Deciding how to qualify the statistics from the play-in round was never an easy choice for the NHL, but even knowing that I didn’t love the final decision. They qualified those games as not the playoffs for teams, but that the stats accumulated would count for post-season totals. So, Connor McDavid tallied nine playoff points this year, while the Edmonton Oilers didn’t make playoffs.
I’d have preferred the stats float about the ether, neither tied to the regular season or playoffs, given this year is worth a few bizarre exceptions, but again — wasn’t an easy problem to solve.
Any way you slice it, the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the real playoffs, start Tuesday. We’ve got eight series to look at and I’ve got one general question, so let’s start there and quit wasting time.
For years the NHL has been trying to shift game play to reward offence, as I think it rightfully should. Goals are exciting, lead changes bring drama, and it keeps fans engaged. Some organizations have seen this trend and tried to get out in front of it, prioritizing speed and skill, thinking the game would eventually get to where they are, and that they’d be ahead of the curve.
Something I want to see, then: is that strategy going to prove prescient, or is hockey still physical and hard above all, with playoff hockey being even more so?
In the play-ins the Columbus Blue Jackets played positional defensive hockey and beat the skilled and speedy Toronto Maple Leafs. The Arizona Coyotes shut down a Nashville team with some skill, and the New York Islanders did the same to the Florida Panthers. The Montreal Canadiens leaned on the legend of Carey Price and team defence to eliminate Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins.
In the official Round 1, the Coyotes now draw the elite skill of Colorado, the Blue Jackets get Toronto-but-better in Tampa Bay, and the Islanders face Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson and the Washington Capitals.
How effective can packing it in and praying be in today’s NHL against skill? I know it can help, and is really the only option when you’re out-skilled, but surely it won’t be enough to eliminate any of Colorado, Tampa Bay, or Washington … will it?
Let’s look at each series.
Boston vs. Carolina
Tough bounce for Carolina that the Bruins ate it in the round-robin tournament. As tempting as it is to say “The Bruins haven’t played well, something’s not right, they’re cooked,” I’d implore you to pump the breaks. This has been a weird return-to-play for all, but particularly for them with the David Pastrnak and Ondrej Kase missing camp, and they’re still the team that won the Presidents’ Trophy this season. They’re still the team that swept Carolina in playoffs last year.
Meanwhile, Carolina is being touted as an absolute juggernaut — after mopping up what’s still a pretty flawed Rangers team.
With that all out of the way, I love this young, fast and fun Canes roster, particularly their D, which looks poised to get Dougie Hamilton back for this matchup. Their D core is one of the few best in the league, which allows their skill up front to shine.
Can they get the goaltending to at least hang against the Bruins’ elite duo? Can they thrive in a grind of a series? These aren’t easy hurdles to clear, but they’re not insurmountable either.
Prediction: Canes in seven, because hey why not?
Tampa Bay vs. Columbus
What I should really do here is copy/paste my (wrong) commentary from before the Columbus/Toronto series, and hope it takes this time. That read something like: “Columbus defends as well as any team in the league, they work hard, and they’re perfectly suited to their coach’s preferred style. Goals will be hard to come by, but in the end, I don’t see the group that’s constantly defending their castle as the one that’s gonna win the war, even if they do it well.”
That would be me predicting Toronto/Tampa Bay to find their way through the Blue Jackets.
A few differences between Toronto and Tampa, though: the Lightning weren’t third in the league in goals for per game, they were first. They have a better D core. And their goaltender is the current Vezina holder and a finalist again this year. Yes Steven Stamkos is hurt, yes Victor Hedman is hurt, but Tampa is deep.
Toronto seemed a few bounces from getting past Columbus, so I see Tampa’s small edges helping them get through. There’s also that little matter of revenge from last year, so Columbus has no chance to catch them sleeping.
Prediction: Lightning in 6.
Philadelphia vs. Montreal
Here’s where I’m supposed to talk about how wonderful Philadelphia is, because they were on a tear before The Big Pause in March, and they won all their round-robin games upon return. They’re also just very plainly, very good. They have an unbelievably good group of forwards, with the old-guard-stars of Jakub Voracek and Claude Giroux finally surrounded by supplemental talent, and they have a skilled group of young defenders, too. Their goaltender might be one of the league’s best in short order.
You can feel the “but” coming, can’t you?
That “but,” is just simply: let’s relax here about what the Flyers are. They’re knocking on the door of the elite tier, but some of their important players are still pretty young (guys like Joel Farabee and Carter Hart), some are going the other way, and if you started drafting “best players in the league” for a tournament tomorrow from an NHL-wide pool, I doubt they would have two names inside the top-50. That gets hard in big games and big moments, when the other team will generally have the more elite guys on the ice.
I don’t want that to read as me hating on the Flyers. It’s mostly pushback to everything I read and hear right now about them being the dynasty Canadiens or something.
Speaking of the Canadiens: The 2020 iteration had an incredible series against the Penguins, but I still think they are what they are — a non-playoff team that traded off decent assets at the deadline and committed to being not-very-good for the remainder of this season. The caveat with them always remains: they drive shot attempts as well as any team in the league, and they can get top-end goaltending, so they can win any night.
Add all that up, and I can see the Habs winning a game or two, but in the end I’m taking:
Prediction: Flyers in 5.
New York Islanders vs. Washington
The Islanders play capitalized Team Hockey, which their fans absolutely love. They pack it in and defend the house, pushing shots to the outside. They forecheck hard and backcheck when necessary. They grind and grit and have a lot to like about them. They defend…but lordy, do they struggle to score.
In all, through nearly 70 games this season, the Capitals scored nearly 50 (!) goals more than New York during the regular season. Relying on defence and goaltending is a pretty good option when the opposing team gives up a ton, as the Florida Panthers did. The Capitals aren’t exactly the Boston Bruins on defence, but they’re better than Florida in that department. I think the games stay low-scoring, but the Isles’ offensive woes come back to bite them in the end.
Prediction: Capitals in 7.
Dallas vs. Calgary
This series and the St. Louis/Vancouver one look like the tightest to me, with a delightful reality at play for either team: whoever’s most ready to play will win. It’s there for either team. A few things that stand out to me in this series:
• I love Dallas’ “non-core” guys. Denis Gurianov flies, Roope Hintz flies, Radek Faksa is a defensive star in the league.
• I love Calgary’s energy. Teams seem to hate playing them because they’re loud, in everyone’s face, and supportive of one another. They’re engaged, and that’s a clear plus for the Flames.
• Dallas has an advantage in net, and while predicting goaltending is similar to predicting weather — we can generalize patterns, but specific moments are tough — if it holds true to career averages that should be enough to push the Stars through. It’s also worth noting that in a series with a handful of elite D, including Norris Trophy winner Mark Giordano), I believe Dallas has the best one today in Miro Heiskanen.
Prediction: Stars in six.
Vegas vs. Chicago
Over the past decade, I can’t remember being as confident in the outcome of a playoff series as I am about this one. No wavering here, I don’t think Chicago has a chance. (Granted, the only other time I was nearly this confident was Pittsburgh over Montreal in the play-ins, so there’s some hopeful context for Hawks fans.)
But I see Vegas having a leg up in just about every area, particularly since they’re starting Robin Lehner over Marc-Andre Fleury, at least in Game 1.
They can play it any way you want to play. They can grind, they can score, they can defend, they swept their round robin games, and they’re currently the gambling favourites to win the Stanley Cup. Whatever you think about Chicago, they finished where they did in the NHL regular season (23rd) not entirely by chance, and a best-of-five win with a number of fortuitous bounces against the Edmonton Oilers does little to change my mind about how lopsided this matchup is.
Prediction: Vegas in four.
Vancouver vs. St. Louis
It’s tough to know how much stock to put in a bad round-robin tournament here given there’s absolutely zero precedent using those games to predict what comes next. Because even with the Blues’ poor showing through three games, they remain a team that makes me think “yeah, I guess they’re OK,” yet I can’t find a team I think would beat them four times out of seven.
If there are teams who have a chance, though, Vancouver is one of them. Antoine Roussel said before the series versus the Wild that the Canucks have the best player at every position in the matchup, and while that wouldn’t be the case with this one, I think Vancouver has more game-breaking special players.
But that’s not the Blues’ game. They just defend and play physical and find enough different ways to score when they need it. That held true last year, and I’m going to show them the respect that warrants. One team has proven it, the other shows promise. So until the Canucks break through and change that, I’m sticking with:
Prediction: Blues in 7.
Colorado vs. Arizona
I’m going to keep this one short and sweet. Rick Tocchet has a team that plays hard for him, and plays disciplined defensively. They have some good defensive players (like Niklas Hjalmarsson) too, which helps. They have one of the league’s best goaltending duos.
But Colorado is a juggernaut, and Arizona likely ends up a footnote on their run deep into the post-season. There’s just too much top-end talent in Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, and Cale Makar.
Prediction: Colorado in 5.