Stanley Cup Playoffs preview: First Round

The official 2019-20 Stanley Cup Playoffs’ bracket is now set. After 24 teams were boiled down to 16, new matchups and more interesting storylines are now abundant no matter what series you look at. 

Never mind the mindless chatter, though. Let’s get into the matchups themselves. Each matchup contains a brief preview in addition to a prediction. Without further ado, here are the eight matchups with predictions for each series. 

(1) Philadelphia Flyers vs. (8) Montreal Canadiens 

Philadelphia swept the round-robin leg and obtained the first-overall seed in the Eastern Conference. The impressive aspect, however, came in Philadelphia’s depth on offense. Their best scoring forwards during the regular season (Travis Konecny, Kevin Hayes and Sean Couturier) did not find the net in the three round-robin games. Instead, third and fourth-line skaters in Scott Laughton and Nicolas Aube-Kubel were the heroes, as both skaters picked up five goals combined. The Canadiens, meanwhile, shocked the world and won the series against the Pittsburgh Penguins in four games. Consistent pressure and heavy emphasis on shooting the puck religiously would be enough for Montreal’s offense to offset Pittsburgh’s star power. 

Yes, Montreal has an excellent goaltender in Carey Price. Philadelphia’s depth on offense (especially from their top lines) will eventually be too much for the 32-year-old to stop, though. Flyers’ goaltender Carter Hart, meanwhile, will be able to bend but not break against Montreal’s scrappy offense. Even still, Montreal will make it interesting, but Philadelphia will prevail when it is all said and done. 

Prediction: Philadelphia 

(1) Vegas Golden Knights vs. (8) Chicago Blackhawks

The Blackhawks utilized Jonathan Toews and Dominik Kubalik to their fullest during the qualifying round against Edmonton Oilers, as the veteran and rookie forward tallied seven goals combined. The duo is just the tip of the iceberg, though. Chicago’s depth during the qualifying round spanned throughout all lines and defensive pairings, as 11 skaters collected at least two points during the series. Ironically enough, Vegas also had 11 skaters who picked up at least two points during their round-robin tournament run. 

During the qualifying round, Chicago’s’ offense thrived in the space conceded by Edmonton. The surplus space allowed Chicago to share the puck more liberally and emphasize on their speed. The strategy will be harder to fulfill against the Golden Knights, however, as Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner will prove to be a more difficult goaltending nut to crack than Edmonton’s tandem. Although Vegas’s goaltending struggled a hair more than what was anticipated, their combined experience will be able to shut down the mostly youthful Chicago attack. It also helps that Max Pacioretty will return for Vegas during the first round after missing the round-robin.

Prediction: Vegas 

(2) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. (7) Columbus Blue Jackets 

At this point, all hockey fans know the basic gist. The 2018-19 Lightning, despite breezing through the regular season, collecting 128 points and winning the Presidents’ Trophy, would be promptly swept out of the first round by the Blue Jackets. The rematch will bring similar playstyles both teams implemented a year prior. Columbus will prioritize elite goaltending and defense while Tampa Bay will emphasize on a heavy barrage of offense at even strength and the power play. 

Even still, both teams will look a little bit different this time around. Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene, Columbus’s top scoring skaters during last year’s postseason, are no longer on the team. Rookie goaltender Elvis Merzlikins is also nursing an injury and could miss time. The Lightning, meanwhile, will likely be without defenseman Victor Hedman and forward Steven Stamkos for at least the start of the series. The series could come down to which team possesses more hard-pressing third and fourth-line skaters who can squeak out goals. Depth is key to unlocking those goals, and while history might doom my prediction, Tampa Bay possesses more of it in all zones as the rosters stand currently. Although I am rolling with the Lightning, keep an eye on this series. If a huge upset is to happen, it would be this one.

Prediction: Tampa Bay

(2) Colorado Avalanche vs. (7) Arizona Coyotes 

The Coyotes will have their work cut out for them in this series. Luckily for Arizona, they possess one of the more consistent goaltenders in the NHL in Darcy Kuemper. Kuemper, who put together a 16-11-2 record in the regular season joined by a 2.22 GAA, even shut out Colorado on November 2. While Kuemper will likely show similar production against the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog and Cale Makar, will Arizona’s offensive production be able to offset the inevitable goals the Avalanche will eventually score? 

Scoring will be the x-factor for the Coyotes. That means you, Taylor Hall, Phil Kessel, Clayton Keller and company. Nevertheless, the dynamic depth of Colorado’s top lines will be too much for the Coyotes to create parity with. 

Prediction: Colorado 

(3) Washington Capitals vs. (6) New York Islanders 

Islanders’ head coach Barry Trotz faces his old club in the postseason for the first time since taking over the New York coaching helm. That alone would be an interesting storyline, but arguably a more interesting one came in the form of New York completely derailing the Florida Panthers’ offense spearheaded by Joel Quenneville in four games. They now must go against another offense in the upper echelon in the NHL in Washington, who brings someone to the ice known as Alex Ovechkin. 

However, Ovechkin was held scoreless during the round-robin. In fact, Washington’s offense was relatively quiet during the entire tournament. This cold spell could be the remedy toward New York to brewing more magic. While Washington is bound to go on a scoring spree, New York’s goaltending and swarming defense combined with their young forward talent will make Trotz smile. Big time. 

Prediction: New York 

(3) Dallas Stars vs. (6) Calgary Flames 

The last 10 matchups between these two teams have been heavily in favor of Dallas. Dating back to 2017, Dallas is 8-1-1 against Calgary. Dallas mainstays in Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn have consistently feasted on Calgary goaltending. Most recently, however, the pendulum has shifted toward the Flames. When looking at the 2019-20 regular season, Calgary won two out of three matches against the Stars. 

Dallas is torn from the same fabric as Arizona and the Islanders in that they heavily rely on marquee goaltending and just enough offense. Although Dallas will likely replicate some success against Calgary to the point of the series going five or six games, Calgary’s lines, similarly to other offense-oriented teams, brings too much firepower for Dallas to keep up with in a potential slugfest. 

Prediction: Calgary 

(4) Boston Bruins vs. (5) Carolina Hurricanes 

If you want to know how insane 2020 has been, this series, despite being an Eastern Conference Final bout last season, is only a first-round matchup this season. Craziness aside, both team’s first lines were a tail of two vastly different stories during their postseason matchups in the round-robin and qualifying round. Carolina’s first line of Teuvo Teravainen, Sebastian Aho and Andre Svechnikov combined to score seven goals and collect 15 points during the qualifying round against the New York Rangers. Boston’s “Perfection Line” of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak, meanwhile, combined to score zero goals and collect only one meager point. Talk about a severe discrepancy. 

Boston overcame Carolina in the Stanley Cup Playoffs one season ago, and although Boston’s top line will perform much better in the first round when compared to the round-robin tournament, Carolina brings more momentum and experience this time around, especially among their top forwards. This might be the difference for the Hurricanes, and it will show. 

Prediction: Carolina 

(4) St. Louis Blues vs. (5) Vancouver Canucks

St. Louis, the reigning Stanley Cup Champion, sits as the fourth seed after the round-robin tournament and will face a vibrant Canucks squad that took care of business against the hard-pressed and experienced Minnesota Wild. St. Louis will look to get their top forwards in Ryan O’Reilly, Vladimir Tarasenko and company scorching after being relatively quiet in the round-robin, while Vancouver will continue to ride or die by their plethora of youthful skaters. 

At a glance, this series shows reminiscence to the Eastern Conference Final last season, as an experienced Boston squad outmatched a raw and inexperienced Hurricanes’ roster. Although Vancouver brings raw talent to the rink, the Blues’ experience in the Stanley Cup Playoffs will show itself in this series and be too much for Vancouver to work with. Do not fret, Vancouver fans – your time will come. It just will not be now.

Prediction: St. Louis 

Published by John Crane

I am originally from Alexandria, Louisiana, but have lived in South Carolina, Texas, Arizona and now Colorado. After recently graduating from Northern Arizona University, I am now continuing to sharpen my journalistic craft through writing, radio and podcasting. My dream is to become a sports reporter or broadcaster.

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