Predicting the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs...If They Started On Time (Part 4)
June 13 shoulda, coulda, woulda been the last day of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final. Instead, it's another day in the quarantine void as we wait for hockey to hopefully make a safe and triumphant return in about two months time.
Fortunately, we can still pretend that the playoffs are taking place on schedule and have already reached their apex. It's time to finally finish this four part series on how I saw a regular, 16-team, Stanley Cup Playoffs turn out. Since it's been a while, here's how I predicted the first three rounds (standings by points percentage were used to determine the bracket):
Bruins (A1) 4, Islanders (WC2) 1
Lightning 4 (A2), Maple Leafs (A3) 2
Capitals (M1) 4, Hurricanes WC1)
Flyers 3, Penguins 4
Blues 4, Flames 2
Avalanche 4, Stars 3
Golden Knights 4, Predators 0
Oilers 2, Canucks 4
Bruins 2, Lightning 4
Capitals 2, Penguins 4
Blues 2, Avalanche 4
Golden Knights 4, Canucks 0
Lightning 4, Penguins 1
Avalanche 4, Golden Knights 1
Ladies and gentlemen, it's time for the (fictional) main event...
Tampa Bay Lightning (43-21-6) vs. Colorado Avalanche (42-20-8)
Season Series: Colorado won in dominant fashion 6-2, but that was back in October. In February, they played a much closer contest that Tampa Bay took 4-3 in overtime.
The Last Time Here: The Avalanche won the Stanley Cup in seven games over the Devils, but that was way back in 2001. Not a single player who played in that Game 7 is still in the NHL. Tampa Bay was here much more recently, but the result was much less sweet. Chicago finished off their dynasty by knocking out Tampa Bay in six, despite the fact the Lightning had a 2-1 series lead.
Why Colorado Wins: Nathan MacKinnon is the best player in this series, and he's playing alongside two other lethal weapons in Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. But that's been a constant for Colorado in each of their last two playoff runs when they failed to reach the Conference Finals. It's Colorado's depth that needs to take them over the top. Fortunately, they now have a lot of it. Whether it's playoff veterans like Nazem Kadri and Joonas Donskoi, strong youngsters Tyson Jost and JT Compher, and decent fourth-liners in Matt Calvert and Pierre-Eduoard Bellemare.
Colorado's defense is a little bit young, and certainly doesn't match up as well as Tampa's, but it's still solid. Cale Makar is a game-breaker and (spoiler alert for a future article) my pick for the Calder. Samuel Girard is also a strong puck-mover with a little bit of experience. Erik Johnson and Nikita Zadorov are strong shut-down defenseman capable of making life miserable for opposing forwards. Plus/minus isn't a great stat, but it's great to be number one at it, and Ryan Graves did just that this year. Philip Grubauer will likely have the starter's job locked up if they go this far, but Pavel Francouz had an outstanding regular season backing him up. Colorado made be young, but they're sure hungry, and they're sure good.
Why Tampa Bay Wins: This is a long-time coming for the Lightning. They've been all around the Cup for the last half decade, only to come up short in frustrating fashion every time. They blew a 2-1 series lead in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, a 3-2 series lead in the 2016 Eastern Conference Final, a 3-2 series lead in the 2018 Eastern Conference Final, and their embarrassing sweep to Columbus last spring needs to introduction. Simply put, it's time.
Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Brayden Point are each elite forwards with tons of talent and skill. If they're playing together, they're unstoppable. If they're apart, they elevate already good forwards Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde, and 2015 playoff beast Tyler Johnson. Anthony Cirelli is a dark horse for the Selke. Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow were expensive deadline additions, but the price is always worth it if you get a ring.
The Bolts backend is as good as any in the NHL, and they probably have a bit of an edge over Colorado here. Victor Hedman is probably the best true talent defenseman in the NHL. He's such a smooth-skater and is both a dynamic puck-mover with a booming shot and a solid defender who can (and will) throw the body. Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev are also fringe top-pair defensemen, giving Tampa Bay a loaded left side. On the right, Kevin Shattenkirk had a huge bounce-back year and rounds out Tampa's deadly top-four. Two of Jan Rutta, Zach Bogosian, Braydon Coburn, and Erik Cernak make up Tampa's third pair - you really can't go wrong with any of them (unless you go with Luke Schenn, which is definitely the wrong choice).
Goaltending is probably where the biggest gap exists. Philip Grubauer is good, but Andrei Vasilevskiy is great (even if advanced metrics don't love him as much as the public does). Vasi had his struggles against Columbus in last year's playoffs, but he won the Vezina for a reason and he has experience playing deep in the playoffs (he played almost all of the 2016 ECF after Ben Bishop was injured). There's little reason to think he'll collapse on the biggest stage, and plenty of reason to think he could shut the door.
NHL 20 Says: We're in for a treat. A back-and-forth series, a couple of overtime games, and, in the end, a Game 7 win for the Lightning (in Colorado, no less), as the Bolts capture their second Stanley Cup in franchise history. Vasilevskiy in fact shuts the door en route to winning the Conn Smythe.
My Prediction: Same ending, but a different (and quicker) way of getting there. Colorado is probably going to win a Cup with their current core, especially when prospects like Shane Bowers and Bowen Byram are NHL ready. But right now, they're not. Tampa Bay is ready, and much like the 2018 Capitals, they're out of the spotlight and ready to win because no one really expects them too. The Bolts shed their playoff choker label and capture the 2020 Stanley Cup. Lightning in 5.
Oddly Specific Prediction: None of the 10,000 or so words I wrote in this four-part series come true because of a global pandemic and the Cup is awarded in late September/early October. The good news is none of these ever come true so congrats to the Lightning on winning the cup...last month.