Starting tomorrow, hockey is finally back! In this year’s Stanley Cup Playoff bracket, 24 teams qualified, with the top four teams in each conference will compete in a round-robin to determine seeding for the following round. The other eight teams per conference, however, will be playing in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, where the winners will play the four round-robin teams. Let’s analyze each match-up in the play-in round.
Toronto Maple Leafs (8) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (9)
This match-up is closer than expected. The Maple Leafs have a much stronger offense, ranking in the top-five in expected goals and goals for per game, while the Blue Jackets are much stronger on defense, with the lowest expected goals against per game in the National Hockey League (2.20). According to The Point Hockey, the Blue Jackets block shots more than any other team in the league per game and have allowed the fewest goals against in transition. Because of Columbus’ consistent defense and key returns of Seth Jones and Oliver Bjorkstrand, I believe they will be victorious.
Prediction: The Columbus Blue Jackets defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs in 5 games
Pittsburgh Penguins (5) vs. Montréal Canadiens (12)
If I had to predict one series to end in three games, it would likely be this one, but in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoff format, a sweep could be rare due to the back-to-back in each series. Although the Canadiens lead the league with 68.2 shot attempts per game they really don’t have much production. They rank 17th in goals for with 2.69 goals per game, but the main issue is their lack of possession in the offensive zone, ranking 24th in the league with 5:24 minutes per game. The Penguins have a very strong offense led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and with the return of Jake Guenztel, they will be a force to be reckoned with on the power play.
Prediction: The Pittsburgh Penguins defeat the Montréal Canadiens in 4 games
New York Islanders (7) vs. Florida Panthers (10)
Like the matchup between the Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets, one team, the Florida Panthers, are more dominant on offense and on the power play, whereas the other, the New York Islanders, are more defensively dominant. The Panthers are top-six in terms of goals for on even strength, and the Islanders are not even top-20. On the other hand, in terms of goals against, the Islanders are top-ten and the Panthers are not even top-25. This series mainly depends on the play of Panthers starting goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, and whether he can dominate like he did when he won the Vezina Trophy, or struggle like he did this season.
Prediction: The New York Islanders defeat the Florida Panthers in 5 games
Carolina Hurricanes (6) vs. New York Rangers (11)
The league’s suspension due to the COVID-19 outbreak was beneficial to the Carolina Hurricanes, as they now have players back from injuries, which I believe will make the difference. The Rangers are one of the worst teams defensively, where they give up the second-most goals against per game and the most rush chances against. Dougie Hamilton, who is on his way back from a terrible injury during the regular season, and may not play at the start of the match-up, is arguably a top-five defenseman and can help the strong Carolina defense. Goaltending could be shaky for both teams as Petr Mrazek is coming back from injury, and Igor Shestyorkin lacking playoff experience. There is a case for Henrik Lundqvist to start, but he has not been as dominant this season.
Prediction: The Carolina Hurricanes defeat the New York Rangers in 5 games
Calgary Flames (8) vs. Winnipeg Jets (9)
Although the Flames are very balanced both offensively and defensively, there is one flaw that could be exploited by the fast forwards in Winnipeg. The Flames rank last in rush goals against, and like last year against the Colorado Avalanche, speed was the game-changer. To make matters worse, the Jets rely on quick offense more than any other team in the league, with around 60% of their goals on even strength took less than five seconds in the offensive zone. Connor Hellebuyck also had a fantastic season and is a strong candidate for the Vezina Trophy. Although they have a bottom-tier defense, the Jets’ dominant offense and goaltending will carry them to the next round, and potentially further in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoff bracket.
Prediction: The Winnipeg Jets defeat the Calgary Flames in 4 games
Edmonton Oilers (5) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (12)
The Edmonton Oilers are led by the two best offensive players in the league in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, which will really help scoring chances against a lackluster Chicago defense. The only real positive in the Blackhawks season was Corey Crawford were he was fourth in goals saved above expected (GSAx), but their defense was atrocious with 3.32 goals expected against. The Oilers will likely control most of the possession and rather easily defeat the Blackhawks, where they will gain momentum into the next round.
Prediction: The Edmonton Oilers defeat the Chicago Blackhawks in 4 games
Vancouver Canucks (7) vs. Minnesota Wild (10)
Although the Minnesota Wild have been more successful both offensively and defensively, their goaltending has been horrendous this season. Rated last in goals saved above expectation, inner slot save percentage, and slot save percentage, their tandem of Devan Dubnyk and Alex Stalock is nowhere near playoff-caliber. Also, the Canucks are top-two in goals for on the power play, and with the addition of Tyler Toffoli at the Trade Deadline, their offense is that much scarier, and with this offensive core, they have a strong chance of making a deep Stanley Cup Playoff run.
Prediction: Vancouver Canucks defeat the Minnesota Wild in 5 games
Nashville Predators (6) vs. Arizona Coyotes (11)
The Predators are significantly better than the Coyotes offensively, where they are ranked 12th in the league for goals for, and the Coyotes are not even top-25. Goaltending is extremely close, where both Juuse Saros and Darcy Kuemper have had great seasons, but I would give a slight advantage to Kuemper due to his 8.71 goals saved above expected, compared to Saros’ 1.19. This matchup is going to be very close, but I believe the Predators will take it.