2020 NHL Playoffs Preview

In the East, 2019 Stanley Cup finalist Boston was the only team to reach 100 points during the regular season, and the Bruins will again be a strong bet to advance far in postseason play. Washington, the 2018 champion, will also be dangerous. So are the hungry Tampa Bay Lightning and up-and-coming Philadelphia Flyers. Out West, defending champion St. Louis returns star Vladimir Tarasenko to a lineup that posted the conference’s best record during the regular season. Finally healthy, Colorado will also be a favorite, along with especially deep Vegas and defensively stout Dallas.

If teams can find a quick rhythm, and the rinks can sustain multiple games a day in the middle of summer, there is a chance the 2020 playoffs might be one of the best ever—even if we can only watch from home.

Eastern Conference
(Scotiabank Arena in Toronto)

Qualification Round

5. Pittsburgh Penguins (69 Games Played (GP), 40-29-6—86 points) vs.
12. Montreal Canadiens (71 GP, 31-40-9—71 pts.)
Saturday, Aug. 1: Canadiens vs. Penguins
Monday, Aug. 3: Canadiens vs. Penguins
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Penguins vs. Canadiens
Friday, Aug. 7: Penguins vs. Canadiens*
Saturday, Aug. 8: Canadiens vs. Penguins*

With 24 teams advancing, Montreal gets new life by advancing to the qualification round. Their reward is a battle-tested Pittsburgh squad itching for another kick at the can.

Despite a number of injury issues, Pittsburgh was one of the Eastern Conference’s best teams throughout the regular season. A late February and March swoon prevented the Penguins from claiming a top-four seed, and the result is a matchup against the Habs. However, veteran-laden Pittsburgh’s high-end talent is rested and eager to compete, led by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. Playoff sniper Jake Guentzel is back and healthy, plus the Penguins have two good choices in goal in either two-time Stanley Cup winning netminder Matt Murray or Tristan Jarry.

The Canadiens endured a trying season. Even with adequate talent, many things went wrong. Despite being headed for the golf course prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Habs have a second chance at a Stanley Cup run, anchored by star goaltender Carey Price. Montreal lacks anything close to the high-end talent of the Penguins, other than Shea Weber on the blue line and Price in goal, but Tomas Tatar, Brendan Gallagher and Max Domi can all score. Jonathan Drouin, a potential difference-maker on offense, is finally healthy.

This series should heavily favor the Penguins, a team that a year ago seemed headed for a downward trend but responded with a terrific 2019-20 campaign. I like the Penguins to cruise in this series in four games, with Price stealing a game for Montreal.

6. Carolina Hurricanes (68 GP, 38-30-5—81 pts.) vs.
11. New York Rangers (70 GP, 37-33-5—79 pts.)
Saturday, Aug. 1: Rangers vs. Hurricanes
Monday, Aug. 3: Rangers vs. Hurricanes
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Hurricanes vs. Rangers
Thursday, Aug. 6: Hurricanes vs. Rangers*
Saturday, Aug. 8: Rangers vs. Hurricanes*

Along with Toronto-Columbus, this has a chance to be the best series of the first round. The Hurricanes, coming off an appearance in the Eastern Conference finals, are finally healthy, and feature one of the NHL’s best group of defensemen. New York has an up-and-coming squad led by Hart Trophy candidate Artemi Panarin.

After a breakout season, Carolina regressed a bit in 2019-20. Much of that came from the inconsistent play of goaltender Petr Mrazek, and the midseason loss of defenseman Dougie Hamilton, who was having a Norris Trophy-level campaign. This summer the Hurricanes will feature a proven leader in Justin Williams, three dynamite forwards in Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov, plus potentially Hamilton and fellow star Jaccob Slavin on their blue line.

Panarin added another level to the Rangers’ offensive attack. He clicked immediately with Mika Zibanejad, who had a breakout campaign. The young Rangers squad (only the Blue Jackets are as green) features a much-improved defense, anchored by Tony DeAngelo, rookie Adam Fox, and Jacob Trouba. The Rangers’ strongest asset might be in goal, where they have three quality options as backstops—veteran Henrik Lundqvist, rookie sensation Igor Shesterkin, and Alexandar Georgiev.

This will be a fun series that will be hard to predict. New York might be a year away from a deep run, but the same could have been said about Carolina last season. With Williams back to provide leadership, and their stout blue line finally healthy, I’ll take the Hurricanes here in five games.

7. New York Islanders (68 GP, 35-33-10—80 pts.) vs.
10. Florida Panthers (69 GP, 35-34-8—78 pts.)
Saturday, Aug. 1: Panthers vs. Islanders
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Panthers vs. Islanders
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Islanders vs. Panthers
Friday, Aug. 7: Islanders vs. Panthers*
Sunday, Aug. 9: Panthers vs. Islanders*

The Islanders and Panthers are certainly not the glamour matchup of the first round. New York plays a no-nonsense, defense-first style of hockey. Florida is prone to terrible own-zone lapses. Much like Toronto and Columbus, this is should be a fun clash of styles.

After a breakout 2018-19 season, the Islanders regressed a bit during the regular season. Still, New York found more offense as budding star Mathew Barzal and Brock Nelson each posted terrific years. The Islanders feature an underrated defense that lacks any real weaknesses, and a couple decent goaltenders.

Florida features several talented forwards (Jonathan Huberdeau, Alexander Barkov, Mike Hoffman), plus a couple of the league’s better defensemen in Keith Yandle and Aaron Ekblad. The Panthers paid a king’s ransom to sign goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky in the offseason, but he endured a horrendous 2019-20 campaign. That’s why Florida mostly underachieved under new coach Joel Quenneville, but the future Hall of Fame bench boss will have his team ready for the playoffs.

New York bench boss Barry Trotz and Quenneville are among the best coaches in the league, and only one will survive the qualification round. Riding some playoff success last season, I think the Islanders are the favorite here, and will be able to handle the Panthers in four games.

8. Toronto Maple Leafs (70 GP, 36-34-9—81 pts.) vs.
9. Columbus Blue Jackets (70 GP, 33-37-15—81 pts.)
Sunday, Aug. 2: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs
Thursday, Aug. 6: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets
Friday, Aug. 7: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets*
Sunday, Aug. 9: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs*

Toronto and Columbus represent the biggest clash in styles of play in qualification round: the high-flying Maple Leafs facing the physical, grinding Blue Jackets.

The youthful Maple Leafs are a major dark horse in the race for the 2020 Stanley Cup. Toronto is loaded with offensive talent, featuring stars Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander, and like to play the game in the other team’s offensive end. Goaltender Frederick Andersen and the Leafs’ defense get left out to dry a lot, but Andersen is a very capable backstop. Toronto was one of the league’s hotter teams late in the regular season after enduring a terrible start that resulted in the dismissal of coach Mike Babcock.

The Blue Jackets were banged up throughout much of the 2019-20 season, yet stayed afloat thanks to terrific goaltending from Jonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. Columbus features a plucky offense that lacks stars, but does feature capable scorers like Pierre-Luc Dubois, Cam Atkinson, and Nick Foligno. Columbus’ advantage is its superior defense, led by Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, and their bruising physical play. If the Jackets can impose their game on the Leafs, much like they did against Tampa Bay a year ago, this might be a very short series.

I likely would have picked Toronto against just about any other possible qualifying round opponent, but Columbus presents a serious matchup problem. I like Columbus to take this hard fought series in five games.

Round-Robin Round (teams compete for seeding purposes)

1. Boston Bruins (70 GP, 44-26-12—100 pts.)
2. Tampa Bay Lightning (70 GP, 43-27-6—92 pts.)
3. Washington Capitals (69 GP, 41-28-8—90 pts.)
4. Philadelphia Flyers (69 GP, 41-28-7—89 pts.)
Sunday, Aug. 2: Flyers vs. Bruins
Monday, Aug. 3: 
Capitals vs. Lightning
Wednesday, Aug. 5: 
Lightning vs. Bruins
Thursday, Aug. 6: 
Capitals vs. Flyers
Saturday, Aug. 8: Flyers vs. Lightning
Sunday, Aug. 9: 
Bruins vs. Capitals

The East’s top three teams during the regular season – Boston, Tampa Bay and Washington – are all solid favorites to win the Stanley Cup. Meanwhile, much-improved Philadelphia is a serious dark horse candidate. Despite these round-robin games not meaning much, I’m expecting these teams to ramp up their games to be ready for their qualification round opponents.

With Philadelphia and Tampa Bay playing especially well before the break, I see those squads as the likely top-two seeds. Meanwhile, Boston and Washington, led by established veterans, should be more than fine resting their older squads in pursuit of larger goals. I’ll take Tampa Bay and Philadelphia over both Washington and Boston, and the Bruins holding off the Capitals. In the deciding game for the top seed, I like the Lightning.

Western Conference (Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta)

Qualification Round

5. Edmonton Oilers (71 GP, 37-34-9—83 pts.) vs.
12. Chicago Blackhawks (70 GP, 32-38-8—72 pts.)
Saturday, Aug. 1: Blackhawks vs. Oilers
Monday, Aug. 3: Blackhawks vs. Oilers
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Oilers vs. Blackhawks
Friday, Aug. 7: Oilers vs. Blackhawks*
Saturday, Aug. 8: Blackhawks vs. Oilers*

The best star-power matchup of the qualification round takes place here: the host Oilers, featuring the likely Hart Trophy winner, Leon Draisaitl, and Connor McDavid, against Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews of the Blackhawks.

After back-to-back terrible seasons, Edmonton found its stride under new coach Dave Tippett. The Oilers still have plenty of holes, and are one of the thinnest teams in the league as far as talent depth, but no team can match the one-two punch of the NHL’s leading scorer Draisaitl and the game’s best player McDavid. That being said, Edmonton does have some nice complimentary pieces on its top two lines in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, James Neal, and rookie phenom Kailer Yamamoto, as well as a couple of quality blueliners in Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse. Capable goalies Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen see a lot of rubber in goal.

Alongside Kane and Toews, Chicago can certainly score with the likes of rookie Dominik Kubalik, Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome. The Blackhawks’ big weakness is on defense, as the next generation of blueliners have yet to replace the old guard led by future Hall of Famer Duncan Keith. By February, with Chicago unlikely to reach the playoffs, the team discarded goaltender Robin Lehner at the trade deadline. With Corey Crawford at times struggling to find the game that resulted in two Stanley Cup titles, the Blackhawks will likely miss the lanky Swede.

This will be a fun series in the fact that both teams like to play aggressive, offensive hockey. If Chicago can effectively find a way to hold McDavid and Draisaitl in check, they have a real chance here, but no team has been able to slow down either player this season. I like Edmonton to cruise in four games.

6. Nashville Predators (69 GP, 35-24-8—78 pts.) vs.
11. Arizona Coyotes (70 GP, 33-37-8—74 pts.)
Sunday, Aug. 2: Coyotes vs. Predators
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Coyotes vs. Predators
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Predators vs. Coyotes
Friday, Aug. 7: Predators vs. Coyotes*
Sunday, Aug. 9: Coyotes vs. Predators*

In the West, this will likely be the best first-round series. Prior to the season, Nashville was a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, while Arizona was one of the NHL’s best stories before losing its top two goaltenders for a sustained period.

Though the names are familiar, this is not the usual playoff-bound Predators roster, other than its usual lack of high-end offense. Roman Josi is carrying the load for the entire team and should win the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman. He’s joined by an elite top four on the blue line. Even though Nashville lacks superstars up front, the likes of Filip Forsberg, Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen, Mikael Grandlund and Viktor Arvidson can certainly provide offense. Either Jusse Saros or Pekke Rinne are good options in goal.

Arizona is almost a mirror image of the Predators, except a bit younger overall. All-world blue liner Oliver Ekman-Larsson is the Coyotes’ best player, and the team features balance on offense led by Nick Schmaltz, Clayton Keller and Phil Kessel. Where Arizona does have an advantage in this series is in goal, where both Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta are both healthy. Kuemper had a Vezina Trophy-worthy 2019-20 campaign.

I like Nashville here in a tight series, thanks to its veteran leadership and how well they were playing late in the season. Arizona will present plenty of challenges, but the Predators will advance in five games.

7. Vancouver Canucks (69 GP, 36-33-6—78 pts.) vs.
10. Minnesota Wild (69 GP, 35-34-7—77 pts.)
Sunday, Aug. 2: Wild vs. Canucks
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Wild vs. Canucks
Thursday, Aug. 6: Canucks vs. Wild
Friday, Aug. 7: Canucks vs. Wild*
Sunday, Aug. 9: Wild vs. Canucks*

Much like Edmonton vs. Chicago, Vancouver vs. Minnesota presents a bit of an old guard versus up-and-coming challenger series.

Vancouver has some of the best young talent in the NHL, led by Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser and rookie defenseman Quinn Hughes. However, veterans J.T. Miller and Tanner Pearson provide some leadership for the Canucks along with emerging goaltender Jacob Markstrom. Vancouver’s weakness is defense behind Hughes, but Vancouver’s blue line just needs to hold down the fort while its offense thrives.

Against long odds, Minnesota stayed in the playoff race all season. Much of that had to due with the leadership of four stellar veterans: Ryan Suter, Eric Staal, Zach Parise, and Mats Zuccarello. Behind Suter, the Wild are still deep on defense, which kept them in most games this season, especially as starting goaltender Devan Dubnyk struggled in 2019-20. Alex Stalock would be a good choice as the starter for the playoffs.

I like this year’s playoffs to be Vancouver’s coming-out party. The Canucks should roll in this series. Minnesota will have a huge experience advantage in a short series, but I like the Canucks in a hard-fought four games.

8. Calgary Flames (70 GP, 36-34-7—79 pts.) vs.
9. Winnipeg Jets (71 GP, 37-34-6—80 pts.)
Saturday, Aug. 1: Jets vs. Flames
Monday, Aug. 3: Jets vs. Flames
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Flames vs. Jets
Thursday, Aug. 6: Flames vs. Jets*
Saturday, Aug. 8: Jets vs. Flames*

Perhaps the hardest series to predict is Calgary vs. Winnipeg. The Flames and Jets have few rivals in the qualification round.

After a surprising 2018-19 season, Calgary underachieved during much of 2019-20 in the wake of a messy divorce with coach Bill Peters. However, the Flames heated up under interim bench boss Geoff Ward, especially on offense. Gritty Matthew Tkachuk became the offensive focal point, and he’s joined by talents like Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm and Sean Monahan. Aging captain Mark Giordano anchors Calgary’s defense, where the Flames can be exposed. Same goes in goal, where neither David Rittich or Cam Talbot are likely to steal a series.

The Jets can supply all the offense any team could want, led by Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Blake Wheeler and Patrik Laine. Meanwhile, goaltender Connor Hellebuyck got a much-deserved rest after enduring perhaps the heaviest workload of any NHL starter. Winnipeg’s defense imploded, leaving Hellebucyk out to dry many nights before the shutdown. The group showed signs of life late in the regular season, so Winnipeg could be a dangerous out in the playoffs.

I did not buy into Calgary last season and I do not like their matchup here against the much heavier Jets. With things falling into place late in the year for a Winnipeg squad that treaded water much of the year, this Jets team will like push around the Flames in four games.

Round-Robin Round

1. St. Louis Blues (71 GP, 42-29-10—94 pts.)
2. Colorado Avalanche (70 GP, 42-28-8—92 pts.)
3. Vegas Golden Knights (71 GP, 39-32-8—86 pts.)
4. Dallas Stars (69 GP, 37-32-8—82—82 pts.)
Sunday, Aug. 2: Blues vs. Avalanche
Monday, Aug. 3: Stars vs. Golden Knights
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Avalanche vs. Stars
Thursday, Aug. 6: Golden Knights vs. Blues
Saturday, Aug. 8: Golden Knights vs. Avalanche
Sunday, Aug. 9: Stars vs. Blues

Just like the East, each of the West’s top four seeds are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, with the Blues and Avalanche standing one rung further above the rest. Vegas comes at teams in waves. Dallas stifles just about any other team’s best-laid offensive plans with superior defense and goaltending.

I like Colorado’s youth to carry this team to wins over all three opponents in the round robin, as Dallas holds its defensive cards close to the vest and sputters to losses against the Blues and Golden Knights. With the Blues ramping up to another gear, I expect them to be the two-seed after knocking off Vegas.

* – if necessary

A quick prediction for the rest of the playoffs.

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals

1. Tampa Bay over 9. Columbus

2. Philadelphia over 7. New York Islanders

3. Boston over 6. Carolina

5. Pittsburgh over 4. Washington

Eastern Conference Semifinals

1. Tampa Bay over 5. Pittsburgh

3. Boston over 2. Philadelphia

Eastern Conference Finals

3. Boston over 1. Tampa Bay

Western Conference Quarterfinals

1. Colorado over 9. Winnipeg

2. St. Louis over 7. Vancouver

6. Nashville over 3. Vegas

5. Edmonton over 4. Dallas

Western Conference Semifinals

1. Colorado over 6. Nashville

2. St. Louis over 5. Edmonton

Western Conference Finals

1. Colorado over 2. St. Louis

Stanley Cup Finals Prediction

Boston over Colorado

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