Contender or Pretender: Which 2020 NHL Playoff Teams Are For Real?

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistAugust 26, 2020

Contender or Pretender: Which 2020 NHL Playoff Teams Are For Real?

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    It's that time of year again. Sort of.

    We're in late August and down to eight elite teams still in pursuit of the Stanley Cup.

    Semifinal series will run to their conclusions in both Toronto and Edmonton as the field is whittled to the four teams that will adjourn to Northern Alberta for the Eastern and Western Conference championships.

    And from there, it's a final best-of-seven series for the coolest trophy in sports.

    But rather than sending fans blindly into the icy fray, the B/R ice hockey team was summoned to make a case for the squads still in contention. In doing so, we looked at each team's status through Tuesday's games, assessed the evidence regarding where it stands and issued a verdict of pretender or contender.

    Those verdicts, by the way, are binding and non-appealable.

    Read on to see how your favorite teams were judged and whether your rulings matched ours.

    Drop the puck. The court is adjourned.

Boston Bruins

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The Status: Tied with Tampa Bay Lightning 1-1 in Eastern Conference semifinals

    The Evidence: OK, we know. They won the Presidents' Trophy for a reason.

    The Bruins were the best team in hockey during the regular season, but a lot of the bloom came off the rose when they stumbled aimlessly through the three-game round-robin series and dropped from a streaking No. 1 seed to a slumping No. 4.

    And heading into their "first-round" series with the deep and talented fifth-seeded Carolina Hurricanes, it wasn't hard to find people suggesting their demise was imminent. Until it wasn't.

    Boston again resembled a top seed in a five-game erasure of the Hurricanes, carrying on in the sudden absence of goaltender Tuukka Rask and getting balanced scoring and solid play throughout the lineup.

    Nevertheless, the Bruins are up against a legit final-four commodity in the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that's still smarting from an epic collapse last spring and one that showed championship form in a matching five-game first-round elimination of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

    We're calling it for the Lightning, which means the Bruins get pegged on the opposite side. But not by a lot.

    The Verdict: Pretender

Colorado Avalanche

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The Status: Trail Dallas Stars 2-0 in Western Conference semifinals 

    The Evidence: How quickly things change.

    It was only a few short days ago that the B/R hockey team got together, crunched the numbers, watched the highlights and labeled the Avalanche the NHL's fourth-best team.

    Since then, Colorado has lost its starting goaltender, dropped consecutive games to Dallas and scored just five goals in doing so while giving up 10 at the other end of the rink.

    The depth scoring has dried out, with the first line accounting for all five goals and 11 of the 15 points across the entire roster. Meanwhile, the previously anemic Stars, who scored more regular-season goals than just two of the league's other 30 teams, have scored 36 goals in 11 playoff and round-robin games.

    Unless Pavel Francouz finds his form in the net as the fill-in for Philipp Grubauer, the trek to the Stanley Cup summit may be over before it begins.

    The Verdict: Pretender

Dallas Stars

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    The Status: Lead Colorado Avalanche 2-0 in Western Conference semifinals

    The Evidence: And here's the flip side.

    While the Avalanche arrived in the playoffs full of momentum and riding the coattails of superstar center Nathan MacKinnon, the Stars lost two of three in the round-robin tournament and were down two games to one before rallying to oust the Calgary Flames in the first round.

    So it wasn't hard to reason why the smart pre-second-round pick was Colorado over Dallas.

    It's not looking quite as certain these days given a pair of five-goal performances that have staked the Stars to a 2-0 lead following an injury to Avalanche starting goalie Philipp Grubauer.

    Emerging star Miro Heiskanen leads all defensemen and every NHL player other than MacKinnon with 14 postseason points, and center Joe Pavelski's seven goals are in a two-way tie with MacKinnon atop the league.

    Unless that changes overnight, the Stars will continue shining into the Western Conference Final.

    The Verdict: Contender

New York Islanders

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    The Status: Lead Philadelphia Flyers 1-0 in Eastern Conference semifinals

    The Evidence: It's got to stop at some point, right?

    Though the pages of hockey's history books are littered with stories of plucky underdogs featuring red-hot goalies, the best teams usually wind up winning, don't they?

    Meet the New York Islanders—the team that will test that theory in the 2020 playoffs.

    Head coach Barry Trotz and Co. wobbled into the qualifying round as a No. 7 seed, emerged to face certain elimination against the Washington Capitals after a four-game rout of the Florida Panthers and somehow managed to bounce the 2018 Stanley Cup champions on the way to a competitive execution against Philadelphia.

    Then Semyon Varlamov stopped 29 shots in a 4-0 Game 1 win.

    And in a bad sign for the Flyers, Trotz wasn't even thrilled with his team's performance.

    "I didn't care for our game," he said. "I liked our first period. After that we were average. So, we've got a lot of work to do."

    We're not quite ready to deem them a contender. But if the Islanders manage to get themselves a two-game lead at some point, it may be time for a new chapter.

    The Verdict: Pretender

Philadelphia Flyers

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The Status: Trail New York Islanders 1-0 in Eastern Conference semifinals

    The Evidence: And once again, we're back to the flip side. Sort of.

    Though the Stars and Avalanche have swapped pretender/contender statuses after a goalie injury and a sudden change of character by both teams' offenses, the Flyers aren't quite to that point.

    At least not yet.

    But if the modern-day Broad Street Bullies can't manage to solve Islanders netminder Semyon Varlamov sometime soon, the Cup-less drought that already stretches back to 1975 will go on another year.

    The Flyers were outshot 15-4 in the first period of the opener, trailed 1-0 and were turned aside by a stellar stretch from Varlamov in the second. Desperation arrived in the third, which opened things up for two more Islanders goals and another into an empty net.

    Sean Couturier, Claude Giroux and Travis Konecny haven't scored in 10 postseason games, and Philadelphia has only scored 11 times as a team in the first and second rounds after netting 11 in the three-game round-robin series alone. It's still among the league's best when right, but that's not a guarantee.

    Tread carefully, Gritty.

    The Verdict: Contender

Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    The Status: Tied with Boston Bruins 1-1 in Eastern Conference semifinals

    The Evidence: Suddenly, last spring doesn't seem that long ago.

    Of course, the Lightning weren't the league's top point-getting team this year, and they haven't already found themselves on the short end of an ugly four-game sweep by an eighth-seeded foe.

    But if things don't get better soon, it might still feel that way on the Gulf Coast.

    Tampa Bay dropped a 3-2 decision to Boston in the opener of their Eastern Conference semifinal, which marked the sixth consecutive game in which the team did not convert on a power-play opportunity. Not coincidentally, it's now been six months since Steven Stamkos, who scored 10 power-play goals during the regular season, appeared in a game. Without him, the team hasn't found its flow with the man advantage.

    Brayden Point has played Conn Smythe-caliber hockey in his teammate's absence, and the Lightning roster is still dotted with enough high-end talent to hoist the Cup even without Stamkos. Now that they've evened the series, it's still a good bet they can get it done in seven or fewer.

    But it would be best if they didn't wait.

    The Verdict: Contender

Vancouver Canucks

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    The Status: Tied with Vegas Golden Knights 1-1 in Western Conference semifinals

    The Evidence: It's not hard to conclude that the Canucks are up against it.

    But it's not as if they haven't been here before.

    Vancouver was down a game to the Minnesota Wild in the qualifying round before rallying to win three straight. Then it found itself even at 2-2 with the defending Stanley Cup champions before ending the St. Louis Blues' reign with a 10-5 margin over the final two games.

    The Golden Knights, however, are neither the Wild nor the Blues.

    Vegas was a Cup finalist in its first season in the NHL two years ago, captured a second Pacific Division title this season and had won eight of nine postseason games thus far this summer—including a 5-0 blowout in Sunday night's opener against the Canucks—before Vancouver took Game 2.

    Make no mistake, rookie defenseman Quinn Hughes (11 points) has been outstanding, and goaltender Jacob Markstrom (.925 save percentage) has been stellar. But unless we're missing something, it seems the Canucks simply don't have enough to hang with what's probably the best team in the league right now.

    The Verdict: Pretender

Vegas Golden Knights

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    The Status: Tied with Vancouver Canucks 1-1 in Western Conference semifinals

    The Evidence: Yep, we'll say it. We saved the best for last.

    Though the Bruins had more points during the regular season and the Flyers and Avalanche have shown glimpses of being the league's top team since the restart, we're going to pull the trigger on it here.

    Vegas is the favorite to win the Stanley Cup.

    Simply put, the Golden Knights are a difficult team to play. They're big, strong, aggressive and confident. They take more even-strength shots and allow fewer than any other team. They get scoring from all lines, play sound defense and have the best goaltending tandem—Robin Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury—in the NHL.

    They rolled the Western Conference's other three standouts in the round-robin tournament, dropped a single meaningless game after running up a 3-0 lead against the Chicago Blackhawks and netted five goals while staking their claim on Game 1 of the conference semifinals against the Canucks.

    That said, Vancouver was the better team in Game 2. So could that mean Vegas will come back to earth? Sure.

    But we wouldn't count on it. Go ahead and get the engraver ready.

    The Verdict: Contender