Better late than never.
That’s how most in the hockey world are feeling with the return to play by the National Hockey League this Saturday. Due to the COVID-19 virus the rest of the NHL’s regular season was canceled, but in order to complete the season the league decided to institute a one-time only resolution.
The four highest-ranked teams in each conference will face each other in a round-robin style tournament in order to determine seeding for the upcoming postseason, but to figure out who would be the four lower seeds in each conference – and to give a fair shot to teams who were on the playoff bubble before the league paused their season – there will be a best of five round between the squads who ended the regular season with the fifth to 12th-best records in both the Eastern and Western Conference. The winners will move on to the official 16-team Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Throughout the postseason, we here at From The 300 Level will provide you with series previews and predictions from the qualifying round – which starts this weekend – through the finals. Previews will become more in-depth as the playoffs roll along, but for now here is our analysis of the best of five round.
(5) Pittsburgh Penguins (40-23-6, 86 points) vs. (12) Montreal Canadiens (31-31-9, 71 points)
Not much has changed for the Penguins in 2019-20. They’re still led by a superb group in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel and Kris Letang, and most of their supporting cast from the 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup champions remains in place. The return of Conor Sheary, the acquisitions of Patrick Marleau, Jason Zucker and Evan Rodrigues and breakout seasons from Bryan Rust and rookie defenseman John Marino have fortified their depth. One issue to keep an eye on, though, is questions being raised about their goaltending tandem of Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry.
Back in the postseason after a three-year absence, the Montreal Canadiens – despite some pundits clamoring for the team to tank in order to win the draft lottery (and a chance to select francophone Alexis Lafreniere) – will be looking to make some noise. Coach Claude Julien’s bunch is led by Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault, Max Domi, Brendan Gallagher and Jonathan Drouin up front, while the Habs are paced defensively by captain Shea Weber and Jeff Petry. Rookie Nick Suzuki has also given Montreal some added scoring punch and second-year center Jesperi Kotkaniemi has been added back to the Canadiens’ roster after a stint in the AHL. But what will make or break the Habs’ chances in the postseason will be the play of Carey Price, who endured one of the worst seasons of his career. If he can rediscover his status as one of hockey’s elite goaltenders, Montreal may pull off an upset.
PREDICTION – Penguins in four.
(6) Carolina Hurricanes (38-25-5, 81 points) vs. (11) New York Rangers (37-28-5, 79 points)
Last year the Carolina Hurricanes surprised everyone by reaching the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in 10 years and have followed that up with another strong season. General manager Don Waddel and coach Rod Brind’Amour lead a team characterized by a mix of youth (Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov) and veterans (Justin Williams, Dougie Hamilton and Jordan Staal). So far that mix, plus a breakout season by Jaccob Slavin and trades for Vincent Trocheck and Joel Edmundson, have churned out positive results. The goaltending duo of Petr Mrazek and James Reimer, however, have been so-so.
One of the biggest surprises of this season has been the play of the New York Rangers. Two years ago, general manager Jeff Gorton announced the franchise’s intention to begin a rebuild. Now, after the importation of Hart Trophy candidate Artemi Panarin and young defensemen like Jacob Trouba and Adam Fox, the Blueshirts have improbably reached the postseason. Those three players have been supported by Mika Zibanejad and Ryan Strome, who have enjoyed career-best point totals, and Ryan Strome, Tony DeAngelo and Pavel Buchnevich all had breakout campaigns. Rookie Kaapo Kakko has shown flashes of brilliance and familiar faces like Chris Kreider and Marc Staal remain from the Rangers’ run to the Finals in 2014, as does goalie Henrik Lundqvist. But the aging Lundqvist is battling Alexandar Georgiev and Igor Shesterkin for playing time in New York’s crease.
PREDICTION – Hurricanes in five.
(7) New York Islanders (35-23-10, 80 points) vs. (10) Florida Panthers (35-26-8, 78 points)
After John Tavares’ defection to Toronto two years ago, most believed the New York Islanders would suffer a major downturn. Not so. Talents like Matthew Barzal, Anders Lee, Josh Bailey and Brock Nelson have turned in solid efforts and Ryan Pulock, Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy have also been strong on defense. Veterans like Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Derick Brassard and Andy Greene were brought in by GM Lou Lamoriello to help out Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck play in Barry Trotz’s smothering defensive system, and Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss have split the starting goaltender duties.
Florida is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2016, and the hiring of Joel Quenneville has given the Panthers some much-needed guidance behind the bench. Quenneville didn’t exactly take over a roster that was devoid of talent either, as he inherited a team bolstered at forward by Jonathan Huberdeau, Alex Barkov, Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov. Defensively the Panthers are paced by Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle, while prized free agent goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has struggled in net.
PREDICTION – Islanders in four.
(8) Toronto Maple Leafs (36-25-9, 81 points) vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets (33-22-15, 81 points)
The Leafs are a fairly young team that has reached the postseason the last three years in a row and is back for more. Led by their core group of John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Morgan Reilly, this roster is a high-flying group that can score in bunches. Defensively, the Leafs have been up-and-down – although trading for Tyson Barrie and the return of Jake Muzzin from injury should help take some responsibility off of Reilly’s plate – and goaltender Frederick Anderson’s play has had to carry Toronto in its own end of the ice.
The losses of Bobrovsky, Panarin, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel to free agency last summer had many believing that the Blue Jackets were due for a setback. Not so, as coach John Tortorella leaned on young rearguards Zach Werenski and Seth Jones, forwards such as Cam Atkinson, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Gustav Nyquist, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Nick Foligno, and a strong duo in net of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins to have continued success in 2019-20.
PREDICTION – Maple Leafs in five.
(5) Edmonton Oilers (37-25-9, 83 points) vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks (32-30-8, 72 points)
Edmonton has made it to the postseason for just the second time in the Connor McDavid/Leon Draisaitl era, and this time around the all-world duo has a better supporting cast. With Ryan Nugent-Hopkins putting up a career-best point per game average, Zack Kassian enjoying a career year, rookie Kailer Yamamoto finding good chemistry with Draisaitl and acquisitions like James Neal, Riley Sheahan, Andreas Athanasiou and Tyler Ennis, this forward group is an upgrade over the Oilers’ last playoff outfit. The team is led defensively by Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom, and the goaltending is split between Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen.
While familiar faces remain from the Chicago Blackhawks’ dynasty (Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Brandon Saad, Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford), younger athletes are starting to assert themselves more and get more playing time. Names like Dominik Kubalik, Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome, Alex Nylander and Kirby Dach have carved out roles for themselves amongst forwards while Olli Maatta, Adam Boqvist, Connor Murphy and Calvin De Haan have gotten bigger roles on defense.
PREDICTION – Oilers in five.
(6) Nashville Predators (35-26-8, 78 points) vs. (11) Arizona Coyotes (33-29-8, 74 points)
This version of the Predators is similar to the group that reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 2016-17 and won the President’s Trophy two years ago. The difference between past rosters and this one, however, is this year’s team got off to a slow start – prompting the firing of coach Peter Laviolette and hiring of replacement John Hynes. The signing of Duchene was supposed to bolster a strong group of forwards led by Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson, but has underwhelmed, as did most of the roster. Luckily for Nashville, they boast the deepest defense corps in hockey and stalwarts like Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm elevated their play to get the Preds back on track. Longtime goaltender Pekka Rinne also started to show his age this year with slipping play, thus ceding more starts to Juuse Saros.
The Coyotes are a surprise playoff entrant and hadn’t reached the playoffs since 2012. Regardless, there are some intriguing names littering the ‘Yotes lineup. At forward, Arizona has a nice mix of youngsters (Nick Schmaltz, Clayton Keller, Christian Dvorak) and veterans (Phil Kessel, Carl Soderberg and Derek Stepan). A December trade for former MVP Taylor Hall by deposed former general manager John Chayka was a vote of confidence in this group and signaled that they were ready to start winning now. On defense, the annually underrated Oliver Ekman-Larsson is their best rearguard and has veterans like Alex Goligoski and Niklas Hjalmarsson to lean on for support. The goaltending duo of Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta has been stellar.
PREDICTION – Coyotes in five.
(7) Vancouver Canucks (36-27-6, 78 points) vs. (10) Minnesota Wild (35-27-7, 77 points)
Vancouver’s rebuilding efforts over the last five years are starting to pay off with their first playoff appearance since 2015. Paced by a young core at forward (Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser), defense (Quinn Hughes) and surrounded by veterans that are battle-tested (J.T. Miller, Tanner Pearson, Tyler Toffoli, Alexander, Edler, Chris Tanev, Tyler Myers, Jay Beagle and Loui Ericksson), this team is an interesting mix of young and old. However, the goaltending duo of Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko leaves a lot to be desired.
The hiring of Bill Guerin as general manager and the release of Bruce Boudreau as head coach seemed to indicated that the Minnesota Wild wanted to go in the direction of a rebuild after years of reaching the playoffs but never having success once they got there. Defiantly, Minnesota’s roster improved their play down the stretch and have gotten into the dance anyways. Former Predator Kevin Fiala led the team in scoring while surrounded by many veterans, including Eric Staal, Zach Parise, Mats Zuccarello and Mikko Koivu. On defense, the Wild are still anchored by Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin, and Devan Dubnyk and Alex Stalock shared duties in net.
PREDICTION – Canucks in four.
(8) Calgary Flames (36-27-7, 79 points) vs. (9) Winnipeg Jets (37-28-6, 80 points)
The patient rebuilding process that GM Brad Treliving undertook over the last few years has finally bore fruit. After making and missing the playoffs in alternating years since 2014-15, the acquisitions of the likes Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin and Travis Hamonic have supplemented a core made up of Mark Giordano, Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk. However, Calgary has a goaltending controversy between Cam Talbot and David Rittich.
Over the last three years, Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and coach Paul Maurice have finally started to reap the benefits of a long, slow rebuild. As a result, the Jets have acquired players like Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Jack Roslovic and Connor Hellebuyck to help veterans like Blake Wheeler, Gabriel Bourque and Cody Eakin. Losing rearguards like Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba last offseason nearly decimated their defense corps, yet imports like Neal Pionk, Dylan DeMelo and Luca Sbisa and improved play by Josh Morrissey have helped stop the bleeding a bit.
PREDICTION – Jets in five.