Previewing Round 2 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs
One round down, three to go! The Stanley Cup Playoffs are officially in full swing. Thanks to the bonus fun of the qualifiers, sixteen teams have already been sent packing (more than ever before), leaving an elite eight still in the bubble with a shot at lifting the Stanley Cup.
Some teams (especially this year) can luck their way into the playoffs, but it's almost impossible to win a best-of-seven series by a pure fluke. Everyone here deserves to be here, and has a legitimate shot at winning it all. Of course, some teams do have a better chance than others, but the beautiful thing about hockey is that chances go out the window when the puck is dropped. We've seen it happen time and time again, and odds are we will continue to see it until the Cup is awarded.
With that disclaimer out of the way, it's time to focus in on the remaining eight clubs; four from the East, four from the West. Well, actually we're only going to focus on six of them, because...
The Matchup: #1 Philadelphia Flyers (41-21-7) vs. #7 New York Islanders (35-23-10)
Same deal as round one; this series will have its own separate story coming out shortly that will probably be longer than this entire article because Flyers. Ok, with that disclaimer on the way, let's get into the rest of round two and see what might be in store.
The Matchup: #2 Tampa Bay Lightning (43-21-6) vs. #4 Boston Bruins (44-14-12)
Recent Meetings: They met in basically the same situation in 2018. Both were favorites, 1-2 in the Atlantic, 105-plus point pace, stars aplenty. After the Bruins took Game 1 on the road, Tampa Bay took over, winning the next four for what was their most recent series win until Round 1 this year.
The Last Time Here: See above for the Lightning. The Bruins fell behind 2-1 to the scrappy Blue Jackets, but managed to win the next three games to take a pretty great series in six.
The Road Here: Tampa Bay exercised last year's demons in round one, drawing a re-match with Columbus that had a much different ending. The Lightning showed their progress by outlasting the Blue Jackets in a 5OT epic in Game 1, outshooting Columbus 88-63. They weren't phased when the Jackets responded to take Game 2, winning three straight in convincing fashion. They've done all of this without Steven Stamkos, who's status for this round is still unknown.
Meanwhile, the Bruins went from looking awful in the round robin to awesome in the first round. The President's Trophy winners found themselves in a tough spot as the number four seed, facing a hungry Hurricanes team eager to exact revenge for last year's Eastern Conference Final. But when the going got tough in round one, it was the Bruins who always got going. They took Game 1 in double OT, played well even after losing David Pastrnak, and overcame a 2-0 third period deficit in Game 4 to take control of the series, finishing the series off the next game.
Season Series: Tampa Bay won a shootout in October, and followed it up with a dramatic home victory in December. But the cream of the crop was an epic March clash that featured two line-brawls, two shorties, 94 penalty minutes, and Jack Edwards' infamous "take your Harvard degree to the hospital line." Tampa took it 5-3, making it easy to forget the Bruins won at Amalie just four days prior. In the round robin, Tampa fell behind 2-0 early but came back for a dramatic 3-2 victory, as Tyler Johnson scored the winner with 89 seconds left.
Who's the Favorite: They're both favorites. There's a good chance the winner of this series takes home the Cup. Tampa Bay won 62 games and the President's Trophy last year, and the Bruins won the Prince of Wales Trophy, coming within one win of taking the Cup, too. With the exception of JT Miller (Tampa Bay) and Tuukka Rask (Boston), every core contributor from last year's juggernauts are still here. It's no surprise these were the top two regular season teams in the East.
Even without Stamkos, the Lightning boast some of the best high-end talent in the league. Nikita Kucherov won the Art Ross and Hart Trophies a year ago and is still one of the best wingers in the world. In addition to Stammer, Tampa has another first-line center in Brayden Point, who scored two OT winners against Columbus. Victor Hedman won the Norris last year and is a finalist this season. He's an elite two-way defenseman who can shutdown anyone and is also an offensive threat. What makes the Lightning so special is the plethora of quality players they have behind those stars. Mikhail Sergachev, Anthony Cirelli, Ryan McDonagh, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, the list goes on and on and on. Oh, and the defending Vezina winner Andrei Vasilevskiy is between the pipes.
But if there's anyone who can match that impressive roster, it's the Bruins. Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak are called the perfection line for a reason, even if the latter may be playing hurt. Charlie McAvoy is a two-way stud on the back-end, and Torey Krug is an offensive force and tremendous power-play quarterback. Their depth is also stupendous with Charlie Coyle, Jake DeBrusk, David Krejci, Zdeno Chara, Brandon Carlo, and others lurking in the shadows, not to mention a fourth line of Joakim Nordstrom, Sean Kuraly, and Chris Wagner that has tremendous chemistry.
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: Another coin flip. If the Lightning can't make it past the second round for the second consecutive season there will be calls to dismantle the core. Meanwhile, Boston is running out of chances with Bergeron, Krejci, and Marchand all in their mid-30s, not to mention Zdeno Chara at age 42. I'm actually going to declare the Lightning winners here because I don't think the Bruins would go into panic mode with a loss, they'll still be good next year, and they have a reasonable excuse for losing with Tuukka Rask opting out in the middle of round one.
Player to Watch
TB - This series only features one Selke finalist, and a typical one at that in Patrice Bergeron. But Tampa's Anthony Cirelli is right on his heels. The 23-year old has quietly become one of the top defensive forwards in the NHL, pairing nicely with a career-high 44 points in the regular season. If Stamkos is still out, the Lightning will need him to step even more, likely tasking him with shutting down the Perfection Line.
BOS - With Tuukka Rask leaving the bubble (an understandable decision as he has young children, one of which reportedly had a health scare), the Bruins were forced to turn to Jaroslav Halak in goal. However, what would be a death blow for most teams in just a minor downgrade for the Bruins. Halak's .919 save percentage in the regular season just missed making the top 10. And he knows what it takes to go deep in the playoffs, taking eight seed Montreal to the Eastern Conference Final in 2010. The Bruins team in front of him today is much better than those Habs, giving Halak a good shot at returning to the ECF.
The Pick: Those who do not learn from their history are doomed to repeat it. Both teams, especially Boston, are much deeper than they were in 2018. Almost every significant contributor from that series is still here, except for Tuukka Rask. Though Halak is an incredible backup with a tremendous playoff track record, a potential Stamkos return would be enough to tilt the scales too far in Tampa's favor. Tampa Bay in 6.
Oddly Specific Prediction: Someone's scoring an overtime winner on their own net. It doesn't have to be a Steve Smith or Chris Phillips incident, just a tip is fine. But this is a series where someone is going to feel shame regardless of the outcome; might as well amplify it.
The Matchup: #1 Vegas Golden Knights (39-24-8) vs. #7 Vancouver Canucks (36-27-6)
Recent Meetings: As is customary with Vegas, this is their first ever playoff meeting with Vancouver (in fact, they've never played any of the other six remaining teams in the playoffs).
The Last Time Here: Vegas trounced the San Jose Sharks in Game 1 with a 7-0 win, setting the tone for a six-game series win. The Canucks haven't gone this far since 2011, beating the Predators in six en route to their only Finals appearance since 1994.
The Road Here: The Golden Knights were a perfect 3-0-0 in the round robin, dominating the class of their conference. They kept rolling in the first round, clobbering Chicago in just five games with tremendous underlying numbers.
Vancouver had to grow up fast to get here, taking out two veteran clubs in the qualifier and round one. The former was a pretty mediocre Wild club, but the latter a much more impressive victory, as the Canucks ended the Blues' title defense with a 3-1 comeback win in Game 5 and a dominant 6-2 showing in Game 6.
Season Series: These two teams love their goal-scoring. Vegas doubled up the Canucks 6-3 in the first meeting, but Vancouver responded with a 5-4 OT win four days later, with Chris Tanev scoring the OT winner. If that pace holds form in the playoffs, this could be an interesting series.
Who's the Favorite: The Golden Knights went to the Final two years ago and have only gotten stronger since, adding Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, Paul Stastny and Robin Lehner in the interim. Shea Theodore took a huge step forward this year, emerging as one of the best defensemen in the league. Key contributors from 2018 like Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault, Nate Schmidt, and William Karlsson still remain. It's a perfect storm that makes the Golden Knights a formidable opponent.
Meanwhile, the young Canucks started to truly prove themselves this year. Reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2015 and the second round for the first time since 2011 is a huge step for what has been a heavily criticized organization over the last few years. You probably know the star names; Elias Pettersson and Bo Horvat down the middle, Brock Boeser on the wing, Calder finalist Quinn Hughes leading the defense, and the emergence of Jacob Markstrom in goal. The key for the Canucks is their depth. They got goals from Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel, Troy Stetcher, and two from Tyler Motte in the series clincher. If that can hold form, this series could be great. I don't know how likely that is.
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: It doesn't feel like a ton for either side. Vegas just hired Peter DeBoer mid-season, so if they lose they can argue he needs more time to make the team his own. No one expected the Canucks to make it this far and their core is so young that they will almost certainly be back here more than once in the near future. The older Golden Knights win this category, but only by default.
Player to Watch
VGK - One of my biggest concerns going into the season about Vegas was their defense. They traded away Colin Miller in the offseason and did little to replace him, hoping that youngsters like Zach Whitecloud and Nic Hague would be ready to fill his void. Ultimately, Vegas felt the need to add to their blue-line, acquiring Alec Martinez at the trade deadline. The move was heavily maligned at the time, but Martinez has fit in well. He posted strong advanced metrics in the playoffs and regular season and has also contributed more offensive than expected.
VAN - Three Canucks averaged over 23 minutes a night against the Blues: Hughes, Tanev, and veteran Alex Edler. The 33-year old chose to stay with Vancouver instead of heading into unrestricted free agency, and it looks like his loyalty has paid off. He's the lone regular remaining from the Canucks 2011 Finals appearance (Chris Tanev played five games in those playoffs), and it would be sweet to see go deep with his only team once again.
The Pick: I almost want to pick the Canucks to be swept again (and after Round 1, I'm sure Canucks fans wouldn't be mad). The Golden Knights are constructed similarly to Vancouver; they're just a superior version of the Canucks, one Vancouver could mirror very soon. Credit the young 'Nucks where it's due, but I think Vegas takes care of business here. Vegas in 5.
Oddly Specific Prediction: Mark Stone has a series so epic it leads to Vegas naming him captain next season. Did I pick this because I believe it, or because it can't come true until like December and no one will remember if I got it wrong? Trick question, it's both.
The Matchup: #2 Colorado Avalanche (42-20-8) vs. #3 Dallas Stars (37-24-8)
Recent Meetings: None since 2006, a first-round series that the Avs won in five. They've played four series since their moves from Quebec and Minnesota, with each side winning twice.
The Last Time Here: Recent heartbreak for both sides. Colorado was jobbed by a sketchy offsides ruling in Game 7 against the Sharks last year, losing the game by just one goal. Dallas also made it to Game 7 here last year, also losing by one goal to a Blues team that was thoroughly outplaying them that night in what was otherwise a back-and-forth series. If the bounces went just a little bit different, this could've been last year's Western Conference Final.
The Road Here: Colorado had a pretty strong performance in the round robin, beating the Blues at the buzzer, strong-arming the Stars, and falling in OT to Vegas. However, their round one performance was downright dominant. Even though they lost Game 3 to the Coyotes, they outshot Arizona 51-21, and responded with consecutive 7-1 massacres in Games 4 and 5 to advance.
On the other hand, the Dallas Stars have been disrespected ever since play returned. They lost their first two round robin games and needed a late comeback and shootout against St. Louis to grab the third seed. A lot of people, myself included, thought they would fall apart against the Flames. But their offense woke up, scoring five plus in three of the six games, including seven unanswered to overcome a 3-0 deficit in Game 6.
Season Series: The Stars had their way with Colorado all season long, sweeping the four-game season series with just six goals allowed. The Avs got some revenge in the round robin with a convincing 4-0 victory in the round robin.
Who's the Favorite: It has to be Colorado. As I mentioned, the Stars have been underdogs all playoffs long, but to be fair, anyone would be underdogs against the Avalanche considering how well they're playing. Nazem Kadri is the biggest difference between last year's Avalanche and this year's; he's the true top-six center to support MacKinnon Colorado hasn't had since Matt Duchene. His six goals lead Colorado in the playoffs. Andre Burakovsky has continued his coming out party with a point-a-game playoffs, and Joonas Donskoi and JT Compher don't lag too far behind. Colorado's forward depth is scary good, and both of their goalies have looked sharp in the playoffs; Grubauer and Francouz both have goals against averages under 1.50.
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: This is a hot take, but I'm going to take Dallas here. There was a ton of pressure on the team last year, although some of that was eased off by beating Nashville in Round 1. But after adding Joe Pavelski in the summer and finishing with the fourth-best record in the West, Jim Lites and company will likely be demanding another step forward. The Stars play a suffocating defensive game, emerging as one of the top shutdown teams in the sport. They have some big names up front (Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Alex Radulov), but it's been their young guns like Dennis Gurianov (leads team in goals in regular season and playoffs) and star defenseman John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen that carried them past Calgary.
Player to Watch:
COL - Plus/minus is certainly a flawed stat, but it's better to be good at it than not. And nobody in the NHL had a better +/- in the regular season than Colorado's Ryan Graves (+40). The 25-year old spent most of his first full NHL season alongside Cale Makar, and the two have developed some nice chemistry over the last 10 months. Their success allows for a more balanced defense overall, with Colorado's second best defenseman Samuel Girard anchoring their second pair.
DAL - Though he's not the player he once was with Anaheim anymore, Corey Perry remains a solid depth scorer who knows what it takes to win in the playoffs. The 2007 Cup champion put up decent numbers against Calgary (1 goal, 2 assists), and with Dallas' top-line struggling to get going, the Stars could use an extra infusion of offense from the veteran to help them try to get past the Avalanche.
The Pick: The Stars have a lot of potential. If they win this series, I think they might be my favorite to win the Stanley Cup. I know they can shut down Nathan MacKinnon better than anyone, but can they score enough for it to matter? Since Seguin and Benn have been quiet since the return to play, my answer is going to be no. Colorado in 6.
Oddly Specific Prediction: Ben Bishop returns at some point during, but Anton Khudobin finishes the series in net for the Stars.