Let me start by saying it is GREAT to have hockey back. 2020 has been such a crazy year, that somehow watching the start of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs IN AUGUST(!) seems somewhat normal. Granted, it comes under a different format and feels like an entirely new season given the 4+ months of no games. That is longer than most teams get in an actual off season. So going into this COVID-19 delayed playoff format, we were aware that most teams would not be the same. Some would sink and some would swim. Different players and coaches would react differently to the layoff and we were just going to have to wait and see how the chips fell and the puck dropped. With all best of 5 play in games finished as well as the top 4 seeding games, now we know a little more. How much more? Let’s take a look at the and upcoming matchups for the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs in the Eastern Conference (Odds to win the cup in brackets provided by Coolbet.com)
Philadelphia Flyers(1) vs. Montreal Canadiens(8):
The Philadelphia Flyers (+650) secured the number 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs in impressive fashion, winning all three of their seeding/round robin games against the top 3 teams in the East by a combined score of 11-3. Carter Hart looked great in net in his two starts and the Flyers appear to have not missed a stride this past four months as they were one of the hottest teams in the NHL prior to the stoppage. All 4 of their lines looked to be rolling which could spell trouble. If their was one glaring weakness, it was the power play as the PP went 0 for 11.
The Montreal Canadiens (+3900) pulled off the biggest shock of the qualifying rounds by defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins 3 games to 1 as the lowly 12th seed. The Habs used a combination of speed and hard checking (they averaged more than 40 hits per game vs. the Pens) coupled with outstanding goaltending by Carey Price. He allowed only 7 goals against and posted a .947 save percentage. They will once again need Price to be the best player on ice if they hope to stifle the flying Flyers.
Prediction: Flyers in 5
Tampa Bay Lightning(2) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets(7)
The Tampa Bay Lightning (+650) coasted to the number two seed in the Eastern Conference with a rather pedestrian 3 games. They scored 7 goals and allowed 8, and didn’t really seem to play with any sort of urgency. That will need to change if they hope to push past a hard playing Columbus team, that swept them out of last years playoffs when the Lightning set an NHL record for most points. Andrei Vasilevskiy looked good in net in the wins over Boston and Washington, but less so in the 4-1 loss to Philly. The loss of stalwart defenceman Victor Hedman for at least 1 game is a concern, but the Lightning are as deep as any team in the NHL and possess a potent offensive attack led by Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos
The Columbus Blue Jackets (+1900) continue to surprise teams under Coach John Tortorella. The took down the high octane Toronto Maple Leafs 3 games to 2 including two shutouts. They play hard with all four lines, so you need to be at your best. 14 different players put up points in the series and Torts gets every last ounce of work out his teams and he is not afraid to shake things up. Both Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins were used in net in the Leafs series and both were mostly very effective. But Korpisalo posted two shutouts and a .956 save percentage. The power play going 0-14 against a fairly weak Toronto defensive unit is a concern.
Prediction: Lightning in 6
Washington Capitals(3) vs. New York Islanders(7)
This is an intriguing matchup pitting the Washington Capitals (+1100) 2018 Stanley Cup winning Coach, Barry Trotz, with his new team on the Isle. The Caps didn’t set the world on fire in the qualifying round, only winning their last game against the Bruins, in what was little more than an exhibition skate. They only managed 5 goals in the 3 games and never really seemed to kick it into high gear with their typical, nasty, hard hitting hockey style. The good news is they only allowed 7 goals in the 3 contests and Brayden Holtby looked up to the task when called upon. Most concerning is the injury to John Carlson who is questionable for the opening game. They play a heavy brand of hockey, and with the likes of Ovechkin, Backstrom and Tom Wilson, they have to be considered amongst the favourites.
The New York Islanders (+1900) looked on form easily handling the Florida Panthers 3 games to 1 and outscoring them 13-7. How much can be taken from this can be debated, but there is a lot to like from what we saw from Barry Trotz‘s team. They kept the puck in the offensive zone effectively and averaged more than 30 shots per game. Who doesn’t like getting pucks on net? The power play was also the best in the Eastern Conference play-in going 4 for 16. And goalie Semyon Varlamov looked solid with a .942 save percentage and played all 4 games. You might look at the PK giving up 3 goals as a possible chink in the armor as the competition will get harder. Nevertheless, the Islanders tight checking style can pose a problem for any team if they can get this kind of goaltending.
Prediction: Islanders is 7
Boston Bruins(4) vs Carolina Hurricanes(6)
The Boston Bruins (+900) didn’t leave their fans with much to cheer about in the seeding round losing all 3 games and scoring only 4 goals in the process. They failed to score on the power play and looked to be treating these games as a preseason warm up more than a fight for a #1 seed. Most of the players have echoed this sentiment, saying the real hockey starts now. It wasn’t all bad mind you. The fourth line looked great, which is a always a key element to any long playoff run. Also, co-Rocket Richard Trophy winner David Pastrnak looked good in his limited practice, playing time. And Ondrej Kase came back to play along side David Krecji and Jake DeBrusk in the final game and appears to have the inside track on filling that role. All in all, the Bruins are a deep hockey team that was the best in the NHL until the stoppage. If they do indeed have another gear they are hiding and can get the usual stellar play from Tuukka Rask between the pipes, they just might get a chance to avenge last years game 7 loss in the final.
The Carolina Hurricanes (+1400) were the only team to sweep their way through to the playoffs with a 3-0 dismantling of the New York Rangers. They scored 11 goals in those 3 games and held their opponents to a stingy 4 goals using both Petr Mrazek and James Reimer. They averaged nearly 34 shots per game and next to the Flyers looked the most game ready. They are a young team that gained some valuable experience last year, despite losing to this very Bruins team in 4 straight games in the 2nd round. Superstar in the making Sebastien Aho, and Andrei Svechnikov will be players to watch on the front.
Prediction: Bruins in 7