NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers preview

Any run-of-the-mill August serves as an opportunity to get one final family trip in the books. It also begins the steady stream of back-to-school commercials. In total, the month serves as the final crescendo for summer before fall leaves and themes begin to roll in. 

This August, however, will serve as a way to decide a winner of the Stanley Cup. 

The quest for the Cup officially begins this weekend. The round-robin tournament will see the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers compete in the Eastern Conference. The Western Conference, meanwhile, will see the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights and Dallas Stars face off. While seeding will be the sole theme for this part of the tournament, elimination will be the theme for the qualifying rounds. 

While parity is what the Stanley Cup Playoffs are known for, the qualifying rounds will serve as a means to further prove this point. Here is a preview and prediction of each series during the qualifying round. 

(5) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (12) Montreal Canadiens

Although they had a slew of star-studded injuries during the regular season (which included forwards Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel), the Penguins were still able to pick up the seventh-highest win total in the entire NHL (40) up to the regular season’s end. Despite the injuries, the Penguins averaged 3.20 goals per game during the regular season and should be able to replicate the success, as Crosby and Guentzel looked healthy and skated during Pittsburgh’s exhibition games. Should they be ready to go, they will join the likes of Bryan Rust and Evgeni Malkin, who both have 25-plus goals on the season (27 and 25, respectively). 

Montreal, meanwhile, will bring a shot-happy offense (which averaged 34.1 shots per game, second in the entire NHL) and Hall-of-Fame-caliber goaltender Carey Price to the ice. Pittsburgh, however, will bring a better gluttony of offensive depth that will be too much for Montreal to handle. When coupled with their goaltending duo of Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray (who both collected 20 wins on the season), Pittsburgh should be able to make quick work of Montreal, even if the latter steals a win. 

Prediction: Pittsburgh 

(5) Edmonton Oilers vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks

Any March Madness aficionado will say this series has “upset” written all over it. After all, Chicago’s top two skaters in terms of points this season (Patrick Kane with 84 and Jonathan Toews with 60) helped net Chicago three Stanley Cup titles over the past decade (2009-10, 2012-13 and 2014-15). The two hard-nosed veterans will have their work on offense cut out for them, though, as they will have to contend with Hart Memorial Trophy finalist Leon Draisaitl and someone by the name of Connor McDavid. If you enjoy experience battling youth, look no further than this quartet to satisfy your appetite.

With what looks to be a high-scoring series, the x-factor for Edmonton is pretty straightforward: their goaltending. Can their goaltending be able to weather the storm to make Draisaitl’s and McDavid’s production matter? For Chicago, the x-factors will come from goaltender Corey Crawford and Calder Memorial Trophy finalist Dominik Kubalik, who collected 30 goals during the regular season. No matter the skater, this series looks like it will go the full duration. When the smoke settles, though, Edmonton’s high-octane firepower at even strength and the power play will be too much for Chicago to contend with. 

Prediction: Edmonton 

(6) Carolina Hurricanes vs. (11) New York Rangers 

Let’s cut to the chase. New York had Carolina’s number this season. In four games this season, the Rangers swept the Hurricanes and outscored them 17-9. The discrepancy between the two teams, however, goes well beyond head-to-head matchups. From January 1 to March 11 (the official date of the regular season’s pause), the Rangers not only possessed the fifth-most wins during the span (18), but averaged the third-most goals per game (3.35), fourth-most shots per game (32.7) and had the best power play percentage (29.0%). Carolina during the stretch had 14 wins (22nd), averaged 2.96 goals per game (16th), 32.0 shots per game (12th) and maintained a 20.0 PP% (18th). 

Both teams possess the offensive depth to overcome any defensive duo or goaltender. How both teams do on special teams will be critical, as New York’s first-ranked PP% since January 1 goes against Carolina’s first-ranked Penalty Kill Percentage (PK%) since the same date (86.6%). Even still, the track record and “what have you done for me lately” mantra holds true. With that said, if you want an upset, chaos fans, this is it. Take New York.

Prediction: New York 

(6) Nashville Predators vs. (11) Arizona Coyotes

Both teams will rely on marquee goaltending to get the job done. When looking at their final stretch of the season before COVID-19 derailed it (January 1 to March 11), both teams were within the upper half in goals allowed per game (Arizona’s 2.75 GA/GP ranked eighth, while Nashville’s 2.87 GA/GP ranked 12th). Offensively, their lines were less than to be desired during the 2 ½-month stretch, as both Arizona and Nashville were in the bottom half in GF/GP (Arizona’s 2.75 GF/GP ranked 20th, while Nashville’s 2.61 GF/GP ranked 22nd). 

While the goaltending will shine, the verdict of this series will come down to who can score more consistently. Nashville’s attack led by Norris Trophy finalist Roman Josi (who scored 65 points during the season) will prevail over Arizona’s offense led by midseason trade acquisition Taylor Hall (who has 27 points since joining the team in the desert). Even still, do not expect many slugfests in this series (although this is hockey, so take this with a grain of salt). 

Prediction: Nashville 

(7) New York Islanders vs. (10) Florida Panthers 

Joel Quenneville’s first season as Panthers’ head coach netted positive results, as the 61-year-old vaulted Florida to a 35-26-8 record. Offensively, Florida’s 3.30 GF/GP ranked sixth in the entire NHL. Florida’s 32.7 Shots/GP and 21.3 PP% also ranked inside the top 10 (seventh and 10th, respectively). Barry Trotz’s Islanders, meanwhile, emphasized more on the defensive side of the ice, as the team’s 2.79 GA/GP and 31.2 SA/GP ranked ninth and 15th, respectively. 

Although Florida’s goaltending was extremely shaky during the season (Florida’s 3.25 GA/GP ranked 29th in the NHL), the Islanders have had big-time issues scoring, as their 2.78 GF/GP ranked 22nd. To make matters worse, New York over their last 10 games before the season’s pause allowed 3.30 goals a game and scuffled to a 2-4-4 record. Although both teams bring significant flaws on opposite sides of the ice, Quenneville’s Panthers will be able to score more consistently and collect bend-not-break performances from their goaltender-by-committee approach with Sergei Bobrovsky and Chris Driedger. If New York can capitalize on Bobrovsky’s regular season struggles (the $70 million-dollar goaltender allowed 3.23 goals a game), the series will be much more interesting. Even still, Florida’s offense will overrun New York’s defense. 

Prediction: Florida 

(7) Vancouver Canucks vs. (10) Minnesota Wild 

If you like youth movements, Vancouver might be your team to watch. The Canucks’ top eight skaters in terms of points are all 27 or younger. Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes were the youngest of the group, as the 21 and 20-year-olds, respectively, both collected 50-plus points (Pettersson with 66 and Hughes with 53). On the opposite end of the spectrum, three of Minnesota’s top four skaters in terms of points are 35 or older (Ryan Suter, Eric Staal and Zach Parise). 

Set aside the age discrepancy, though. Both teams can score. Since January 1, both teams were practically identical in average goals scored per game, as Minnesota scored 3.32 goals per game (eighth) while Vancouver scored 3.28 (ninth). Their goaltending numbers during the stretch, however, took different paths, as Minnesota’s 2.89 GA/GP ranked 13th, while Vancouver’s 3.31 GA/GP ranked 29th. Despite the difference, both teams will attempt to out-maneuver the other on both sides of the ice. While this could be a sneaky series Minnesota could steal, Vancouver brings younger and faster depth on offense that, when it is all said and done, will be the x-factor toward winning the series. 

Prediction: Vancouver 

(8) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets 

Toronto’s 2019-20 season is a tale of two stories. Up to November 20, the team was 9-10-4 and canned head coach Mike Babcock after their predictably bland offense became too much of a frustration. Since Sheldon Keefe took over the head coaching wheel after Babcock’s departure, the team went 27-15-5 and ranked first in goals per game (3.51) during the run. Columbus’s main theme of the season came from countless injury swarms and the entrance of goaltender Elvis Merzlikins, who amassed a 13-9-8 record with a 2.35 GAA and .923 SV% during the regular season. 

This series comes down to what you value more – elite goalscoring or elite goaltending. While Merzlikins might show glimpses of Jordan Binnington during the 2018-19 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the offense (which only averaged 2.57 goals a game) still will not be able to contend with Toronto’s revamped scoring philosophy. 

Prediction: Toronto

(8) Calgary Flames vs. (9) Winnipeg Jets

Fun fact: Winnipeg is the only team in the NHL to have four players with at least 60 points on the season (Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Patrik Laine). When coupled with Vezina Trophy finalist Connor Hellebuyck, it is a surprise Winnipeg is an underdog in this series. Calgary, on the flip side, brings gritty play to the fullest extent, as their season goals for and against averages per game are both outside the top 10 (Calgary’s 2.91 GF/GP is 20th, while their 3.06 GA/GP is 16th). 

Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk, when paired with Johnny Gaudreau, will do damage. Goaltenders Cam Talbot and David Rittich against Hellebuyck will be intriguing as both offenses attempt to find their respective nets. Even still, Winnipeg brings more overall depth and talent on both sides of the ice that should prove to be enough to claim the upset victory. 

Prediction: Winnipeg

Published by John Crane

I am originally from Alexandria, Louisiana, but have lived in South Carolina, Texas, and now Arizona. I am a huge sports fan, with baseball being my primary sport. The dream is to one day become a sports reporter or broadcaster.

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