In assessing the status of his Pacific Division champion Calgary Flames, coach Darryl Sutter may have at the same time aptly captured the unpredictable state of the entire Western Conference once the playoffs open on Monday.
“We’re good. We’ve been consistent all year,” Sutter said. “The key is being healthy and know what we’re up against. There’s a big storm coming here this week.”
Sutter’s point was for the Flames to not take for granted their first-round opponent, the Dallas Stars, who made the jump from ninth to seventh during a frantic final week in becoming the NHL’s final team to clinch a playoff berth.
As storm warnings go, the playoffs have traditionally stirred up havoc for the top seeds in the West, in which only one division champ — Vegas in its first season of existence, 2018 — reached the Stanley Cup Final since the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks won the title in 2013. The Blues finished fifth in the West when they won the Cup in 2019, the 2014 Cup-wining Los Angeles Kings were sixth, while Nashville was eighth when losing the championship to Pittsburgh in 2017.
This year’s field doesn’t include Vegas for the first time in franchise history, while Calgary and Colorado are the top two seeds, but with a recent history of early round playoff collapses. The Kings return to the playoff for the first time in four years.
And brace yourselves for Central Division rivals Minnesota and St. Louis meeting in a first-round matchup which has the makings of being a bruiser.
In Denver, the Central-Division champion Avalanche are seeking to put past frustrations behind a year after the Presidents’ Trophy-winning team was knocked out in the second round by Vegas. Colorado, which hasn’t advanced past the second round since losing the Western Conference final to Detroit in 2002, will open against eighth-seeded Nashville.
“It’s not something that I’m thinking about anymore. It’s a new group this year. We have new opportunities and a new challenge,” defenseman Cale Makar said. “Obviously we know what’s happened these past few years and we’re driven to overcome the challenges that have hindered us in the past.”
The Flames’ playoff history is just as checkered. They’ve won just two of 10 playoff series since losing the Cup Final to Tampa Bay in 2004.
And it’s no different for Edmonton, where the second-seeded Oilers advanced to the playoffs for just the fourth time since Connor McDavid’s arrival in 2015, and coming off a four-game first-round dud against Winnipeg a year ago. Edmonton opens against the Kings.
“I think we’ve grown as a team and learned from that and found ways to get around that a little bit better this year,” center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said of how high-scoring Oilers managed just eight goals against Winnipeg. “Obviously, this is going to be a tough series, a tight-checking series, but we’ve got to find a way to get that extra one or just push a little harder.”
1 COLORADO vs. 4 NASHVILLE
The Avalanche finished 22 points ahead of the Predators in the standings, and could have an even more distinct edge if Nashville starter Juuse Sarros is unable to return after missing the final two regular season games with an undisclosed injury.
The Avalanche stumbled down the stretch in going 1-5-1, following a 9-0 win streak. Nashville dropped from seventh to eighth in the standings by blowing a 4-0 lead in a 5-4 loss to Arizona in its season finale.
“I’m proud of this team of how we fought, of how we battled down the stretch,” Predators defenseman said Roman Josi said, following the loss. “This loss is disappointing, but we’ve got to turn the page, get some rest and get excited for the playoffs.”
The matchup pits two of the NHL’s top-scoring defensemen in Josi, who led all blueliners with 96 points, and Makar, who finished second with 86.
2 MINNESOTA vs. 3 ST. LOUIS
Home-ice advantage could prove the difference in a series that was essentially set a month ago.
The Wild set a franchise record with 53 wins and 113 points, while finishing third in the NHL with a 31-8-2 home record. The Blues, who closed their season on a 14-2-2 run, won 23 road games ranked tied for ninth in the NHL.
St. Louis has had the edge over Minnesota by going 12-1-1 in its last 14 meetings, including a 6-4 win at Target Field in this year’s Winter Classic. Seven of those wins, however, were decided by one goal, including five in overtime.
“You get overtime, it can kind of go either way,” Wild defenseman Matt Dumba said. “Yeah we got some things to go over, and we’ll be more than ready.”
The Blues’ feature a lineup that includes an NHL-leading nine 20-goal-scorers. The Wild addressed their goaltending at the trade deadline by acquiring playoff veteran Marc-Andre Fleury to accompany Max Talbot. Fleury has a 9-2 record since joining Minnesota, while Talbot is 13-0-3 in his past 17 appearances.
1 CALGARY vs. 4 DALLAS
The teams meet in the playoff for second time in three years.
The Stars opened their run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2020 — which they lost to Tampa Bay — by defeating the Flames in six games of a first-round series played in the Edmonton COVID-19 bubble. This time, the Flames will have the support of their fans and home-ice advantage.
“I only played a game and a half that series, so personally, I try and forget about it,” said Matthew Tkachuk, who finished second on the Flames with a career-best 104 points this season.
While Dallas reached the postseason for a fifth-straight year, Calgary is making just its fifth appearance since 2010.
“Going into this series, they’ve done it, we haven’t, so that puts them at a big advantage,” Tkachuk said of the Stars being playoff tested. “We’ve got to prove it.”
The Stars are a veteran-laden team led by Joe Pavelski, who became just the 16th player 37 years or older to top 80 points. He finished with 81 points, including 27 goals.
2 EDMONTON vs. 3 LOS ANGELES
Kings coach Todd McLellan faces his former team in the playoffs for the first time since being fired by Edmonton during the 2018-19. season And the Oilers are now coached by McLellan’s former assistant, Jay Woodcroft, who took over after Dave Tippett was fired in February.
The Oilers have surged by going 26-9-3 under Woodcroft to finish with 49 wins, their most since winning 50 in 1986-87.
Oilers forward Derek Ryan credits Woodcroft for his ability to enact problem-solving solutions.
“I think we were searching for that earlier in the year where things weren’t going our way and it just felt like we were being told to work harder and be better,” Ryan said. “We were just searching for more answers and I think Woody has done a good job of bringing those answers in.”
The Kings’ lineup features three healthy remaining members from their 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup championship teams, including forward Dustin Brown, who announced he will retire after this season.
AP Sports Writers Pat Graham, Dave Campbell, Teresa M. Walker and Stephen Hawkins contributed to this report.
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