The Stanley Cup playoffs get underway Wednesday, and the betting favorite to emerge from the Western Conference is defending conference champion Nashville.
The Nashville Predators weren’t supposed to win the Western Conference in last year’s playoffs. Remember, they were the No. 8 seed in the conference and presumed to lose to No. 1 Chicago in the first round. All the Predators did was make history in sweeping the Blackhawks. That clearly wasn’t a fluke, either, as Nashville then beat St. Louis in six games and Anaheim in six to reach the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history. The Preds’ run ended there, though, as Pittsburgh repeated as champion with a six-game series victory.
With the 2018 playoffs set to get underway Wednesday, the Predators are expected to get back to the Finals as they won the Presidents Trophy for the first time and take on No. 8 Colorado on Thursday in Nashville. The Preds are +150 Bovada favorites in the West and also Stanley Cup leaders are +375.
More often than not the Presidents Trophy winner does NOT win the Cup. Washington led the league in points in each of the past two seasons but lost in the second round in both to the Penguins. The last team to finish as the regular season's top team and go on to win the Stanley Cup was the Blackhawks in 2013.
Colorado finished one point ahead of St. Louis for the West’s final playoff spot and is in the postseason for the first time in four years. Even if the Avs (+1600 to win West) lose this series, it has to be considered a successful season considering they were by far the worst team in the NHL last season with just 48 points. Colorado’s 47-point improvement is tied for the fourth-largest in NHL history. Nashville has beaten the Avalanche 10 straight times dating to April 2016. In addition, the Avs are without starting goaltender Semyon Varlamov and top defenseman Erik Johnson as they recover from late-season knee injuries.
Perhaps the biggest regular-season story in the NHL was the greatest expansion season ever by the Vegas Golden Knights, shocking winners of the Pacific Division. They are +400 to win the West and open against the Los Angeles Kings. The Golden Knights finished with 26 more points, 18 more wins, seven more home wins and two more road victories than any other NHL team had in its inaugural season.
It’s a tough first-round test against the Kings (+1200), who won the Cup in 2012 & ’14 but missed the playoffs last year largely because No. 1 goaltender Jonathan Quick suffered a serious injury in the season opener. Core players Quick, forwards Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter, and defenseman Drew Doughty all were part of those Cup-winning teams. The 2017-18 Kings claimed the Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed. L.A. and Vegas split four regular-season meetings.
The other first-round matchups feature Winnipeg vs. Minnesota and Anaheim vs. San Jose. It’s the sixth consecutive season the Wild are in the playoffs but they haven’t gotten past the second round. Minnesota (+1400) is without its top defenseman in Ryan Suter due to a fractured ankle. He averaged 26 minutes and 46 seconds per game, more than four minutes more than any other Wild player, and led the team in both shorthanded and power-play ice time. Winnipeg (+375) was 3-1 vs. Minnesota during the season.
Expect a tight series between the Ducks (+900) and Sharks (+1200) as 11 of the past 13 in the series have been decided by one goal. Five of the last nine have required overtime or a shootout. San Jose won the season series 3-1 but the clubs haven’t played since Feb. 11. Anaheim is without top defenseman Cam Fowler for at least the first round due to a shoulder injury and goalie John Gibson’s availability is in question as he was hurt last week. The Ducks have a good No. 2 in Ryan Miller.