Top 5

Kyle Clifford

Los Angeles Kings forward Kyle Clifford is known for taking — and receiving — some of the most punishing checks in the NHL. He lists teammates Dustin Brown and Matt Greene among the hardest hitters in the game. Who are his hardest-hitting opponents?



  1. Ryane Clowe

  2. Milan Lucic

  3. Niklas Kronwall

  4. Cal Clutterbuck

  5. Alexander Ovechkin



NHL Confidential

James NealTravis Mathew Apparel specializes in casual menswear for on and off the golf course. It’s a favorite of Wayne Gretzky as well as current NHL stars James Neal, Dustin Penner, Scottie Upshall and Ryan Getzlaf. “That laid-back, SoCal athletic vibe resonates with a lot of guys who want to look good during an off-day on the golf course,” said Leif Sunderland, the marketing director for the Seal Beach, Calif.-based retailer. travismathew.com.

JP

2020 NHL Conference Quarterfinals Playoff Preview

Meanwhile, the round-robin tournament for the top seed in each conference was mostly forgettable. Veteran squads Boston and Dallas barely showed up, and could be in danger of a quick ouster in the next round. Defending champion St. Louis did not fare much better. The question is whether these eight teams can immediately take their games up another level in order to match the play of the qualification winners and their quarterfinal opponents. Failure to do could mean quick exits and busted playoff brackets.

The most important takeaway from the NHL’s return to play: health protocols in the bubble environments of Toronto and Edmonton made for a safe and effective place for the teams to compete. To the relief of players and fans, the games should be able to continue as planned without issue.

With that out of the way, let’s dig into the eight NHL Conference Quarterfinals series.

Eastern Conference (Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Ontario)

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Series Previews

No. 1 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 8 Montreal Canadiens

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Montreal at Philadelphia, 8 p.m. ET
Friday, Aug. 14: Montreal at Philadelphia, 3 p.m. ET
Sunday, Aug. 16: Philadelphia at Montreal, 8 p.m. ET
Tuesday, Aug. 18: Philadelphia at Montreal, 3 p.m. ET
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Montreal at Philadelphia – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Philadelphia at Montreal – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Montreal at Philadelphia – TBD

The Flyers were barely challenged in their three-game romp to the top seed in the Eastern Conference during round robin play. Star netminder Carter Hart (2-0-0, 1.00 goals against average, .966 save percentage) was terrific. Scott Laughton (team-leading five points) led the way offensively. It is scary to note that the Flyers still have another level they can reach offensively. The underrated portion of this squad was its defense, where the only blue liner that posted a negative plus/minus during round-robin play was the seldom-used Robert Hagg. Matt Niskanen anchors a young group, featuring some terrific up-and-coming studs like Shayne Gostisbehere, Travis Sanheim, Ivan Provorov, and rookie Phillippe Myers.

In easily the biggest upset of the qualification round, Montreal flat-out beat Pittsburgh. Led by top defensive pair Shea Weber (team-leading four points) and Jeff Petry, the Canadiens completely shut down Evgeni Malkin and neutralized Sidney Crosby. With the rest of the Penguins unable to pick up the slack, Montreal’s young players found all sorts of surprising offensive zone time. The result was some big production for players like Paul Byron (team-leading four points), Phillip Danault, Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and Artturi Lehkonen. Star goaltender Carey Price (3-1-0, 1.67 GAA, .947 SP) was terrific when he needed to be, but he did not have to carry the Canadiens in their series win.

About the only similarity between Philadelphia and Montreal is that they both missed the playoffs last season. The young Canadiens outplayed heavily favored Pittsburgh for long stretches of the qualification round, but Philadelphia will be ready for the upstarts. I have the up-and-coming Flyers knocking out Montreal in five games.

No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. No. 7 Columbus Blue Jackets

Tuesday, Aug. 11: Columbus at Tampa Bay, 3 p.m. ET
Thursday, Aug. 13: Columbus at Tampa Bay, 3 p.m. ET
Saturday, Aug. 15: Tampa Bay at Columbus, 7:30 p.m. ET
Monday, Aug. 17: Tampa Bay at Columbus, 3 p.m. ET
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Columbus at Tampa Bay – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Tampa Bay at Columbus – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Columbus at Tampa Bay – TBD

Tampa Bay was far from spectacular in posting a 2-1-0 record in the round-robin games, as the Lightning still need ramp up their offense to its maximum potential. Top contributors Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point (team-leading three points) played well so far, and last year’s Vezina Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy (2-1-0, 2.29 GAA & .921 SP) was solid in goal. The biggest concern Tampa Bay has going into its series with Columbus (other than the bad vibes of remembering getting swept by the Blue Jackets last spring) was an injury to Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman.

Columbus needed five games to knock out host Toronto in the qualification round, but it was actually one of the more lopsided series during the opening round. The Blue Jackets stunk in Game 2, and blew a three-goal lead in the final four minutes of Game 4. Other than that, Columbus had just about everything going well against the Maple Leafs, including both of its young goaltenders. The Blue Jackets don’t feature a ton of offense, but both of their game-breakers, Cam Atkinson (team-leading five points) and Pierre-Luc Dubois (team-leading three goals), are firing on all cylinders. Star defenders Seth Jones (the qualification round ice time leader) and Zach Werenski, were both terrific, and could be a huge factor in another long playoff run.

Can lightning strike the Blue Jackets twice? Considering how well Columbus is playing, this is a distinct possibility. Tampa Bay will need every ounce of motivation it can muster after last year’s playoff ouster to rev up Jackets’ intensity. However, I do think the Lightning will figure out the Blue Jackets’ defensive puzzle this year, but need all seven games to do so.

No. 3 Washington Capitals vs. No. 6 New York Islanders

Wednesday, Aug. 12: NY Islanders at Washington, 3 p.m. ET
Friday, Aug. 14: NY Islanders at Washington, 8 p.m. ET
Sunday, Aug. 16: Washington at NY Islanders, 12 p.m. ET
Tuesday, Aug. 18: Washington at NY Islanders, 8 p.m. ET
*Thursday, Aug. 20: NY Islanders at Washington – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Washington at NY Islanders – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: NY Islanders at Washington – TBD

The Capitals had an up-and-down round-robin tournament. They beat Boston, lost to Philadelphia and, prior to that, Tampa Bay in overtime. Washington’s offense certainly has yet to get cooking. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom did not contribute much on the scoresheet (just one point between them). However, the Capitals’ perennially underrated blue line played well, as did goaltender Braden Holtby (1-2-0, 1.98 GAA, .925 SP). Washington coach Todd Reirden is going with the veteran to carry the load in goal.

New York played textbook Barry Trotz hockey in easily knocking out undisciplined Florida. The Islanders’ defensemen were great, and New York got just enough offense from its scoring leaders, Mathew Barzal, Brock Nelson, Jordan Eberle and Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Meanwhile, unheralded Anthony Beauvillier (team-leading three goals and five points) had a terrific opening series. Semyon Varlamov (3-1-0, 1.77 GAA & .932 SP) did not do anything fancy in goal, but he had no trouble keeping the offensively minded Panthers quiet.

This series will be another dangerous one for the higher-seeded Capitals. New York has the tools to slow down the Caps, and a coach who would like nothing better than to exact some revenge on the club that discarded him after winning a Stanley Cup. The Islanders are a matchup nightmare for Washington, built to shutdown high-octane offenses, and strong enough to neutralize Washington’s physical edge. I see a second consecutive year for Washington to suffer a first-round upset, as New York will do the trick in six games.

No. 4 Boston Bruins vs. No. 5 Carolina Hurricanes

Tuesday, Aug. 11: Carolina at Boston, 8 p.m. ET
Thursday, Aug. 13: Carolina at Boston, 8 p.m. ET
Saturday, Aug. 15: Boston at Carolina, 12 p.m ET
Monday, Aug. 17: Boston at Carolina, 8 p.m. ET
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Carolina at Boston – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Boston at Carolina – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Carolina at Boston – TBD

The Bruins were totally out of sorts early in the NHL’s return to play. After dominating the regular season and winning the Presidents’ Trophy, Boston started August nowhere close to that level, losing all four its games to date. Goalie Tuukka Rask is still capable of carrying a team on his back, but he didn’t show that form in the round-robin tournament. If the Perfection Line of Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand can’t get going against Carolina, that is exactly what Rask might have to in order to beat the Hurricanes. The one bright spot for Boston was its play on defense, especially Charlie McAvoy (team-leading two points) and Torey Krug, who were already in game shape.

Meanwhile, Carolina completely dominated the upstart Rangers in the qualification round. Now essentially healthy, the ‘Canes are a team no one wants to play. Unlike Boston’s top line, Carolina’s leading trio is on fire. Sebastian Aho led the charge against the Rangers (team-leading three goals and eight points), and was arguably the MVP of qualification play. Even without Dougie Hamilton, the Hurricanes’ defense was dominant. Newcomers Sami Vatanen and Brady Skjei looked great alongside top defender Jaccob Slavin. Carolina’s one big weakness is in goal, but Petr Mrazek and James Reimer had few concerns in the sweep of the Rangers.

Really the only reasons to pick Boston in this series is the fact that the Bruins were the NHL’s best squad during the long-forgotten regular season, and the fact that Boston swept Carolina a year ago. If Boston cannot pick up its game, this series will be over fast. I see Carolina winning this series in six games, and it may not even take that long.

Western Conference
(Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta)

Western Conference Quarterfinals Series Previews

No. 1 Vegas Golden Knights vs. No. 8 Chicago Blackhawks

Tuesday, Aug. 11: Chicago at Vegas, 10:30 p.m. ET
Thursday, Aug. 13: Chicago at Vegas, 5:30 p.m. ET
Saturday, Aug. 15: Vegas at Chicago, 8 p.m. ET
Sunday, Aug. 16: Vegas at Chicago, 6:30 p.m. ET
*Tuesday, Aug. 18: Chicago at Vegas – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Vegas at Chicago – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Chicago at Vegas – TBD

Vegas won three tight games to emerge as the Western Conference’s top seed. The Golden Knights proved their relentless style of play is effective in either tight contests or high-scoring games. Mark Stone (team leading five points) and Shea Theodore, Vegas’ top forward and its top defenseman respectively, were the team’s best players during the round-robin tournament. Veteran forwards William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, and Riley Smith also played well. If Vegas has a concern going forward, it’s in goal. Robin Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury are veterans with strong postseason résumés, neither has been great since the return to play.

Chicago’s young forwards had an impressive coming-out party against heavily favored Edmonton. Captain Jonathan Toews (team-leading four goals and seven points) was an absolute beast in the first round. He helped to slow superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, and racked up four goals and seven points in the Blackhawks’ four-game victory. The Oilers, hosts of the Western Conference bubble, had no answer for Toews and young sniper Dominik Kubalik. Budding star Kirby Dach also showed flashes of brilliance. Duncan Keith, 37 years young, turned back the clock in the qualifying round, as did goaltender Corey Crawford (3-1-0). The only blemish on Chicago’s impressive return to play has been Patrick Kane’s relatively quiet performance.

This should be an explosive series between two offensive teams that like to play a run-and-gun style of hockey. The difference here is that Vegas rolls four solid lines. Edmonton drops off quickly after its top two, a factor Chicago was able to exploit. The Blackhawks’ bottom-six blueliners were exposed at times against the Oilers, and this is where the Golden Knights will likely win this series. I like Vegas to take out the upstart Blackhawks in five games.

No. 2 Colorado Avalanche vs. No. 7 Arizona Coyotes

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Arizona at Colorado, 5:30 p.m. ET
Friday, Aug. 14: Arizona at Colorado, 2 p.m. ET
Saturday, Aug. 15: Colorado at Arizona, 3 p.m. ET
Monday, Aug. 17: Colorado at Arizona, 5:30 p.m. ET
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Arizona at Colorado – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Colorado at Arizona – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Arizona at Colorado – TBD

Colorado was the best overall team in the round-robin tournament out West, blowing out Dallas and shutting down St. Louis before falling to Vegas in overtime. Now healthy, the young Avalanche may be favored behind the firepower of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen (team-leading four points), Gabriel Landeskog and Nazem Kadri (team-leading four points) up front. Kadri’s heroics against St. Louis, scoring with less than a second on the clock, was one of the highlights of the last week. Philipp Grubauer looked good in net, and the young Avalanche blue line held up just fine.

Arizona-Nashville was arguably the best qualifying series. Darcy Kuemper (3-1-0, 2.71 GAA & .933 SP) was outstanding for the Coyotes, making 163 saves in a four-game victory. Arizona will never scare an opponent offensively, but the Coyotes are morphing into a fun team that combines star power in Taylor Hall (team-leading four points) and Phil Kessel (team-leading four points), with budding, youthful forwards like Clayton Keller and Christian Dvorak. If you match each team’s blue lines, Arizona has a clear edge with standouts like Oliver Ekman-Larsson (team-leading four points) and Niklas Hjalmarsson, versus Colorado’s Cale Makar-led unit.

Colorado will not be able to snooze on the Coyotes, who will work extremely hard to slow down the Avalanche’s vaunted offense. If Kuemper continues to be terrific, the upset alert might be flashing bright. However, I think Colorado will overwhelm Arizona offensively and take this series in six close games.

No. 3 Dallas Stars vs. No. 6 Calgary Flames

Tuesday, Aug. 11: Calgary at Dallas, 5:30 p.m. ET
Thursday, Aug. 13: Calgary at Dallas, 10:30 p.m. ET
Friday, Aug. 14: Dallas at Calgary, 10:30 p.m. ET
Sunday, Aug. 16: Dallas at Calgary, 2 p.m. ET
*Tuesday, Aug. 18: Calgary at Dallas – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Dallas at Calgary – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Dallas at Calgary – TBD

Dallas did not inspire much confidence during round-robin play, managing only to beat St. Louis in a shootout to gain the West’s No. 3 seed. Its best players, Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, posted exactly zero points. Ageless workhorse Joe Pavelski (team-leading two goals) came back in fine form, and Dallas might need even more offense from him, especially as number-one Ben Bishop and backup Anton Khudobin were not their usual stellar selves their team’s first three games. The Stars did have one thing going right in the round-robin tournament: their usually stout defense. Blueliners Miro Heiskanen (team-leading four points), John Klingberg and company were outstanding.

Meanwhile, Calgary cruised in its qualifying tilt against undermanned Winnipeg. Like him or hate him, Matthew Tkachuk drove the Jets crazy in Calgary’s four-game series win, while the Flames’ top forwards of Sean Monahan (team-leading six points), Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm all played well. Perhaps the biggest surprise was Milan Lucic (four points). Facing a much bigger Winnipeg squad, the veteran Lucic was an absolute physical force in neutralizing the Jets’ advantage. Surprising starting goaltender Cam Talbot made interim coach Geoff Ward look like a genius with his superb play, posting a 3-1-0 record with a 1.51 GAA and .945 SP, in the qualifying round.

This is arguably the weakest of the first-round series. Dallas should be a heavy favorite, but the Stars are not exactly clicking. Calgary will not overwhelm Dallas, but the Flames got on a nice roll against Winnipeg and it should carry over here. I like Calgary in a seven-game upset.

No. 4 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 5 Vancouver Canucks

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Vancouver at St. Louis, 10:30 p.m. ET
Friday, Aug. 14: Vancouver at St. Louis, 6:30 p.m. ET
Sunday, Aug. 16: St. Louis at Vancouver, 10:30 p.m. ET
Monday, Aug. 17: St. Louis at Vancouver, 10:30 p.m. ET
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Vancouver at St. Louis – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: St. Louis at Vancouver – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Vancouver at St. Louis – TBD

Much like Boston in the East, St. Louis was not firing on all cylinders while losing all three games in round-robin play. Still, the Blues’ record of 0-2-1 in those three games hardly tells the whole story. The Blues lost to Colorado with less than a second left in regulation, and lost to Dallas in shootout. In their other game, St. Louis fell 6-4 in a highly entertaining contest against now top-seed Vegas. A few breaks would have given the Blues the top spot. Considering none of the round-robin games were all that physical, St. Louis should have no issue ramping up play when the games matter. Ryan O’Reilly (team-leading three points), David Perron and Brayden Schenn all played well against the West’s best teams. So did second-year forward Zach Sanford. The Blues’ stalwart blueliners of Colton Parayko and Alex Pietrangelo certainly lived up to their billing. If there is a concern for St. Louis, it is that neither goaltender Jordan Binnington or sniper Vladimir Tarasenko have found their “A” games as of yet.

Vancouver versus Minnesota was a terrific qualification-round series. The youth-laden Canucks had their hands full with the veteran Wild, who were done in by a parade of penalties and a woeful power play. Still Vancouver was sharp, and their best players stepped up. Rookie sensation Quinn Hughes (team-leading six points) and Chris Tanev were terrific on the blue line, while game-breaking young forwards Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat all played well. In goal Jacob Markstrom (3-1-0, 2.27 GAA, .926 SP) was clutch for the Canucks in the qualification round and he serves as a solid backbone for this talented squad.

St. Louis vs. Vancouver is the biggest style clash of the first round of the playoffs. The Canucks are a small and explosive squad with plenty of offensive firepower. The defending champion Blues are much more physical, and play a relentless team game. St. Louis should be able to dictate this series and hold on in six games, but watch out if the Canucks get their offense going early.

A Quick Look at the Rest of the Playoffs

Conference Semifinals        

East: 6. New York Islanders over 1. Philadelphia; 2. Tampa Bay over 5. Carolina

West: 1. Vegas over 6. Calgary; 2. Colorado over 4. St. Louis

Conference Finals

East: 2. Tampa Bay over 6. New York Islanders

West: 2. Colorado over 1. Vegas

Stanley Cup Finals Preview

2. Tampa Bay over 2. Colorado

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