At a time when it seems like we are inundated with bad news, there was an announcement made last Tuesday that provided hockey fans with a ray of hope. Almost 11 weeks after hockey was put on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHL laid out its return-to-play plans. According to the league, the 2019-20 regular season is officially in the books and there will be a unique 24-team Stanley Cup Playoff format.
Philly Sports Network contributors are laying out their predictions for this unprecedented battle for hockey’s Holy Grail. I have decided to join them and try my hand at some Stanley Cup prognostication. Here are my projections for all the Round-Robin and Play-in series.
EASTERN CONFERENCE (BUBBLE CITY 1):
City 1 – Round Robin for Seeding in First Round
- Boston Bruins
- Tampa Bay Lightning
- Washington Capitals
- Philadelphia Flyers
Some of the best hockey in the entire tournament will come from this group of teams. After the long break, all momentum from the season is eliminated. With that being said, Boston had time to rest and remove any possible fatigue from their long playoff run last Spring. If everyone is healthy, they could dominate.
For several seasons now we have been hearing about how elite of a team the Tampa Bay Lightning are. Regardless, every year they seem to come up short. The story remains the same: injuries. If the Tampa Bay Lightning get all of their injured players back, including Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, their story may be different this time around.
The Washington Capitals are the most dangerous team in this grouping. Of the four, they are the last to win a Stanley Cup; recently enough to still remember how incredible victory tastes. They have been able to retain their core players from that 2018 team, including the greatest scorer (Alex Ovechkin) and best defenseman (John Carlson) in the NHL. If they can solidify their goaltending, they could take the number one seed.
As for the Philadelphia Flyers, they handled the Bruins and the Capitals easily throughout the 2019-20 season and although they had some trouble with Tampa Bay (0-2), that season series was not completed.
The Flyers are the bulldogs of the group, have a lot to play for, and, in my opinion, the least amount of pressure. If Carter Hart successfully handles his first experience in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, I predict great things for the Philadelphia Flyers.
Prediction: 1. Philadelphia Flyers; 2. Washington Capitals; 3. Boston Bruins; 4. Tampa Bay Lightning
City 1 – Best-of-5 Qualifying Round (Best of 5)
#5 PITTSBURGH PENGUINS VS. #12 MONTREAL CANADIENS
The Pittsburgh Penguins are built for success in the playoffs. They struggled with injury throughout the season and still found a way to get to third in the division before play was suspended.
Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1
#6 CAROLINA HURRICANES VS. #11 NEW YORK RANGERS
This is a tough one that could go either way. The New York Rangers do have a lot of young star power that could make the difference against the Carolina Hurricanes.
If Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad continue to dominate as they did during the season, Chris Kreider comes back strong from injury, and they get their goaltending in place, the Rangers will pull it out.
New York Rangers 3-2
#7 NEW YORK ISLANDERS VS. #10 FLORIDA PANTHERS
The New York Islanders beat the Florida Panthers in all three of their meetings in 2019-20. I believe that Florida has a strong team. However, with Barry Trotz behind the bench and the recent acquisition of Jean-Gabriel Pageau from Ottawa, the defensive-minded Isles will overcome the Panthers.
New York Islanders 3 – 1
#8 TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS VS. #9 COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
The Columbus Blue Jackets are one of the teams that truly impressed me this season. Despite recently unloading a ton of talent, they found a way to keep winning in 2019-20. Every time I thought they would begin to descend down the Metropolitan Division rankings, they just would not go away. There is a lot of heart on this team.
At the pause of play, the Blue Jackets were riddled with injuries. This included key players like Cam Atkinson, Seth Jones, and Oliver Bjorkstrand. If Columbus is healthy, they will finish off the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Columbus Blue Jackets 3 – 2
WESTERN CONFERENCE (BUBBLE CITY 2):
City 2 – Round Robin for Seeding in First Round
- St. Louis Blues
- Colorado Avalanche
- Vegas Golden Knights
- Dallas Stars
St. Louis is coming off of winning their first Stanley Cup in franchise history in 2019. They followed that up by solidifying themselves as the best team in the Western Conference this season (94 points). On top of that, they received a nice little period of rest to remove any possible “Stanley Cup hangover.” Be afraid of the Blues. Be very afraid.
I also really like the Colorado Avalanche in the second spot. They have one of the strongest line-ups in the NHL. However, here again, injury plays a part. If Colorado gets everyone back and healthy they will be incredibly tough to beat. MacKinnon, Landeskog, Rantanen, Makar…. need I say more?
The Vegas Golden Knights have now made the playoffs in all three seasons of their existence. They have proven to be a consistent powerhouse. Their sturdy roster consists of a decent amount of players who led them to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2018, plus some excellent additions like defenseman Alec Martinez, goalie Robin Lehner and forward Chandler Stephenson.
Prediction: The seeds remain the same.
City 2 – Best-of-5 Qualifying Round (Best of 5)
#5 EDMONTON OILERS VS. #12 CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
Even with the Stanley Cup-winning pedigree in the Chicago Blackhawks line-up, I just do not think it will be enough to stop Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl (the 2020 Art Ross Trophy-winner), and the Edmonton Oilers. Edmonton’s league-leading power play (29.50% Power Play Percentage) will be too much for the Blackhawks to contain.
Edmonton Oilers 3 – 2
#6 NASHVILLE PREDATORS VS. #11 ARIZONA COYOTES
This latest appearance will mark a sixth straight trip to the NHL postseason for the Nashville Predators. Their best showing was in 2017 when they fell four games to two against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final. Can they get the formula right in 2020?
It will come down to goaltending. Neither team was that incredible offensively during the season. Does Pekka Rinne start for the Preds? Juuse Saros played well late in the campaign and recorded a stronger Goals Against Average (2.70 vs. 3.17 for Rinne) as well as Save Percentage (.914 vs. .895 for Rinne) for the season. Perhaps Rinne backs up Saros to start things off.
Along that same line, Darcy Kuemper had a stellar season guarding the pipes for Arizona. He could be the difference-maker for the Coyotes.
I am also anxious to see Phil Kessel and Taylor Hall in their first playoff appearance donning a Coyotes uniform.
Nashville Predators 3 – 2
#7 VANCOUVER CANUCKS VS. #10 MINNESOTA WILD
The Vancouver Canucks have impressed me throughout the 2019-20 season. Jacob Markstrom had been sharp in the net prior to the pause of play. Elias Petterson, Quinn Hughes, J.T. Miller, and Bo Horvat lead a potentially lethal offense. Miller and Jay Beagle continue to dominate in the face-off circle, an often overlooked but vital piece to gathering wins in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Vancouver Canucks 3 – 1
#8 CALGARY FLAMES VS. #9 WINNIPEG JETS
A tightly-seeded battle of Canada. This should be a great series.
These two clubs met only once during the season, The Heritage Classic at Mosaic Stadium on October 26, 2019. The Winnipeg Jets took it in overtime, 2-1.
The Winnipeg Jets are not consistent enough to be successful against Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, and the speedy Calgary Flames.
Calgary Flames 3 – 2
Stay tuned to Philly Sports Network as our team of Flyers contributors continue to bring you up-to-date news and predictions regarding the upcoming NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Photo Credit: Alex Mcintyre