The NHL’s qualifying round is now complete and the 16 teams set to compete in the official 2020 Stanley Cup playoff bracket have been established.
Two teams that weren’t even sniffing the postseason when the 2019-20 season was paused are now in (Blackhawks and Canadiens) and are facing two teams that were not sitting atop their respective conferences back then either (Golden Knights and Flyers).
Needless to say, the qualifying round was wacky, which means anything can happen as we march towards crowning the 2020 Stanley Cup champs.
Will it be an expected team that lifts Lord Stanley’s Cup at the end? Or will it be a darkhorse squad that takes hockey’s top prize? The answer is, nobody knows — and that’s even more evident this year. So take these first-round predictions with a grain of salt because, well, anything goes in bubble hockey.
MORE: Full TV schedule for Round 1
NHL playoffs bracket 2020
NHL playoff predictions: Eastern Conference
Philadelphia Flyers (1) vs. Montreal Canadiens (8)
It’s a battle of Canadien coaches in this one. Montreal’s current head coach Claude Julien will face off against former Habs bench bosses and current Flyers guys Alain Vigneault and Michel Therrien. Quick reminder, Vigneault was replaced by Therien who was replaced by Julien; after a later retread, Therien was swapped out for Julien again.
But there’s more to this matchup than strong coaching. There is hot goaltending, depth and balance on the Flyers end and a strong defensive game powered by youth from the Canadiens.
“If somebody told me 3 months ago, that my team, Flyers, would have a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup,
I would have serious doubts
Having the opportunity, more so in these times right now, to compete for the Stanley Cup, means a lot to me and my team” pic.twitter.com/gSjQ3oJkZW
— John Clark (@JClarkNBCS) August 10, 2020
While second-year man Carter Hart has finally stabilized things in between the pipes for the Flyers, his childhood idol Carey Price can easily steal this series for the Canadiens. The Vezina and Hart Trophy winner posted a .947 save percentage and stopped 126 of 133 shots from the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel in the qualifying round. When he’s on his game he can be dominant and after a four-month layoff, Price is on his game right now.
The big number
2011. Nine years ago Claude Julien and Alain Vigneault faced off in an epic seven-game Stanley Cup Final that saw the former’s squad, the Bruins, skate away the victors against the latter’s Canucks in Vancouver. While they’ve faced each other in the postseason since, and Vigneault has gotten payback, it would surely take some more of the sting away from nine years ago if Vigneault could end the Julien’s playoff hopes once again.
SN’s pick: Flyers in 5.
Tampa Bay Lightning (2) vs. Blue Jackets (7)
Oh. This one is surely a doozy. Remember last season? I know, it feels like a millennia ago. But way back in April 2019, these Blue Jackets not only booted the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Lightning in the first round — they booted the 62-win Lightning in a sweep. Needless to say, this is a revenge series for sure.
The one problem for Jon Cooper’s squad, however, is that captain Steven Stamkos is still on the shelf and Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman was injured during the round robin. Hedman also missed Game 1 last year and was not at his best when he did slot back in. When, or if, they’ll return is the big unknown.
As for Columbus, the kids know how to play hockey. They stifled the Leafs top guys and pounced when the time was right to bury one. Tampa does have a better defense than Toronto so it’ll be a good test for John Tortorella’s team.
REMINDERS: Lightning get swept | Curse of the Presidents’ Cup?
Joonas Korpisalo. Korpisalo bounced back from getting pulled in Game 3 (one of those, “I’ll stake you to a 3-0 lead and then win 4-3 in overtime” games) against the Maple Leafs to put together a complete 3-0 win in the deciding Game 5. This time around he won’t have Elvis Merzlikins to back him up due to injury so it’s all on Korpisalo to lead the charge.
The big number
Four. The number of wins the Blue Jackets got last year. The number of wins needed this year. The number of losses Tampa Bay will try to avoid again.
SN’s pick: Blue Jackets in 7
Capitals (3) vs. Islanders (6)
Once again it’s the meeting of former coaches and teams. This one is a little bit more recent as the Islanders head coach Barry Trotz led the Capitals to the Stanley Cup two years ago. He left the team shortly thereafter and when he got his ring during the next season, he famously told the Caps they can win another Cup but they’ll “have to go through the f—ing Island.”
Well, here we are.
Anthony Beauvillier. The 2015 Isles first-round pick has looked stellar in the NHL’s return to play thus far. He potted three goals — two game-winners — and five points in four games as the team sent the Panthers packing. It was a breakout year for the 23-year-old who collected a career-high in points (39) and in four games against the Capitals during the regular season he netted two goals and four assists.
The big number
3.42. If the Capitals, who lost two-of-three in round-robin action and only mustered five goals total (1.67), can re-activate their high-powered offense that tickled the twin with almost four goals a game, this series may be a quick one. Yes, the Islanders do have one of the best defensive games in the NHL but when Alexander Ovechkin is firing on all cylinders, watch out.
SN’s pick: Islanders in 6.
Bruins (4) vs. Hurricanes (5)
This one is also a 2019 rematch, although with much less fanfare. Last year the Bruins were a buzzsaw that cut down the Canes in four games as they marched to the Stanley Cup Final. In 2020, the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners are having trouble restarting their engines. They only scored four goals in three games — and none by the vaunted Perfection Line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.
The Boys from Beantown will have to rev it up real quick here as the Hurricanes shut down the Rangers efficiently and with flair in the qualifying round. Led by a dynamic and heart-on-your-sleeve guy in head coach Rod Brind’Amour and the trio of Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen coupled with the grizzled veteran in Justin Williams (who dropped the gloves against the Rangers), this year’s “bunch of jerks” will be a hard out.
It’s a triple-X factor here with Aho, Svech and Teravainen. The young guns of the Canes collected 15 points in their three-game sweep against New York. Svechnikov, he of lacrosse-goal fame also had his first-career hat trick but sadly, unlike in Edmonton when Connor McDavid scored, there were no hat. Regardless of the outcome in this one, these three are fun to watch and will make for some highly-entertaining hockey for the next two weeks.
“I’m not sure what’s best — total experience in playoff hockey or just youth and dumbness.” —John Tortorella
— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) August 7, 2020
The big number
54. The Bruins were well on their way to the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s best team when the pandemic struck. Powered by Pastrnak’s 95 points, Marchand’s 87 and Bergeron’s 56, the team had a high-octane offensive game coupled with a strong defensive one on the backend. That’s where the 54 comes in — goal differential. Boston had the best in the NHL; Carolina wasn’t bad at No. 9 with a +29. If the Bruins can find their mojo again, and play a full 200-foot game, things should go their way but that’s if they can get ‘er going this quick.
SN’s pick: Hurricanes in 7
MORE: Everything to know about the NHL’s bubble cities
NHL playoff predictions: Western Conference
Vegas Golden Knights (1) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (8)
Oh, hello there Blackhawks. So nice to see you here, we were not expecting you — at all. I mean, you were the 23rd team in the NHL back on March 12. And you did trade your top goalie Robin Lehner at the deadline to … the Golden Knights. As Lehner so nicely put it, this is hella awkward.
Here’s the deal, Chicago does have Jonathan Toews, Calder Trophy finalist Dominik Kubalik, Patrick Kane and a healthy Corey Crawford. Is it enough to stop the Golden Knights who went a perfect 3-0-0 in the round robin without Max Pacioretty? Probably not.
Goaltending for both sides. A healthy Corey Crawford is a dangerous Corey Crawford between the pipes. But, he doesn’t have a top-notch back-up like the high-powered duo at the opposite end in Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury. Gotta love it when bench boss Pete DeBoer can walk into a locker room and say, “Ok, we’re gonna go with the NHL award winner tonight. Vezina Trophy guy? Maybe. Or the guy who won three Stanley Cups.”
The big number
54.76. The Vegas squad had a league-best 54.76 percent Corsi For during the regular season at 5-on-5 (per Natural Stat Trick); for comparison, the Blackhawks weren’t even close to the most outer regions of their orbit (48.45). At 5v5 they also had the highest Scoring Chances For percentage (56.49) and Shots For percentage (54.42). Translation: good luck and godspeed Corey Crawford.
SN’s pick: Golden Knights in 5
Colorado Avalanche (2) vs. Arizona Coyotes (7)
Before the regular season began (what 20 years ago?), many experts tapped the Colorado Avalanche as their pick to win the Stanley Cup. Many still do. Why? After 223 total man-games lost in 2019-20, they’re finally healthy.
“It’s nice,” forward Mikko Rantanen said back at the start of Phase 3 regarding teaming back up with his linemates Nathan MacKinnon (aka a Hart Trophy finalist) and captain Gabriel Landeskog. “Everybody’s healthy, everybody’s feeling good, so it’s fun to be back together and playing with Nathan and Landy. Obviously, we’ve played a lot of games together and have good chemistry, you know, and we know each other really well on the ice.”
On the flip side, the Coyotes — led by fan-favorite and noted puffy jacket wearer Rick Tocchet — upset the Predators in the qualifying round. They do have some scoring punch in Taylor Hall, Phil Kessel, Clayton Keller and Oliver Ekman-Larsson and may get regular-season leading scorer Nick Schmaltz back and they have Darcy Kuemper, he of .950 save percentage against the Predators fame, tending the crease.
Yes, the Avalanche have the likes of MacKinnon and Landeskog and Rantanen and rookie sensation Cale Makar. However, the X-factor in this one for them will be Samuel Girard. The 22-year-old defenseman personally had a 66.23 CF% at 5v5 in the round robin and was part of the team’s best puck possession pairing with partner Erik Johnson (according to Natural Stat Trick). During the regular season, Tocchet also leaned on him heavily when it can to defensive zone faceoffs (370, most on the team) as the youngster had a breakout year offensively in 2019-20 (34 points in 70 games).
The big number
223. As stated before, that’s how many man-games were lost by the Avalanche during the regular season. Sorry Coyotes, but this is a healthy and hungry team that will dominate.
SN’s pick: Avalanche in 4
Dallas Stars (3) vs. Calgary Flames (6)
This match-up should be interesting. The Stars are hurting — will Tyler Seguin or Ben Bishop be good to go for Game 1? — and up until their shootout win in Game 3 of their round robin against the Blues, they hadn’t won a game since Feb. 25 for eight straight losses. (Mind you, they still technically haven’t won a game in regulation since then).
Calgary on the other end is high-flying off their four-game win over the Jets. Interim head coach Geoff Ward got balanced scoring and Cam Talbot has resurrected New York Rangers’ Cam Talbot and buried Edmonton Oilers’ Cam Talbot. One thing they have this year, that the 2018-19 Western Conference champs didn’t have last year when they lost in five to the Avs in the first round, is a veteran voice in the locker room that has gone on deep runs and won a Cup. While he may not rack up the points like yesteryear, Milan Lucic has played a key role in the Flames locker room.
Sam Bennett. For whatever reason, No. 93 knows how to turn it up in the postseason. Last season he notched five points (goal, four assists) in five games. In the Flames’ qualifying-round win over the Jets, it was three points (two goals, assist) in four games. He also threw the body around with 22 hits in the series making Calgary’s third line — along with wingers Dillon Dube and Milan Lucic — that much more dangerous
The big number
.945. The last time Talbot posted a save percentage even close to this was way back in his rookie year with the Rangers when he went 12-6-1 with a .941 save percentage as Henrik Lundqvist’s backup for the Stanley Cup runner-ups in 2013-14. He’s actually looked sharp in net since Jan. 1 where he posted a 9-3-1, .923 save percentage up until the pause. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s only faced 13 high-danger shots in the postseason, with only his Stars counterpart Anton Khudobin and the combo of the Canes James Reimer and Petr Mrazek with one less among goalies that advanced from the qualifying round (per Natural Stat Trick).
SN’s pick: Flames in 5
St. Louis Blues (1) vs. Vancouver Canucks (5)
The Blues are the defending champs and were the top team in the West when everything came to a halt; Vancouver was the No. 3 team in the Pacific Division who won 2-of-3 in the regular-season series. Normally we’d say, “Regular season? Pfft, no one cares what happened way back when.” But the Canucks are another team that profited from the pause and are now healthy and while Travis Green said no one picked the Canucks to make the playoffs, we can say differently.
They’ll have a stern task in front of them with a squad that knows how to win in St. Louis. Craig Berube — will he wear the warm-up jacket?? — led this franchise to its first Cup ever and knows how to squeeze every ounce of skill and grit out of his guys. This series will be an absolute grind and a fun one to watch for sure.
The telecast may call him Dominic a few times, but if Antoine Roussel can get under the skin of the Blues, he’ll be a top guy for the Canucks. Former NHLer Bill Lindsay, who knows a thing or two about this role and making a deep playoff run (see: Panthers Stanley Cup runner-ups in 1996) sees himself in the Canuck.
“I was a guy that played on the edge and I was able to skate, and Antoine Roussel is kind of like that. He’s an agitator and that was kind of a role that I filled. Penalty killing and trying to provide energy for the team and when I played, I just kind of walked that line that you try not to go over. Sometimes I did and that’s like Antoine Roussel. Tried to hit everything and tried to play that way, and he’s a guy that chips in offensively a little bit.
“He reminds me of myself back in the day. There’s some negatives to Antoine Roussel but there’s probably some negatives to mine and there’s some positives. When he’s on your team, he’s out there doing stuff, he’s a pretty good teammate, but lot of teams don’t like him and that was the case for me. I wasn’t liked around the league a lot and I had to defend myself and stand up and fight. Antoine Roussel does a lot of that stuff.”
The big number
72. J.T. Miller has become fully entrenched and fully comfortable in Vancouver. In 69 regular-season games he scored 27 goals and 45 points — 25 on the power play and two shorthanded — to lead Vancouver in scoring. He plays an all-round game and has quickly become a vocal leader in the Canucks locker room. He’s been on teams that have made deep playoff runs and teams that can get big wins. If Miller can set the tone in the locker room and on the ice, him and his new teammates may be primed for a long run — after all, Mark Scheifele said they were his dark horse team.
SN’s pick: Canucks in 7
NHL playoff odds to win Stanley Cup
Courtesy of Sports Insider, here are the 2020 Stanley Cup Final odds for all 16 remaining teams in the NHL playoff bubbles:
|Tampa Bay Lightning||+550|
|Vegas Golden Knights||+700|
|St. Louis Blues||+1200|
|New York Islanders||+3300|
|Columbus Blue Jackets||+4000|
Stanley Cup Final picks
Eastern Conference champion: Philadelphia Flyers
Western Conference champion: Vegas Golden Knights
Stanley Cup champion: Philadelphia Flyers in seven games
Conn Smythe Trophy: Carter Hart