Predicting the Unpredictable NHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference
After a four-and-a-half month hiatus, the NHL is back August 1 for the play-in round where teams will battle it out in a five-game series to see who makes the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
With such a long break between games, everything we thought we knew about these teams prior to the shutdown can essentially be thrown out the window. It’s a complete re-start and even a little bit of rust could end up being the difference between playing in the playoffs or watching them from home.
A few days ago I tried my hand at predicting the Western Conference so now is the time to dig into the other half of the play-in round matchups.
New York Rangers vs. Carolina Hurricanes
This season the Rangers were, to most people's surprise, actually pretty good mostly due to an MVP caliber season from star winger Artemi Panarin. While chances are they would have missed the playoffs in a regular season, they were still just 2 points out with 12 games left.
But despite how surprisingly good they were, how amazing Panarin has been playing and how well their rookie sensations Adam Fox and Igor Shesterkin have been this season, The Carolina Hurricanes will be too much to handle for the Rangers.
With the deadline acquisitions of Vincent Trocheck and Sami Vatanen, an already deep forward and defense core just got that much deeper. As long as Carolina’s top line centered by all-star Sebastian Aho can match the offensive output of Panarin and company this should be an easy win for the Hurricanes.
Carolina in 3.
Florida Panthers vs. New York Islanders
Much like my break down of the Vancouver Canucks vs. Minnesota Wild matchup, had the season finished I don’t think either of these teams would have made the playoffs this year. But thanks to the shutdown one of them will.
As underwhelming as Florida has been this season after all the hype of acquiring two-time Vezina trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky, they should have more than enough to handle the overachieving Islanders.
The Islanders are essentially a one-man team and unless that one man is McDavid (hint: it isn’t) the Panthers should have no problem neutralizing him especially when matched up against one of the best two-way centers in the game in Aleksander Barkov.
While it will hurt the Panthers not having the secondary scoring that Vincent Trocheck used to provide them, apart from a total flop by Bobrovsky or historic play by the Islanders’ Thomas Greiss, this one should be in the bag for the Panthers.
Florida in 4.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Montreal Canadiens
There is no other matchup in the play-in round that is as lopsided but could go either way depending on the play of one person. And no, I’m not talking about Sidney Crosby.
The player I’m talking about is Carey Price. It’s been a couple of years since we’ve seen Price at his peak but in a five-game series if he comes out at that level it might not matter how good Pittsburgh is on offense because he was just that good. Montreal’s chances hinge on whether or not they can see just a glimpse of that play again.
If not this one will be over quick. Pittsburgh’s attack led by Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and trade deadline acquisition, Jason Zucker, will be too much for Montreal to take. When one team has the best player in the game and another top 5 center in the league it’s hard to make an argument for a team that wouldn’t have made the playoffs in the first place.
Pittsburgh in 4.
Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
On paper, this one looks like a clear choice to pick the Leafs to win handily but it may not be as clear cut as that. Surprisingly, both these teams finished the regular season with 81 points. Columbus did have fewer wins and more overtime losses than the Leafs but that just shows that they had a lot of close games which could end up being an advantage when the intensity ramps up.
When it comes to the Leafs the recipe for success is simple. They have to use their loaded top six to score and not stop scoring. With their firepower, they could potentially win by simply overpowering the Blue Jackets.
For Columbus, it is far more complex. They need to play a complete team game from start to finish and they need their hotshot rookie goalie Elvis Merzlikins to continue his stellar play from the regular season. They need to play physical, wear down the Leafs below-average defense, backcheck hard, keep the games close, stay out of the box and still get all-world goaltending just to have a chance to win this. But I think they do. The biggest advantage the Blue Jackets have over Toronto isn’t their defense, which on paper is much stronger than the Leafs, it’s the coaching.
John Tortorella is one of the best coaches in the league. He has tons of playoff experience and he knows how to get the most out of his guys. Just look at what happened last year when the Blue Jackets stunned the Stanley Cup Favourite Tampa Bay Lightning four games to none in the first round. It won’t be the same level of upset but look for the Jackets to shock the hockey world once again.
Columbus in 5.
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