2020 NHL Playoffs: First-Round Predictions

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistAugust 12, 2020

2020 NHL Playoffs: First-Round Predictions

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Following a week of round-robin and qualifying-round play, 16 teams are left as contenders for the Stanley Cup. The quest for the big mug continues with the opening round of the NHL playoffs now underway.

    In the Eastern Conference, the Philadelphia Flyers face the Montreal Canadiens, the Tampa Bay Lightning meet the Columbus Blue Jackets in a rematch from last year's opening round, the Washington Capitals square off against the New York Islanders and the Boston Bruins tangle with the Carolina Hurricanes.

    Over in the Western Conference, the Vegas Golden Knights skate against the Chicago Blackhawks, the Colorado Avalanche face the Arizona Coyotes, the Dallas Stars meet the Calgary Flames and the defending champion St. Louis Blues go up against the Vancouver Canucks.

    Here's our preview of the opening round, with analysis and predicted outcomes for each series.

Philadelphia Flyers vs. Montreal Canadiens

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    How they got here

    The Philadelphia Flyers clinched the top seed in the Eastern Conference, winning all three of their games in the round-robin tournament involving the conference's top-four seeds.

    In one of the biggest upsets of the qualifying round, the underdog Montreal Canadiens eliminated the heavily-favored Pittsburgh Penguins three games to one in their best-of-five series.

       

    Analysis

    The Flyers finished fourth in regular-season win percentage in the East. However, they dominated the Bruins, Capitals and Lightning in the round robin, outscoring them 11-3. The defense allowed just 25.3 shots per game, while goaltender Carter Hart posted a 1.00 goals-against average and .966 save percentage.

    Thanks to their deep roster, they won their games without goals from Travis Konecny, Sean Couturier, Jakub Voracek, Claude Giroux, Kevin Hayes and James van Riemsdyk. That would account for their inability to score on the power play during the round robin.

    Canadiens goaltender Carey Price proved rumors of his demise were greatly exaggerated. He was stellar against the Pittsburgh Penguins, finishing the series with a 1.67 GAA and .947 save percentage.

    They didn't get much offense from scorers Jonathan Drouin, Tomas Tatar, Max Domi and Phillip Danault, though Danault played a strong defensive game. Others, such as defensemen Shea Weber and Jeff Petry, winger Paul Byron and young forwards Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki, filled that need. Like the Flyers, their power play has yet to tally a goal.

       

    Prediction

    Price proved he can still steal a series. The Canadiens are a hard-working bunch not to be taken lightly, but they're still a retooling team that lacks the depth for a deep playoff run. The Flyers, on the other hand, are an emerging force in the Eastern Conference. Unless they get overconfident, they shouldn't have much difficulty marching on. Flyers in five.

Vegas Golden Knights vs. Chicago Blackhawks

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    David Becker/Associated Press

    How they got here

    The Golden Knights went undefeated in round-robin play to capture the top seed in the Western Conference.

    Entering the qualifying round as an underdog, the Blackhawks stunned the favored Edmonton Oilers three games to one.

       

    Analysis

    The Golden Knights outscored their round-robin opponents 15-10. Alex Tuch (three goals) and Mark Stone, Jonathan Marchessault and Shea Theodore (two each) led the way. They accomplished this with leading scorer Max Pacioretty sidelined. He's returned to face the Blackhawks.

    While the Golden Knights' high-scoring victories made for entertaining firewagon hockey, they gave up too many goals and struggled on the penalty kill. But goaltenders Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner made big saves in key moments.

    While the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup glory years are well in the past, their elimination of the Oilers proved they can still pull off an upset. Veterans Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford played well, as did rookies Dominik Kubalik and Kirby Dach and Matthew Highmore.

    Defensively, however, the Blackhawks gave up too many shots and scoring opportunities. Their penalty-killing percentage (70.6), goals-against average (3.75) and shots allowed (34.3) were among the postseason's worst figures.

       

    Prediction

    The Blackhawks still have some skilled veteran leaders with considerable championship experience. The Golden Knights, however, are no slouches when it comes to postseason insight. Most of their core players remain in their primes, plus they have the advantage of depth between the pipes. Golden Knights in six.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    How they got here

    The Lightning finished with the second seed in the Eastern Conference, winning two of their three round-robin games.

    In the only qualifying round series to go the full five games, the Blue Jackets shut out the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-0 in the final game.

       

    Analysis

    Despite captain Steven Stamkos' being sidelined by injury, Tampa Bay's offensive depth was a difference-maker during their close round-robin victories over Washington and Boston. Their power play and penalty-killing are among the best entering the opening round of the playoffs. They also receive steady goaltending from Vezina Trophy finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy.

    The Lightning, however, managed only six goals during round-robin play. Stamkos' absence was a contributing factor and will be an ongoing concern. Defenseman Victor Hedman left their final contest against the Flyers with an undisclosed injury but returns to face the Jackets.

    While Columbus lacks scoring punch, it makes up for it with aggressive checking and solid defensive play. Goaltender Joonas Korpisalo, defensemen Seth Jones and Zach Werenski and center Pierre-Luc Dubois were the standouts against the Leafs.

    Consistency, however, was an issue against the Leafs. The Jackets overcame a three-goal deficit to win Game 3 only to blow a three-goal lead and lose the following game. They also failed to tally a power-play goal in that series and gave up too many shots.

       

    Prediction

    This is a rematch from last year's opening round in which the Jackets swept the Lightning in a stunning upset. Columbus will stick to its game plan, hoping to frustrate Tampa Bay's scorers. The Lightning know what to expect, but the absence of Stamkos and a hobbled Hedman could hurt their efforts to avenge last season's disappointing finish. Jackets in six.

Colorado Avalanche vs. Arizona Coyotes

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    How they got here

    The Avalanche finished with the second seed in the Western Conference and recorded two wins and an overtime loss in three round-robin games.

    Ranked as the 11th seed in the West, the Coyotes upset the Nashville Predators three games to one in their best-of-five qualifying round series.

       

    Analysis

    The Avalanche spread their offense throughout their roster in the round robin. They got scoring from superstars Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, depth forwards Andre Burakovsky and Joonas Donskoi and blueliners Cale Makar and Ryan Graves. The goaltending was solid, with Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz combining for a 1.67 goals-against average.

    Winning faceoffs and killing penalties were concerns for the Avs during the round robin. Despite their steady goaltending, Grubauer has yet to establish himself as a big-game player, while Francouz has limited postseason experience.

    Coyotes goalie Darcy Kuemper doesn't have many postseason games under his belt, but he was the prime factor in his club's elimination of the Predators. He finished that series with 152 saves, a 2.77 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage. Veterans Taylor Hall and Phil Kessel and young forwards Christian Dvorak and Clayton Keller did the heavy lifting against the Predators.

    The Coyotes were outshot by wide margins but got timely offensive flurries that made the difference. Still, they were also held off the scoreboard for several periods. They gave up too many shots and had difficulty killing penalties and winning faceoffs.

       

    Prediction

    Backed by Kuemper's outstanding play, the Coyotes are in the opening round of the playoffs for the first time since 2011-12. They've proved they can upset a superior opponent, but big weaknesses remain in their game. The Avs are a better-balanced team with plenty of firepower and speed to burn, attributes that should work to their advantage against the overmatched Coyotes. Avalanche in five.

Washington Capitals vs. New York Islanders

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    How they got here

    The Capitals earned the third seed in the Eastern Conference during round-robin play with one win, one loss and a shootout loss.

    It took the Islanders four games to eliminate the Florida Panthers in their qualifying round series.

       

    Analysis

    The Capitals weren't at their offensive best during the round robin, but they played well defensively. They never allowed a goal while shorthanded and gave up only 26.7 shots per game. Goaltender Braden Holtby is in playoff form, with a 1.98 goals-against average and .925 save percentage.

    However, the vaunted Capitals offense managed just five goals during round-robin play. Forwards T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson each had one goal, while Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Jakub Vrana failed to score. Puck-moving defenseman John Carlson was sidelined throughout the round robin. Washington's faceoff win percentage (38.9) was terrible.

    The Islanders deployed coach Barry Trotz's defensive system well against the Panthers, playing sound two-way hockey. Goalie Semyon Varlamov posted a 1.77 GAA and .932 save percentage in those four games. They also got clutch scoring from Anthony Beauvillier (three goals, including two game-winners) and Jordan Eberle (two goals, one game-winner), while Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews (four points each) contributed from the blue line.

    Despite the Isles' strong defensive play at even strength against the Panthers, their penalty-killing percentage (71.4) needs work. So does their faceoff win percentage (45.5). Veteran blueliner Johnny Boychuk missed most of the series to an upper-body injury but is expected to return for this series.

       

    Prediction

    It's the first time Trotz is facing his former team in the postseason. His club can do damage, having swept the Penguins from the opening round last year. However, the Capitals possess a deep, experienced lineup. Led by Ovechkin, Carlson and Backstrom, the 2017-18 Stanley Cup champions are out to atone for their own early playoff exit last year. Capitals in six.

Dallas Stars vs. Calgary Flames

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    Sam Hodde/Associated Press

    How they got here

    The Stars secured the third seed in the Western Conference after posting a record of one win and two losses in round-robin play.

    In a physical qualifying round series, the Flames defeated the Winnipeg Jets in four games.

       

    Analysis

    The Stars didn't have a solid round-robin performance, but there were a few bright spots. Sophomore defenseman Miro Heiskanen continues to develop as a strong all-around blueliner, while veteran forwards Joe Pavelski (two goals) and Corey Perry (one goal) chipped in. Backup Anton Khudobin played well in the win over the Blues.

    The Stars need to get a lot of improvement. The Dallas Morning News' Matthew DeFranks reported Sunday that starting goalie Ben Bishop and leading scorer Tyler Seguin are listed as day-to-day. Seguin and captain Jamie Benn were held scoreless as the Stars managed just four goals during the round robin.

    The Flames were red-hot against the Jets. First-line forwards Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm played well, as did secondary scorers Andrew Mangiapane and Milan Lucic. Goaltender Cam Talbot finished with a goals-against average of 1.51 and .945 save percentage.

    Calgary's stats are among the postseason's best, but a couple of areas need improvement. Their blue-line corps managed just one goal against the Jets. The Flames weren't strong in the faceoff circle.

       

    Prediction

    The Stars may be the higher seed, but they're the underdogs. They need a healthy Bishop between the pipes and veteran leaders such as Seguin and Benn to rediscover their scoring touch. That might not be enough to contain the Flames, who are likely fired up coming off an intense series. Flames in five.

Boston Bruins vs. Carolina Hurricanes

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    How they got here

    The Bruins are the first team in NHL history to win the Presidents' Trophy for the best regular-season record without being the top seed in their conference. The Bruins lost all three of their round-robin games to finish with the fourth seed in the East.

    The No. 6 seed entering the qualifying round, the Hurricanes swept the New York Rangers in three games.

       

    Analysis

    The Bruins showed little of their regular-season dominance in the round robin. They managed just four goals as their usually potent first line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and 48-goal scorer David Pastrnak was held to just one assist. Goalies Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak had a bloated 3.11 goals-against average.

    A much better effort was expected of the Bruins, prompting critics such as NBC Sports Boston's DJ Bean to call them out for not taking the round robin seriously. As a Stanley Cup finalist last season and this year's only team to reach 100 points, they should elevate their game now that the playoffs are underway.

    The Hurricanes hope to carry the momentum of their sweep of the Rangers into this series. Young guns Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov powered their offensive attack. They got good goaltending from Petr Mrazek and James Reimer, while their blue line adjusted well to the absence of Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce. Hamilton will return to the lineup in this series.

    Despite their even-strength scoring exploits against the Rangers, the Hurricanes weren't as potent with the man advantage. While Mrazek and Reimer were solid in the qualifying round, they still have limited playoff success.

       

    Prediction

    If this were a usual season, the Bruins would get the nod. However, their listless round-robin effort is cause for concern. They're going up against a rising young opponent looking to prove itself. The Hurricanes upset the defending Stanley Cup champion Capitals in the opening round of the 2018-19 playoffs. Another opening-round upset could be in the cards. Hurricanes in seven.

St. Louis Blues vs. Vancouver Canucks

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    Bill Boyce/Associated Press

    How they got here

    The defending Stanley Cup champion Blues were atop the Western Conference when the regular season was derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, they finished with the fourth seed after going winless (0-2-1) in three round-robin games.

    The Canucks eliminated the Minnesota Wild in four games during their qualifying round series.

       

    Analysis

    The Blues looked nothing like defending champions during the round robin. They tallied just six goals while giving up nine and managed just one power-play goal. Wingers Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz were held off the score sheet, while Brayden Schenn collected just two assists.

    It wasn't all bad for the Blues. Goaltender Jordan Binnington played well against the Avalanche, and backup Jake Allen gave up just one goal on 38 shots against the Stars. Ryan O'Reilly, the 2018-19 Conn Smythe Trophy winner, is their leading scorer with three assists.

    Led by veterans Bo Horvat and J.T. Miller and the young Quinn Hughes, Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser, the Canucks overcame an opening-game shutout to down the Wild. Most of their offensive stats and special teams play were among the top 10.

    Despite their performances against the Wild, most of the Canucks' young stars lack playoff experience. They also lack a seasoned backup for starting goalie Jacob Markstrom, which could become an issue if he struggles or suffers an injury.

       

    Prediction

    The Canucks are a promising young team with a bright future, but they're going up against a tougher opponent. If the Blues refocus and regain their intensity as expected, they should overpower Vancouver. Blues in six.