NHL Eastern Qualifying Conference Playoffs

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The NHL Players association (or the NHLPA) voted last week to end the 2019-2020 regular season and go ahead with a 24 team playoff format. In this playoff format, the top four teams of each conference will have extra rest time, while the remaining eight in each have a short playoff round. Those winners advance to play the top four teams.

The Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals and the Philadelphia Flyers will sit out the first round since they are the top four teams in the East, while Columbus, Montreal, Florida and the New York Rangers have a chance to compete. These four teams have been granted gifts, because some of their draft stock will be protected and they can see where they are in terms of building solid rosters with enough depth to make playoff runs in the future.

It’s the match-ups in the first round that will make this exciting though, so here are predictions on the series once they start.

#5 Pittsburgh Penguins v. #12 Montreal Canadiens

This should be said since every team will have issues in early games: these playoffs will be slow to start, especially the first two games considering play has paused for over three months. This is a series where the lesser team can have an advantage. The Canadiens only won 19 of the 71 games they played in regulation, showing yet again Claude Julien is working with a hollow roster highlighted by an aging Carey Price in net. An up and down team, Montreal will have to start fast and not let up, but this isn’t a team that has lived up to those expectations, at least, not consistently.

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Claude Julien (bald guy in the middle in suit) will have his hands full with an up-and-down club facing a Pens team that could be back at full health.

With Pittsburgh, the main guys who can put up points should be able to ease in a bit more. Goaltenders Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray make a great tandem, which can help both Sidney Crosby (who should be back at full health if he wasn’t already) and Evgeni Malkin. Key player Jake Guentzel who was ruled out 4-6 months after a shoulder injury against the Ottawa Senators will probably make his return to the team and add some much needed depth, as the Pens ranked third in the league this season with most games missed by injured players (298).

The series could be a clean 3-0 sweep or a full five games depending on which Montreal team shows up to play. Knowing the first two games could be full of uneven performances, it’s ok to give each team a win, but the superior team in this matchup will show up in the later games as they figure each other out. Pittsburgh does have the edge with better all-around players, and even took the regular season series 2-1-0.

Prediction: Penguins win series 3-1

#6 Carolina Hurricanes v. #11 New York Rangers

The Hurricanes desperately needed the season to stop as both goaltenders Petr Mrazek and James Reimer were seriously hurt in the infamous David Ayres Toronto Maple Leafs game. Although Mrazek returned and looked solid, he did suffer an upper body injury, and has had extra time to recover. As for James Reimer, his lower body injury has given the team time to add depth with the AHL season officially cancelled. The Canes can call up players from their affiliate Checkers, something the NHL says is ok to do. Carolina slipped down to the sixth seed because of injuries to those two players and while the offense wasn’t as problematic, the defense was porous without them.

As the season resumes, so will the speculation about who will start for the New York Rangers in net. Unlike the Hurricanes, the Rangers have three net-minders who are trying to stay on the roster. Igor Shesterkin should be back from his prior injuries in a car crash just before the pause, however, the starting job may possibly go to either Alexandar Georgiev or Henrik Lundqvist, given the magnitude of the offensively potent opponent.

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While the big talk in the Big Apple has been centered on three goaltenders, Artemi Panarin (10, left) and Mika Zibanejad (93, right) have been a white hot tandem, shredding up the scoreboard before the pandemic stopped play.

Both offenses add a lot of spice since both were red hot before the break, especially the Rangers. Mika Zibanejad scored a career high 41 goals (five coming in one game), while Artemi Panarin is a finalist for League MVP. Carolina had around 300 even shots more than the Rangers in their regular season series, with the trio of Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov proving too much to handle for the Rangers defense.

While the Rangers were scorching at the beginning of March, it’s quite possible they’ve cooled down considerably during the hiatus. If David Quinn is smart, he could use this to his benefit and teach the players his system more. Either way, the Rangers defensively should plan how to block 35 shots a game defensively, and go from there.

Prediction: Hurricanes win series 3-1

#7 New York Islanders v. #10 Florida Panthers

I have to hand it to the state of New York for having two competitive teams in the playoffs, as both these series should be exciting, though this one is for different reasons. When last we left the New York Islanders, they’d come out of the trade deadline revamped and a bit better offensively, as Jean Gabriel Pageau began to make his mark, but dropped seven straight before play halted in early March. The Islanders have given up the second most even strength (five-on-five) shots, indicating they were falling apart in almost every facet. This team could be the one that benefits most for the playoffs, since their defensive strengths don’t have to be taught to be fully in gear when games start.

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Islanders Captain Anders Lee (27) tries to get a rebound shot against Pavel Francouz (39). The Islanders offense collapsed before the COVID-19 pandemic stopped play

The Florida Panthers meanwhile are at the opposite end of the spectrum. Their loaded three lines consist of Aleksander Barkov, Evgenii Dadonov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Mike Hoffman, with career years for Noel Acciari, Brett Connolly and Frank Vatrano. The offense can create problems if the Islander defense isn’t sharp for the first couple of games. Coach Joel Quenneville is still figuring out how to get more out of this roster and the unexpectedly disappointing goaltender addition of Sergei Bobrovsky. Speaking of Bob, he’s had a discouraging .900 save percentage this season, and has been pulled or benched in almost a dozen games because of his struggles. One must wonder if Florida gets in a 2-0 hole early if he’ll be pulled, since his playoff save percentage is slightly better than his regular season percentage for this year.

The Erik Haula and Lucas Wallmark additions could prove useful as Florida needs a different look against the team that swept them in the regular season. Florida should benefit in another ironic way: the empty or not-so-filled stadiums will feel almost normal, since they’ve typically had small or half-filled home crowds. Most teams, aren’t used to this, so that could work in Florida’s favor. While Bobrovsky hasn’t had a good season, one must wonder at the other end if Semyon Varlamov is ready to face pressure in the playoffs.

Prediction: Islanders win series 3-0

#8 Toronto Maple Leafs v. #9 Columbus Blue Jackets

Hilariously, the last post written on here was about the lowest point probably in Maple Leafs history. I still stand by not only what I wrote in that article, but the probable need to hit that re-start button. This roster will not win a championship, because they consistently show they can only go so far. Hilariously, if this team wins this round and so do the other three teams (which will probably happen) ahead of them, the Leafs will yet again have to face the Boston Bruins in a best of seven game series.

Similar to the Islanders-Panthers series, these two teams are on opposite spectrums. Like the Panthers, the Leafs have a potent offense, this one led by Auston Matthews, William Nylander and John Tavares. Unfortunately, two of the three have shown they seem to play their best when they…actually want to. There’s red flag number one. Much like the Panthers, this team has a troubling situation in goal with Frederick Anderson, a goal-tender who they seem to plead with to play every game because the team has to find ways to stay alive. Anderson has a .915 save percentage, one of the five worst in the league for a starter. Call that red flag number two. Then we have Sheldon Keefe, the poor sad sack who took over unexpectedly early in the season as head coach for the heinous Mike Babcock. Keefe may have lost control over his locker room by February, as players were heard and seen doing things differently and taking matters into their own hands. Strike three. Ouch.

Like the New York Islanders, the Columbus Blue Jackets are defensive oriented, scraping and clawing for whatever they get. Coach John Tortorella knew he would have a roster that was purged of talent last season, and he followed it up with probably the best season of his coaching career, leading the team to 33 wins and fifth place in the Metropolitan division. One issue, albeit a positive that Tortorella could face is who to start in net. Both Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins have .926 save percentages or above. This tandem has kept Columbus alive in most of their games, considering the Jackets have both the highest amount of games lost to injury (352) and top three in lowest scoring five-on-five matchups.

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Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella (man in suit) is on track to win another Jack Adams award this year. What better way to win coach of the year than beating a high octane offense Toronto depends on by getting the young core back after a few months of rest and injuries?

The Jackets will have nearly the same benefits as the Islanders, namely that their defensive philosophies won’t be that hard to figure out when they come back. As an added bonus they’ll have a lot of their key players returning from injuries. Cam Atkinson, Seth Jones, Alexandre Texier, Oliver Bjorkstrand and possibly Josh Anderson should be good to fill the first two lines when play resumes. For the Leafs, Jake Muzzin comes back when he’s needed most, so he’ll have to live up to the hype and show he deserves a big pay-day when the season is over. Both teams split 1-1 in the regular season, with Columbus winning the last game in OT. This could well be the longest series of this round with games going to five.

Upset Prediction of the Round: Columbus wins series 3-2

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