Saturday, January 20, 2018

Saturday storylines: A Western Conference final preview

Welcome to another NHL Saturday, you’ll want to get comfy, because we’re going to be here a while. With the bye weeks over with, we’re back to a nearly full schedule for the first time in a few weeks. We’ve got 13 games on tap including three all-Canadian matchups as part of the Hockey Day in Canada festivities, and we’ll start with the best one.

HNIC Game of the Night: Jets at Flames

Man, this is going to be a great conference final.

OK, sure, we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here, but the Jets are already a point out of first place in the league’s toughest division, and the Flames are one of the hottest teams in the NHL with seven straight wins — and neither team’s path to the third round looks all that foreboding.

Based on the standings, the Flames will have the conference’s best team to get past in the Pacific, but that team is an expansion squad. Granted, it’s the best expansion team in the history of sports, but do we really think they’re going to roll through their first ever post-season? (Thinking.) Yeah, they might.

However, with the Kings fading, the Sharks looking ordinary, the Ducks struggling to even make the playoffs, and the Oilers and Coyotes all but done, the Flames’ road out of the Pacific goes through an expansion team. You’ll take that every time.

The Jets are facing a tougher path, but the Predators had been inconsistent before their recent win streak and are fighting through various injuries. And after last year’s run to the final there’s a risk of fatigue setting in at some point.

The Blues haven’t looked like the same dominant team they were in the first half, and while the traffic jam for a wild card means that whichever teams grab those spots will probably have closed off the season hot, if the Blackhawks lose Corey Crawford for the season then we can probably write off the division’s most experienced playoff team.

And remember, the Jets are already arguably the division’s best team even with Mark Scheifele injured and Dustin Byfuglien only now waking up. Give them a healthy Scheifele, a hot Byfuglien, and a trade deadline rental or two, and who’s beating them?

Well, maybe the Flames.

One way or another, it would be a hell of a matchup, one that would bring back memories of Smythe Division battles long past, only without Wayne Gretzky and friends waiting to crush the winner in Round 2.

It might be the second-most fun you can have in a plausible Western Conference Final (trailing only the obvious Vegas-Nashville dream matchup). Plus, it would carry the added bonus of guaranteeing Canada a spot in the Stanley Cup final for the first time since 2011.

On Saturday, the two teams face off for the first time since the second game of the season (a 6-3 Flames win). With both teams coming off their bye, we can probably expect a sloppy game as they work the rust off. We’ll have to wait until April to see them again, as they meet in their second-last game of the season.

And after that, we’ll just have to wait for the main event May.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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