although it's unclear if head coach Pete DeBoer will continue his every-other-game goalie rotation in the postseason or ride the hot hand should one emerge.  

Wild: Kaapo Kahkonen emerged as a solid backup for the Wild this year, but the crease belongs to Cam Talbot heading into the playoffs. The 33-year-old Talbot went 7-2-2 with an unimpressive 2.97 GAA and an .899 save percentage over his last 11 starts, but he's been a solid option between the pipes with 19 wins in 33 outings overall. Talbot won't give the Wild an edge in the net, but he's steady enough to keep things close. 

Series Prediction

Both teams will likely combine for exciting, high-event hockey throughout the course of the series. The Wild have played the Golden Knights hard this season, but Vegas ranks in the top three in both offense and defense. The Golden Knights' depth throughout the lineup and elite goaltending will likely see them take the best-of-seven set in six games. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shawn Hutchinson
Shawn has covered sports independently since 2010, and joined RotoWire in 2019. He serves as a beat writer for the Calgary Flames and contributes in hockey and baseball. Shawn also enjoys soccer, rooting on his hometown teams: Sounders FC and Reign FC.
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