With the NHL Playoffs approaching, fans around the world have all different opinions on players, teams, coaches and matchups. In what should be the craziest Stanley Cup Playoffs yet, we break down five bold, but realistic opinions, that can potentially become true.
1. The Minnesota Wild will make it to at least the second round.
The Minnesota Wild were heating up slowly before the season’s hiatus, and were inching closer to a playoff spot in a tightly contested Western Conference. The Wild are an inconsistent and aging team, but actually have a more complete lineup than most people would think. Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba, Jonas Brodin and Carson Soucy are all very good defensemen, and they have solid of forward depth in Mikko Koivu, Mats Zuccarello, Ryan Donato, Marcus Foligno, Zach Parise and Kevin Fiala.
However, there are a couple questions with this Wild team. It definitely lacks starpower, as Kevin Fiala has probably been their best player this season. While Fiala is an excellent forward having a breakout year, he is not the caliber of player that can lead a team to a championship. However, the Wild have a lot of forward depth and can roll four good lines. If players such as Zuccarello, Staal, Donato and Kunin were to show more consistency, the forward core in Minnesota is in pretty good shape.
The biggest red flag in Minnesota is the goaltending, as Devan Dubnyk and Alex Stalock have had a terrible year. The 34-year old Dubnyk has had a particularly disappointing season, with an .890 save percentage and 3.35 goals against average in 30 games played behind a great defense.
However, this can change. Dubnyk has had solid playoff performances before and has been among the top goaltenders in the league for the majority of his career. He is more than capable of elevating his game to compliment the Minnesota defense. In fact, the Wild have given up the least inner slot opportunities in the NHL this season.
While it may take a lot more consistency from the forwards, the experience to kick in and for Dubnyk to elevate his game to a new level, all of these things are quite capable of happening and can result in a deep playoff push for the Wild.
2. The Flyers will disappoint.
The Flyers are an interesting team. Expectations were low heading into this season for Philadelphia, and they have exceeded them all. Being arguably the hottest team before the COVID-19 hiatus, the Flyers have set the bar very high for themselves. They are one of four teams in the Eastern Conference who have clinched a spot in the first round of the NHL Playoffs and lots of hockey fans, especially in Philadelphia, are predicting the team to win the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1975.
Everything for the Flyers was clicking. Carter Hart was playing lights-out between the pipes, unexpected defenders such as Travis Sanheim and Matt Niskanen have stepped up to the plate in a tremendous way, and many Flyers forwards have either pleasantly surprised or have had career years. The Flyers looked scary. However, all of this momentum that has been built is gone as the season’s pause is estimated to be about as long as a traditional offseason.
As a result, it is like every team is starting from scratch. It can be quite deflating for a team to have their momentum squashed by something far out of their control. So, the Flyers were more likely to have success if the hiatus did not happen than if it did because they would have been able to carry their momentum in the playoffs, which they can’t really do now.
The Flyers are far less experienced than the majority of the teams near the top, such as the Penguins, Bruins, and Capitals, and it took some time for Philadelphia to get going this season, as they went 10-7-4 in their first 21 games. It will be hard for the Flyers to enter the NHL Playoffs and resume their dominant play. While the Flyers are an excellent team, there is the risk of the wind being knocked out of their sails resulting in an unexpected early playoff elimination.
3. The Blue Jackets will beat the Maple Leafs.
The Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs are a very intriguing matchup. In what should be one of the best play-in series, despite being far less skilled, the Columbus Blue Jackets have a very good shot of advancing past the qualifying round.
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Leafs are the far better team on paper, and are favored to win the series. However, this was the same case with Columbus and Tampa Bay’s brief first round series last season. While fans love to throw the “choker” label at Tampa Bay due to that series partially, not many fans gave Columbus credit where it was due.
John Tortorella runs a tight ship, where defense and grit are prioritized. Like the Islanders, the Blue Jackets very rarely win games by being more skilled than their opponents, but by wearing them into the ground physically, and playing very structured defense to limit the most skilled teams from scoring.
The way these squads match up, the advantage quietly goes to the Blue Jackets. While their offense is far below average, they have proven and history has proven that grit and defense often beats offensive skill in the playoffs. Toronto is nowhere near as physical as Columbus, and that may cost them. If Columbus sticks to their gameplan and stays tough, they should be able to escape with a 3-1 or 3-2 series victory.
4. The Stanley Cup Champion will not be one of the teams with byes.
While this take is bold, it is realistic for multiple reasons.
As any avid watcher of the NHL knows, things very rarely go according to plan. Top seeds do not win the Stanley Cup at high rates, and there are far more upsets in hockey than any other major sport. Every first place seed in their division was eliminated in the first round last year. If anything is expected in hockey, it is that things do not usually go according to plan.
There is the argument that since one of the “play-in” teams would have to win five rounds and 19 games to win the Cup, as opposed to the usual four rounds and 16 games, making it much harder than usual. While this is true, that statement can be countered. While the top-four seeds will be playing in a round-robin for seeding, this hockey will not be nearly as intense as the hockey being played in the play-in rounds because those teams will be facing elimination.
The hockey being played when elimination is at stake will automatically be more intense than hockey being played when it is not. There have already been rumblings of the Boston Bruins not starting Tuukka Rask during the round-robin, and benching some key players during it to rest them up. The teams advancing from the play-in round will be far more prepared as they would have already played a handful of playoff-intensity games.
This can catch top-teams off guard. It is tough, even for the best teams, to turn the switch to playoff-level intensity to match their opponent’s intensity when they have a few-game head start. While it will be difficult for these teams to win one more round than usual, they should be far more prepared for the NHL Playoffs, making upsets possible. The Hurricanes, Oilers, Islanders, Penguins are among sleeper teams that can end up winning five rounds and taking home the cup.
5. The Islanders will rotate goaltenders.
The Islanders’ goaltending situation is very complicated. Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss have both had average seasons, but most notably, incredibly streaky seasons.
The Islanders started this season a stellar 25-10-3, including a 15-0-2 run. For all of these games, Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov were on a strict rotation. While it is certainly an unorthodox strategy, the Islanders found success with it. Since then, the Islanders have won just 10 of 30 games with Varlamov taking over the starter role. While the decline this season wasn’t entirely on goaltending, it was certainly a major factor. Varlamov started the season consistently in the high .920s and low .930s in terms of SV%, likewise with Greiss. At the season’s pause, Varlamov has a .914% SV and Greiss has a .913% SV.
Both goaltenders’ play has been disappointing at best since the rotation ended. After Varlamov started off hot, the final product was a disappointing 19-14-6 record. The second Varlamov got relied on too heavily, he began to crumble and his play got significantly worse. Greiss, who was underplayed, had the same problem.
The question is- does this team truly have a reliable starting goaltender you can win the Cup with? The answer is no. In years past, Greiss has proven he is an elite backup but doesn’t have what it takes to be a starter.
Varlamov proved the same this season: that he can not be relied on too heavily and play consistently while doing so. It is logical that the Islanders will stick with what has worked. In this particular situation, rotating Greiss and Varlamov is the best case scenario and will get the best possible goaltending out of both goaltenders.
Barry Trotz should consider and will likely end up rotating these goalies. He has experimented with playing multiple goalies in the playoffs before, when he started Philip Grubauer in the first two games of the 2018 playoffs for the Washington Capitals, until Braden Holtby took over the starting role and Washington went on to win their first Cup. Trotz has had some interesting tricks up his sleeve before, and now is better time than ever to continue this trend.