Half the teams that will participate in the Western Conference preliminary round are Canadian squads, and Sportsnet’s correspondents in those cities have been busy following their every move since training camp 2.0 kicked off.
But what about the quartet of American teams heading north to Edmonton for this mid-summer classic?
On Sunday, we took a look at the U.S.-based Eastern Conference teams to get a handle on where they left off and what the key factors are heading into their best-of-five series.
Today, we tackle the West.
No. 6 seed Nashville Predators
The Nashville Predators‘ final nine games before the break basically summed up their wobbly season: Three straight wins followed by three consecutive L’s, then another trio of victories to close out. Pegged as big-time contenders by many in October, the Preds were definitely all over the place this year.
A couple large late-season developments bode well for Nashville, though, as it prepares to face the Arizona Coyotes. First, defenceman Ryan Ellis — who was sidelined with a concussion following a Corey Perry hit during the Winter Classic showdown versus Dallas — returned in late February and looked every bit like the high-end defender he’s become, netting 10 points in 10 contests.
The other point of intrigue is Juuse Saros usurping fellow Finn and Preds legend Pekka Rinne in goal. The former had a .941 save percentage in his final 12 games, while the 37-year-old Rinne was limited to three games in the final month of the campaign and posted a bleak .898 mark.
No. 10 seed Minnesota Wild
All things considered, the Minnesota Wild may have had the weirdest season of any squad in the NHL. When Bill Guerin took the helm as GM last summer, much of the conversation around this team centred on the idea of a re-tool. From the start of the season through mid-January, the Wild were .500 on the nose and ranked in the bottom quarter of the league. Then, they played .674 hockey and were a top-five club during the final two months of the abbreviated campaign.
Oh yeah, they also fired coach Bruce Boudreau in mid-February and replaced him with Dean Evason, who recently had the interim tag removed from his title as part of a two-year contract extension.
Kevin Fiala emerged as an offensive star for Minny during the final 23 games of the year, posting a 14-14-28 line. Expect the Vancouver Canucks to keep a close eye on the Swiss whiz when that series kicks off.
No. 11 seed Arizona Coyotes
On Dec. 16, an Arizona team going all in for a playoff spot pulled the trigger on a deal to land Taylor Hall. On Dec. 19, goalie Darcy Kuemper — who had the fourth-best save percentage in the league at that moment — left in the third period during a blowout loss to the Wild with a lower-body injury. He didn’t return for two months and the Coyotes’ playoff hopes disappeared with him.
Overall, the Yotes went 14-17-4 with Hall in the lineup, the vast majority of those games coming with Kuemper sidelined. The latter played one game in February and three in March before the break hit.
Five months later, if Kuemper can find the form that’s made him one of the league’s best stoppers the past couple of seasons and Hall — who had 27 points in 35 outings with Arizona — can kick it up a notch for a team that always needs goals, the plucky Coyotes could be a tough out.
No. 12 seed Chicago Blackhawks
The Central Division is the only group to send all of its teams to the post-season, with the Chicago Blackhawks being the seventh and final crew member.
The free-wheeling Hawks fell out of the playoff race down the stretch, but there’s no denying they’re a fun team to watch. Patrick Kane is always the epicentre of the offence, but rookie-of-the-year nominee Dominik Kubalik hit the 30-goal mark and the tireless Duncan Keith had 12 points in his final 11 contests while averaging over 26 minutes per game. Think he needed some time off?
Corey Crawford was tagged with the dreaded “unfit to play” label at the start of training camp, so even if he is the starter for Game 1 versus the Edmonton Oilers, it’s unclear how much on-ice time he’ll have to get back up to speed. Crawford was having a very solid year and surged after Chicago traded Robin Lehner to Vegas, posting a .930 save percentage in his final 10 outings.