Hot Takes NHL

2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Play-In Games Preview and Predictions

St. Louis Blues Forward Alexander Steen hoists the Stanley Cup after the Blues defeated the Bruins in Game 7 to win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. (Photo: Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports, via Reuters)

The Stanley Cup. One of the most recognizable trophies in the world. It is something that every young hockey player dreams of winning in their lifetime. Every player and every team lays it all on the line for a two and a half month stretch. It is one of the few sports that teams can potentially play an additional 28 games, making the playoffs longer than some league’s entire seasons. All of these games, sacrifices, bloodshed, and tears just for a chance to hoist that 34.5 pound trophy.

It seems really weird to be saying this at the time that the off-season is usually beginning, but the playoffs are just about to get underway. It will be very interesting to see how teams and players will be able to adapt after a three month work stoppage. They will have very limited time to get back into the swing of things before they start on their road to the Cup. If that isn’t hard enough already, a new playoff format will also be introduced since the conclusion of the regular season was cut short due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The top four teams in each conference have already locked in their spot for the playoffs, leaving sixteen other teams to “play their way” in to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Because of the current circumstances, as well as the new format, it will make the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs one of the most memorable playoffs in the history of the NHL. So without further ado, here are the projected play-in match-ups:

Eastern Conference

No. 5 Pittsburgh Pengiuns vs. No. 12 Montreal Canadiens

This match-up reunites two familiar playoff foes in the first round. The Penguins have not been as dominate this season as in year’s past, however Sidney Crosby and the rest of the Pens know how to get it done in the playoffs. The injuries have also piled up in Pittsburgh this season, so expect a number of players to be back for the playoffs such as Jake Guentzel, Nick Bjugstad, and Zac Aston-Reese. On the Montreal side of the spectrum, the playoffs seemed out of reach until the announcement of the twenty four team playoff format. The Habs do not have many players left on their roster from their past playoff runs, as the only exception to this would be franchise goaltender Carey Price. Tomas Tatar was having a career season before going down with a lower body injury on March 3rd, so he will look to rebound in a big way once the playoffs begin. Max Domi also has performed very well since his arrival in 2018. Look for those two to carry the load offensively for the Habs in this series, alongside Jonathan Drouin. Besides veterans Karl Alzner, Shea Weber, and Dale Weise, Montreal has a lineup that consists of a lot of younger talent with little to no playoff experience. For this reason, and as well as Pittsburgh’s success in recent years, I am going to take the Penguins winning this series 3 games to 1.

No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes vs. No. 11 New York Rangers

The Hurricanes made a splash during last year’s playoffs, taking out the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders before being defeated by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals. Andrei Svechnikov has been on a tear this season breaking the 60 point mark for the first time in his young career. Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen also have tallied over 60 points, making those three a dangerous young core in Carolina for years to come. The Canes also have a significant amount of depth on the blue line that features Norris Trophy nominee Dougie Hamilton. Hamilton did sustain a fractured fibula on Jan. 16, so time will tell if he is able to go for the playoffs or not. Carolina does have some question marks in net however. At the conclusion of the regular season, both Petr Mrazek and James Reimer both went down with injuries in the same game, thus resulting in David Ayres’ stunning performance. It looks like the Canes will get both Mrazek and Reimer back in time for the playoffs though, relieving a lot of stress that they had prior to the pandemic. The Rangers have been one of the hottest teams in the league over the second half of the season, with Hart Trophy candidate Artemi Panarin leading the way with an astonishing 95 points this season. Mika Zibanejad has looked like a 5x Maurice Richard winner this season, racking up 41 goals in only 57 games played. Defensemen Adam Fox and Tony Delangelo have been nice surprises throughout the year, as they have a +/- ratio of 22 and 12 respectively. At the goaltender position, Alexandar Georgiev looks to be a solid young talent, and they always have the reliable Henrik Lundqvist as well. I expect this series to be a fun series to watch, as both teams bolster a lot of young talent that the franchises will rely on for a long time in the future. It will be a hard fought series, but give me the Rangers taking it 3 games to 2.

No. 7 New York Islanders vs. No. 10 Florida Panthers

The Islanders and head coach Barry Trotz proved that last season was no fluke by having another solid season in 2019. Mathew Barzal leads a solid depth scoring squad alongside Jordan Eberle, Josh Bailey, and Anders Lee. Brock Nelson has also quietly performed very well over the past two seasons, tallying over 50 points in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. The trade deadline acquisition of Jean-Gabriel Pageau also helps provide more playoff experience, having made an Eastern Conference Finals appearance in the 2016-17 Season with Ottawa. The Panthers made a splash in the 2019 offseason bringing 3-time Stanley Cup winning head coach Joel Quenneville to town, reuniting him with General Manager Dale Tallon. If that wasn’t enough, they also signed top free agent Sergei Bobrovsky to anchor it down between the pipes. Bobrovsky has not yet lived up to his contract based upon his numbers from this season. Alexandar Barkov has continued to be one of the league’s top young stars, and Jonathan Huberdeau has continued his stellar play coming off of a 92 point season in 2018-19. The loss of Vincent Trocheck to Carolina in a Trade Deadline deal may sting some, but the Panthers still have a solid squad on paper even though nobody is at the BB&T Center to watch them. In this series, I expect the Islanders talent to be the determining factor in a series that features two of the best head coaches in NHL history. I’m going to take the Islanders 3 games to 2.

No. 8 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets

The Leafs are looking to make a statement in this year’s playoffs, after getting bounced in the first round the last two seasons by the Boston Bruins. This time they take on the Blue Jackets, whom shocked everyone last season by sweeping the #1 seed Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round. Toronto once again proved that they are a very high scoring team in the regular season. (Aside from when they face their own Zamboni driver) Auston Matthews almost broke the 50 goal mark this season, establishing himself as a future Maurice Richard candidate. The trio of Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander also continued to have very productive seasons. Goaltender Frederick Andersen posted a solid GAA of 2.85 while starting a whopping 52 games in net. The question mark for the Leafs continues to be on the blue line. Aside from Morgan Rielly, they really do not have much to offer. Cody Ceci has not looked the same since he arrived in Toronto, and Tyson Barrie has struggled with injuries in the past. Jake Muzzin does have some playoff experience from his time with the Los Angeles Kings, however he has not played at the level he did in LA. The Blue Jackets went for broke last season, having traded almost every draft pick away for assets to help them in the playoffs. After dethroning the Lightning, they hit a road block and were defeated by the eventual Eastern Conference Champions the Boston Bruins in the second round. After losing their star Artemi Panarin, franchise goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, and depth pieces Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and Anthony Duclair all in one offseason, things looked pretty dull for the Jackets. Although they did not score as much as they did in the past, the Jackets used sound defense and good goaltending to march their way into the playoffs once again. Defenseman Zach Werenski put on a show this season, breaking the franchise record for goals scored by a defenseman with 20 on the season. Rookie Goaltender Elvis Merzlikins emergered as a Vezina candidate posting an insane SV % of .923 and an impressive GAA of 2.35 in 33 games played. Sounds kind of like a guy named Binnington right? Hmmm. In terms of this series, I feel that the Maple Leafs just have too much offensive firepower. They have so many skilled guys up front, with also a lot of good depth pieces. Since Columbus has had a down year of scoring, I feel like this will come back to bite them in the playoffs. I’m taking the Leafs in another close series, 3 games to 2.

Western Conference

No. 5 Edmonton Oilers vs. No. 12 Chicago Blackhawks

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have torched the rest of the NHL this season, having combined for a whopping 207 points on the season between the two of them. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has also passed the 60 point mark for the second consecutive season. Goaltender Mikko Koskinen has had a solid year in net as well, posting a stat-line of 2.75 GAA and SV% of .917. Similar to the Leafs, Edmonton does not have much depth defensively. Darnell Nurse is a solid defender, but is he really a top 2 defenseman? Adam Larsson has been okay, but certainly hasn’t been as good as the Oilers had hoped when they acquired him in the Taylor Hall deal. The Hawks on the other hand have been a roller coaster this season. Patrick Kane has continued doing what Patrick Kane does year in and year out. Jonathan Toews has also had another consistent year. 2019 Third overall pick Kirby Dach looks to be a stud for the Hawks in future seasons, but seems to get knocked off the puck quite a bit. Alex DeBrincat’s production in the goal department fell this season, but he still is a consistent threat every time he touches the puck. The Hawks have also had some injury issues, losing Brent Seabrook and Andrew Shaw indefinitely. Things on the injury front do look better for the Hawks now than they did in March however. They are likely to have both Calvin De Haan and Adam Boqvist back healthy on the blue line for the playoffs. Losing Robin Lehner at the Trade Deadline did hurt the Hawks a bit, but Corey Crawford has plenty of experience in net to get the job done. I feel like this will be another tightly contested series, that ultimately will come down to defense. If Edmonton’s offense dries up, then the Hawks have the experience and are capable of winning. If Chicago’s power-play continues to be abysmal and they can’t play defense, then Edmonton can certainly pounce. All in all I’m going to take the better defensively sound team, and the team that has more playoff experience. Blackhawks win a tight one once again, 3 games to 2.

No. 6 Nashville Predators vs. No. 11 Arizona Coyotes

Personally, this is my series to watch out of all of the play-in games. Nashville is coming off of a lot of recent success, and Arizona is hoping to prove a point to the rest of the league. Nashville looked decent at the start of the season, but then has regressed some throughout the year. Filip Forsberg and Matt Duchene both have had a little bit of a down year compared to past seasons. Also, Viktor Arvidsson went from being a 50-60 point guy the last three seasons to only registering 28 points this season. Ouch. One thing the Predators do have, and seems like they always have, is a reliable defense. Roman Josi had another outstanding season, and is in the hunt for the Norris Trophy. Ryan Ellis is also consistent as he always has been, while Mathias Ekholm has always been a decent defenseman. Pekka Rinne may be a bit older, but has a lot of playoff experience and can help up and coming goaltender Juuse Saros out once the playoffs begin. Arizona is coming off one of their best seasons in recent history. The addition of Phil Kessel certainly added some offensive depth that they had lacked in the past. With that and acquiring Taylor Hall at the trade deadline, the Coyotes have more skilled forwards now than they’ve had in quite a while. Clayton Keller, Nick Schmaltz, and Conor Garland also are no slouches having led the team in scoring. Defensively, the Yotes have a really good back end. Oliver Ekman Larsson has always been one of the best in the league, while Alex Goligoski has a lot of experience from his stint with the Dallas Stars. Jakob Chychrun also looks to be a promising young gun on the defensive side of the spectrum. What has really helped the Coyotes this season has been the play of their goaltenders. Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta have both been lights out this year having posting GAA%’s of .928 and .921. Each has appeared in roughly 30 games, making for a solid 1-2 punch for the playoffs now that Raanta will be back from an injury. In this series, I am going to go ahead and be bold and predict that the Arizona Coyotes will shock the hockey world and upset the Nashville Predators 3 games to 1.

No. 7 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 10 Minnesota Wild

Playoff hockey has finally returned to Vancouver for the first time since the days of Henrik and Daniel Sedin. The Canucks have been a very fun team to watch this season, and they will be a force to be reckoned with over the next five years. Elias Pettersson has just been on fire since his first game in the league last season. When you add an elite Calder candidate with insane offensive potential like Quinn Hughes with Pettersson and Brock Boeser, good things are bound to happen. J.T. Miller has broken out of nowhere to be a very productive forward as well, having led the team in points with 72 this year. Bo Horvat has always been a very good center and continues to be. The Canucks also have a lot of depth scoring up front in the likes of Adam Gaudette, Jake Virtanen and Tanner Pearson. Then, if you factor in reliable defensemen such as Alexander Edler and Tyler Myers alongside Hughes, their defense isn’t too shabby as well. Jakob Markstrom has also played extremely well in net this season, posting a SV% of .917 and a GAA of 2.75. Minnesota is a team that has flown under the radar a little bit this season. While not having no true “elite” forwards, they have a lot of depth such as Kevin Fiala, Mats Zucarello, Eric Staal, and Zach Parise. Mikko Koivu has been one of the best two-way forwards in the league throughout his career as well. The addition of Alex Galchenyuk at the trade deadline also helps on the offensive side of the puck too. Defensively, Ryan Suter, Matt Dumba, Jonas Brodin and Jared Spurgeon have played many seasons together, and have good chemistry with each-other. The faces on the Wild’s blue line have not changed much over the past 8-10 years. Goalie Devan Dubnyk regressed extensively this season, with a GAA that swelled to 3.35 and a SV% of only .890. Luckly, Alex Stalock played decent enough to hold down the fort in between the pipes. His statline includes a GAA of 2.67 and a SV% of .910. Ultimately, I think the Canucks will torch the Wild. We all know how the Wild have performed in the past, and Vancouver has so much firepower and much more speed than Minnesota has. There has to be one sweep hasn’t there? Vancouver wins the series 3-0.

No. 8 Calgary Flames vs. No. 9 Winnipeg Jets

Calgary has not lived up to the hype after they led the Western Conference with 107 points last season. After they clinched the #1 seed last year, they got trounced by the Colorado Avalanche in the first round. Now this year it seems like they took another step back. Youngster Matthew Tkachuk continued to grow into an offensive star, as he generated another 61 points this season. One big surprise this season to Calgary fans has to be the lack of scoring from Johnny Gaudreau. Gaudreau only had 18 goals this season compared to the 36 he had in 2018-19. Even though he did not produce as much, Calgary still features many key pieces up front such as Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm, and Mikael Backlund. Mark Giordano continues to be a good defensive piece, with Noah Hanafin and TJ Brodie are decent compliments to Giordano on the back end. Cam Talbot did have a decent year in net for the Flames, so maybe the Flames have finally found a franchise goalie? Who knows? Winnipeg is another team that has been similar to the Preds this season. They were expected to take a step back defensively after losing Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers, and Jacob Trouba. However, they still played pretty well this season. Neal Pionk had a breakout season on the back end, while Josh Morrissey and Jack Roslovic also had a decent campaign. Connor Hellebuyck had another Vezina-caliber season with a GAA of 2.57 and a SV% of .922. Up front, the usual suspects of Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine, and Blake Wheeler continued to do damage as always, while Nikolaj Ehlers also had a nice bounce back season of 57 points. I expect this series to be a very physical one, as both teams like to lay the body. In the end, I’m going to take the Winnipeg Jets winning 3 games to 2.

So when do the playoffs start anyways?

Commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL have yet to announce when the playoffs will take place. Earlier this week, the league did announce that training camps would be opening on July 10th to allow players to get back into the swing of things before the playoffs begin. Some players and teams also have been getting together for on-ice workouts in small groups. Things are starting to look up again, but for the time being, all we can do now is sit here and wait, hoping that hockey will return again soon.

About Dylan Terry

Dylan Terry is a graduate of the State University of New York at Canton, where he obtained a B.A.A in Sports Management. He is a former athlete and has been an avid sports fan throughout his whole life. Feel free to connect with Dylan on social media:

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