Previewing the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Eastern Conference Edition
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
This is the moment we have all been waiting for, and man have we had to wait for a while. Four months after the playoffs were scheduled to begin, we are just now getting ready, with five of the top sixteen teams in the regular season watching the games from the couch. After a long stop due to COVID-19, a massive (and so far successful) plan to turn Edmonton and Toronto into hub cities to host the biggest tournament in NHL history, eight teams have been sent home, and the normal sixteen-team playoffs are upon us.
Last year's playoffs were one of the craziest in recent memory, especially early. Every single division winner lost in the first round. In the East, That included the President's Trophy winning Lightning, who won a tied-for NHL record 62 games in the regular season yet won none in the playoffs thanks to an upstart Columbus club that had never won a series before going all-in. That included the defending Cup champions and four-time defending Metro champion Capitals, beaten in double overtime of Game 7 by a Hurricanes team making their first playoff appearance in a decade. Furthermore, the 2016 and 2017 champion Penguins were swept by an Islanders club with one series win in a quarter century and was fresh off losing John Tavares. Nothing that happened could have been predicted.
Ok, Boston did beat Toronto in seven. I guess that could have been predicted. Some things never change.
The crazy kept going into the second round, where the Hurricanes pulled out an UNO reverse card on the Islanders with a sweep of their own. Columbus jumped out to a 2-1 series lead on the Bruins. But then order was restored. The Bruins won three straight to eliminate Columbus, then won four more in a row to sweep out the Canes and punch their ticket to the Final for the third time since 2011. Despite being favored, the Bruins came up just short of winning it all again, losing Game 7 to the Blues on their own ice.
This year's bracket will likely be full of more unpredictably, more chaos, more drama. Having no fans and no travel will change everything, as it truly is up to the players and coaches now. Maybe that means the best team wins with no distractions to deal with. Maybe this unprecedented tournament results in an unprecedented champion.
Whatever happens, it will certainly be entertaining. The qualifiers and (to a lesser extent) the round robin have already created a great foundation for the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Before the lights turn on, the players skate out, and the puck drops with the Cup sixteen wins away, here's a look at the East side of the bracket.
The Matchup: #1 Philadelphia Flyers (41-21-7) vs. #12 Montreal Canadiens (31-31-8)
Just wanted to put this in here so no one thinks I forgot about them. This series will get its own separate article.
The Matchup: #2 Tampa Bay Lightning (43-21-6) vs. #9 Columbus Blue Jackets (33-22-15)
Recent Meetings: They met in the first round last year, but I can't think of anything memorable that came from it.
Season Series: Columbus was beaten up and starting to slump when they faced the Lightning for the first time since the playoffs in February. They held on and made it to overtime, where Nikita Kucherov scored the winner for Tampa Bay.
Who's the Favorite: This isn't close to the same Blue Jackets team that knocked off the Lightning last year. Matt Duchene, Artemi Panarin, and Sergei Bobrovsky are all gone, in case you haven't heard. They're also all gone from the playoffs, and the Blue Jackets certainly have the same "us against the world" mentality they did last spring; not many people picked them to beat Toronto in the qualifier round. For the first time this year they're basically at full health (with the exception of Josh Anderson), and they certainly are a good team, with a Jack Adams nominee behind the bench.
But come on, this is the Lightning. You could argue they're even better than last year, swapping JT Miller and Anton Stralman for Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, and a revitalized Kevin Shattenkirk. Up front and between the pipes, the Lightning have a clear talent edge. Nikita Kucherov is an incredible scorer, Brayden Point is legit, and Anthony Cirelli will probably win a Selke in the next five years. It's worth noting that Steven Stamkos missed the whole round robin, and Victor Hedman left Saturday's game against Philly with a lower-body injury. He appeared to be pretty hurt, slamming his stick into the railing as he went off. If both or even one (especially Hedman) can't go, this becomes a lot more of a fair fight. But because of their elite forward talent, I'll still pick Tampa.
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: For the second straight year, anything short of a Cup is unacceptable for the Bolts. They were the fourth best regular season team in the NHL this year and tied the all-time wins record a year ago. If the Blue Jackets beat them again in the first round, there could be major changes made, either to the roster, behind the bench, or even in the executive offices. The Lightning know they have to win this series, and that could either motivate them en route to a deep run or weigh them down like last time.
Player to Watch For:
TB - Despite having an incredible blue-line, only one Tampa Bay defenseman scored in last year's playoffs. That was then sophomore blue-liner Mikhail Sergachev, with a goal in the third period of Game 2. Sergachev didn't have an amazing round robin display, and if Hedman can't go for part or all of the series, Jon Cooper will have to rely on Sergachev and Ryan McDonagh even more than normal. Sergachev has always been a solid number three or so defenseman (34 points, 53.3% Corsi), but the Lightning might need him to be even more.
CBJ - You could argue that there isn't a better forward than Oliver Bjorkstrand. Lightning fans will remember him as the guy who scored the series winner last April. He put up 21 goals in just 49 games, good enough for the team lead. Bjorkstrand was shutout by the Maple Leafs however, so he'll be looking to turn things around against the Lightning. The Blue Jackets top-six looks like a lot less of a weakness when Bjorkstrand is on his A-game.
The Pick: This is make or break for the Bolts. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, everyone gets traded and the team goes into a rebuild. Lightning in 6.
Oddly Specific Prediction: Tampa's three leading scorers in this series are the Triplets, their second line from the 2015 playoffs: Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov (not necessarily in that order).
The Matchup: #3 Washington Capitals (41-20-8) vs. #7 New York Islanders (35-23-10)
Recent Meetings: These two teams played a pretty great series in the first round in 2015. It featured two overtimes and went the distance, with Evgeny Kuznetsov breaking a 1-1 tie late in the 3rd to win Game 7 for the Capitals.
Season Series: One of the most memorable games of the regular season had to be Washington's 4-1 comeback in January, led by a five-goal third. They met twice in 2019, with the road team winning each time by one goal. The Islanders took the final match in February 5-3, proving they can score goals against the Caps.
Who's the Favorite: I'm not sure this is as easy to call as you might think. The Islanders looked pretty darn impressive against the Panthers. Their excellent defensive structure held up great against the Panthers, keeping them from scoring more than three goals in each of the four games. Semyon Varlamov played well, and the Isles proved they can score a little, putting up five goals in the series clincher. New York was sliding hard at the end of the regular season, but they proved last year (especially in Round 1 against Pittsburgh), when they're on, they're incredibly hard to beat.
On the other hand, Washington's stock has taken a bit of a hit in my eyes. They went 1-1-1 in the round robin, but didn't look particularly impressive in my eyes. They're without Ilya Samsonov, who had much better regular season numbers than the more proved Braden Holtby. Lars Eller isn't in the bubble right now because of the birth of his child (congrats, Ellers!), which hurts the Caps forward depth. It's the Caps defense that has me concerned; they're isn't a ton here behind John Carlson. Maybe that won't matter as much against a low-scoring Isles squad, but it's something to keep an eye on.
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: Like Pittsburgh, the Capitals are going to realize that they're running out of chances with their current core. While some of the pressure dissipated when they won it all in 2018, there's always pressure to win more. Ovechkin is 34. Backstrom is 32. Oshie is 33. Carlson is 30. Holtby is likely leaving in the offseason. Not many people think of the Islanders as an elite team, even though they're a group that can certainly cause chaos. Their core is already locked up and almost entirely under 30. This isn't a make it or break it year for them, especially after proving themselves last season.
Player to Watch For:
WSH - It wasn't too long ago when Ilya Kovalchuk's name meant fear for opponents. Though he isn't the top-line sniper he used to be for Atlanta and for New Jersey in their run to the 2012 Final, Kovalchuk looked revitalized after signing mid-season with the Montreal Canadiens, scoring 13 points in 22 games. He started solid with the Capitals, too, putting up 4 points in 7 contests. Kovi is only the third most notable Russian sniper on the Caps (behind Ovi and Kuzi, of course), but he'll be lurking in the shadows on the third line and second power-play unit looking to strike.
NYI - When the Ottawa Senators advanced to the 2017 Eastern Conference Final, no one had more goals than JG Pageau. The Sens third line center scored eight goals in those playoffs, including four (which included an OT winner) in Game 2 of round two against the Rangers. The Islanders acquired him from Ottawa for a hefty trifecta of draft picks at the deadline, hoping he'd add an extra element to their bleow-average offense. He scored three times in their series win over Florida, and if he can keep that pace up, the Islanders could be tougher for Washington's defense to handle than they think.
The Pick: Offense wins games, but defense wins championships. The Capitals offense didn't impress me that much in the round robin (five goals in three contests with no more than two in a single game). I always underrate the Islanders, and it's time to even that out. Islanders in 7.
Oddly Specific Prediction: Alex Ovechkin is the only Capital to score in the series deciding game, yet people still blame him for the Capitals going out early.
The Matchup: #4 Boston Bruins (44-14-12) vs. #6 Carolina Hurricanes (38-25-5)
Recent Meetings: Last year's Eastern Conference Final, when Boston wiped the floor with the young Hurricanes in a clean sweep. They also faced off in the second round in 2009, with Scott Walker scoring the Game 7 OT winner for Carolina.
Season Series: Boston took the only regular season matchup with a 2-0 home win in early December.
Who's the Favorite: History says Boston. The standings say Boston. But like with Washington, I'm not sure if I can commit to saying the Bruins. A lot of Bruins players were unfit to play in Phase 3 and missed some time. Tuukka Rask was sick, Ondrej Kase just arrived in the bubble, and, oh yeah, they went 0-3-0, the only team in the round robin that didn't get a point. At this point, the regular season means next to nothing.
Though the Hurricanes were dominated by Boston last spring, they're a much better team on paper. Andrei Svechnikov is a year older, a year stronger, and a year more confident. The Canes forward core is even deeper with the additions of Ryan Dzingel and Vincent Trocheck. Even with Dougie Hamilton still on the shelf, Carolina has one of the deepest d-cores in the league, and Hamilton could come back at some point in this series (he's officially week-to-week). Petr Mrazek and James Reimer erased a lot of question marks with their strong play in the qualifier. The whole team looked dynamite against the Rangers, as they were the only club to sweep their best-of-five series.
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: Boston has the exact same problem as the Capitals - their team is great, but their team isn't getting any younger, and the time to win is now. Bergeron, Krejci, Marchand, and Rask are all over 32. Zdeno Chara may retire at the end of the season. Torey Krug is a pending UFA and will be getting paid, whether it's in Boston or somewhere else. After coming as close as you can to winning the Cup without doing so last year, the Bruins must be craving another deep run.
While it would be disappointing if Carolina isn't able to follow up last year's surprise ECF run with more playoff success, this core has plenty of great years ahead of them. The same can't be said for Justin Williams, whose last NHL game will probably be Carolina's last game in these playoffs. Despite that, the Bruins run away with this section.
Player to Watch For:
BOS - Acquired from the Wild at last year's trade deadline, Charlie Coyle became a folk hero for his hometown team in last year's playoffs. Coyle put up 16 points in 24 games, including a Round 2 OT winner against Columbus. He was rewarded for those efforts with a hefty six-year extension ($5.5 million plus a modified-NTC and NMC), and to prove Don Sweeney right, he'll need another strong performance this year.
CAR - After holding off the Capitals in Round 1 and posting a shutout in a Game 1 OT win against the Islanders, disaster struck for Petr Mrazek, when he suffered an injury in Game 2. Backup Curtis McElhinney held down the fort for the rest of the series, completing the sweep. Mrazek returned for the Eastern Conference Final, but he wasn't the same, allowing 10 goals in two games to the tune of an ugly .807 save percentage. That wound up being it for Mrazek, as Rod Brind'Amour went back to McElhinney for the rest of the series. Today, Mrazek is healthy, and still playing well, putting up a .940 save percentage in two games against the Rangers. He'll likely be the x-factor for the Canes going forward.
The Pick: Something feels very wrong about the Bruins. I thought they would pull themselves together by now but it appears they're still in trouble. As Pittsburgh and Edmonton proved, if you aren't your A-game from the get-go you will be in trouble quickly. Boston will get better as the series goes on, but they're facing probably the most impressive team from the qualifier. Hurricanes in 7.
Oddly Specific Prediction: Andrei Svechnikov and David Pastrnak have one of those rare but incredibly special dueling hat-trick playoff battles, the first since Jake Guentzel and Sean Couturier in 2018.