After a wild qualifying round of hockey, the field has been reduced to 16 teams still vying for Lord Stanley’s Cup.
The NHL’s intense qualifying round gave us some clarity as to who the best teams are, but predictions still feel more difficult than in previous years. Teams such as the Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers have put the rest of the Eastern Conference on notice with their play thus far, while the Western Conference feels more difficult to dissect. Some teams are still shaking off rust from the COVID-19 pause back in March, while other teams are already battling injuries from the qualifying round. With all that in mind, let’s dive into this year’s edition of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs!
- Western Conference No. 1 seed Vegas Golden Knights vs. No. 8 seed Chicago Blackhawks
- Last Playoff Meeting: Never
The Vegas Golden Knights emerged as the top team out west, but they looked vulnerable in some of their seeding games last week. The Knights beat the Colorado Avalanche in overtime to clinch the top seed, but they also required a third period comeback to knock off the Dallas Stars and allowed four goals in a win against the St. Louis Blues. They now face the former dynasty known as the Blackhawks. Chicago finds itself in the playoffs for the first time since the 2016-17 postseason. They shocked the Edmonton Oilers in the qualifying round with a mix of youth and experience. Even though Chicago is scary, I expect Vegas to bring an improved defense into this series, which will be the determining factor
- Prediction: Golden Knights win in 7 games
- No. 2 seed Colorado Avalanche vs. No. 7 seed Arizona Coyotes
- Last Playoff Meeting: Colorado won 4-1 in the 2000 Conference Quarterfinals
The Coyotes handled their business against a talented Nashville Predators team in the qualifying round. Their next task? A seven-game series against one of the most talented teams in the NHL. Colorado boasts talented scorers in Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Cale Makar, while their one-two punch of Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz do a serviceable job at the goaltending position. Arizona has a decent roster with nice balance, but I worry they won’t have a go-to scorer in the playoffs and that will be their downfall.
- Prediction: Colorado Avalanche in 5 games
- No. 3 seed Dallas Stars vs. No. 6 seed Calgary Flames
- Last Playoff Meeting: Never
This is one of the trickiest series in the Western Conference. On one hand, you’ve got the Dallas Stars who were good but not great in their seeding games. Meanwhile the Flames showed they were the more focused and talented team in a very emotional series against the Winnipeg Jets. Dallas is the better seed and they’ve been better than Calgary over the last few years, but I can’t shake the feeling that this Flames team feels different. They’re loaded on offense with Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk and I trust their goaltender Cam Talbot. Dallas could make me look foolish here, especially because their offense is led by reliable scorers in Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. They have an extremely talented defense as well, led by Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg. This will be a gritty, physical series, but I expect Calgary to steal this one from Dallas.
- Prediction: Calgary Flames in 7 games
- No. 4 seed St. Louis Blues vs. No. 5 seed Vancouver Canucks
- Last Playoff Meeting: Vancouver won 4-0 in the 2009 Conference Quarterfinals
The defending Stanley Cup Champions draw a young and talented Vancouver Canucks team. This will be a wildly entertaining series, as both teams have talent at all three levels of the game. The Blues bring the established star power of Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan O’Reilly, but Tarasenko missed most of the regular season due to an injured shoulder. If Tarasenko isn’t 100% in the playoffs, then St. Louis will have a tough task in this matchup, especially given how Canucks goaltender Jacob Markstrom played in the qualifying round against the Minnesota Wild.
- Prediction: Canucks in 6 games
- Eastern Conference No. 1 seed Philadelphia Flyers vs No. 8 seed Montreal Canadiens
- Last Playoff Meeting: Philadelphia won 4-1 in the 2010 Conference Finals
Do you care about regular season stats? If you do, then Montreal is horrifying. They endured not one, but two eight-game losing streaks during the season. They won 19 games in regulation this season and finished with a -9 goal differential. If you care about what the Canadiens have done lately, then you’re in luck. They smothered the Pittsburgh Penguins in the qualifying round thanks to the stellar play of goaltender Carey Price. They’ll need to bring that same energy against the top seeded Flyers. Philadelphia boasts 13 players who produced at least 20 points in the regular season. The Flyers are led by Travis Konecny, who had a breakout year, but they also have established scorers in Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek. Carey Price might steal a game or two in this series, but Philadelphia is definitely the better team, and they won all three of their seeding games in convincing fashion, so look for them to defeat the Canadiens with ease.
- Prediction: Flyers in 5 games
- No. 2 seed Tampa Bay Lightning vs No. 7 seed Columbus Blue Jackets
- Last Playoff Meeting: Columbus won 4-0 in the 2019 First Round
They’re back! Just one year ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning tied an NHL record with 62 regular season wins, only to be swept by Columbus in the first round of the playoffs, Well Tampa, the Boogeyman is back. Columbus comes into this series after a topsy-turvy qualifying round against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Tampa saw some of its players suffer COVID-19 during the season pause, but since then have won two out of three games in their seeding schedule. Regardless, Columbus has shown its ability to perform well in high-pressure situations and head coach John Tortorella will make sure his team is prepared. Pierre-Luc Dubois and Gustav Nyquist are a dangerous offensive duo. The goaltending tandem of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins is also a top-tier unit. Of course the Lightning have an electric offense with Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point, but this team was humiliated by Columbus last year, and they won’t be able to match the physicality of the Blue Jackets
The Islanders looked very comfortable in their qualifying round series against the Florida Panthers. This team features a dynamic offense, as well as sturdy goaltending. One could argue they underachieved this season and should be better than a #6 seed. They finished with a -1 goal differential and slumped through part of the season, ending the regular season with seven straight losses. They’re a better team than their record says and they arguably benefitted from the COVID-19 pause more than any other team. They will need to be at their best against the Washington Capitals. Washington has the star-studded offense of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, but their depth is just as dangerous. Evgeny Kuznetsov is a dangerous passer and T.J. Oshie scored 26 goals last year. Don’t forget about Tom Wilson either. He was a very pesky player in the playoffs last year, so expect him to be the centerpiece of a lot of big hits and post-whistle skirmishes throughout this season. This series will definitely feature some bad blood early. For the Capitals, I worry their goal scoring will dry up as the series goes on.
- Prediction: Islanders in 6 games
- No. 4 seed Boston Bruins vs No. 5 seed Carolina Hurricanes.
- Last playoff meeting: Boston won 4-0 in the 2019 Conference Finals
Oh, the storylines! Carolina looks to gain revenge after last year’s playoff defeat to the Bruins. Boston finished the regular season with the best record, but whether or not Boston is still the team to beat remains to be seen. The Bruins lost all three of their seeding games, while the Hurricanes swept the New York Rangers in their qualifying series. All momentum points toward Carolina, who is clearly the better team right now. Sebastian Aho was magnificent in the series against the Rangers and Boston will have its hands full trying to contain him and Teuvo Teravainen. The Bruins obviously aren’t a terrible team. Goaltender Tuuka Rask was great in the regular season and Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak will make their presence felt during the playoffs. My biggest fear is that Boston was hurt by the layoff. One month ago, seven Bruins missed practice because they were deemed unfit to play. The list included Rask, Pastrnak, defenseman Torey Krug and others. Remember, this team struggled in the Stanley Cup Final last year when they experienced a 10-game layoff. Carolina is going to shock them and this could be a very ugly series.
Prediction: Hurricanes in 5 games