Predicting the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifers - Eastern Conference Edition
Hockey is back!
With a promising and impressive zero positive COVID-19 cases by players entering the bubble, the National Hockey League is ready to resume play. On Tuesday, there were actual hockey games for the first time since March 11. But starting today, the games begin to count, as the round robin and Stanley Cup Qualifiers begin.
However, it's the latter that holds far more drama and intensity. All eight of the round robin teams (four in each conference) are guaranteed a spot in the actual, 16-team Stanley Cup playoffs. Conversely, the eight teams that lose their best-of-five qualifiers see their season come to an end, albeit with the silver lining of a 12.5% chance of winning the first overall pick thanks to the results of the June 26th draft lottery.
The fifth through twelvth place teams in each conference are just days away from beginning their best-of-five qualifier series, which makes now the perfect (and the last) time to give my thoughts on each of the eight series that will take place over the next two weeks. This first article will cover the four Eastern Conference play-in rounds (plus the round robin); the second will detail the Western Conference side of things.
Stanley Cup Qualifiers
The Matchup: #5 Pittsburgh Penguins (40-23-6) vs. #12 Montreal Canadiens (31-31-9)
Recent Meetings: None since the 2010 Conference Semi-Finals, when the eight seed, heavy underdog Canadiens took down the favored, all-mighty Penguins in a series that went the distance. Good thing for Pittsburgh they don't find themselves in almost the exact same situation today.
Season Series: The teams traded 4-1 victories in Pittsburgh, but the Penguins take it thanks to a 3-2 OT win in Montreal in January.
Who's the Favorite: Pittsburgh, full stop. The Penguins are absolutely loaded, especially after adding Jason Zucker at the trade deadline. The team has made the playoffs every year since 2007 and just missed out on making the round robin thanks to a late-February cold streak. On the other hand, Montreal has just one playoff appearance since 2016 and hasn't won a round since 2014.
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: This category is much more even. Montreal will always face some pressure because of their market, where the fans are hardcore and expect nothing but the best. Then again, you argue the Canadiens are feeling more pressure to lose than to win in order to gain a one-in-eight shot at drafting hometown stud Alexis Lafreniere.
Pittsburgh isn't exactly playing with house money, either. The Pens were straight up dominated by the Islanders in last year's first round, scoring just seven goals in their first year without a playoff win since 2006. The Penguins have only had one two-year stretch without a series win during this streak (2011-12). With Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin still getting older, the time to win is now.
Player to Watch For:
PIT - Had the playoffs started on time, Jake Guentzel likely wouldn't have started them, and may not have played in them at all depending on how deep the Pens went. Guentzel suffered a serious shoulder injury right before the turn of the calendar year, leading to regular-season ending surgery. Before then, the 2013 3rd rounder was on fire, scoring 43 points in 39 games after putting up 76 the year before. If he picks up where he left off, watch out.
MTL - Anyone who is betting on the Habs even giving Pittsburgh a run for their money is betting on Carey Price having an other-worldly series. Price is no longer the best goalie in the world, but he still has an intimidating reputation as a guy who can steal a game, or two, or three. Though the Canadiens do have a few interesting pieces up front and on the backend, it's up to Price to seal their fate.
The Pick: Penguins in 3
Oddly Specific Prediction: When the final horn of this series sounds, Carey Price is sitting on the bench. Or maybe he's standing. Either way, he's not on the ice for the end.
The Matchup: #6 Carolina Hurricanes (38-25-5) vs. #11 New York Rangers (37-28-5)
Recent Meetings: These teams have never faced each other in a playoff series.
Season Series: A clean four-game sweep for the Rangers by a combined margin of 17-9, though the Hurricanes usually outshot them, as they typically do against everybody. In fact, in the last nine years, the Rangers have won 31 of 37 meetings.
Who's the Favorite: Just two points separate these two teams in the standings, so it's no surprise that this one is hard to call. The Hurricanes were one of the great Cinderellas of the league last year, riding the Storm Surge and strong analytics to the Eastern Conference Final. This year has mostly been a repeat, with the team still fun off the ice but not as good as they should be on it. The Canes have largely been a bubble team, and there are concerns about their ability to keep the puck out of the net with Petr Mrazek in goal and Norris dark-horse Dougie Hamilton back on the shelf.
In the beginning of February, no one would have thought the Rangers would be seen as a dangerous team this year. Their rebuild appeared to be coming to an end, but seemed like it needed another year of growth to come to fruition. However, a 9-1-0 run in February put them right back into the hunt. Rookie Igor Shesterykin stopped everything that moved in goal, Artemi Panarin's Hart candidacy skyrocketed, and Mika Zibanejad exploded for for 41 goals, including five in one game. Their defense is a little sketchy, but the talent up front and depth in goal makes them scary.
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: Usually a New York team would win this category running away, but I've gotta go with Carolina. After the Canes run to last year's ECF, a lot of people had them as a trendy Stanley Cup pick, and almost no one had them missing the playoffs. Having them go out this early would be a major disappointment.
Player to Watch For:
NYR - The Rangers traded a first-round pick and Neal Pionk to the Jets with the expectation that Jacob Trouba would be a top-pair defenseman. They're paying him $8 million a year for the next seven years to be a top-pair defenseman. 27 points in 70 games and 45.43% Corsi at 5-on-5 is not top-pair defenseman level (it might not even be top-four defenseman level). After trading Brady Skjei (to Carolina!) at the deadline, the Rangers need Trouba to step up big time.
CAR - No one was more of a human highlight reel in the regular season than sophomore Andrei Svechnikov. His two lacrosse goals were seen across the world, but the other 22 he scored were also pretty impressive. The most memorable moment of Svechnikov's playoff run last year was being knocked out in a fight by Alex Ovechkin; hopefully, this year we get to see more of the goal scorer Svechnikov in this year's tournament.
The Pick: Rangers in 5
Oddly Specific Prediction: Chris Kreider, who would have missed the final month of the regular season and maybe the start of the playoffs with a broken foot, leads the Rangers in goals during the series.
The Matchup: #7 New York Islanders (35-23-10) vs. #10 Florida Panthers (35-26-8)
Recent Meetings: 2016, when the wild-card Islanders took down the Atlantic Division champion Panthers in six, winning their first series in 23 years.
Season Series: New York's suffocating defense shut down Florida's potent offense every time, holding the Panthers to four total goals in three games, all Islanders wins (two in regulation, one in a shootout). However, their last game was December 12th, back when the Islanders were one of the best teams in the league, which they aren't now.
Who's the Favorite: No clue. This is a series of two different styles clashing. The Islanders rely on structure and defense to win games, whereas the Panthers are insanely run-and-gun, trying to create chances at will. New York's defense is one of the best in the league, and they should get a shot in the arm with Adam Pelech returning from an ACL tear. The Isles top six looks decent on paper, but everyone other than Mat Barzal has struggled to score at some point this season. The Panthers are in such dire straits they once had two defensemen on a forward line and Sergei Bobrovsky has been a mess all year.
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: It has to be Florida. The Islanders are feeling a decent bit of it though, especially after the high bar set by last year's sweep of Pittsburgh and their 17-game point streak earlier this season. Since December they've been wildly mediocre. However, the Panthers spent the sun and the moon over the summer only to barely improve in the standings and still come off as a poorly attended tire-fire. With ownership threatening to cut salary and Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov (54 combined goals) pending UFAs, it may actually be now or never for the Panthers to win.
Player to Watch For:
NYI - If the Islanders offense is ever going to get going, they need someone to lead by example, and who better to do that than their captain, Anders Lee. After scoring 40 goals two seasons ago, Lee had just half of that total in 68 regular season games. His 43 points were tied with Josh Bailey for third on the team. You can only win so many 2-1 games before your goalie eventually lays an egg or your defense breaks down, which happened rapidly in last year's second round series against Carolina, a series in which Lee scored no goals and just one assist.
FLA - Originally I picked Barkov for this spot, but there's no way it can't be Florida's ten million dollar man Sergei Bobrovsky. Coming over from Columbus for a massive deal, Bobrovsky had the worst regular season of his career, posting an extremely pedestrian .900 save percentage, allowing nearly fifteen more goals than expected (per Hockey-Reference.com). Granted, Bob didn't have an amazing first half in 18-19 before kicking into top gear down the stretch and posting a career-best playoff save percentage (.925) in last year's tournament. If that Bobrovsky returns, the Panthers suddenly become a threat.
The Pick: Panthers in 5
Oddly Specific Prediction: While the Islanders strong defense holds serve early, Game 5 is a slugfest with at least eight total goals scored.
The Matchup: #8 Toronto Maple Leafs (36-25-9) vs. #9 Columbus Blue Jackets (33-22-15)
Recent Meetings: This is another first-time playoff matchup.
Season Series: The teams split two October meetings with the road team winning each (Toronto 4-1 in regulation, Columbus 3-2 in OT). Their final two meetings were cancelled due to COVID.
Who's the Favorite: The Maple Leafs are definitely the more skilled team on paper. With the loss of Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene, no one on Columbus' forward core comes close to matching Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner (and maybe even William Nylander). The Blue Jackets make up for that with their depth, as Jack Adams finalist John Tortorella rolls four lines well and relies on the club's outstanding defense. Zach Werenski put up 20 goals on the backend, Seth Jones is a workhorse, and the rest of their blueline is also a strength. Young goalies Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins both played well for Columbus, whereas veteran Frederik Andersen (-0.4 goals saved above average) had the worst season of his career for the Leafs this year.
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: Toronto is usually the answer to this question any given year, and it's no exception this time around. Only Florida has gone longer than the Leafs since their last series win, which came way back in 2004. That was also the last time Toronto had home-ice advantage in a series, which they kinda have right now thanks to being chosen as a hub city. For the Blue Jackets, there's not a huge expectation to build on last year's emergence after losing so many pieces, but that doesn't mean they won't try to do just that.
Player to Watch For:
TOR - Tavares, Marner, and Matthews make most of the headlines for the Maple Leafs, which makes it easier to overlook William Nylander than it would be on most teams. After a holdout and step back last year, coming just two points shy of his career high despite the shortened season. He's an outstanding offensive player that can only be overlooked at your own peril.
CBJ - Since Josh Anderson's status is still up for grabs, I'm going to go with a bit of a dark horse here. Werenski and Jones are the big names up front, but David Savard is usually a strong top-four defenseman to anchor the pair behind them. His beautiful goal in the 3rd period of Game 1 against Tampa Bay last year helped spark Columbus' 3-0 comeback and eventual series sweep. His regular season wasn't amazing, as Savard failed to score a goal and posted an underwhelming 46.63% Corsi at 5-on-5. If he bounces back in these playoffs, the Blue Jackets' already strong defense becomes that much better.
The Pick: Leafs in 4
Oddly Specific Prediction: In a league full of youth, a movement Toronto is at the center of, 37-year old Jason Spezza scores the series-winning goal.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning (43-21-6): No Stamkos, no Hedman (for now, they'll be back soon), no problem. On paper, the Lightning are still the best team in the NHL, especially after the hefty deadline buys of Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow. That extra depth should help them handle missing Stammer and Hedman in their exhibition game (a dominant 5-0 win over Florida), and while all of Tampa's talent didn't come through for six days last April, it should for three games this August.
2. Boston Bruins (44-14-12): The Bruins might be the most hampered team right now. Ondrej Kase still isn't in the bubble and David Pastrnak and Tuukka Rask (among others) missed significant time during training camp. Brad Marchand might not be ready for the start of the round robin. They should be fine by the time the actual playoffs start, but this extra turmoil throws the President's Trophy winners out of top spot in the East.
3. Philadelphia Flyers (41-21-7): They were the hottest team in the NHL when the season paused in March, and while that momentum is gone, there's nothing saying it can't be picked back up. James van Riemsdyk and Phil Myers are healthy again (as is Carter Hart after a brief scare in camp), putting the Flyers at close to full strength. I've been bullish on the Flyers depth since day one, and there's no indicator the orange and black plan on slowing down any time soon, even if they lack some of the star power of the teams ahead of them.
4. Washington Capitals (41-20-8): Something just feels off about the Capitals to me right now. Maybe it's John Carlson probably winning the Norris without playing any defense or Ilya Samsonov not making the trip to put all the weight in the world on Braden Holtby's shoulders, but it feels like 2017 all over again. The Caps are no means a bad team, and I wouldn't be shocked if they came out with the top seed - anything can happen in three games. But they're the club in the top four I feel the least confident about right now.