NHL Stanley Cup Western Conference round-robin preview

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The NHL Stanley Cup round-robin begins August 2 as the Western Conference’s top four teams battle for First Round seeding. This week, PHT look at one question facing each of the top four seeds in the East and West.

NHL Western Conference Round Robin — TV schedule, start times, channels

Sunday, Aug. 2: Blues vs. Avalanche, 6:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Monday, Aug. 3: Stars vs. Golden Knights, 6:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Avalanche vs. Stars, 6:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 6: Golden Knights vs. Blues, TBD
Saturday, Aug. 8: Golden Knights vs. Avalanche, TBD
Sunday, Aug. 9: Stars vs. Blues, TBD

Western Conference Round Robin preview: Questions for Avalanche, Blues, Golden Knights, and Stars

Avalanche: Are the Avs already contenders, or will that day come later?

The Avalanche already took swift steps forward when Nathan MacKinnon leapt from very nice player to a full-fledged superstar. Year after year, it seems like Colorado adds potential young impact players to the mix. It’s all enough to picture a future brighter than a snow-packed mountain.

But what about the present?

The Avs were right there with the Blues as the top team in the West this season, even with some injury headaches. No team in the West enjoyed a better goal differential (+46) and a team with such young legs would seemingly hit the ground running.

Of course, we won’t know how any team will respond to the unique challenge that is the NHL Return to Play. Will the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers began a coronation for MacKinnon and the Avs, or could that happen down the line? We’ll find out soon enough.

(And chances are, it will be fun to watch.)

Blues: Will Tarasenko be their tank, or could a bumpy return tank repeat hopes?

It’s easy to imagine Vladimir Tarasenko merely slotting into the Blues lineup and making a strong team even stronger. That’s especially easy to picture since Tarasenko won a Stanley Cup with this largely similar team last season.

(You … don’t need to remind Laila Anderson and other Blues fans that they won it all. If you try, you probably know which song they’ll sing.)

That said, the Blues are such a well-oiled machine. While Tarasenko doesn’t take much away from the table defensively, it’s possible he might be a little less sharp right off the bat. Sure, other players are going to be rusty, but Tarasenko last played in October.

There’s also the potential distraction of Alex Pietrangelo eyeing free agency, but such thoughts didn’t hurt Pietrangelo. If anything, he’s enjoyed one of his best seasons in the NHL.

[2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule / NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Golden Knights: Who should be their starting goalie: Fleury or Lehner?

Lehner vs. Marc-Andre Fleury Western Conference Round Robin preview NHL Return to Play
(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

No doubt about it, Marc-Andre Fleury served as the face of the Golden Knights franchise, particularly during their smash-success debut season. Fleury has the rings and the swagger that come with being an experienced starting goalie in the NHL.

But the Golden Knights are too young of a franchise to coast off of nostalgia.

With a mediocre .905 save percentage, Fleury dragged Vegas down at times in 2019-20. To be fair, previous backup Malcolm Subban rarely enjoyed better luck. Yet, Lehner showed promise in his brief looks post-trade, and generally put together some of the best netminding work of the past two seasons.

This is a talented Golden Knights team. It also rapidly became an expensive one. Maybe there’s still a “honeymoon phase” going on, but the hangover from another early playoff exit would be painful.

If Lehner looks demonstratively sharper than Fleury, then Peter DeBoer simply has to make that call. Whichever goalie gets the nod, don’t expect people to have much patience if that No. 1 goalie falters.

Stars: Will Big D forge an identity?

When it comes to the Dallas Stars’ 2018-19 season, people remember it for CEO Jim Lites’ profane criticisms of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn as much as they do the Stars pushing the Blues to the limit in a Game 7. This season, Jim Montgomery’s shocking exit overshadowed an up-and-down season.

The Stars placing among the West’s top four says as much about the state of the conference as it does about this team. After all, this squad managed a meager +3 goal differential in 2019-20.

Generally speaking, the Stars succeed when they can score just enough to give Ben Bishop and/or Anton Khudobin the margin of error they need. Considering how well those two have played, Dallas hasn’t always needed to score much.

Even so, the angst lingers as Seguin and Benn struggle to find the same scoring touch of peak years. While this team has some great young talent (particularly Miro Heiskanen), the Stars still generally go as far as their two big names and sometimes-excellent goaltending can take them.

Could Rick Bowness find a better formula, though? It’s not the most ideal circumstance to search for that next gear, but if you squint enough, you could see ways that the Stars could put together an impressive run.

Of course, they could just easily fall apart quickly. To an extent, that’s just the nature of the beast in the NHL.

Continued reading on Round Robin games, NHL Return to Play, and more

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.