The Tokyo Olympics was postponed, EURO 2020 will instead be played in 2021 and the FA Cup final is to be contested this evening. 2020 has been the worst year in sporting history, campaigns have been curtailed, suspended and voided. Perhaps the Stanley Cup Playoffs could save the day?
With the regular season ended prematurely in March, the league is staging a 24-team tournament in order to crown this season’s Stanley Cup victors. The top 12 teams from the Eastern Conference will play in Toronto, while the top 12 from the Western Conference will go to battle in Edmonton.
In order to accommodate an increased number of teams in the post-season, the NHL has introduced a preliminary round to whittle down the bottom sixteen seeds.
The eight play-in series should provide enthralling viewing
The Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers will compete for seeding in the East, while the St Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights and Dallas Stars battle in the West.
Teams forced to enter the Play-In Round have the most on the line, the sixteen franchises involved will be desperate to remain in the hunt for the Stanley Cup. The eight series should provide enthralling viewing; the following is a brief preview of the qualifying round, with predicted outcomes for each match-up.
Pittsburgh Penguins versus Montreal Canadiens
The Penguins finished fifth in the Eastern Conference standings, with 86 points and a .623-win percentage. The Montreal Canadiens finished twelfth with 71 points and a .500-win percentage, making the Quebecois franchise the main beneficiaries of the league’s decision to expand the Playoffs in 2020.
The Penguins’ depth and experience saw them remain a Playoff club throughout the season despite injuries to key players. Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel are fit to play once again, making Pittsburgh one of the most dangerous franchises in the Playoffs.
If Carey Price is able to stand on his head throughout the series, the Canadiens might stand a chance of beating the Penguins – but that remains unlikely. Montreal started the season brightly but unravelled as a result of injuries and inconsistency.
Although anything can happen in a short series, the Penguins should have enough fire power to progress to the First Round. Evgeni Malkin will be vital for Pittsburgh; few expect this series to go this distance. Penguins in four.
Carolina Hurricanes versus New York Rangers
The Canes finished sixth in the East, with 81 points and a win percentage of .596, besting the eleventh-placed finish secured by the Rangers. Carolina are a team on the rise, the Hurricanes ended a decade-long Playoff drought last season. Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov will provide a spark for Carolina, but injuries in defence to Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce could prove problematic.
The Rangers are much-improved from 2019, thanks largely to Hart Memorial Trophy finalist Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Igor Shesterkin. Chris Kreider is also back for the Rangers, which should make for a thrilling series between two strengthening teams. Rangers in five.
New York Islanders versus Florida Panthers
The Islanders finished seventh in the East, securing 80 points and a .568 winning percentage. The Panthers finished three places back, just two points behind their New York counterparts.
This has all the makings of a series that will go the distance. The Panthers are among the highest scoring teams in the league, averaging 3.3 goals-per-game, but also take the accolade as being one of the leakiest teams in the NHL. Sergei Bobrovsky has struggled this season, although the Russian netminder has scarcely been supported by his teammates.
Thanks to Barry Trotz, the Islanders are one of the league’s best defensive teams. Jean-Gabriel Pageau had yet to make an impact before the schedule was paused, the trade-deadline acquisition could be key for NYI. Islanders in five.
Toronto Maple Leafs versus Columbus Blue Jackets
The Leafs and Blue Jackets finished with identical points (81) and winning percentage (.579) records. The Leafs, however, took eighth position in the conference as a result of winning an additional three matches.
Where to start with the Leafs? Frederik Andersen has been overworked and is under pressure to perform in Toronto. Andersen’s form could be aided by the lack of fans at this season’s Playoffs, the Swede has never been the netminder for the big occasion. In offence, John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and a resurgent William Nylander should give Toronto the edge.
Seth Jones, Cam Atkinson, Zach Werenski and Oliver Bjorkstrand have returned from injury lay-offs for the Blue Jackets, adding spice to an already intriguing series. Columbus aren’t a refined attacking unit, expect pot-shots to be fired on Andersen’s net.
Could Nick Robertson – Toronto’s 18-year-old prospect – be the difference maker in this series? Probably not, but I fancy the Leafs to extinguish their postseason hoodoo. Maple Leafs in four.
Edmonton Oilers versus Chicago Blackhawks
The Edmonton Oilers finished on 83 points and a .585 winning percentage, placing them fifth in the Western Conference. The Blackhawks finished twelfth with 72 points and a .514 winning percentage.
Led by Conor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the Oilers will expect to breeze through the Blackhawks with relative ease. Kailer Yamamoto and Ethan Bear have impressed in Alberta this season, making Edmonton one of the teams to watch this postseason. Uncertain goaltending could cause the Oilers some headaches, neither Mikko Koskinen or Mike Smith have been faultless this year.
The Blackhawks must tighten their blue line if they are stand any chance of progression. That said, Patrick Kane has 84 points since the start of the season, while rookie Dominik Kubalik has already registered 30 goals in the NHL. It seems unlikely that Chicago could steal this series, but the Blackhawks’ experience could see them stick around in the bubble for longer than many expect. Oilers in three.
Nashville Predators versus Arizona Coyotes
With 78 points and a .565 winning percentage, the Predators finished sixth in the Western Conference. The Coyotes were eleventh in the West with 74 points and a .529-win ratio.
Had it not been for John Hayes’ appointment on 7 January, the Predators were at genuine risk of dropping out of the Playoffs altogether. Nashville have been disappointing across the board, Filip Forsberg, Matt Duchene and Pekka Rinne have failed to deliver the level of performances expected. Likewise, the Coyotes went close to falling out of the top 12 in the final weeks of the season. Taylor Hall will be expected to carry Arizona, especially following the departure of GM John Chayka.
Neither franchise should expect to go deep in these Playoffs, although the strength of the Coyotes’ special teams could make for an interesting series. Coyotes in five.
Vancouver Canucks versus Minnesota Wild
With 78 points and a .565 winning percentage, the Canucks were seventh in the Western Conference when the Regular Season was curtailed in March. The Wild finished tenth with 77 points and a .558 winning percentage.
Despite being in the middle of the rebuild, the Canucks were in Playoff contention throughout the campaign. J.T. Miller, Elias Pettersson, and Quinn Hughes are vital offensive pieces for Vancouver, and should match-up well against young defensan Matt Dumba. The Wild have a number of veterans on their roster, which could make for a true clash of styles in this series.
Dean Everson has helped to turn things around for Minnesota since he was promoted to the top job in February, but the young Canucks should probably edge this series. Vancouver in four.
Calgary Flames versus Winnipeg Jets
The Jets finished the Regular Season ahead of the Flames in points (80-79), but Calgary finished eighth in the Western Conference because their winning percentage (.564) was one point better than the Winnipeg’s. Once again, this series could go the distance.
Contests between Canadian outfits are always fun, although the lack of supporters could make for a bizarre atmosphere in the Edmonton bubble. The Flames’ blue-line is healthier, but they will need to get more from their forwards if they are to win this series. The Jets are weaker in defence, but Connor Hellebuyck is a proven postseason difference-maker. Jets in five.
Five months have elapsed since the NHL last oversaw competitive hockey. It will take coaches, players and referees time to acclimatise to conditions in the league’s bubble cities. Hockey is back.