It’s Day One of the NHL expanded playoff format. Over the next week and a half, sixteen teams will compete for a chance to advance in a Best of Five preliminary round. Only eight will make the true Stanley Cup Playoffs. Four in the East and four out West.
A unique postseason that features 24 teams competing for a shot at Lord Stanley. Maybe there’s a sleeper from this class that makes a deep run in the playoff bubble of either Edmonton or Toronto. There won’t be any fans. So no home ice. Not even for the Oilers or Maple Leafs, who both must advance to the Sweet Sixteen to still be alive.
Even the championship pedigree Penguins must prove themselves. On paper, their match-up against
Team Price Montreal looks like a mismatch. But these are short series. Anything can happen. While the 16 teams that don’t have byes battle it out, a round robin format will determine the top four seeds in each Conference. The East featuring the Bruins, Lightning, Capitals and Flyers. The West including the defending champion Blues, Avalanche, Stars and Golden Knights. That won’t be as stressful as the teams playing for their playoff livelihood.
So, what should we expect? It’s hard to predict. A lot will depend upon which teams rediscover chemistry quickly following a four and a half month layoff. They’re going on training camps and one exhibition game. It won’t be easy.
Let’s take a look at the eight Preliminary Series:
(5) Pens vs (12) Habs
Analysis: Carey Price is capable of stealing a game. Unless their spotty defense can slow down Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, a healthy Jake Guentzel, Kris Letang, Patric Hornqvist and key addition Jason Zucker, it’s hard to see Montreal prevailing. I’ll be curious to see who Mike Sullivan goes with. Matt Murray or Tristan Jarry. The Canadiens need big performances from Price, Shea Weber, Jeff Petry, Max Domi, Nick Suzuki, Jonathan Drouin and Tomas Tatar.
Prediction: Pens in 4
(6) Hurricanes vs (11) Rangers
Analysis: I had a more detailed outlook in a previous post. To reiterate, the Rangers have the best player in the series and better goalies. They’re more top heavy. The Hurricanes are deeper. However, their goalie tandem would have to really come up to deny the likes of Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. I trust Igor Shesterkin or Henrik Lundqvist more. If Tony DeAngelo can’t go, then take Carolina. Otherwise, go with the bigger stars in a short series.
Prediction: Rangers in 5
(7) Islanders vs (10) Panthers
Analysis: Top to bottom, the Islanders under Barry Trotz are deeper due to their system. They beat a different Panthers team thanks to the heroics of John Tavares. That feels like a lifetime ago. Both rosters have changed. Florida features top tier talent in Sasha Barkov, Evgenii Dadonov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Mike Hoffman, Keith Yandle and Aaron Ekblad. Joel Quenneville is counting on Sergei Bobrovsky to dust off the rust. The Isles do it with grit and determination. Mat Barzal, Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, Josh Bailey, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Pulock are the key guys. Keep an eye on Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Derick Brassard. Key supporting Cats include Noel Acciari, Brian Boyle and Frank Vatrano. I’ve gone back and forth due to the differences in two balanced rosters. If Semyon Varlamov performs, the Isles should advance.
Prediction: Islanders in 5
(8) Maple Leafs vs (9) Blue Jackets
Analysis: On paper, the more talented Leafs are better due to established stars Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Tavares, William Nylander. Tyson Barrie and Morgan Rielly lead a defense that’s scary in its own end. Jake Muzzin could be a key. Freddie Andersen is the last line of defense. Andreas Johnsson, Kasperi Kapanen and Zach Hyman play supporting roles. Do they trust Rasmus Sandin enough to play him? John Tortorella somehow got his Blue Jackets here without Panarin, Matt Duchene, Bobrovsky and countless others due to injuries. They’ll have Seth Jones back teamed with Zach Werenski. Elvis Merzlikins can steal games. It could come down to the forwards led by Pierre-Luc Dubois, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Cam Atkinson, Gustav Nyquist, Boone Jenner and Nick Foligno. They have the better defense and more proven coach. But the pressure is all on the skilled Leafs.
Prediction: Maple Leafs in 5
(5) Oilers vs (12) Blackhawks
Analysis: New guard versus old guard. The electric duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl vs Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. The Oilers should be hungry. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is a difference maker. Zack Kassian should wreak havoc against a weak Chicago defense that still hinges on Duncan Keith. Kailer Yamamoto is a weapon for Edmonton. Darnell Nurse is the best defenseman in the series. James Neal was acquired for this scenario. Does it matter whether it’s Mikko Koskinen or Mike Smith? I doubt it. If Corey Crawford plays, he could have recurring nightmares of McDavid and Draisaitl on breakaways. Alex DeBrincat and Dominik Kubalik are key youngsters for Chicago along with vet Brandon Saad. I don’t see it.
Prediction: Oilers in 4
(6) Predators vs (11) Coyotes
Analysis: Even though it’s likely the unproven Juuse Saros in net over Pekka Rinne, the Preds are better than the Coyotes. Maybe Duchene and Ryan Johansen will step up. They have before. Along with Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg, they had underwhelming seasons. That’s forgotten. Led by Roman Josi on a strong blueline that includes Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and Dante Fabbro, they’re a good team that knows this could be it. I’ll take the experience of Nashville over the youth of Arizona, who need a signature series from Taylor Hall. Christian Dvorak, Clayton Keller, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Jakob Chychrun and Conor Garland are good. Darcy Kuemper has to steal games and the experience of Derek Stepan and Phil Kessel must come through.
Prediction: Predators in 5
(7) Canucks vs (10) Wild
Analysis: Logic says the top tier talent of Elias Pettersson, JT Miller, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat and Quinn Hughes are enough for Vancouver to prevail. However, the Wild did improve down the stretch. They boast a deeper blueline with Matt Dumba healthy along with Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin and Carson Soucy. It isn’t only Zach Parise, Eric Staal or Mats Zuccarello. Kevin Fiala is the key forward along with Luke Kunin, Ryan Donato and Marcus Foligno. What will they get from Alex Galchenyuk? Vancouver gets the edge in net with Jacob Markstrom back. He was having his best year. Alex Stalock is the Minnesota number one for now. Devan Dubnyk backs up. Kaapo Kahkonen is the wildcard.
Prediction: Canucks in 5
(8) Flames vs (9) Jets
Analysis: This is the hardest series to call. They’re so similar. Both love to play up tempo and utilize their skating to dictate play. It’s an old rivalry from the Smythe days. I prefer the core of Winnipeg. How can you not love Mark Schiefele, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine and Nik Ehlers. As questionable as the D is anchored by Josh Morrissey and ex-Ranger Neal Pionk, they boast the better netminder in likely Vezina winner Connor Hellebuyck. He’s miles better than either Cam Talbot or David Rittich. Calgary has a better defense with Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie, Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson. No Travis Hamonic will hurt. Unless the core of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Bennett outplay the Jets stars, it’s hard to see them coming out on top. Milan Lucic needs to be effective. I keep pointing to Hellebuyck and Connor, who I believe is a breakout star. It’ll be exciting.
Prediction: Jets in 5