2020-21 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs – First Round Preview
Here were go with the NHL COVID playoffs year two. While the division-only format didn’t lead to a great regular season, it does lead to some highly compelling possible second-round match-ups. If you aren’t salivating at the possibility of the Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Edmonton Oilers, Vegas Golden Knights vs. Colorado Avalanche, and Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Boston Bruins, you aren’t a hockey fan.
1 Carolina Hurricanes vs. 4 Nashville Predators
Season Series: 6-2 Hurricanes
Playoff Series History: None
What We Learned: The Hurricanes took everything to the next level this season. The Predators surprisingly blew past the Blackhawks and Stars to capture the final playoff spot.
Stars to Watch: Sebastian Aho continued his consistent play. Vincent Trocheck had a career year. Jordan Staal became relative again, and Dougie Hamilton is always solid from the blueline. Defenseman Roman Josi led the Predators in scoring again. Although not as wide of a margin as last season, so I guess that’s progress. Filip Forsberg is very good, but I’m still waiting for him to be great.
Goalie Problem: Juuse Saros saved the Predators’ season. He should get a Vezina nomination for his efforts. The Hurricanes have a few good goalies, but it looks like it will be Alex Nedeljkovic moving forward, and that’s a great choice. He should also get a Vezina nomination. He leads the NHL in GAA and SV%.
X-Factor: The Hurricanes are coming in as favorites. Something they haven’t been in a decade. The Predators play better as underdogs, which they are. The Predators beat the Hurricanes the final two games, but the games didn’t mean anything to the Hurricanes, so who knows how hard they tried or what will carry over.
Fun Fact: The Predators don’t score a lot of goals. They are the lowest-scoring team in the playoffs. They also have the worst power play. The Hurricanes have the second-best power play.
Prediction: This will probably be a low-scoring series, although we might get a few high-scoring games. It’s hard to fathom a way the Predators could beat the Hurricanes. But it’s possible if Saros had the series of his life and the Hurricanes play as they do against the Bruins in the playoffs. But the Predators aren’t the Bruins. While it’s not unfathomable an upset could happen, it probably won’t. Hurricanes in five or six.
2 Florida Panthers vs. 3 Tampa Bay Lightning
Season Series: 5-3 Panthers
Playoff Series History: None
What We Learned: The Lightning took a little step back. The Panthers took a big step forward.
Stars to Watch: The Florida Panthers have mostly been Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, and Aaron Ekblad for years. Only Ekbald is injured and isn’t coming back unless they make it to the third round, and even then, who knows. The Lighting have done pretty well without Nikita Kucherov and now Steven Stamkos. However, both are expected back for Game 1. Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat and Victor Hedman just keep chugging right along.
Goalie Problem: Andrei Vasilevskiy is as solid and consistent as possible in net. However, his two worst playoffs led to first-round exits. The sunshine state hasn’t been kind to Sergei Bobrovsky. If I were the Panthers, I wouldn’t be thrilled that he’s my number one goalie. He’s also only had one good playoff run in his career.
X-Factor: These teams don’t like each other. They racked up 154 penalty minutes in their last game. They are also the two most penalized teams in the NHL. Tempers could flare, which might lead to injuries or suspensions and definitely some power plays.
Fun Fact: The only time the Panthers won a playoff series, they made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. That was way back in 1996 when all the rubber rats were thrown on the ice.
Prediction: I feel the Panthers are ready to take the next step. The Lightning had their redemption moment and Stanley Cup last season. There’s not a lot of motivation for them in this series. The Panthers, on the other hand, want to beat their in-state rivals. None of their keys players have ever won a playoff series. This is basically the same script the Blue Jackets used to beat the Lightning two years ago. I have a feeling the series will come down to goaltending. If Vasilevskiy is average and Bobrovsky doesn’t suck, that’s an advantage to the Panthers. I wasn’t expecting Kucherov to play, and he might have a huge impact. I’ll take the Panthers in six or seven if Vasilevskiy is average, Bobrovsky isn’t, and Kucherov doesn’t have an impact. Otherwise, I’ll take the Lightning in six or seven.
1 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. 4 New York Islanders
Season Series: 6-2 Penguins
Playoff Series History: 4-1 Islanders
What We Learned: The Islanders are going backward. The Penguins won their first title since 2014. Hard to imagine considering how they started.
Stars to Watch: Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Kris Letang, and Bryan Rust lead the way for the Penguins. Evgeni Malkin had a down year, but I wouldn’t count him out. Mathew Barzal, Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson, and Jordan Eberle lead the Islanders.
Goalie Problem: The Penguins’ biggest weakness is their goaltending. Tristan Jarry has been a disappointment, and he’s banged up. It seems unlikely he can carry them far. Semyon Varlamov, on the other hand, is great. He tied for the NHL lead in shutouts with 7. The Islanders gave up the second-fewest goals.
X-Factor: The Islanders really loved the bubble experience and benefited from it. If they can somehow replicate it, it might boost them again. Jeff Carter really makes the Penguins more dynamic offensively. He hasn’t done much in the playoffs since 2014, but he’s hit a groove with the Penguins and has a chance to explode.
Fun Fact: The Islanders have the 3rd most hits in the NHL, and the Penguins are 10th. Expect a hard-hitting affair. The Penguins are first in takeaways, and the Islanders are 28th.
Prediction: The Islanders don’t look anything like last year’s team. Barzal is playing well, but he can’t do it all. But if they are to have a chance, he’ll have to do even more. I don’t see how the Islanders can replicate their bubble run. The Islanders did sweep the Penguins a few seasons ago, but Sidney Crosby has a very good memory. That’s not happening again. If the Islanders play the same stifling defense, there’s always a chance they could beat the Penguins. But this Penguins team is the second highest-scoring team in the NHL, and they look good. Penguins in six.
2 Washington Capitals vs. 3 Boston Bruins
Season Series: 4-4
Playoff Series History: 2-1 Capitals
What We Learned: The Bruins are so much better with a potent second line. Capitals limp into the playoffs, but their enforcer is healthy.
Stars to Watch: Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron, and now Taylor Hall. Hall has eight goals in sixteen games since becoming a Bruin. Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, John Carlson, and Alex Ovechkin lead the Capitals. But they’re all injured. All but Oshie recently skated. Ovechkin will definitely play in Game 1. The others may not.
Goalie Problem: It’s unlikely Tuukka Rask will just leave again, and that’s good news for the Bruins. When he plays exceptionally in the playoffs, the Bruins go far. Vitek Vanecek is unknown. He played decent in his rookie year, but I don’t believe he’ll overtake a series anytime soon. He has zero playoff experience.
X-Factor: Will Zdeno Chara make a difference coming back to Boston? How injured are the Capitals? Will Tom Wilson do something stupid? Can the Bruins’ top line be stopped? How many goals will Taylor Hall score?
Fun Fact: The Bruins are once against first in face-off percentage. The Capitals are the second-worst of the playoff teams. Only the Wild are worse.
Prediction: The Bruins have been going pretty far in the playoffs recently, and I don’t see why that would stop. The addition of Taylor Hall gives them something they haven’t had lately, scoring depth. The Capitals aren’t very scary. There’s something about them I don’t like. No, it’s not Tom Wilson. If Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie don’t play, there’s not enough firepower there. They don’t have the goaltending either. They remind me of all the other Capitals teams that lose in the first round. Barring a miracle, the Bruins should take this in six or seven.
1 Colorado Avalanche vs. 4 St. Louis Blues
Season Series: 5-3 Avalanche
Playoff Series History: 1-0 Avalanche
What We Learned: The Blues got hot toward the end, but they don’t look like a playoff team. The Avalanche are the best team when healthy and took advantage of the door Vegas opened.
Stars to Watch: The Avalanche big three of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog had another great season. Andre Burakovsky had his second solid season as an Avalanche. Then there’s Cale Makar, the defensive wunderkind. These five led them in scoring last season only in a different order. They have another wunderkind that’s not quite as good in Bowen Byram, but he’s injured. David Perron had his first point per game season ever. Supposed playoff MVP Ryan O’Reilly and Torey Krug dishing assists from the blueline round out the Blues’ top players.
Goalie Problem: Philipp Grubauer had his best season ever and should build upon his strong postseason last year. He tied for the NHL lead in shutouts with 7. Jordan Binnington is nowhere near what he once was, but he could steal a game. He had no shutouts this year, though.
X-Factor: The Avalanche still have quite a few key players injured. Nathan MacKinnon is the most prominent, but it’s day to day, so you know he’s playing. The Blues have their own injury issues. Vladimir Tarasenko probably won’t start the series and won’t be healthy if he does play. That’s a big blow. The key is for neither team to get any more injuries.
Fun Fact: The Avalanche have the fewest hits. The Blues are 16th, but kicking it up a notch might give them an advantage. The Blues have the most goals, with the goalie pulled with ten. The Avalanche have only one.
Prediction: The Blues weren’t likely to beat either team they might have faced here. They really like playing the Wild, though. This should be a high-scoring series, but I don’t see how the Blues can win unless the injury or COVID bug really hits the Avalanche again. The Avalanche aren’t getting derailed this early. Assuming they stay healthy, they should win in five or six.
2 Vegas Golden Knights vs. 3 Minnesota Wild
Season Series: 5-3 Wild
Playoff Series History: None
What We Learned: The Golden Knights have the highest goal differential and get rewarded with a two seed. The Wild were the most underrated team this season.
Stars to Watch: Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty lead the Golden Knights, followed by Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Shea Theodore. Chandler Stephenson had a career year in Vegas like everyone else does when they get there. Very talented rookie Kirill Kaprizov leads the way for the Wild, followed by Kevin Fiala, Mats Zuccarello, and Joel Eriksson Ek.
Goalie Problem: It’s hard to top what Marc-Andre Fleury did this season. He had career highs in GAA and SV%. He should get a Vezina nomination. The Golden Knights gave up the fewest goals this season. Cam Talbot resurrected his career in Minnesota. The Golden Knights have the edge, but Talbot will make some key saves.
X-Factor: All but one of the season series games was close. They also tended to be higher-scoring games. You’d think that would benefit the Golden Knights, but not so much. Two games ago, the Golden Knights had many mental breakdowns that lead to the Wild scoring two goals in thirty seconds in the final two minutes of the game. All this leads me to what’s below.
Fun Fact: These teams are first and second in goals scored in the third period. Expect some wild finishes like the game alluded to above. The Golden Knights have been great scoring in the third period during their playoff runs too. Both teams are also first and second in blocked shots.
Prediction: As someone who really wants Vegas vs. Colorado, this series worries me. I also wanted the Golden Knights to get the top seed because the Avalanche match up better with the Wild. Considering everyone expects the Avalanche and Golden Knights to meet with the winner going to the finals, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Wild beat them both. But the Golden Knights rarely lose in the playoffs, and Fleury is hot. The series will probably come down to how Fleury plays and what happens at the end of games. If he’s on, the Golden Knights win. If not, Wild win. Either way, this should be one of the better series, which is saying something coming from me. I always found every Wild playoff series to be so boring the last few years. Golden Knights in six or seven.
1 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. 4 Montreal Canadiens
Season Series: 7-3 Maple Leafs
Playoff Series History: 8-7 Canadiens
What We Learned: The Maple Leafs haven’t looked this good in a long time. While everyone else had a disappointing season in the division, the Canadiens took advantage and captured the final spot.
Stars to Watch: Auston Matthews led the NHL in goals. Mitchell Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander round out the big four. Marner led all forwards in the NHL in ice time, which I found highly interesting and surprising. Tyler Toffoli finally had the season the Los Angeles Kings were dreaming about. The fact that he had it in Montreal really makes you wonder what they’re doing in Los Angeles. After him, it’s guys like Jeff Petry and Nick Suzuki. Honestly, if Toffoli wasn’t on the team, the Canadiens aren’t making the playoffs.
Goalie Problem: The Maple Leafs have gone through a lot of goalies this season. Frederik Andersen just returned, but he hasn’t played much lately. Personally, I’d go with Jack Campbell until he struggles. Sure he has no playoff experience, but he’s earned the chance with only two losses. Carey Price will probably not return, which leaves Jake Allen. Allen has been better than he was in St. Louis but do you really want him as your starting goalie? The answer is no. Supposedly, Price is supposed to be back for the playoffs. But I’ll believe it when I see it. Even if he comes back, he hasn’t played consistently in a month and a half.
X-Factor: There’s a lot of unsung heroes on the Maple Leafs. I still think Wayne Simmonds was one of the better pickups this year. Jason Spezza, he’s still around, had his best season in five years. Don’t forget about Joe Thornton, who still really wants to win a Stanley Cup. I really want to see what Cole Caufield can do and if he can hold up for the Canadiens. If he scores a few goals, you know he’s getting hit a lot.
Fun Fact: Surprisingly, this will be the first time they’ll meet in the playoffs since 1979. Forty-two years is a long time. That’s almost my age, ugh. Toronto was first in giveaways this season, Montreal third. We might be in for some sloppy play.
Prediction: This series is least likely to have an upset. Despite the Canadiens ousting the Penguins last season, I don’t see how they could beat the Maple Leafs. The Maple Leafs are very deep and have improved on defense. Matthews is also having a career year. The Canadiens don’t even have their starting goalie, and they only have one guy who can score goals. Maple Leafs in five.
2 Edmonton Oilers vs. 3 Winnipeg Jets
Season Series: 7-2 Oilers
Playoff Series History: None
What We Learned: The Oilers have the two best players in the NHL by far. The Jets are as average as they come.
Stars to Watch: NHL scoring leaders Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl lead the way. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is solid but overlooked, and Darnell Nurse has really developed into a top-tier defenseman. Mark Scheifele, who drove Patrik Laine out of town, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Blake Wheeler are the big four for the Jets. They’ve been pretty consistent over the years.
Goalie Problem: Hard to fathom Mike Smith is still around. He usually plays fairly well in the playoffs. Although it’s been a long time since that phenomenal run in Arizona. For the Jets, Vezina winner Connor Hellebuyck will try to rebound off of last year’s subpar playoff performance.
X-Factor: McDavid and Draisaitl log the second and third highest ice time for non-defensemen. You wonder how tired they could get. If the Oilers end up trailing, they’re going to log even more minutes. The key to this series is whether the Jets can get an early lead and wear them out.
Fun Fact: The Oilers have the number one power play. The Jets are sixth. You know what that means. Expect a lot of power-play goals.
Prediction: The Jets are relatively balanced and deep, but it seems unlikely they could beat the Oilers, especially with how they finished the season. While not perfect, this Oilers team is the best one McDavid has played on. Having said that, it’s still primarily a two-person team. If the Jets could somehow neutralize McDavid and Draisaitl, that’s a big if. They could probably win the series. But McDavid is playing so well right now. I don’t see how that’s possible. Oilers in five or six.