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 have 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:
(3) Washington Capitals vs. (7) New York Islanders
The Islanders took out of the Florida Panthers in the qualifying round with solid goaltending from Semyon Varlamov and some better than expected offensive success from a Barry Trotz coached club that scored only 192 goals during the regular season. The question is whether that was a result of New York rising to the occasion or because of the Panthers hapless defense.
Anthony Beauvillier and pesky Jean-Gabriel Pageau led the Isles with three goals, but against the high-powered Washington offense, they will need more production from leading scorers Mathew Barzal and Anders Lee, who combined for one goal in the Panthers series.
Washington scored only five goals in the round-robin without leading scorer John Carlson in the lineup and the Norris Trophy nominee will be a game-time decision for Game 1. The absence of Carlson would not only deprive the Capitals of a top-pairing defenseman who averaged over 24 minutes per game but their power-play quarterback that led the club in power play points with 26.
(2) Colorado Avalanche vs. (11) Arizona Coyotes
The Avalanche have one of the best offenses in the NHL, led by center Nathan MacKinnon, wingers Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, and Calder Trophy nominee Cale Makar, but the key to Colorado making a long run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs will be if they can get secondary offense from outside their core group.
Nazem Kadri led the club with four points during the round robin and will need to continue to be an offensive threat to take some of the burden off of MacKinnon while avoiding his checkered postseason penchant for suspensions. Andre Burakovsky (who reached the 20-goal mark for the first time) and Joonas Donskoi will also have to continue chipping in.
Arizona was a different club during the regular season with Darcy Kuemper in goal and with their starter back for the postseason, the Coyotes were able to pull off the upset on Nashville.
Kuemper posted a .933 save percentage in the series victory over the Preds and will need to continue to play at that level to past the Avs, but will also need to get offense from Clayton Keller, Taylor Hall, and veteran Phil Kessel, who each had four points against Nashville.
(1) Philadelphia Flyers vs. (12) Montreal Canadiens
The stunning upset of Pittsburgh in qualifying round was more than just Carey Price standing on his head, it was the Habs playing disciplined defense in front of the All-Star goaltender (who allowed just seven goals in four games against the Penguins) and getting just enough offense to win.
Veteran blueliners Shea Weber and Jeff Petry averaged more than 25 minutes per game and accounted for nearly half of Montreal’s offense in the series victory, which means that Claude Julien will have to get more contributions from Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault and Max Domi, who were the club’s top three scorers during the regular season and combined for just two points in the qualifying round.
Philadelphia went 3-0 and allowed only three goals in the round-robin, earning the top seed in the East. Head coach Alain Vigneault will rely heavily on goalie Carter Hart, defenseman Ivan Provorov and leading scorers Travis Konecny, Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux, the Flyers chances of making an extended run may depend on getting offensive contributions from players such as Scott Laughton.
Laughton scored a career-high 13 goals during the regular season and led Philly with five points, providing them with scoring depth up the middle after Couturier and Kevin Hayes.
(4) St. Louis Blues vs. (7) Vancouver Canucks
As with the Boston Bruins in the East, the St. Louis Blues appeared to be looking forward to games that would count during the round-robin, losing all three games and finishing with the fourth seed.
The Stanley Cup champs will rely on their core group of Alex Pietrangelo, goalie Jordan Binnington, Conn Smythe Trophy winner Ryan O’Reilly and sniper Vladimir Tarasenko, but to return to the Final they will also need youngsters like Robert Thomas and Zach Sanford to continue to grow. Thomas scored 42 points in his sophomore season and Sanford posted a career-high 16 goals in 58 regular season games.
Vancouver’s ample offensive firepower and goalie Jacob Markstrom were the primary reasons for the Canucks four-game series victory over Minnesota. Calder Trophy nominee Quinn Hughes led the way with six points and Elias Pettersson and Bo Horvat each had four points. Head coach Travis Green has strength up the middle with Pettersson and Horvat, but with winger Tyler Toffoli out to start the series, the onus will be on JT Miller and Brock Boeser to pick up the slack.