The NHL has officially announced their return to play plan, yet some small details are still being discussed. The biggest one being when the league will return, and that is still very much unknown and will likely remain that way for some time. However, if all goes we could be seeing the 2020 NHL playoffs starting as early as late July, and the matchups for the 16 teams playing in the best-of-five play-in round are set. With that, let us take a look at those matchups and see who might be moving on to play one of the top 4 teams in their respective conference in what would then be a traditional first of four rounds. Let’s start with the Eastern Conference.
#5 Pittsburgh Penguins VS #12 Montreal Canadiens
The Penguins can’t be super thrilled with this matchup, and Kris Letang has publicly mentioned that. On paper the Penguins are the far better team, their forwards and defence are much stronger from top to bottom. The Habs were sellers at the deadline and now all of sudden have a chance to get into the round of 16 if they can squeeze out a victory in the best-of-five play-in series.
For the Habs to do so, they would need just about everything to go right. None of which more important than having Carey Price be the best player in the series for every single game. If Price isn’t playing like the best goalie in the NHL the Canadiens don’t stand a chance. If he does, the Penguins might start to worry a little bit.
In the end, Crosby and Malkin down the middle will be far to much for Montreal to handle, not mention all the other weapons this team possesses. It also a lot to expect Price to be playing some of the best hockey of his career right after such a long time off the ice. Price could steal a game, but the Penguins will be just to much to handle. This series has sweep written all of it.
Winner: Penguins in 3
#6 Carolina Hurricanes VS #11 New York Rangers
The Rangers started to really play well towards the shut down of the NHL regular season. They now have their superstar in Panarin and play a much faster-paced style of play then they have in seasons passed. The Hurricanes, on the other hand, played just ok down the stretch as the loss of Hamilton really hurt this team.
Carolina does have more playoff experience thanks to their run to the third round last season. The Ranges are still very young as a lot of their players haven’t had a taste on playoff hockey in the NHL yet. The Rangers will have to get solid goaltending from one of Georgiev or Shesterkin to ease some of the stress off of 38-year-old Henrik Lundgvist.
The big three forwards for the Rangers (Panarin, Zibanejad, and Kreider) will cause the Hurricanes some issues, but Carolina plays a very structured game that has them controlling the puck as much as any team in the league. Experience and structure will prevail here, but the Rangers will show signs of being a team to really watch out for in the coming years.
Winner: Hurricanes in 4
#7 New York Islanders VS #10 Florida Panthers
The Panthers were right on the tail of the Maple Leafs nearing the end of the regular season, so it’s fair that they get a shot at making it to the round of 16.
Defence could be very iffy for a lot of teams during the first couple of games back as it usually is near the start of the season, but if any team is going to be able to continue their defensive dominance when play resumes it the Islanders. Ever since Barry Trotz took over as head coach the Islanders have been known for winning a lot of low scoring games and doing a tremendous job of keeping teams to the outside, limiting the high danger chances against.
If the Panthers want any chance at winning this series they will have to find ways to get a couple of high danger opportunities in the slot and make sure the capitalize when they do so. The Duo of Barkov and Huberdeau are going to get a lot of attention and will have to find a way to get shots off in the slot to have success against the Islanders.
They will challenge the Islanders, but Trotz’s team plays a style built for playoff hockey, and they play it as good as anyone. They might struggle a bit more against the high powered offence, but will be able to keep the Panthers at bay.
Winner: Islanders in 4
#8 Toronto Maple Leafs VS #9 Columbus Blue Jackets
This will be one of the most evenly matched series and two teams with completely different strengths. The Maple Leafs are no secret, they can score at will and have four forward lines that can make you pay from one mistake (even more so now that Ilya Mikhehey will be back from his injury). They struggle with keeping the puck out of their net, and if Andersen isn’t on his game could the Leafs will be in a lot of trouble.
The Blue Jackets are the polar opposite. They are lacking the offensive firepower of the Maple Leafs, as losing Panarin, Duchene, and Dzingel won’t make them as much an offensive team as they were last year when they upset the Lightning in four straight games. However, under head coach John Tortorella they play a very aggressive style of hockey and are relentless on the puck. Their defence is very solid and more physical all around then the Maple Leafs. They are also getting some key players like Josh Anderson and Cam Atkinson back from injury.
The Leafs won their only game against each other this season in a convincing 4-1 defeat, which was only in the first week of the regular season. The Leafs also don’t just have the best forward in the series, but arguable the best four forwards. After no competitive hockey for months, defensive mistakes are bound to happen for every team, but few can make you pay for them as the Maple Leafs can. This series will go the distance, but the Leafs offence will be a bit too much to handle for young goaltenders Korpisalo and Merzlinkins.
Winner: Maple Leafs in 5
Now on to the Western Conference.
#5 Edmonton Oilers VS #12 Chicago Blackhawks
Unlike the #5 VS #12 matchup in the east, this one should be a lot closer. The Oilers are the better team lead by two of the best players in the league, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Those two players alone could carry the Oilers to victory but this year they have had some additional help from players like Neal, Kassian, and deadline addition Tyler Ennis and Andreas Athanasiou.
The Blackhawks were a team looking well on the outside of a playoff birth. However they are in the playoffs, and can you ever fully count out Toews, Kane, Keith, and Crawford come playoff time? Those players know what it takes to win in the playoffs just about as well as anyone in the league. We know Crawford rises to the occasion come playoff time and Toews always has that winning mentality in his leadership.
Koskinen has never played in the NHL playoffs, so if he falters out of the gate it might be up to 38-year-old Mike Smith to carry the workload in net for the Oilers. We know the Blackhawks will put up a fight, but even if Kane puts on an offensive clinic, the stars on the Oilers will be too much to handle.
Winner: Oilers in 5
#6 Nashville Predators VS #11 Arizona Coyotes
The Coyotes looked to be in trouble by missing the playoffs after trading for Taylor Hall on an expiring contract earlier in the season. Now they have a chance to try to make a run with Hall due to the expanded playoffs. While Nashville seemed a little off all season long but did go 9-4-1in their last 14 games before the season went on pause.
Neither team scores a lot, setting this series up to be a low scoring defence-first battle. Both teams have great blue-lines, the winner will come down to what team can take advantage of their offensive opportunities.
A big key for the Coyotes will be the return of goaltender Darcy Kuemper who missed significant time due to injury. Before he got injured Kuemper had a .928 save% and a 2.22 GAA. It’s tough to imagine Kuemper coming right back into action and putting up numbers like that, but if he could post something in the range of .915% – .920%, the Coyotes might be able to squeeze past a Nashville team that has had a lot of trouble staying consistent this season.
Winner: Coyotes in 5
#7 Vancouver Canucks VS #10 Minnesota Wild
Fans shouldn’t be writing the Wild off just yet, as this might be a closer series than most people realize. The Canucks are the more skilled team with offensive stars like Pettersson, Miller, and a healthy Brock Boeser. Factor in deadline addition Tyler Toffoli and rookie sensation Quinn Hughes on defence and this is a team that shouldn’t have trouble scoring goals. What they do lack, however, is experience.
Which is something the Wild does have. They are an older, veteran team that might not play a fast-face game like the Canucks, but guys like Staal, Suter, and Parise have a lot of playoff experience. What might really hurt the Wild is goaltending, as Devan Dubnyk has had a rough year with a .890 save%, which has had him splitting starts with Alex Stalock. While the Canucks have a much more steady presence in net with Jacob Markstrom this season.
The Wild won’t get swept and might make the Canucks sweat a little, but like in the Toronto and Columbus series, the more skilled team will usually prevail.
Winner: Canucks in 4
#8 Calgary Flames VS #9 Winnipeg Jets
Neither team had a picture-perfect season, but find themselves battling it out for a chance to be in the round of 16 in the NHL playoffs. The Flames seemed to under-perform a lot this season, especially from Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau. There are also questions surrounding David Rittich and Cam Talbot in net, and if a tandem of those two can make a playoff run.
The Jets, on the other hand, have had Vezina worthy goaltending this season from Connor Hellebuyck. The Jets can also score, as they were on their way to have possibly four 30-goal scorers this season. Their issue is that their defence has been diminished. Nathan Beaulieu missed some time due to injury, and of cours,e there was all the drama involving Dustin Byfuglien not reporting to the team. Factor in they lost both Brandon Tanev and Tyler Myers to free agency last summer and this defence core looks much weaker than the one that was considered a strength of theirs for the past few years.
Ultimately, goaltending is going to be huge in this series, and we know the Jets have what it takes in theirs, we don’t know that same for the Flames. Hellebuyck won’t let too many past him, and the jets should be able to score enough to erase the ones that do.
Winner: Jets in 4
Of course, these are all just predictions. In a short, best-of-five series, anything can happen. If the NHL does get to complete the playoffs and award a Stanley Cup champion, the health and safety of everyone involved is the most important thing. But the announcement of the plan, which includes these matchups should be looked at like a glimmer of hope, that sometime soon when it is safe to do so, NHL hockey will be back.