After a qualifying round that included a number of surprising results, the National Hockey League will open the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Tuesday. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the league to play an expanded 24-team playoff format, with games in front of no fans and with teams sequestered in Edmonton and Toronto, but as was proven last week, the impact of players rising to the occasion quality of the hockey overall was unaffected.
In an unprecedented postseason with no home-ice advantage, each of the 16 teams has a chance to make a run for a championship depending on whether things fall in the right place and their key contributors become difference makers.
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Here are some players who could be the X-factor for their club in the playoffs:
(2) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets
With Steven Stamkos and likely Victor Hedman out to start the rematch of the biggest upset of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Tampa Bay will be depending more on Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point to make up the difference for Stamkos missing production.
Hedman suffered an ankle injury in the 4-1 loss to Philadelphia on Saturday and even if he returns for Game 1, the Norris Trophy nominee will be playing at a diminished capacity. That will result in more responsibilities for veteran Ryan McDonagh and put more of a burden youngster Mikhail Sergachev to make up Hedman’s ice time.
The Blue Jackets depend on excellent team defense to limit their opposition’s offensive opportunities and that worked well in their defeat of Toronto in the qualifying round. Pierre-Luc Dubois scored a hat trick in their Game 3 comeback against the Leafs and provides a big-bodied presence up the middle that will be a difficult matchup for the smaller Tampa Bay centers and the top defensive tandem of Zach Werenski and Seth Jones could be assigned the task of matching up against Point and Kucherov after neutralizing the line of John Tavares-Auston Matthews-Mitch Marner in Game 5.
(3) Dallas Stars vs. (9) Calgary Flames
After allowing only 177 goals against during the regular season, the Stars blew a lead allowing four third-period goals in a round-robin loss to Vegas and four goals in a loss to Colorado. For the low scoring Stars to have any chance of advancing, they will need goalie Ben Bishop to play at his best as he did when he forced the Blues to overtime in Game 7 of the second round last season.
Defenseman Miro Heiskanen led Dallas in ice time during the regular season and led the club with four points in the qualifying round. The Stars have an excellent defense with Esa Lindell and John Klingberg, but the 21-year-old Finn is a star in the making and will likely see his role increase in the playoffs.
The Flames took advantage of an injury-riddled Winnipeg Jets in their four-game series victory, with Matthew Tkachuk continuing his role as the premier professional disturber in the NHL, but another key to Calgary’s victory was the resurgence of Sean Monahan, who scored only 48 points in the regular season but led the club with six points.
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(4) Boston Bruins vs. (6) Carolina Hurricanes
This is a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Final that Boston won in a four-game sweep. The Bruins appeared to be completely disinterested in the round-robin after leading the league in points during the regular season and more concerned with prepping for games that would count, while Carolina dominated the New York Rangers in the qualifying round.
Boston is heavily dependent on their top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak to carry their offense at even strength and on the power play, but the key to their man advantage is defenseman Torey Krug, who had 28 power play points in the regular season.
In spite of having an experienced backup in Jaroslav Halak, the Bruins will need Tuukka Rask to return to the Stanley Cup Final for the second year in a row. Rask suffered a broken finger in training camp, but played two games during the round-robin and will start Game 1.
Carolina relied on the duo of Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov for scoring in their series sweep of the Rangers. Aho led the club with eight points and Svechnikov scored a hat trick in Game 2 but will have to get more production throughout the lineup to pull off the upset.
Some help may come from the return of Dougie Hamilton, who scored 40 points in 47 games before suffering a broken leg in January.
(1) Vegas Golden Knights vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks
Considered by many to be the favorite to come out of the West, Vegas went a perfect 3-0 in the round-robin to win the top seed, while Chicago stunned many by outscoring Connor McDavid on a four-game series win over Edmonton.
Max Pacioretty led the Knights with 32 goals during the regular season and missed the round-robin with a minor injury, but is expected to return to the lineup for Game 1. Robin Lehner will get the start against his former team on Tuesday over veteran Marc-Andre Fleury.
The key cog for Vegas is defenseman Shea Theodore, who had 46 points during the regular season, scored four points in the qualifying round, and averages more than 24 minutes per game.
While Cup winners Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Corey Crawford, and Duncan Keith played a big role in the Hawks upset of the Oilers, the contribution of youngsters Dominik Kubalik (5 points in Game 1) and Kirby Dach (4 points and averaged 20+ minutes per game) provided Chicago with scoring depth over a club with not much of a supporting cast for McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.