By LARRY LAGE
AP Sports Writer
The Calgary Flames are the new players in the Western Conference playoffs, a field stacked with Stanley Cup-contending teams such as the San Jose Sharks, Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights.
It doesn’t appear to be safe to count any of the eight teams out.
Predators general manager David Poile knows the NHL as well as anyone on the planet, with three-plus decades of experience leading teams. And he would not wager a dollar on this postseason .
“I can’t see betting on anybody in these playoffs,” Poile said. “I think it’s going to be that close and there could be all sorts of upsets.”
The Pacific Division champion Flames certainly hope that’s not the case.
Calgary earned top seeding in the West with 107 points after not making the playoffs last year and earning a bid just twice in a nine-year stretch.
The Flames’ total trailed just the 117 they had when they won the Stanley Cup in 1989.
It will be tough for the current team to duplicate that deep run.
Calgary is expected to get past Colorado, the second wild-card team in the West, but the winner of the San Jose-Vegas series may be favored to beat the Flames in the conference semifinals.
San Jose and Vegas have the most intriguing series in the conference’s opening round and perhaps in the entire league. The talented teams met in the second round last year with the expansion Golden Knights moving on before losing to Washington in the Stanley Cup Final.
On the other half of the bracket, the Central Division champion Nashville Predators face the wild-card Dallas Stars with the winner advancing to face Winnipeg or St. Louis.
Here’s a closer look at each of the first-round series in the Western Conference:
FLAMES VS. AVALANCHE
(Game 1 at Calgary on Thursday)
Calgary has one of the NHL’s top scorers, diminutive dynamo Johnny Gaudreau, and one of the best defensemen, Norris Trophy candidate Mark Giordano . Bill Peters, in his first year as an NHL coach, made all the right moves behind the bench to help the Flames win a division title for the first time since 2006. The coach of the year candidate will have some tough decisions to make in net because he doesn’t have a clear-cut No. 1 goaltender . David Rittich, a 26-year-old in his first full season, started 42 games, and 37-year-old Mike Smith began the other 40 games on the ice.
The Avalanche are led offensively by Nathan MacKinnon, who had 99 points this season as did Gaudreau, and Mikko Rantanen, who had a career-high 87 points. Tyson Barrie ranked among the highest-scoring NHL defensemen this season with 59 points. Semyon Varlamov, a 30-year-old goalie, has not helped a team advance in the playoffs since he did it a decade ago with Washington.
SHARKS VS. GOLDEN KNIGHTS (Game 1 at San Jose on Wednesday)
The Sharks went all in last summer in the hopes of winning their first Stanley Cup, trading for Erik Karlsson even though he is playing on the last year of his contract. The two-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman has played only one game (April 6) since February, but vows to be ready for the playoffs. San Jose’s Brent Burns had a career-high 83 points, leading all defensemen to put him in line to possibly win his second Norris Trophy. Joe Pavelski had a team-high 38 goals, making him one of four players on the potent team to score 30 or more.
Like San Jose, the Golden Knights made major moves to try to win it all after coming just short last year against the Capitals. They acquired Mark Stone at the trade deadline from Ottawa after adding Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty in the offseason to add even more offense to their explosive team. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury lost his last two games, giving up four goals each time, and struggled at times this season, but the three-time Stanley Cup champion clearly knows how to win this time of year.
PREDATORS VS. STARS
(Game 1 at Nashville on Wednesday)
Reigning Vezina Trophy winner Pekka Rinne gives Nashville a great chance to win any game, or series. The Predators also have plenty of help up front, with players such as center Ryan Johansen scoring a team-high 64 points, and a deep blue line that includes Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis and P.K. Subban.
The Stars are back in the playoffs with coach Jim Montgomery after missing out the previous two years with Ken Hitchcock and Lindy Ruff behind the bench. They have a trio of top-flight scorers — Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn — and Vezina Trophy candidate Ben Bishop in net.
JETS VS. BLUES
(Game 1 at Winnipeg on Wednesday)
Winnipeg moved on in the postseason last year for the first time since moving from Atlanta in 2011 before being eliminated by Vegas in the conference finals. The Jets have drafted and developed so well they have one of the best rosters in the league, led by power forwards Blake Wheeler, who had 91 points for the second straight year, and Mark Scheifele, who had a career-high 84 points this season. Goalie Connor Hellebuyck was not as sharp this season as he was last year and that might be a concern against a hot team.
The Blues, who won eight of their last 10 games, are the first team in two-plus decades to rally for a spot in the playoffs after being last in the league after at least 20 games were played. The franchise fired coach Mike Yeo early in the season with a 7-9-3 record and gave Craig Berube another chance to lead a team after he won 75 games in two years with the Philadelphia Flyers, and he made the most of it. Berube’s players seemed to respond, with 28-year-old center Ryan O’Reilly having a career-high 76 points.