After analyzing the path to victory for the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Boston Bruins, it’s time to move on to the Western Conference to look at the other two Canadian teams.
Previously, I broke down each Canadian team’s statistics over the course of the season to see which club has the best chance to take home the Stanley Cup in June, and the conclusion was that the Calgary Flames appear to be the strongest candidate, so let’s save them for last.
That means our first task is to break down the matchup between the Winnipeg Jets and the St. Louis Blues. Let’s start with how each team performs with the puck.
Winnipeg Jets vs St. Louis Blues
The hallmark of the Blues is incredible team structure with the puck. No team has fewer turnovers at 5-vs-5 this season, and that focus is especially present in the defensive and neutral zones. They’re a tough team to forecheck because they don’t buckle under pressure and turn the puck over, and they’re excellent at exiting the defensive zone with control.
The Blues aren’t the most dangerous offensive team at 5-vs-5 in terms of shot volume or shot location. Though they produce the eighth-most scoring chances and 11th-most high-danger chances, what makes them a high-end team offensively is how often they complete passes to the slot. This season, only the Tampa Bay Lightning completed more.
For the Jets, that strength used to be a fit for them, because, up until January, they were one of the best teams in the NHL for the last few seasons at denying those passes, but their defensive structure has collapsed in recent months.
Getting Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey back might help get them back on track, but down the stretch as the season was ending, I was looking for some sign that they were going to figure things out defensively, and they only got more porous in their own zone.
With the puck, the advantage seems to firmly be in the Blues’ corner, so let’s look at what happens with these teams in a defensive posture.
For the most part, the Blues are once again heavy favourites by the numbers; they’re one of the top defensive teams in the league at cutting down slot passes as well, which makes them, in some ways, the 2018-19 version of the 2017-18 Jets, who were the league’s premier team at creating and preventing pre-shot movement.
While the Blues’ in-zone defence is spectacular, cutting down East-West puck movement, stifling plays off the cycle and keeping forechecks in check, they do have a weakness defensively; the neutral zone.
Defending in your own zone and defending the blue line are two different skill sets, it’s why a player like William Nylander can have a big impact defensively overall despite poor coverage of lanes in his own zone, and the Blues struggle in the neutral zone.
They allow tons of clean zone entries, rank 28th in the NHL in forcing dump-ins at their own blue line, and give up more scoring chances off the rush than league average, they really struggle to stop passes off the rush and they have a propensity to get beat one-on-one with dekes.
With the Jets’ addition of Kevin Hayes at the trade deadline, they’ve been shifting gears a lot to focus on attacking off the rush, and they’ve always been good at completing passes off the rush, but just haven’t been finishing plays until now.
The Jets’ talented forwards are also some of the best dekers in the league, constantly getting better shooting angles and position by beating would-be checkers one-on-one, so this is an area to exploit.
It’s unfortunate for the Jets that their weaknesses, defending the forecheck especially, also happen to be big strengths for the Blues. Overall, I would give the Blues the advantage at 5-vs-5, but the Jets have a chance here, especially with the return of Morrissey, who has been one of the league’s best defensive defencemen this year.
Kevin Hayes, Nikloaj Ehlers, and Mark Scheifele attacking off the rush will be the keys to the Jets’ offence in this series, and they will have to produce.
Calgary Flames vs Colorado Avalanche
As a one-versus-eight-seed matchup, it shouldn’t be a surprise if the Flames led the Avalanche in most areas of the game, but one thing to watch between these two teams is Colorado’s high turnover rate in both the neutral and defensive zones — which fits perfectly for the Flames, who are the masters at counterstrike offence in the NHL, leading all teams in odd-man rushes.
The Avalanche like to attack off the rush as well — these teams rank fifth and eighth in rush chances this season, so it’s going to be a high-flying series. While the Flames like to create odd-man situations and beat teams with some passing wizardry off the rush, the Avalanche attack in an entirely different way, going for the individual effort and beating opponents with dekes more than anyone else in the league.
The ability to dangle at high speed makes Colorado dangerous, but overall the offensive game favours Calgary heavily.
Defensively, the edge goes to the Flames in a big way again, especially in one big area that’s going to drive the Avalanche nuts: Calgary forces opponents into turnovers, and Colorado is a team that already gives up a fair share of those.
The Flames feast on those turnovers like crazy, so it’s going to be difficult for the Avs to overcome that.
Overall, the Avalanche aren’t a strong defensive team — they’re close to average — but the Flames will need to watch out for a few things in order to keep this series tidy.
The first is that the Avalanche are one of the best teams in the league at disrupting dekes in the offensive zone, and although the Flames’ primary focus in offensive-zone puck movement is in passing, they do like to deke a lot as well.
Another interesting contrast is that the Avalanche are quite good at defending in the neutral zone, their structure is strong despite the high number of turnovers, which translates into the fourth-fewest odd-man rushes allowed in the league this season.
The Flames, at least by the numbers, look far too versatile to be thrown off too much by the Avalanche’s neutral-zone defence, but if there’s anything that might throw them off, that’s probably it.