Stanley Cup Qualifiers
Maple Leafs in 5
The Toronto Maple Leafs will have a tremendous advantage in that their home arena Scotia Bank Arena is serving as the hub city for the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They were strong all season at home posting an 18-9-7 record, while the arena will be empty due to the COVID pandemic, the Leafs’ knowledge of the ice and boards will help in playing the puck. This series will come down to the Maple Leafs offense against the Columbus Blue Jackets defense, which usually can benefit the defense team. In this best of five, look for the bounce of the puck to be the difference, and the Maple Leafs knowing how to play the bounce get to advance to the first round.
Jets in 5
A good Canadian battle should be a thriller out of the Western Conference bubble in Edmonton. The Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames are about as evenly matched as two teams can be. They have split six regular-season meetings over the last two years. Both teams can score with Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau, leading the way for Calgary. The Jets meanwhile are powered by Patrick Laine and Mark Schiefel. The Jets made a run to the Western Conference Finals two years ago, while the Flames usually quickly flicker out in the postseason. This series could come down to goaltending, and the Jets have the edge with Connor Hellebuyck.
Islanders in 5
When the NHL season entered the COVID pause, the New York Islanders were heading in the wrong direction, losing seven straight and 11 of 13. Had the season finished on its usual track, the Islanders would have likely missed the playoffs. The four-month break allows the Islanders to rest up and heal and should get them back on track. The Florida Panthers have not won a playoff series since 1996, the longest drought for any team in the NHL. The Panthers were one of the worst defenses in the NHL, the Islanders relied heavily on defense, as they often struggled to score. This is another close series, with two experienced Stanley Cup-winning coaches, with the Islanders defense being the difference.
It is hard to see the Minnesota Wild being able to skate with the Vancouver Canucks. The Wild are an aging team on the decline, that would have been nowhere near the postseason without the extra teams. The Canucks are a young team on the rise, with Brock Boeser leading the way along with 2019 Calder Trophy winner Elias Petterson and 2020 Calder finalist leading the way. The Wild are a team that will likely be dismantled after their season ends as they are long overdue for a rebuild. Unless the Canucks inexperience becomes a significant factor, the Canucks have an edge in every position as goalie Jacob Markstrom will also be a significant factor.
Rangers in 4
When the season was halted in March, the New York Rangers were making a significant playoff push as Artemi Panarin was playing at an MVP level. The Carolina Hurricanes are the better overall team and could have made another run under normal conditions. However, the Hurricanes just do not match up well with the Rangers. The Blueshirts won all four meetings with Carolina during the regular season, outscoring them 17-9. The Hurricanes let out an audible groan when the NHL announced the playoff format, knowing they will be facing the Rangers. This mindset and the rising Rangers have the edge mentally the edge physically and will win the series to reach the round of 16.
Predators in 4
The Arizona Coyotes are making their first postseason appearance since 2012 if you consider getting in as one of the 24 a postseason appearance. When the season was halted, the Coyotes were heading in the wrong direction as early-season success had turned sour as Taylor Hall brought his wonderful play from New Jersey to the desert. Hall, a pending free agent, has to show something. Otherwise, he could be costing himself money as the Devils improved after dumping his carcass while the Coyotes, after leading the Pacific, were skinking fast. The Nashville Predators were a team on the rise in March and have been a strong playoff performer over the past five years; this one should belong to Nashville.
Penguins in 4
On paper, this is the biggest mismatch of the qualifying round, as the Pittsburgh Penguins two years removed from two straight Stanley Cup Championships have some of the biggest names in the NHL led by Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. The Montreal Canadiens barely were among the qualifiers as they finished one point ahead of the Devils. The Canadiens do have Carey Price in goal, and he can steal a game or two if the Penguins get sloppy. The layoff could be a potential boon for Pittsburgh as they were dead on their feet last season when they were swept the Islanders. Look for Price to do his best to keep the Canadiens alive, but in the end, the Penguins too much talent for Montreal to overcome.
Oilers in 3
This series could get ugly as the Chicago Blackhawks, one of the worst defensive teams in the NHL, will be going against the dynamic offense of the Edmonton Oilers, who will be on their home ice in the Western Conference hub. The Oilers have the two top scorers in the NHL with Leon Draisaital reaching 100 points before the shutdown, while Connor McDavid fell three points short. The Oilers defense can be just as bad, and there will be no fans to give them the extra lift. However, the Oilers power play was the best in the NHL with 59 goals. Look for the Oilers to take control early and skate circles around the old and tired Blackhawks.