The NHL’s postseason is finally upon us. With the Qualifying Round officially complete and Monday’s NHL Draft Lottery having determined the order of selections in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, attention can once and for all be shifted to the place where it will remain for the next 50 days: the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Following an absurdly unpredictable play-in round, the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs will now follow typical patterns going forward, with the only major difference being the continued use of the two hub city ‘bubbles’ in Edmonton and Toronto – which just so happen to no longer host playoff teams, following best-of-five losses from last week’s Qualifying Round action.
With Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the Edmonton Oilers falling to the Chicago Blackhawks in four games, and Auston Matthews, John Tavares and the Toronto Maple Leafs losing in five games to the Columbus Blue Jackets, the idea of even the slightest home-ice advantage has gone completely out the window. Other prominent playoff figures including Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and the Pittsburgh Penguins, as well as Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, and the Winnipeg Jets, will also be tuning in from the sidelines following their play-in series losses.
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But now, we must turn our full attention to those teams still in the playoff race – those about to embark on seeded opening round best-of-seven series’ against teams potentially out of their typical playoff picture. If the next two months of hockey is anything like the past two weeks have been, NHL fans are in store for a highly-entertaining end to their respective summers.
Interestingly enough, the two best regular-season teams from the abbreviated 2019-20 regular season (Boston, St. Louis) will begin the four-round postseason as No. 4 seeds, as poor play in the eight-team Round Robin Tournament (featuring the top four teams of each conference) determined the rankings for the beginning of the official best-of-seven matchups.
In the Western Conference, Vegas will host Chicago, Colorado will take on Arizona, Dallas will go to battle with Calgary, while St. Louis will play Vancouver. In the Eastern Conference, Philadelphia will face Montreal, Washington will fight the New York Islanders, Boston will go at it with Carolina, while Tampa Bay will once again clash with Columbus.
The West will see a heavily-favoured Golden Knights squad look to put out the glimmer of hope found in a hungry Blackhawks team that hasn’t won a best-of-seven playoff series since last winning the Stanley Cup in 2015. Highly-offensive rookie Dominik Kubalik will look to keep Chicago’s hopes alive, while the goaltending tandem of Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner will serve as key parts to Vegas’ success.
It’s hard to stop an Avalanche, especially one laced with the talent that this Colorado storm has brewing. With Nathan MacKinnon, Miko Rantanen, and Cale Makar leading the charge offensively, Arizona’s Taylor Hall, Phil Kessel, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson will need to put up monster performances to even come close to the firepower that those three bring night in and night out.
A red-hot Calgary Flames squad overcame some adversity in beating a favoured – yet injured – Winnipeg Jets team in the qualifier. Will the grit of Matthew Tkachuk and Milan Lucic, paired with the scoring of Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, and Andrew Mangiapane survive another series? Only Dallas will know. The Stars boast two of the game’s best netminders in Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin, but will the seemingly dormant offence be able to find its groove? We shall see.
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Vancouver came out on top of a spirited battle with the Minnesota Wild, but an angry 0-2-1 St. Louis team is expected to put Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, and Co. back in their place. The Blues will look to veteran playoff leadership and recent experience to lead the charge in what should be an easy undertaking. Goaltender Jordan Binnington looked shaky in the round-robin, but a solid defence corps should help the last line of defence for St. Louis.
In the East, the Montreal Canadiens will see their play-in round luck come to an end, as the league’s hottest team, the Philadelphia Flyers, outmatch the Habs in nearly every category. Montreal’s prized possession, goaltender Carey Price, however, may be the difference between a Flyers sweep and a win or two for eastern Canada’s only team left in the hunt.
Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals will take on former bench boss Barry Trotz in their first round matchup with a John Tavares-less Islanders team that has now officially won a playoff series in Toronto before he has. An injured Ilya Samsonov gives Braden Holtby full rein within Washington’s crease, while Semyon Varlamov will look to exercise past playoff demons while protecting the net from one of the game’s deadliest shooters.
It is a shame that one of Boston and Carolina will not make it out of the first round.
Two dominant teams owning rosters loaded to the brim with talent are expected to throw down in quite possibly the best of the eight matchups. A stacked Hurricanes blueline will look to shut down the league’s Rocket Richard winner, David Pastrnak, and his running mates Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. Expect Jaccob Slavin and a very familiar first-round opponent, Jake Gardiner, to take control on the back-end.
The Bolts and Jackets will square off in the first round for the second time in two seasons, as Columbus famously swept first-place Tampa Bay in 2019. Will the Lightning have learned from their mistakes or will history repeat itself? The Bolts won the only matchup of the season 2-1 over the Blue Jackets this past year, with firecracker Nikita Kucherov scoring both goals in the victory. The goaltending duo of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins will need to be on its best behaviour to shut down the always hungry Lightning.
With a quadruple-header set to begin the first round of the official best-of-seven Stanley Cup Playoffs on Tuesday afternoon, fans will be able to get used to a consistent daily schedule, in which 3:00 PM, 5:30 PM, 8:00 PM and 10:30 PM eastern starts are the norm, at least until Friday, that is. All games will be broadcasted live on Rogers Sportsnet and NBC.