What an exhilarating time we had the first full week of August. The qualifying matchup rounds in the NHL Bubble in the hub city of Toronto were fun, educational and worth all time spent watching and breaking down play. Besides yours truly, who had the Columbus Blue Jackets winning their series, while making the games fun to watch? Coaches John Tortorella and Claude Julien have done some of if not their best work this postseason. The Philadelphia Flyers look to be the team everyone wants to beat and get rid of early in order to take their place in the Stanley Cup race.
With the four teams of the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Islanders, Columbus Blue Jackets and Montreal Canadiens advancing, we will see who’s more consistent and threatening for a deep run versus a one-and-done when things get hard. The top four teams finally play for real now that their positions are settled. So without further delay, it’s time for the analyses and predictions heading into these matchups.
#4 Boston Bruins v. #5 Carolina Hurricanes
In a rematch of last year’s conference finals, there’s a different feel for both teams than there was spring of 2019. The Carolina Hurricanes thrashed the New York Rangers, while the Boston Bruins rolled their collective eyes through the Round Robin, placing fourth instead of first. Still, these teams know each other pretty well, and have a history outside of their divisions.
The Hurricanes made a significant move this past offseason and brought in goaltender James Reimer to back up Petr Mrazek, while saying goodbye to Curtis McElhinney. Reimer has history of keeping Boston on their heels a bit, so if the Bruins try to make a fool of Mrazek, Reimer can slow the pace down and trip up the Bruins.
It helps that star players Andrei Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho and Jordan Martinook gained valuable playoff experience against Boston last year. While they looked astonishing in the qualifying round, if they can put up numbers against the Bruins’ famed Perfection Line, then this will be the most exciting series of the first round in any conference.
In order for that to happen, Boston must pick up the pace. Coach Bruce Cassidy counts on his stalwart captain Zdeno Chara and the Perfection Line of Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand to show up now that these games are meaningful. Tuukka Rask must look like the Vezina finalist people see him as and show up when it matters most.
Overall analysis: This has the making of a potential upset if the Bruins are still in sleep-mode, but since the locker room seems to know this is for real, expect them to ease into the series much the way St. Louis might with Vancouver. Let Carolina play their game, adapt, then smother them in the following games. As good as the Hurricanes are against most teams in the NHL, Boston has as much if not more than Carolina does, especially a focused locker room.
Prediction: Boston Bruins win series 4-1
#3 Washington Capitals v. #6 New York Islanders
The Capitals played with more alarm this past Sunday against the Bruins knowing the loser would have to face the potent Carolina Hurricanes. Squeaking out a 2-1 win, the Caps can breathe knowing their opponent is a heavily defensive team and needs just enough offense to get by. However, said-team has two former big names that know the roster of the Capitals very well, as Semyon Varlamov and Islanders head coach Barry Trotz will put up as much of a fight as possible.
The Caps haven’t looked like their usual feisty selves the 2019-2020 season. They’re not as dominant, they’re not on the same page for most of 60 minutes, and Braden Holtby has been porous in net several games– so much so his backups have had to play more than usual. Holtby had a 3.11 goals against average in the regular season, was below a .900 save percentage, and Ilya Samsonov, the inactive back-up/1B starter, recorded the only shutout the Caps had all season. Todd Rierden likely obsesses over what line changes he can make against an Islanders team that split the series with the Caps this regular season, hoping that can help the defense long-term against an offense that isn’t known for scoring in bunches.
It’s important for the Islanders to score early and often. While their defensemen will have their hands full, the Capitals aren’t an impatient team like the Florida Panthers. They’re a much better playoff team and will take advantage of turnovers and penalties committed. Anthony Beauvillier was great at doing whatever it took to win, and may be a good matchup against Tom Wilson, but Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Mathew Barzal, Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle need to step up on offense and make Braden Holtby look how he did in the regular season.
Overall analysis: The most important players in this series? Of course the goaltenders, Beauvillier, Tom Wilson and the omnipresent Alex Ovechkin for sure, but John Carlson is the man to watch in any major Capital’s game. A critical player snubbed of an MVP nomination, Carlson is the lifeblood of Washington’s offense, power-play, special teams and his presence makes that roster look more dangerous than they truly are. If Carlson is targeted and snuffed out by Islander defenders, this could be a very long series for the Capitals. Their defense will give New York fits, but if anyone can frustrate Washington to their core, it’s the tandem of coach Barry Trotz and Semyon Varlamov.
Prediction: Washington Capitals win series 4-2
#2 Tampa Bay Lightning v. #7 Columbus Blue Jackets
We’ve been here before, haven’t we? The nightmare that threw Tampa’s heavenly season out of the playoffs last season, the Columbus Blue Jackets again want to crash the party and ruin the dreams and goals the Lightning have of accomplishing in the playoffs. While both teams are different from that 2019 series, both teams are the same in a lot of ways, but who will come out on top when the dust settles?
Tampa Bay was the first team out of the playoffs last year and had to take a long, hard look at how to move forward. Adding physical players Kevin Shattenkirk, Pat Maroon and Barclay Goodrow, along with the progression of players Brayden Point, Erik Cernak and Yanni Gourde, the Lightning have added the muscle and grit that they lacked last year. Unfortunately, the losses of Steven Stamkos and especially Victor Hedman may be too much if Columbus wants to test just how much better they truly are.
Speaking of tests, the Jackets have passed most of theirs with flying colors, thanks to Jack Adams (coach-of-the-year) nominee John Tortorella. The man who ironically brought Tampa Bay their only championship around two decades ago, Torts will test Tampa’s defense early on and see how much of a loss Victor Hedman is for their back-end. Pivotal players Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and Cam Atkinson took the fight hard to Tampa last year, and will throw themselves again at one of the deepest teams in the east to test their wills. While Sergei Bobrovsky isn’t the Jackets’ goaltender anymore, Joonas Korpisalo may be better, especially since he shut out the Toronto Maple Leafs in half of his starts.
Overall analysis: This will be a fun matchup, and it will have full attention from those who watched last year’s sweep. While the Lightning have more players to counter Columbus, and the Jackets lost their high scorers from last season, the make up of these teams haven’t really changed. Despite Jon Cooper’s success, Tortorella will be the superior coach of this series, again pulling out as many tricks as humanly possible.
Upset Prediction of the series: Columbus Blue Jackets win series 4-2
#1 Philadelphia Flyers v. #8 Montreal Canadiens
How many people predicted this matchup happening? A lot of analysts certainly did not. The Flyers answered questions about consistent play coming back after months of no regular season action, showing they’re better than what even loyal fans expected. They cruised through the Round Robin 3-0 in the three games they played, and weren’t forced to rely on their best players.
Montreal on the other hand has made the most of the gift given to them by the league and ground out win after win against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The team with the lowest winning percentage who got into the 24 team format, the Canadiens look like a real threat even outside of Carey Price. Coach Claude Julien has his team, which traded their star players by the All-Star break, looking similar to when he took the underdog 2011 Boston Bruins to a Stanley Cup Finals run.
The Canadiens roster has stepped up in every facet, from wingers Dale Weise to Brendan Gallagher. Rookie center Nick Suzuki has proved he can be a quality starter moving forward for the franchise, delivering in aspects showing how this team has evolved and grown. Captain Shea Weber hasn’t aged a day since he was traded to Montreal from Nashville, and Carey Price is yet to fall from his peak. As most underdog teams like Montreal can attest, it’s how good you are in the net that shows how far you’ll go, and Price is as solid as they come.
Philadelphia’s coach-of-the-year candidate Alain Vigneault has his philosophy of team first and passing-before-shooting mentality in full throttle, as teams who previously went after the Flyers’ stars must respect how Philly involves the whole team in every phase. While back up goalie Brian Elliott has been unpredictable in the postseason, Carter Hart, the undisputed starter, shone brilliantly against the top three teams in the conference, topping all of them. While the big names of captain Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek still shine and leave their marks in every game, breakout players Scott Laughton, Joel Farabee and Nicolas Aube-Kubel have also stepped up and made every line a threat to opposing defenses.
Overall analysis: These teams can grind it out, get physical, play defense and have a lot of heart in their games. Both coaches have squared off before in the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, with Julien getting the upper hand in the end. Vigneault though has the upper hand in depth, star firepower and a more flexible roster that can easily adapt to how Montreal plays or what game pace can be set. Carey Price will play as best he can, but with the way the Flyers have improved in every facet, there may not be much even he can do, as he found out in the season series with Philadelphia taking two of the three games.
Prediction: Philadelphia Flyers win series 4-1
Eastern Conference Qualifying Predictions Record: 3-1