NHL Playoffs 2020: Top Matchups, Stanley Cup Predictions for 24-Team Bracket

Blake SchusterCorrespondent IIIMay 27, 2020

St. Louis Blues' Vladimir Tarasenko, of Russia, carries the Stanley Cup after the Blues defeated the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the NHL Stanley Cup Final, Wednesday, June 12, 2019, in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

The NHL is officially set to return with a 24-team tournament that will give way to the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

While the dates and locations are still being worked out, all of the initial matchups have been confirmed, giving players and teams ample time to prepare for what should be a thrilling way to cap off the 2019-20 season and crown a champion. 

The 24 teams who will advance to this year's version of the postseason are based on the standings when the regular season was halted on March 12. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on Tuesday explained the regular season is officially closed for recordkeeping reasons.  

Here's how the postseason will work:

The top four teams in both the Western Conference and Eastern Conference will automatically advance to the Stanley Cup playoffs. The remaining eight teams from each conference will participate in a best-of-five series qualifying round to determine the rest of the Stanley Cup pool. The losing teams from the qualifying round will be entered in the draft lottery on June 26 along with the seven teams that did not qualify for the postseason. 

While the qualifying round is in action, the top four teams in each conference will play a round-robin tournament among themselves. The matchups following the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs are subject to change, though Bettman said the league would like a bracket over re-seeding. 

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There is still plenty the league needs to address in the playoff format, but the matchups of the qualifying round and first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs are locked in. 

Here's a look at the matchups with B/R's predictions and a stab at who takes home the Cup:

        

Qualifying Round Predictions (Best of 5)

Western Conference

No. 5 Edmonton Oilers vs. No. 12 Chicago Blackhawks, winner to face No. 4 Dallas Stars

(Prediction: Blackhawks in 5)

No. 6 Nashville Predators vs. No. 11 Arizona Coyotes, winner to face No. 3 Vegas Golden Knights 

(Prediction: Coyotes in 5)

No. 7 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 10 Minnesota Wild, winner to face No. 2 Colorado Avalanche

(Prediction: Canucks in 4)

No. 8 Calgary Flames vs. No. 9 Winnipeg Jets, winner to face No. 1 St. Louis Blues

(Prediction: Flames in 5)

            

Eastern Conference

No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 12 Montreal Canadiens, winner to face No. 4 Philadelphia Flyers

(Prediction: Penguins in 3)

No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes vs. No. 11 New York Rangers, winner to face No. 3 Washington Capitals 

(Prediction: Rangers in 4)

No. 7 New York Islanders vs. No. 10 Florida Panthers, winner to face No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning 

(Prediction: Islanders in 3)

No. 8 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets, winner to face No. 1 Boston Bruins.

(Prediction: Maple Leafs in 5) 

          

Stanley Cup Playoffs Predictions (Series length TBD)

Western Conference, First Round

No. 12 Chicago Blackhawks vs. No. 4 Dallas Stars

(Prediction: Blackhawks)

No. 11 Arizona Coyotes vs. No. 3 Vegas Golden Knights

(Prediction: Golden Knights)

No. 7 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 2 Colorado Avalanche 

(Prediction: Avalanche)

No. 8 Calgary Flames vs. No. 1 St. Louis Blues

(Prediction: Blues)

           

Eastern Conference, First Round

No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 4 Philadelphia Flyers

(Prediction: Penguins)

No. 11 New York Rangers vs. No. 3 Washington Capitals 

(Prediction: Capitals)

No. 7 New York Islanders vs. No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning 

(Prediction: Lightning)

No. 8 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. No. 1 Boston Bruins

(Prediction: Bruins)

           

Stanley Cup Champions Prediction: Washington Capitals 

Winning the Presidents' Trophy, more often than not, spells doom in the playoffs. That's concerning for the Boston Bruins, who finished the regular season with a league-leading 100 points. If the Bruins want some positive history to point to, the last team to capture the Stanley Cup after winning the Presidents' Trophy also came during a shortened season. The Chicago Blackhawks accomplished the feat in 2013, defeating the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final. 

But the Bruins will also have to face what should be the most highly anticipated matchup in the first round—if B/R's predictions are correct—going up against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

In 2013, the Bruins came back after going down 4-1 in the third period of Game 7, winning 5-4 in overtime. A few years later in 2018, the Bruins again dispatched the Leafs in Game 7 to advance to the second round. The two matched up for a third time in the playoffs in 2019 with Boston again winning Game 7. 

Toronto fans may cringe at their possible path to the Cup this year, but the team has found strong footing since Sheldon Keefe took over behind the bench for Mike Babcock earlier this year. The Leafs are 27-15-5 since Keefe became head coach and have the type of skill players in Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander to match up with Boston's Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and David Krejci.

The Blackhawks will be another team worth keeping an eye on as the qualifying round gets underway. Chicago has been streaky all year, but with plenty of playoff experience from Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brandon Saad and Corey Crawford, it's not hard to imagine the team getting hot at the right time. Younger starts like Alex DeBrincat, Dominik Kubalik and Dylan Strome will need to grow up fast if the Blackhawks are going to make a run. Matching up with the Edmonton Oilers isn't the worst thing for the Hawks, either. In three games against Edmonton earlier this year, Chicago went 2-1 with more shot attempts and more scoring chances in five-on-five play, while holding Connor McDavid scoreless. 

Shutting down McDavid is only one part of the battle, however. Leon Draisaitl enters postseason play as the league's leading scorer (43 goals, 67 assists, 110 points), while third-line center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (22 goals, 39 assists, 61 points) adds another dynamic scoring threat down the bench. 

If the Pittsburgh Penguins are able to advance out of the qualifying round, they'll have their own hated rival awaiting them in the Philadelphia Flyers. The two teams have met in the playoffs four times since 2008, with Pittsburgh owning a 3-1 postseason series record against Philly. 

There will be no shortage of storylines as the playoffs get underway. As the league works on naming a time and place for the games, the hype alone will help hockey fans get through the wait.