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NHL’s Western Conference playoffs big, tough, wide open

Vegas Golden Knights players celebrate their overtime win over the Colorado Avalanche in a playoff game in Edmonton, Alberta, on Saturday. (AP photo)

The top of the Western Conference features the defending Stanley Cup champion, a 2018 finalist with even more talent and an MVP front-runner.

Good luck picking a favorite.

The Vegas Golden Knights earned the top seed in the West by winning all three of their games in a round-robin tournament against the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues. But the Avalanche still have Nathan MacKinnon and are healthier and deeper than before, and there’s no sleeping on the Blues after they muscled their way to the Cup.

“It’s deep,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said. “There are no easy paths. … We’re happy to be a part of it, we’re happy we have the No. 1 seed, but we know there’s a lot of heavy lifting here left to do.”

Heavy is the name of the game out West, where size is as big an element of success as scoring. St. Louis is the standard, but the Calgary Flames bruised their way into the first round by beating up Winnipeg and present an obstacle for the third-seeded Stars.

“The West, there’s a lot of heavy, hard teams that play a pretty simple game and the Blues are obviously the best at it being the champs,” Dallas captain Jamie Benn said. “I think Calgary’s pretty similar. They got some pretty rugged forwards that play the game hard, so we have to be prepared for that.”

Reigning playoff MVP Ryan O’Reilly said the Blues are aware of the difficult road back to the final but are only preparing for their first-round opponent: the faster and smaller Vancouver Canucks.

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