NHL Return to Play: A look at the Western Conference matchups

[UPDATE – JULY 10: NHL announces full schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers]

While a lot can change between now and actual, meaningful hockey happening, the NHL announced its return-to-play plans on Tuesday. That means we learned the 24 teams who will be potentially playing hockey later this summer, with 12 from the Western Conference and 12 from the East. We also learned about the seven teams who will have a long wait until next season, and how the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery will be handled.

Most directly enticingly, we found out about eight Qualifying Round matchups if play is to resume in a few months. We also learned that the top four teams in each conference will play in round robin tournaments to determine seeding for the First Round.

For the Western Conference, the winners of each Qualifying Round will go on to face one of the Blues, Avalanche, Golden Knights, and Stars.

Now that we know the teams, let’s take an overview of the four Western Conference qualifying round matchups.

[MORE: A look at the Eastern Conference matchups]

(5) Oilers vs. (12) Blackhawks

Saturday, Aug. 1: Blackhawks vs. Oilers
Monday, Aug. 3: Blackhawks vs. Oilers
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Oilers vs. Blackhawks
Friday, Aug. 7: Oilers vs. Blackhawks*
Saturday, Aug. 8: Blackhawks vs. Oilers*

Regular season recap

The Oilers surged to the Pacific Division’s second spot on the strength of “The Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid Show.” A lot had to go right for that to happen, even beyond Draisaitl and McDavid dominating compared to their usual, lofty standards.

When it comes to judging the Blackhawks, it’s all about your expectations. If you were expecting the return of dynasty days, then sure, you’d be disappointed. Most have tempered such expectations, and with that in mind, the team at least found ways to scrap toward reasonable competitiveness. Sure, they can be a mess, but sometimes they snatched victory from the jaws of defensive defeat.

With a whopping 110 points, Draisaitl blazed by anyone else to win the Art Ross Trophy. No one else even crossed 100 points, as McDavid finished second in scoring with 97. Other Oilers didn’t provide much offense beyond Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (61 points), as Zack Kassian and Oscar Klefbom finished fourth on Edmonton with just 34.

The Blackhawks didn’t reach the same heights, but were similarly top-heavy. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews continue to run the show. Beyond them, Alex DeBrincat took a step back, but Dominik Kubalik emerged.

On paper, Chicago probably hopes to break even regarding special teams. Yes, both teams featured top-10 penalty kill units this season, but the Oilers boasted the most efficient power play in the NHL, while Chicago’s PP was almost the worst.

Even with Robin Lehner shipped away in a trade, the Blackhawks may hold a goaltending advantage. Corey Crawford finished 2019-20 on fire, while Edmonton’s options were merely average.

Season series

Blackhawks leads season series 2-1. Last meeting: Chicago won 4-3 on March 5.

Injured players who could return

Blackhawks: When Calvin de Haan underwent shoulder surgery in late December, it seemed to be season-ending. Now it’s not so clear. Concussions could be especially tricky to deal with in this climate, so we’ll see how Adam Boqvist comes along. One would think that Andrew Shaw and Brent Seabrook won’t be available, but who knows?

Oilers: Edmonton indicated that Mike Green and Joakim Nygard should both be ready for a return to play.

Storylines to Watch

Considering the gap between McDavid and Draisaitl vs. Kane and Toews, cynics might groan when things are framed as the battle between a dwindling dynamic duo and a rising one.

But … c’mon. It is fun to picture how those rising stars will try to learn new tricks from those old dogs. The truth is that Kane and especially Toews already “passed the torch,” yet this could be a lot of fun. Really, the (mostly) flawed rosters around both duos could make the battles more fun to watch.

I ranked this as the most exciting series of the Western Conference side, but click here to see if it got the overall nod.

Western Conference qualifying round matchups Predators Coyotes
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(6) Predators vs. (11) Coyotes

Sunday, Aug. 2: Coyotes vs. Predators
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Coyotes vs. Predators
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Predators vs. Coyotes
Friday, Aug. 7: Predators vs. Coyotes*
Sunday, Aug. 9: Coyotes vs. Predators*

Regular season recap

After stumbling for much of the season, the Predators were starting to get their wits about them entering the pandemic pause. On the other hand, the Coyotes seemed to be running out of gas, and rank among the teams lucky to still be in the dance.

Even before COVID-19 disrupted life and sports, the Predators experienced plenty of drama. It says a lot about the ups and downs of the Predators’ season that they a) fired Peter Laviolette during the season, b) hired John Hynes, who was also fired during 2019-20, and c) managed to finish in the old wild-card setup entering the pause. Phew.

If you’re asking me, you need to squint to see major Predators improvements, unless you really have a thing for coaches benching star players.

That goes for Laviolette to Hynes, and also improving on issues from 2018-19. Despite adding Matt Duchene and removing P.K. Subban, the power play remains a drag. New issues surfaced, too, with Pekka Rinne‘s play sagging to a worrisome degree.

Speaking of things staying mostly the same … hey, at least the Predators still have that defense.  Mattias Ekholm‘s useful, yet Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis stood out the most. Check out where Ellis and Josi rank on Evolving Hockey’s GAR chart for all skaters, not just defensemen:

Evolving Hockey GAR Ellis Panarin Pettersson Josivia Evolving Hockey

Personally, the feeling with the Predators is “they made all of those changes to end up, basically, in the same spot?” You could say similar things about the Coyotes. Despite bringing in Phil Kessel and then Taylor Hall, the Coyotes continue to live off of goaltending (and to a lesser extent, defense).

At least Arizona’s goalies have delivered enough to make that living survivable, if not easy. Darcy Kuemper continued to quietly rank among the league’s best, while Antti Raanta came through when Kuemper got hurt.

Season series

The Coyotes and Predators split their season series 1-1. Nashville won the last meeting 3-2 on Dec. 23.

Injured players who could return

Coyotes: One would expect Conor Garland to be over his knee injury. Arizona should get young defenseman Jakob Chychrun back, too.

Predators: The 2019-20 season presented the Predators with injury issues, but they were healing up nicely around the time of the pause. Dan Hamhuis should probably be healed up, though.

Storylines to Watch

When you look at the way these teams are put together, both the Predators and Coyotes made bold moves to step forward. Instead, they’ve basically stood in place.

Will either team be able to argue that the gambles eventually paid off once play resumes? Can Duchene justify his price tag? Can Phil Kessel regain his scoring touch? How much money will Taylor Hall lose or gain in free agency?

The Predators and Coyotes have a lot to prove, and a lot to lose.

Also, “Coach vs. Player” doesn’t really do much for me when the two say glowing things about each other, but Hynes did coach Hall during Hall’s Hart season so …

Western Conference qualifying round matchups Canucks Wild
(Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

(7) Canucks vs. (10) Wild

Sunday, Aug. 2: Wild vs. Canucks
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Wild vs. Canucks
Thursday, Aug. 6: Canucks vs. Wild
Friday, Aug. 7: Canucks vs. Wild*
Sunday, Aug. 9: Wild vs. Canucks*

Regular season recap

As different as their paths and outlooks have been, it’s fascinating how little space there ended up being between the Canucks (78 points, 69 games played) and Wild (77 in 69 GP).

The Canucks already boast some of the premium pieces the sort-of-rebuilding Wild should clamor for. Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes look like stars now, let alone later. Their development buoyed Jim Benning’s gambles, from ones that were brilliant (J.T. Miller, costly or not) to not-so-much (Tyler Myers, mainly costly). Pettersson, a few other skaters, and an on-point Jacob Markstrom have made things work just enough.

By most underlying measures, the Wild were actually a pretty competent team in 2019-20. They played well enough, collectively, that Bruce Boudreau probably didn’t deserve to be fired. That’s just how it goes for coaches in the NHL, though, especially since Bill Guerin didn’t hire Boudreau. (Frankly, Jason Zucker wasn’t the problem either, but at least trading him seemed like a gesture toward rebuilding.)

Really, you could argue that Devan Dubnyk was as responsible as anyone for Boudreau getting fired. If the Wild played at about the level they did — including Kevin Fiala rising to something approaching a star level — Minnesota could be a fairly tough out.

They’ll need better goaltending, though, whether they hope Dubnyk can rebound, or they stick with Alex Stalock, who was increasingly grabbing starts.

Season series

Wild won two of the three games, although one of those victories came via a shootout. That aforementioned (Wild won 4-3 [SO]) happened during their most recent meeting on Feb. 19.

Injured players who could return

Canucks: It seems like Markstrom and Chris Tanev should probably be good to go from what seemed like minor, late-season injuries. The break could be beneficial for Micheal Ferland, who was dealing with concussion issues. Josh Leivo should be back.

Wild: Not much to speak of for Minnesota, as Eric Staal missed time for personal reasons. Staal spoke about that recently.

Storylines to Watch

Vancouver missed the playoffs for four straight seasons, and five of their last six. The Canucks also haven’t won a series since losing Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final to the Bruins. As much as it sometimes feels like these youngsters are skipping to the front of line for Vancouver, Canucks fans must be getting antsy.

While it only seemed like the Wild were headed toward two consecutive seasons without postseason appearances, their larger decline extends further. Minnesota won two first-round series in 2013-14 and 2014-15, but otherwise haven’t seen much from the Zach PariseRyan Suter era. (Who, for all the negative talk around them, remain top contributors for the Wild.)

A Parise trade didn’t work out. Mikko Koivu did not get traded, whether the Wild wanted to or not. As badly as the Wild need a rebuild, this unexpected opportunity opens the door for a last hurrah.

So, will it be one more ride for the Wild, or a chance for the Canucks to take big steps toward an even bigger future?

Western Conference qualifying round matchups Jets Flames
(Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

(8) Flames vs. (9) Jets

Saturday, Aug. 1: Jets vs. Flames
Monday, Aug. 3: Jets vs. Flames
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Flames vs. Jets
Thursday, Aug. 6: Flames vs. Jets*
Saturday, Aug. 8: Jets vs. Flames*

Regular season recap

When considering the Flames’ 2019-20 season, don’t compare their work to 2018-19 alone. Unless you want to be sorely underwhelmed.

That’s because, frankly, multiple Flames put together career seasons they weren’t likely to replicate. You could argue that all of Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Giordano, Elias Lindholm, and Sean Monahan might have played over their heads last season. Those players cooled off considerably — maybe extremely — and the Flames suffered as a result.

In a twist, that drop-off didn’t explain why Bill Peters got fired.

Even so, that group remains pretty good, especially with Matthew Tkachuk steadily improving (and thus becoming that much more annoying). Cam Talbot‘s also been a nice addition for the Flames, who are seemingly always looking for that goalie.

That goalie in Winnipeg ranks as far and away the main reason the Jets didn’t totally crash. Connor Hellebuyck absolutely saved Winnipeg’s season, as the Jets were absolutely dreadful on defense. As in: even worse than you’d expect after subtracting Dustin Byfuglien (voluntarily or not), Jacob Trouba, and Tyler Myers.

As leaky as the Jets were on defense, they still have the fuel for serious offensive firepower, as Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Patrik Laine remained productive in 2019-20.

Season series

The Jets took the season’s only meeting 3-1 in overtime on Oct. 26.

Injured players who could return

Flames: The timetable seems right for Travis Hamonic to return. Noah Hanifin had also been dealing with some concussion issues.

Jets: How serious were Bryan Little‘s issues? If they were season-threatening, maybe he could come back? If they are closer to career-threatening, then who knows? Perhaps we’ll learn more in the next few weeks.

Storylines to Watch

Last season, the Flames ranked first in the Western Conference, while the Jets managed 99 points. For all the disappointments in 2019-20, and even with some key omissions in mind, it’s not that difficult to imagine both teams putting something special together.

Two star-packed teams hoping to make the most of what is pretty close to a clean slate? That could be fun. Really, it could actually be the most exciting series for the Western Conference side if everything clicks.

Besides, Patrik Laine might say funny things, and Matthew Tkachuk has all that pent-up pandemic pest energy to release. (OK, that last part has me worried.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL schedule for First Round of 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

2020 nhl playoff schedule
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The Stanley Cup Playoffs continue on Tuesday, Aug. 11 in the hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto. The league has released the 2020 NHL playoff schedule for the First Round.

The top four teams during the regular season in both conferences played a three-game round robin for seeding in the First Round. The eight winners of the best-of-5 Qualifying Round advanced to the First Round. The losing teams from the Qualifying Round have been entered into Phase 2 of the NHL Draft Lottery.

Below is the 2020 NHL playoff schedule.

Note: Teams are re-seeded after each round.

EASTERN CONFERENCE (Scotiabank Arena)

No. 1 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 8 Montreal Canadiens

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Montreal at Philadelphia, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 14: Montreal at Philadelphia, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: Philadelphia at Montreal, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
Tuesday, Aug. 18: Philadelphia at Montreal, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Montreal at Philadelphia – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Philadelphia at Montreal – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Montreal at Philadelphia – TBD

No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. No. 7 Columbus Blue Jackets

Tuesday, Aug. 11: Columbus at Tampa Bay, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 13: Columbus at Tampa Bay, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Saturday, Aug. 15: Tampa Bay at Columbus, 7:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Monday, Aug. 17: Tampa Bay at Columbus, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Columbus at Tampa Bay – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Tampa Bay at Columbus – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Columbus at Tampa Bay – TBD

No. 3 Washington Capitals vs. No. 6 New York Islanders

Wednesday, Aug. 12: NY Islanders at Washington, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 14: NY Islanders at Washington, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: Washington at NY Islanders, 12 p.m. ET – USA Network
Tuesday, Aug. 18: Washington at NY Islanders, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Thursday, Aug. 20: NY Islanders at Washington – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Washington at NY Islanders – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: NY Islanders at Washington – TBD

No. 4 Boston Bruins vs. No. 5 Carolina Hurricanes

Tuesday, Aug. 11: Carolina at Boston, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 13: Carolina at Boston, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Saturday, Aug. 15: Boston at Carolina, 12 p.m ET – NBC
Monday, Aug. 17: Boston at Carolina, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Carolina at Boston – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Boston at Carolina – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Carolina at Boston – TBD

*if necessary

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WESTERN CONFERENCE (Rogers Place)

No. 1 Vegas Golden Knights vs. No. 8 Chicago Blackhawks

Tuesday, Aug. 11: Chicago at Vegas, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 13: Chicago at Vegas, 5:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Saturday, Aug. 15: Vegas at Chicago, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
Sunday, Aug. 16: Vegas at Chicago, 6:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Tuesday, Aug. 18: Chicago at Vegas – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Vegas at Chicago – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Chicago at Vegas – TBD

No. 2 Colorado Avalanche vs. No. 7 Arizona Coyotes

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Arizona at Colorado, 5:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 14: Arizona at Colorado, 2 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Saturday, Aug. 15: Colorado at Arizona, 3 p.m. ET – CNBC
Monday, Aug. 17: Colorado at Arizona, 5:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Arizona at Colorado – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Colorado at Arizona – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Arizona at Colorado – TBD

No. 3 Dallas Stars vs. No. 6 Calgary Flames

Tuesday, Aug. 11: Calgary at Dallas, 5:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 13: Calgary at Dallas, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 14: Dallas at Calgary, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: Dallas at Calgary, 2 p.m. ET – CNBC
*Tuesday, Aug. 18: Calgary at Dallas – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Dallas at Calgary – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Dallas at Calgary – TBD

No. 4 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 5 Vancouver Canucks

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Vancouver at St. Louis, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 14: Vancouver at St. Louis, 6:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: St. Louis at Vancouver, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Monday, Aug. 17: St. Louis at Vancouver, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Vancouver at St. Louis – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: St. Louis at Vancouver – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Vancouver at St. Louis – TBD

*if necessary

2020 nhl playoff schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Jets’ Mark Scheifele on injury: ‘I’ll be back better than ever’

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The injury Mark Scheifele suffered in Game 1 of Winnipeg’s Qualifying Round series against Calgary is fortunately not as bad as it appeared.

Scheifele left 5:29 into the opening game after a collision with Matthew Tkachuk along the boards. It initially looked like he had suffered a serious knee injury, or even worse, was cut by Tkachuk’s skate. He didn’t reveal the exact nature of the injury, but did say he expects to be 100% very soon.

“Initially I thought I tore my Achilles and I was done for six months,” the Jets forward said on a video call with reporters Tuesday.

Tkachuk called the play an “accident.” Jets head coach Paul Maurice went off on the Flames forward in the postgame, describing the play “a filthy, dirty kick to the back of the leg.”

Scheifele doesn’t believe what Tkachuk did was intentional and the two have spoken since Game 1.

“If someone is on the ice trying to cut someone with their skate, I don’t think Matt was trying to do that,” he said.

In their conversational Tkachuk did admit he was out of control and skating too fast before the collision.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

“The way I look at it, at the last second, I turned up and it was kind of like a knee-on-knee scenario,” Scheifele said. “The one thing I know — and he talked about being out of control and skating too fast. He took ownership of that. I know for me as a hockey player, I work every single day at being in control, at being in control of where I’m at on the ice and the space around me. That’s what I work on every single day.

“It’s one of those things that’s a learning curve for everyone. You try to be in control all the time. I look at it as a knee-on-knee scenario. That’s just the way the game works. It’s a fast-moving game, but I’m thankful it wasn’t as serious as it could have been. I had a lot of bad thoughts go through my mind that I was going to be out for six months and that my career could be over. That was tough on me, and the worst part was the anticipation of getting some answers. All I could do was thank God that I am on the mend, I didn’t need surgery and I’ll be back better than ever.”

Despite playing only three shifts and now spending his off-season recovering, Scheifele isn’t one to hold a grudge.

“The way my parents raised me you forgive everyone, and that’s all you can do. You wish the best on every person,” he said. “Matt’s a great hockey player and has a ton of work ethic. I have no hard feelings. Obviously, I wish it never happened and I played in the rest of that series, but there is nothing you can do about that now.

“All you can do is wish everyone the best and hope that everyone stays safe and healthy. That’s kind of the only thoughts on my mind. In my mind, I’m just trying to get better, trying to get my body back to 100% and that’s all I can worry about.”

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Blue Jackets-Lightning stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup First Round

Blue Jackets-Lightning stream
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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs continues with Tuesday’s First Round matchup between the Blue Jackets and Lightning. Coverage begins at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Blue Jackets-Lightning stream at 2:30 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

For the second straight season the Blue Jackets and Lightning will face off in the First Round of the postseason after Columbus became the first team in NHL history to sweep a Presidents’ Trophy winner in the opening round a season ago when they defeated Tampa in four games. That victory was the Blue Jackets’ first ever playoff series win after 18 seasons in the league and now a year later these clubs meet again following Columbus’ winner-take-all victory over Toronto on Sunday night.

The Blue Jackets advanced through the Qualifying Round by defeating the host city team, Toronto, in its own building. Columbus bookended the series with Joonas Korpisalo shutouts, sending the Maple Leafs home for the offseason on Sunday night after a 3-0 win.

The Lightning went 2-1-0 in its first three games this postseason, defeating Washington (3-2 SO) and Boston (3-2) before falling to Philadelphia (4-1) on Saturday in a game that determined the No. 1 seed. A victory over the Flyers would have matched Tampa against Montreal in this round instead of this rematch.

WHAT: Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
WHERE: Scotiabank Arena – Toronto
WHEN: Tuesday, August 11, 2:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: Gord Miller, Mike Milbury, Brian Boucher
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Blue Jackets-Lightning stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. No. 7 Columbus Blue Jackets

Tuesday, Aug. 11: Columbus at Tampa Bay, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Thursday, Aug. 13: Columbus at Tampa Bay, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Saturday, Aug. 15: Tampa Bay at Columbus, 7:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Monday, Aug. 17: Tampa Bay at Columbus, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Columbus at Tampa Bay – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Tampa Bay at Columbus – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Columbus at Tampa Bay – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

‘Heavy lifting:’ West is big, tough, deep and wide open

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The top of the Western Conference features the defending Stanley Cup champion, a 2018 finalist with even more talent and an MVP front-runner.

Good luck picking a favorite.

The Vegas Golden Knights earned the top seed in the West by winning all three of their games in a round-robin tournament against the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues. But the Avalanche still have Nathan MacKinnon and are healthier and deeper than before, and there’s no sleeping on the Blues after they muscled their way to the Cup.

”It’s deep,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said. ”There are no easy paths. … We’re happy to be a part of it, we’re happy we have the No. 1 seed, but we know there’s a lot of heavy lifting here left to do.”

Heavy is the name of the game out West, where size is as big an element of success as scoring. St. Louis is the standard, but the Calgary Flames bruised their way into the first round by beating up Winnipeg and present an obstacle for the third-seeded Stars.

”The West, there’s a lot of heavy, hard teams that play a pretty simple game and the Blues are obviously the best at it being the champs,” Dallas captain Jamie Benn said. ”I think Calgary’s pretty similar. They got some pretty rugged forwards that play the game hard, so we have to be prepared for that.”

Reigning playoff MVP Ryan O'Reilly said the Blues are aware of the difficult road back to the final but are only preparing for their first-round opponent: the faster and smaller Vancouver Canucks. He and Canucks coach Travis Green mirrored each other minutes apart Monday by each saying his team must play its best hockey to win.

The same goes for the eighth-seeded Chicago Blackhawks going up against Vegas, and the seventh-seeded Arizona Coyotes against Colorado. Hart Trophy finalist Nathan MacKinnon is among the best players in the world and has a strong supporting cast with captain Gabriel Landeskog, winger Mikko Rantanen and rookie defenseman Cale Makar.

”They’re built to win right now,” Arizona coach Rick Tocchet said. ”They’re highly skilled, they’re hard on the puck. … They got arguably one of the best players if not the best player in the league. Just a well-rounded team.”

MacKinnon showed his value in the regular season by carrying the banged-up Avalanche to second in the West. Now he’s ready to try to push them toward the Cup.

”Every year you play in the NHL, you realize you don’t have many chances,” MacKinnon said. ”For me, this feels like my first real chance to win, which really excites me and I think it excites everyone.”

INJURY CONCERNS

There are injury questions surrounding three Western teams’ leading scorers, including Vegas winger Max Pacioretty‘s anticipated playoff debut for Game 1 against Chicago. Pacioretty hadn’t entered the Edmonton bubble until last week, though general manager Kelly McCrimmon said the 31-year-old cleared quarantine in time to skate four days in a row and practice Monday.

Pacioretty being ready to go makes the Golden Knights even scarier.

”It gives us more depth,” DeBoer said. ”It adds our leading scorer back into our lineup. It helps our power play. He helps us in a lot of different areas.”

Dallas Stars coach Rick Bowness said ”everyone’s healthy,” which seems to be good news for 50-point producer Tyler Seguin and starting goaltender Ben Bishop, who each missed the round-robin finale Sunday.

Tocchet said forward Nick Schmaltz had gotten a full practice under his belt and was feeling better. He might not be ready for Game 1 against Colorado on Wednesday, but Schmaltz is ”definitely getting close.”

GOALIE CAROUSEL

The top three teams in the East could all employ something of a goaltending tandem in the first round. That’s not common among the NHL’s best, but this is an uncommon format that includes one set of back-to-back games in every series.

”We’ve got two starters – a great luxury to have,” DeBoer said of the Golden Knights’ Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner. ”How we’re going to roll them out is to be determined.”

Colorado has Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz to roll out however coach Jared Bednar sees fit. He has chosen his Game 1 starter but won’t say. The same goes for the Stars between Bishop and Khudobin, who split time in the round-robin.

OH, CANADA

With the (empty arena) hosts Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs out and with all due respect to the East’s eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens, the best hopes of ending Canada’s 27-year Cup drought are the Flames and Canucks.

Vancouver faces the tall first task of needing to knock off the reigning champs, and Calgary is considered an underdog as the No. 6 seed against No. 3 Dallas. The Winnipeg series made the Flames look ready for playoff hockey.

”What probably people mean when they talk about being an underdog and being in a position to upset, I think really they’re really they’re probably referring to how hard the team plays and how good they are away from the puck,” Flames coach Geoff Ward said. ”If you get those two attributes in your game, you’re always going to find that you’re in a game and you’re going to be a difficult team to beat.”