The Vegas Golden Knights have earned a bye to the final 16 for having the third-best point percentage in the Western Conference. Before they play in the first round, they will participate in a round-robin tournament against the other three top teams in the West (St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, and Dallas Stars) to determine the seeding of the top four teams throughout the playoffs.
The NHL announced last Thursday that teams will be reseeded after each round and that all series after the play-in round will be seven games. This gives us a much better idea about how the return to play will work. However, it could make the Golden Knights’ path to the Stanley Cup Final extremely difficult.
Play-In Round Predictions
In order to determine the Golden Knights’ path to the Stanley Cup Final, we have to make some predictions. Here are my picks for the play-in round:
No. 5 Edmonton Oilers vs. No. 12 Chicago Blackhawks:
This series is one of the most intriguing of the play-in round. The Blackhawks are the trendy pick here, but I’m sticking with Connor McDavid and the Oilers. Oilers win 3-1.
No. 6 Nashville Predators vs. No. 11 Arizona Coyotes:
The Predators are a tough draw for any team. Goaltender Pekka Rinne has had a rough season (posting a 3.17 goals-against average, the worst of his career), but Juuse Saros has stepped up behind him. The Predators’ style of play bodes well for playoff hockey and should be enough to get them past the Coyotes. Predators win 3-2.
No. 7 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 10 Minnesota Wild:
Vancouver’s lack of playoff experience will hurt them in this series. Minnesota boasts veteran experience up and down their lineup, and that will be more valuable in this season’s playoffs than any other. Wild win 3-2.
No. 8 Calgary Flames vs. No. 9 Winnipeg Jets:
These teams only faced off once in the regular season with the Jets winning 2-1 in OT in October in the Heritage Classic. Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck has had a stellar season, and he’ll step up in a big way to lead the Jets past the Flames. Jets win 3-1.
To highlight how important the round-robin is to the Golden Knights, I am keeping the top four seeds as they are (No. 1. Blues, No. 2 Avalanche, No. 3 Golden Knights, No. 4 Stars).
First Round Predictions
Now we reseed. Reseeding, as opposed to a fixed bracket, favors the top-seeded teams, putting even more importance on the round-robin.
No. 3 Vegas Golden Knights vs. No. 6 Nashville Predators
The Predators are a dangerous team, and not who the Golden Knights want to see in the first round. The only way the Knights win this series comfortably is if their top offensive players (Max Pacioretty, Mark Stone, Reilly Smith) step up in a big way, as they have done all season. The Predators have been dreadful on the penalty kill in 2019-20 (T-3rd worst in the NHL), so converting on the man advantage will be necessary.
Overall, drawing the Preds in the opening round is not the Golden Knights’ best-case scenario. Nashville has the ability to draw out a series to seven games against anyone in the Western Conference. Knights win 4-3.
The Rest of the West
No. 1 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 10 Minnesota Wild:
St. Louis will be too much for Minnesota. Their depth and last season’s championship experience will lead the Blues past the Wild. Blues win 4-1.
No. 2 Colorado Avalance vs. No. 9 Winnipeg Jets:
The Jets are going to run into a buzzsaw in this series. The Avs’ lineup has had much-needed time to become healthy. Philipp Grubauer was playing great hockey until he was injured in February but he should be ready to go when the season resumes.
Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Andre Burakovsky have all had time to recover from injuries as well. Avalanche win 4-0.
No. 4 Dallas Stars vs. No. 5 Edmonton Oilers:
Dallas limped out of the regular season with a six-game losing streak. The road won’t get any easier for them when they play the three best teams in the conference in the round-robin. On the other end, McDavid and the Oilers will be coming into this series with confidence and will win in six. Oilers win 4-2.
Second Round Predictions
We reseed again, and the road gets tougher for the Golden Knights.
No. 2 Colorado Avalanche vs. No. 3 Vegas Golden Knights
The Colorado Avalanche are a tough opponent in a seven-game series. In two games against the Avalanche in the regular season, the Knights were 0-2-0 and outscored 13-4. Colorado proved all season that they can beat anybody, even when not fully healthy. If the Golden Knights can get past the Avs, it will be a long series.
The playoffs are a new season and for the sake of this article, the Knights reverse their misfortune against Colorado: Golden Knights win 4-3.
The Rest of the West
No. 1 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 5 Edmonton Oilers
The defending champs continue to defend their title against McDavid and Art Ross-winner Leon Draisaitl. The Blues won the regular-season series 2-1-0, and they will win the postseason series as well. There’s too much depth on St. Louis’ side and it will overwhelm the Oilers. Blues win in 4-2.
Conference Finals: No. 1 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 3 Vegas Golden Knights
The reward for winning two hard-fought series is a date with the defending Stanley Cup Champions and the top seed in the west, the Blues. After playing a six-game series against the Preds, and a seven-game series against the Avs, the Golden Knights would have to dig deep to beat the Blues, a team that knows how to put a physical toll on their opponents.
There is never an easy path to the Stanley Cup Final, but the Predators, Avalanche and Blues are a particularly tough draw. Ideally, the Golden Knights would avoid playing both Colorado and St. Louis in their quest for the Cup. To do that, they would have to earn the No. 1 seed in the round-robin and hope that Dallas remains No. 4.
Although this scenario is a projection, it illustrates how difficult a climb the Golden Knights may face as the No. 3 seed. Many look at the round-robin as a warm-up for the top four, but it is much more important than that. It gives a team like the Golden Knights a chance to dramatically improve their path to the Stanley Cup Final.
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