The most important tournament in sports, featuring potentially forty hockey game over eight days, begins August 1st. So, I took it upon myself to break it down series-by-series, offering the best statistical analysis hockey has to offer. Additionally, I picked a winner for each series and also included picks made by our Editorial Staff. Let’s get to it.
Note: You can find the Eastern Conference breakdown below. The Western Conference breakdown will be released the following day.
Also, you can find a brief preview as well as picks on our latest edition of Devils Army Cast here.
(5) Pittsburgh Penguins (40-23-6) vs. (12) Montreal Canadiens (31-31-9)
Season Series: 2-1 Penguins
Remember the last time the Penguins missed the playoffs? Me neither, so I looked it up and found it was back in 2005, Sidney Crosby’s rookie year. Speaking of “Sid The Kid”, he is now 32 years old and recently returned before the season was halted from core muscle surgery. He finished the year with 47 points in 41 games played.
Crosby is not the only guy that missed time either, Brian Doumolin missed 41 games, Jake Guentzel missed 30 games, Justin Schultz missed 23 games, Patrick Hornqvist missed 17 games, and Evgeni Malkin missed 14 games. However, Pittsburgh still managed to finish the year with nine more wins than Montreal.
The Penguins are the obvious pick in this series. Especially because the one head-to-head game that Montreal won, Sidney Crosby did not even play in. But, it is the playoffs and this year is unique, so here’s what the Canadiens are working with.
They have a solid first line with Tomas Tatar, Philip Danault, and Brendan Gallagher. This followed by Jonathan Druin, Max Domi, and Joel Armia. But, can that keep the Crosby-Malkin one-two punch at bay? Probably not.
Montreal’s depth after that isn’t exactly outstanding either. Though, the team could turn to emerging forwards such as rookie Nick Suzuki, who had 41 points in 71 games played, and Arturri Lehkonen, who had 27 points in 70 games.
On the blue line, the Canadiens are competitive with Shea Weber (36 points) and Jeff Petry (40 points) contributing offensively. While Ben Chiarot serves as a strong, defensive-defenseman. Of course, they have Carey Price in net as well, so Pittsburgh’s scorers will be challenged.
- On February 10th, Bob McKenzie of TSN reported that Jason Zucker was traded from Minnesota to Pittsburgh. This in exchange for Alex Galchenyuk, Calen Addison, and a 2020 first-round pick.
- Jake Guentzel has recovered from shoulder surgery and will be ready to return to the lineup for Pittsburgh when play starts.
- Penguins defenseman John Marino will be able to return after undergoing surgery February 10th.
- According to Rotowire, defenseman Victor Mete is back on the ice with the team for camp after suffering a foot injury in February.
- Max Domi, who suffers from Type 1 Diabetes, opted to play in this years NHL playoffs last week.
My Pick: Pittsburgh Penguins
- James V.: Pittsburgh Penguins
- Chris M.: Pittsburgh Penguins
- Leighann S.: Pittsburgh Penguins
- Anthony B.: Pittsburgh Penguins
- Matt M.: Pittsburgh Penguins
(6) Carolina Hurricanes (38-25-5) vs. (11) New York Rangers (37-28-5)
Season Series: 4-0 Rangers
First, it’s important to remember that Carolina, along with Tampa Bay, voted against the 24-team playoff format. A decision that probably involved not wanting to face the New York Rangers. Because, in four head-to-head games this season, the Rangers beat them four times.
Getting into the matchup, this should be a very offensive series, as neither team has stellar goaltending, and both have very offensive-minded defenses.
Rangers coach David Quinn has yet to decide on a starting goaltender. Pictured above from left-to-right are Henrik Lundqvist, Igor Sehesterkin, and Alexander Georgiev.
New York has three defenseman in the team’s top-10 scoring leaders. They are Anthony DeAngelo (53 points), Adam Fox (42 points), and Jacob Trouba (27 points). Carolina, on the other hand, touts Dougie Hamilton (40 points), Jacob Slavin (36 points), and Sami Vantanen (23 points). Not to mention defenseman Brady Skeij, who New York traded to Carolina at the deadline for a 2020 1st round pick.
Additionally, their defensive group should be fully healthy by the time the season starts back-up:
- Sami Vatanen has been cleared to play, after his injury with the Devils on February 1st.
- It’s possible that Dougie Hamilton returns to play after fracturing his fibula on January 18th.
- However, Brett Pesce likely will not return until August.
Still, I have to give the edge to New York, as they have more seasoned scorers like Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanajed, and Ryan Strome to go with their younger forwards like Pavel Buchnevich, Jesper Fast, and Kaapo Kakko. Plus, the team will see Chris Kreider return to the lineup from a broken foot, and a power forward like him could really take over against this young Canes team.
That being said, the talent is there in Carolina, as their top-line of Andrei Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho, and Teavu Teravainen combined for 190 points this season.
My Pick: New York Rangers
- James V.: Carolina Hurricanes
- Chris M.: New York Rangers
- Leighann S.: New York Rangers
- Anthony B.: Carolina Hurricanes
- Matt M.: New York Rangers
(7) New York Islanders (35-23-10) vs. (10) Florida Panthers (35-26-8)
Season series: 3-0 Islanders
Is this matchup a snoozer? Yes, but we will take it, because playoff hockey is playoff hockey. All signs point to the Islanders in this series, as the team has swept the Panthers this year. However, all of those games were close and Florida controlled all shot statistics.
Like usual, the Islanders have a below-average offense and shut-down defense. Defensively, Nick Leddy, Ryan Pulock, Devon Toews, and Scott Mayfield are hard guys to score on. Not to mention, Adam Pelech is set to return after suffering from a torn achilles in late February.
When it comes to goaltending, anybody would say the Islander got a better bargain by signing Seymon Varlamov (.914 save percentage, 2.62 goals against average) for $5,000,000 rather than the Panthers’ Sergei Bobrovsky (.900 save percentage, 3.23 goals against average) for $10,000,000.
Florida does have Chris Dreidger too, whose recorded an impressive .938 save percentage and 2.05 goals against average in 11 starts. But, then again, what is the point of paying Bob ten-million, and then telling him to go ride pine? On the other side, the Islanders have the luxury of falling back on Thomas Greiss (.913 save percentage, 2.74 goal against average), if things with Varlamov get shaky.
Talent-wise, the Islanders’ offense isn’t as blessed, as its scored 19 less goals this season than the league average. But the team is stacked up the middle, as their top-four point getters — Mathew Barzal (60 points), Brock Nelson (54 points), Anders Lee (43 points), and Josh Bailey (43 points) — are all capable of playing center.
The Panthers’ offense has a little more firepower, with Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Mike Hoffman and Evgenni Dadonov. But, after that it sort of falls off, so I’m thinking it’s smart to give the edge to the Islanders in this series because of their discipline and playoff experience.
- The Islanders are ninth in goals against per games played this season. Seven of the top eight teams in that statistic are in the round-robin tournament.
- New York traded for Jean-Gabriel Pageau at the deadline, sending a 2020 first and second-round pick to Ottawa. If the Islanders win the lottery, the first-round pick moves to 2021, and if they win the Stanley Cup, Ottawa will receive a third-round pick in 2022.
- The Florida Panthers were 28th in goals against this year, letting up as many goals as the New Jersey Devils did
- Before the trade deadline, Florida traded away center Vincent Trocheck to Carolina for center Lucas Wallmark and winger Erik Haula. Haula has scored 24 points this season in 48 games with Carolina and Florida.
Unfortunately Devils’ fans, I think we may see both New York teams advance to this year
My Pick: New York Islanders
- James V.: Florida Panthers
- Chris M.: New York Islanders
- Leighann S.: New York Islanders
- Anthony B.: New York Islanders
- Matt M.: Florida Panthers
(8) Columbus Blue Jackets (33-22-15) vs. (9) Toronto Maple Leafs (36-25-9)
Season series: 1-1
This series will be a telling story about what identity works best in the NHL come playoff time. A loaded team that plays fast and loose like Toronto? Or a hard-working, disciplined team without as much talent, like Columbus?
Any die-hard hockey fan has probably thought about this debate, but if you’re unsure what I mean by “fast and loose” versus “disciplined” styles, take a look at these telling statistics:
- The Maple Leafs scored 29 more goals than the league average this season, and let up 14 more than average.
- The Blue Jackets scored 28 less goals than the league average, and gave up 25 less. They also only took 6.5 penalty minutes per game last season, which was the least of any team in the NHL.
While Columbus is less equipped talent-wise, the team has proved this type of play can work in the playoffs. As Columbus swept the historically good Tampa Bay Lightning last year in the first-round.
In turn, Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe will be challenged in game planning against John Tortorella’s gritty Blue Jackets. Tortorella has coached 18 more seasons than Keefe, who began his NHL head coaching career in November, taking over for Mike Babcock.
Another important question in this series is whether Columbus’ talent at goaltender will be enough to stop the Leaf’s offensive artillery, which includes John Tavares, Auston Matthews, and Mitch Marner.
It just might. This with standout rookie Elvis Merzlikins touting a .923 save percentage and a 2.35 goals against average in 31 starts, and Joonas Kooorpisalo posting a .911 save percentage and a 2.60 goals against average in 35 starts. Still, it’ll be interesting to see how the goalies play after a long pause. Ultimately, I think it’s safe to pick the Maple Leafs to beat the Blue Jackets in this series.
- The Blue Jackets traded for Devin Shore from Anaheim. This for Sonny Milano.
- Cam Atkinsson and Seth Jones will return from minor injuries in February.
- Oliver Bjorkstrand will be back after fracturing his ankle in February.
- Alexander Texier is supposed to be healthy for training camp, after suffering a back injury in January.
- Josh Anderson could return in August, after undergoing shoulder surgery in March.
- The Maple Leafs traded Mason Marchment to Florida for Denis Malgin.
- Forward Ilya Mikheyev will be able to return. This after suffering a severed artery in his wrist earlier this season.
- Jake Muzzin will be back with the group after breaking his hand on February 25th.
- Andreas Johnsson could return in August, after undergoing knee surgery in February.
My Pick: Toronto Maple Leafs
- James V.: Toronto Maple Leafs
- Chris M.: Toronto Maple Leafs
- Leighann S.: Columbus Blue Jackets
- Anthony B.: Toronto Maple Leafs
- Matt M.: Toronto Maple Leafs