It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
Typically that’s a phrase one would hear around Christmas. But for hockey fans, there’s no better time of year to enjoy the game than the playoffs. With storylines galore and the intensity at an all-time high, witnessing 16 teams battling for the right to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup is a sight to behold.
Throughout the postseason, From The 300 Level will provide you with series previews and predictions from the start of round one – which begins this week – through the finals. Previews will become more in-depth as the playoffs roll along, but for now here is our analysis of the first round.
(1) Philadelphia Flyers vs. (12) Montreal Canadiens
The Philadelphia Flyers have made and missed the playoffs in alternating seasons going back to 2012, but maybe – just maybe – the Broadstreet Bullies can start having consistent success going forward. Fresh faces like Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov and the emergence of Sean Couturier as an elite talent have taken the load off of veterans who have carried the Flyers in the past like Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, James van Riemsdyk and Shayne Gostisbehere. Carter Hart may finally prove to be the long-awaited answer in Philly’s net after a strong start to his career.
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 or two.
PREDICTION – Flyers in six games. When Price is on his game, there’s no telling how far the Canadiens can go. After the qualifying round, it seems as if he is back to playing at a high level. But the Flyers will edge them out in a tough series.
(4) Boston Bruins vs. (6) Carolina Hurricanes
The Boston Bruins have a nice mix of old pros left from their title-winning team in 2011 and youngsters who have come into their own. Tuukka Rask, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci, Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara remain from the old guard while David Pastrnak, Charlie McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk and Brandon Carlo have provided a shot in the arm.
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.
PREDICTION – Carolina in seven games. The Bruins were on track to finish the regular season as the top seed in the East but haven’t performed well since the resumption of play earlier this month. The Hurricanes will avenge last year’s sweep in the Conference Finals.
(3) Washington Capitals vs. (7) New York Islanders
Having finally won a Stanley Cup two years ago, the weight of expectations is off the Washington Capitals’ backs. Led by the usual suspects – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie – the Capitals have rarely struggled for offense, and the rising Jakub Vrana and midseason pickup Ilya Kovalchuk have bolstered their depth. Defensively, they are still led by Norris Trophy-favorite John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov. But one area where the Caps have been underachieving in is goaltending, and it’s been a problem for a couple of years now. Braden Holtby, once considered by many to be one of the league’s best netminders, has labored through three straight subpar regular seasons, and his backup – promising youngster Ilya Samsonov – is out with an injury. Can Holtby turn his game around again at the most critical time of the season, like he did two years ago?
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.
PREDICTION – Capitals in six games. The Islanders play a well-rounded game, but they don’t have the firepower to keep up with Washington.
(2) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets
A powerhouse in the Eastern Conference over the last half-decade, the Lightning are deeper than they’ve ever been. Youngsters like Brayden Point, Mikhail Sergachev and Anthony Cirelli and veterans like Barclay Goodrow, Blake Coleman and Ryan McDonagh have joined Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Victor Hedman to build a juggernaut. Andrei Vasilevskiy is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner as the league’s best goaltender. But the Lightning will need to work through some adversity to begin the postseason, as Stamkos and Hedman are both dealing with various ailments.
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 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 – Lightning in seven games. Last year Columbus pulled off a shocker by sweeping the heavily favored Lightning in the first round, and they’ll give Tampa everything they’ve got once again. But this year’s Blue Jackets’ squad isn’t as deep or as talented as last year’s outfit, so the Lightning will get their revenge.
(1) Vegas Golden Knights vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks
The Golden Knights have followed up their first two seasons with another strong outing and are clearly one of the better outfits in the Western Conference. Led by William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, the Golden Knights have augmented their core group with experienced pros like Mark Stone, Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty and are a team that relies on speed and a strong forechecking game. Pete DeBoer replaced Gerard Gallant behind the bench and has kept this team on course, while trade deadline pickups Robin Lehner and Alec Martinez have lightened the loads of headliners Marc-Andre Fleury and Shea Theodore.
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 – Golden Knights in five games. The Blackhawks don’t have enough depth to keep up with Vegas.
(2) Colorado Avalanche vs. (11) Arizona Coyotes
Few teams in the NHL had such a dichotomy on their team between their offensive and defensive talent over the last few years like the Colorado Avalanche did. Blessed with studs at forward like Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog, the Avs have certainly light up scoreboards. But Colorado didn’t have much on defense, nor much depth at forward. That has changed with Calder Trophy favorite Cale Makar and Samuel Girard arriving, pushing veterans like Nikita Zadorov, Erik Johnson and Ian Cole into ideal roles on defense and Andre Burakovsky, Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare becoming reliable secondary scorers. Philipp Grubauer is the Avalanche’s starter in net.
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 – Avalanche in six games. Arizona will put up a fight, but it won’t be enough to get past Colorado.
(4) St. Louis Blues vs. (7) Vancouver Canucks
The defending Stanley Cup champions followed up last season’s run with a strong regular season this year, so despite not winning a game in round robin play they have that to hang their hats on. All three of their round robin losses were also close. Led by Ryan O’Reilly, Vladimir Tarasenko, Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko, the Blues are every bit as deep as last year’s roster and are looking to repeat. Jordan Binnington turned in a good follow-up season in goal after a marvelous rookie campaign last year.
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.
PREDICTION – Blues in six games. The Canucks have a bright future ahead of them, but shaky goaltending will hamper them against the defending champions.
(3) Dallas Stars vs. (8) Calgary Flames
The Dallas Stars are an interesting case study. Goaltenders Ben Bishop and Anton Khubodin have performed well, as have defensemen Miro Heiskanen and John Klingburg, but the rest of the team was very inconsistent – leading to a coaching change midseason in favor of longtime assistant Rick Bowness. The Stars’ big guns – Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov – all saw their statistical outputs drop off, and veteran free agent signings Joe Pavelski, Corey Perry and Andrej Sekera didn’t provide much of a shot in the arm. Dallas was also so-so during the qualifying round, which leads to the question – which version of this Jekyll and Hyde team will we see against Calgary?
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 Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin and Travis Hamonic have supplemented a core made up of Mark Giordano, Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk, and it’s resulted in back-to-back playoff appearances. The Flames have also apparently settled a goaltending controversy between Cam Talbot and David Rittich with Talbot getting every start in the qualifying round.
PREDICTION – Flames in seven games. The Stars will give Calgary a run for their money, but their inconsistency will rear its ugly head a few too many times.