Predicting 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs... If They Started On Time (Part 1)
This is a tough day for hockey fans. Today was supposed to be the start of everyone's (remembers Detroit) ok, almost everyone's favorite time of the year, the Stanley Cup playoffs. Two months of the most physical, tense, exciting, and dramatic moments that hockey has to offer, leading up to one team achieving their childhood dream of lifting Lord Stanley's Cup.
Due to the coronavirus, that won't happen on time this season, if it even happens at all. But that doesn't mean we can't pretend. Since the playoffs should have started today, why don't we pretend they just did?
There are a lot of different ways that the NHL could run the playoffs this year - expanding the field, shrinking the field, shortening the lengths of series - but for this exercise, we're going to pretend that these are normal playoffs. To determine the field, we're going to use points percentage, ensuring teams with more games played don't have an unfair advantage. As for player health, I'll try to estimate based on current timelines. Steven Stamkos wouldn't have been ready for the start of the playoffs, but he would've have come back around the start of the 2nd round, so we'll factor him in when (and if) his team gets there.
Of course, there are plenty of things that will be impossible to project - injuries, suspensions, lineup changes, and more. But it was also impossible to predict a pandemic, so we're just gonna go with what we have. This obviously isn't optimal, but it's the best I can do right now. Here is a Google Sheet with all of the lineups I approximated to use to make my predictions (note: these are NOT the same lines used for the NHL 20 Simulation. Those are the default lines from the most recent roster update on April 3rd).
Going forward, I will make a new post around when each round of the playoffs was set to begin, using my predictions from the previous round(s).
Remember, this will look slightly different than the current NHL standings (which go strictly by points). The higher team in each matchup has home-ice advantage.
Vegas Golden Knights (39-24-8) vs. Nashville Predators (35-26-8)
Previous Meetings: This would be the first playoff series between these two clubs.
Last Time: Both teams lost in first round series they would probably like to forget. Nashville lost to Dallas after winning the Central, and Vegas became the second team in NHL history to blow a three-goal lead in the third period of a Game 7, which they lost 5-4 in overtime to the Sharks.
Season Series: The Golden Knights took both games on the road (one in overtime), and Nashville won the only game in Vegas.
Why Vegas Would Win: After a rough first half and firing head coach Gerrard Gallant, the Golden Knights were picking up steam down the stretch, winning eight of their last ten. The Golden Knights have a deep forward core that performed very well in the playoffs last year, led by two-way threat Mark Stone and sniper Max Pacioretty. Marc-Andre Fleury didn't have a great year in goal, but he was one heck of an understudy in 2019 Vezina nominee Robin Lehner. And their defense got a little stronger with the deadline pickup of Alec Martinez, who was fitting in well.
Why Nashville Would Win: The Predators also had a rough first half, also fired their head coach, and also appeared to be turning it on at the most important time. Nashville has a lot of players with loads of playoff experience. Goalie Pekka Rinne leads the way, though if regular season stats are any indicator, the Preds might find themselves leaning on Jusse Saros in goal. Their defense remains one of the best in the league, led by Norris candidate Roman Josi. Their forward core does have a lot of talent, and if they can put it together, watch out.
NHL 20 Says: Vegas in 7, as the Golden Knights narrowly avoid a Nashville reverse sweep.
The Prediction: Despite their strong end to the regular season, I think Nashville falls flat. Their forward core's potential remains untapped and Pekka Rinne proves his best days are behind him. Vegas wins with a clean flush, aka their second sweep in franchise history.
Edmonton Oilers (37-25-9) vs. Vancouver Canucks (36-27-6)
Previous Meetings: Only two - Edmonton swept Vancouver (in three?) in round 1, 1982, then beat them in six in round 2, 1992.
Last Time: Edmonton has only made the playoffs once since 2006 - 2017, when they beat San Jose in round 1 before falling in seven to Anaheim. Vancouver hasn't been here since 2015, when they fell in six to Calgary.
Season Series: Split two games a piece, with the goal differential favoring Vancouver by just one.
Why Edmonton Wins: All due respect to Vancouver's stars, the Oilers have the two best players in the series, if not the two best players in the world. Connor McDavid is certainly number one, and Leon Draisaitl followed up a 50-goal 18-19 season with a potential Hart winning campaign. For once, they have been surrounded with quality scorers not named Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Mikko Koskinen was having an underrated year between the pipes, and the Oilers do have some quality defensemen in Oskar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse. And dealing with Zach Kassian and Alex Chiasson for four to seven games does not sound like fun.
Why Vancouver Wins: Jacob Markstrom has outstanding in goal all season - one of Vancouver's biggest struggles directly correlated with an injury to him. Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson, and Calder candidate Quinn Hughes are legit, and they might just be too electric to contain. They've also got some players like Antoine Roussel and Tyler Myers that will beat up any opponent.
NHL 20 Says: Remember how Vegas avoided a reverse sweep? Edmonton wasn't so lucky. Congrats to the Canucks on becoming the fifth team in NHL history to overcome a 3-0 series deficit.
The Prediction: McDavid and Draisaitl are awesome, but there still isn't quite enough talent around them to make the Oilers well-rounded enough to win a series. Jacob Markstrom outplays Mikko Koskinen with relative ease, and the Canucks pull of the upset in front of their home crowd in six.
St. Louis Blues (42-19-10) vs. Calgary Flames (36-27-7)
Previous Meetings: Only one in 1986, when the Flames beat St. Louis in seven to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Last Time: Fresh off the best regular season record in the West last year, the Flames won Game 1 of their first series against the Avs... and never won again. As for the Blues, I don't know if you heard, but they went from dead last in the league on January 3 to Stanley Cup Champions on June 12.
Season Series: St. Louis swept the season series, winning once in regulation, once in overtime, and once in a shootout.
Why St. Louis Wins: They're the defending champs, and also have the second best record in the NHL. The Blues are absolutely loaded with a stacked right-defense featuring Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko, and Justin Faulk. Jordan Binnington hasn't lost any of the luster from his incredible rookie season. Ryan O'Reilly leads a very deep forward core that was slated to get Vladimir Tarasenko back right around now. Add in a career year from David Perron and more quality in Vince Dunn, Brayden Schenn, and Jaden Schwartz
Why Calgary Wins: No defending champion not named the Penguins has made it out of round 1 since Chicago in 2014. Most of Calgary's roster that was the best of the West from October 2018-April 2019 is still around. Johnny Gaudreau had a trying year but still oozes skill. Sean Monahan is one of the most underrated two-way forwards in the sport. Their blue-line is deep even if Jusso Valimaki isn't ready to return. Goaltending is a bit of a question, but Cam Talbot has won a playoff series before, and all you need is for one goalie to get a little hot for that problem to be solved.
NHL 20 Says: Blues in five, with one of the biggest blowouts in recent playoff memory, if not playoff history, to close out the series.
The Prediction: The defending champs role on. Calgary's best offensive players will wake up a little more than in last year's frustrating first round defeat, but the Blues take them down in six.
Colorado Avalanche (42-20-8) vs. Dallas Stars (37-24-8)
Previous Meetings: Four all-time, but none since 2006. The all-time matchup is split at two games a piece.
Last Time: Both teams lost in by one goal in Game 7 of the Western Conference - Colorado to San Jose, Dallas in overtime to St. Louis.
Season Series: Dallas won all four meetings, though every game was close. Three were decided by one goal, two of which needed more than 60 minutes.
Why Colorado Wins: The Avs have arguably the best first line in hockey of Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, and Mikko Rantanen. This year, their depth is better than ever, headlined by offseason acquisitions Nazem Kadri and Joonas Donskoi alongside young talents Tyson Jost and JT Compher. Calder favorite Cale Makar leads a solid blue-line, which plays in front of two solid goalies. Philip Grubauer was good for the Avs last year, but Pavel Francouz has been almost unbeatable in his first full NHL season. Grubauer probably gets the nod to start the series, but it's not the end of the world if he falters.
Why Dallas Wins:
NHL 20 Says: Dallas overcomes a 3-1 series deficit to force a Game 7, but Nathan MacKinnon caps off an incredible series with a OT winner to give Colorado their second series win in as many years.
The Prediction: I'll take what EA's having. I see Colorado starting this series strong, Dallas grinding them down and stealing a few games with their goaltending, but the Avs skill ultimately prevailing in seven.
Eastern Conference, Round 1
Washington Capitals (41-20-8) vs. Carolina Hurricanes (38-25-5)
Previous Meetings: They met for the first time last year, when Carolina knocked the defending champion Capitals in 2OT of Game 7 in their first playoff appearance since 2009.
Last Time: See above for Washington. The Hurricanes went on to sweep the Islanders in Round 2 before being swept in the Eastern Conference Finals by Boston.
Season Series: Carolina took three of the four meetings, none of which were decided by more than two goals.
Why Washington Wins: The Capitals have a lineup built for the playoffs. From Garnet Hathaway to Radko Gudas and legendary enforcer/ax-murder Tom Wilson, there's no shortage of snarl in DC. The Caps also boast a ton of fire-power in Rocket Richard co-winner Alex Ovechkin, dynamic playmakers Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Norris favorite John Carlson, just to name a few. Braden Holtby has been great in the playoffs historically, but after a rough season, former top prospect Ilya Samsonov might be handed the keys to the crease at some point.
Why Carolina Wins: There aren't many roster changes on either side than last year, when Carolina got the better of the Caps. The Hurricanes are analytical darlings with some outstanding forwards (Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov, Teuvo Teravainen) and a stacked defense even with Norris hopeful Dougie Hamilton out with a broken leg. Carolina's recent history against the Caps is the biggest reason to bet on them.
NHL 20 Says: Just like last year, these two need seven to settle the series, but Washington gets their revenge.
The Prediction: The Canes just seem to have lost a little bit of their magic this season. And I don't know how stable their goaltending situation would be - it sounds like one of Petr Mrazek or James Reimer would have been back in time, but I'm not totally sure they'd be at 100% if they did. The magic will come back in time, but this year, the Caps get their revenge in seven.
Philadelphia Flyers (41-21-7) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (40-23-6)
Previous Meetings: This is their eighth all-time series, with the Flyers holding a slight 4-3 edge. However, the Penguins won the last time in 2018 Round 1, their third victory in the last four tries against Philly.
Last Time: The Flyers haven't been back since the Pens knocked them out in 2018. Pittsburgh was swept in Round 1 last season by the Islanders, scoring just six goals in four games.
Season Series: Pittsburgh won a massive blowout in October and a tight OT contest, both on home ice. The Flyers won the lone matchup in Philly with a stifling 3-0 shutout.
Why Philadelphia Wins: The Flyers have one of the deepest teams in the NHL this season. The additions of Kevin Hayes and Tyler Pitlick up front combined with Justin Braun and former Pen Matt Niskanen have given this roster a shot in the arm. Alain Vigneault is the Flyers best coach since Peter Laviolette, and the team has some nice star power in captain Claude Giroux, Selke favorite Sean Couturier and emerging #1 blue-liner Ivan Provorov. But the biggest reason for optimism might be finally having a goalie they can trust in young stud Carter Hart.
Why Pittsburgh Wins: Because they're the Penguins. They've been here every year since 2007. If the Penguins can fight off an injury list as long as a 5-year old's Christmas list, they can win a series and make a push for their third Cup in five years. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin need no introduction, and they've historically dominated the Flyers, especially in the playoffs. Tristan Jarry has been a revelation in goal and their blue-line is arguably better than the one that won it all in 2016. Simply put, the Penguins don't have a lot of weaknesses, even if they were struggling lately.
NHL 20 Says: A back-and-forth series sees Pittsburgh enter the 3rd period of Game 7 with a 1-0 lead. Claude Giroux ties it on the power-play, but who other than Crosby scores the series-winner in 3-1 Game 7 victory for the Penguins.
The Prediction: It's just not the Flyers year. There are too many forces going against them - coronavirus, Ewing's Sarcoma, migraine disorder, the list goes on and on. The Penguins are the Penguins; unless you're the 2019 Islanders, they're a really tough out. The Flyers will give them a good run, but the Pens hold serve in the Battle of Pennsylvania by winning Game 7 in Philly.
Boston Bruins (44-14-12) vs. New York Islanders (35-23-10)
Previous Meetings: Two meetings in the 80s, both won by the Isles.
Last Time: Boston came up one win short of winning the Cup last year, falling short in Game 7 against the Blues. The Islanders stunned the hockey world by sweeping the Penguins in Round 1, but were the sweepe in Round 2 against the Canes, managing just five goals the entire series.
Season Series: Both teams won a game that went beyond 60 minutes. The Bruins took the rubber match on the road by a score of 4-0.
Why Boston Wins: The Bruins were the only team to reach 100 points this season, setting themselves as President's Trophy winners for the first time since 2014. The perfection line of Marchand, Bergeron, and Pastrnak will light up even the stingiest defense. They have plenty of depth up front even before acquiring Ondrej Kase and Nick Ritchie in separate deals with Anaheim. Their defense has two game-breakers in Torey Krug and Charlie McAvoy, who pair well with shutdown blue-liners Brandon Carlo and the ageless Zdeno Chara, respectively. Tuukka Rask has been outstanding in goal all year, and if he somehow falters, Jaroslav Halak is one of the best backups in the league.
Why New York Wins: The Penguins thought they had a lot of the same traits Boston has, and they were strangled by the Islanders air-tight defense and stellar goaltending. Seymon Varlamov isn't as good as Robin Lehner was last year, but he's still a very solid goalie. The defense is still very good, and they have some weapons up front in Mathew Barzal, Anders Lee, Josh Bailey, and deadline pickup JG Pageau. The Islanders apparently do their best work when everyone doubts them, which is great because they would be heavy underdogs in this series.
NHL 20 Says: The Islanders rally from 3-1 down to win the series, but Tuukka Rask ends a low-scoring series with a 2-0 shutout in Game 7.
The Prediction: The Islanders just can't hang with a team as skilled and deep as Boston. Their defensive structure and goaltending is good enough to win one game, but not close to win four. The B's take them down in five.
Tampa Bay Lightning (43-21-6) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (36-25-9)
Previous Meetings: This would be the first ever meeting between the Bolts and the Leafs.
Last Time: After tying the all-time record for wins in a single season, Tampa Bay became the first President's Trophy winner to be swept in Round 1, falling to Columbus. Toronto lost a First Round Game 7 in Boston for the second time in as many years and third time since 2013.
Season Series: Toronto took two of the three meetings, although overall the Lightning outscored them by two goals.
Why Tampa Bay Wins: There's too much talent for the Lightning to lose in the first round two years in a row, right? They have the defending Art Ross and Hart winner Nikita Kucherov, reigning Norris winner Victor Hedman, and reigning Vezina winner Andrei Vasilevskiy at their disposal. Brayden Point is another outstanding weapon, and Anthony Cirelli is a dark horse for the Selke. Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev, and a bounce-back year from Kevin Shattenkirk stack the Bolts blue-line. And though Steven Stamkos would have missed the beginning of the series, it's possible he could've returned to give Tampa Bay a late series push.
Why Toronto Wins: If anyone can out-skill the Lightning, it's Toronto. Auston Matthews finished one goal back of the league lead. William Nylander had a bounce-back year, and Mitch Marner and John Tavares are also game-breakers. Morgan Rielly and Tyson Barrie are great offensive defensemen at their peak and Jake Muzzin is a great shutdown option. When Frederik Andersen is on, he's almost unbeatable. The problem for Toronto is getting everyone healthy and meeting expectations all at once. There's no guarantee that would've happened, but the way their injured players' timelines were shaping up, it definitely would have been a possibility.
NHL 20 Says: A surprisingly low-scoring series ends with Vasilevskiy and the Bolts shutting out the Leafs in consecutive games, as Tampa prevails in six.
The Prediction: There's no way the Lightning lose in round one again after the embarrassment of last season. They're too good and honestly just too determined after that. Toronto comes close to matching them in skill, but no close enough in willpower. Gimme the Lightning in six.