On March 12, the NHL hit the pause button on the 2019-20 season because of the coronavirus pandemic. On Saturday, players will hit the ice again as the NHL’s return-to-play plan hits Phase 4 and the postseason begins.
Unlike the traditional playoff format, the league is running a 24-team tournament, with 12 teams from each conference playing in fan-less arenas in Toronto (for the East) and Edmonton, Alberta (for the West). The top four teams are in the Round of 16, and the Nos. 5 through 12 seeds will square off to see who will take the next step toward immortality.
Although there are a few lingering questions about how this will work, it promises to be one of the most unique viewing experiences ever for hockey fans. How will the matchups play out? Let’s take an in-depth look at each qualification-round matchup and round-robin group and make our picks for who will advance.
How they got here: Let’s start with the Bruins, who lost in the Stanley Cup Final last year. Boston returned with largely the same veteran roster. Bruce Cassidy did a terrific job keeping this group consistently motivated, and it helps that David Pastrnak had a star turn, tying Alex Ovechkin for the league lead in goals. Ovechkin led the Caps once again, and despite some wobbles on defense and in goal, Washington cruised in one of the top Metropolitan Division positions for most of the season. The Lightning got off to a slow start after last year’s playoff collapse but started to look like themselves — and got some forward depth reinforcements at the trade deadline. As for Philly? With a new coach and modest expectations, the Flyers became one of the NHL’s hottest teams in the two months before the shutdown. Since Jan. 8, they tied the Bruins for the best record in the league.
First line: The Lightning have one of the most dangerous top lines in the league, with Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov, but Stamkos’ status for the round robin is unknown as he nurses a leg injury. Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson are a well-oiled machine, but Philly’s Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek can kill you defensively and put up production. The elite trio here is Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and Pastrnak. It’s a flawless line built for the playoffs. Advantage: Boston
Forward depth: The Flyers have shored up their center depth recently, which helped them manage without Nolan Patrick. Although the Bruins have grit and experience throughout the lineup, there is a drop-off in forward talent, especially when it gets to the fourth line. Washington’s forward group has always been competent, but nobody’s bottom nine is as balanced and dynamic as Tampa Bay’s. The Lightning got even better at the trade deadline by adding Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow. Advantage: Tampa Bay
Defense: The Bruins’ D has a nice blend of youth and veterans. They’re diverse, too, with guys who can provide offense and bone-crushing, stay-at-home defenders. The Flyers also have a sound top six, and their second pairing of Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers is sneaky good. The Caps’ defense is not their strength, though it improved with the addition of Brenden Dillon at the trade deadline. Tampa Bay has a great top six, but we don’t know yet what’s going on with Victor Hedman. The Norris Trophy finalist didn’t travel with the team to the hub as he attends to a personal matter. Advantage: Boston
Goaltending: Philly’s Carter Hart is the biggest wild card here. The 21-year-old has tremendous potential but has never been in the playoffs. Plus, he was nursing an injury late in training camp. Braden Holtby had his worst statistical season but has something to prove as he plays out the final year of his contract. The Caps’ preferred backup, Ilya Samsonov, is injured, so they’ll rely heavily on Holtby. Andrei Vasilevskiy is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner and a finalist again this season. He was especially good from Jan. 1 on, picking up wins in 18 of 24 games with three shutouts and a .930 save percentage. Tuukka Rask is also a Vezina finalist, but there’s a good chance that Jaroslav Halak will get some starts in the round robin. Advantage: Tampa Bay
Coaching: We have two Jack Adams finalists (Bruce Cassidy and Alain Vigneault) in this group. Although Todd Reirden has good command of his veteran roster, the other guys have an edge here. Jon Cooper led the Lightning to new heights and an NHL-record 62 wins last season but has something to prove this postseason, as his team was stunningly swept in the first round last season. Cassidy gets the slight nod over Vigneault for recency bias; we saw him lead this exact team to a Stanley Cup Final last season. Advantage: Boston
Neutral-ice advantage: The Caps have the best road record in the league, and — fun Ovi fact — No. 8 has scored more goals on the road than in D.C. in his career. Advantage: Washington
Special teams: The Capitals’ power play didn’t have its most productive season, but adding Ilya Kovalchuk is an exciting wrinkle, and that should scare opponents. Philly’s power play is about league average, though its penalty kill is good. The Bruins have the best power play in the Eastern Conference, and the Lightning are right behind them. Boston also has the best penalty kill in the Eastern Conference. Advantage: Boston
This should be a fun group of games, and absences (because of injury or rest) could factor in to the results. The Bruins have the deepest and most battle-tested roster. We expect them to come out on top heading into the Round of 16.
How they got here: The Penguins had the fourth-most man games lost in the league (302) and had just two periods all season with a fully healthy lineup. Yet they kept things afloat. When one player went down, another stepped up, and it led to GM Jim Rutherford being a buyer at the trade deadline — acquiring Wild winger Jason Zucker — to reward his group. There are only so many chances to go all-in with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as your top two centers.
The Habs had promise, but it became increasingly apparent that there wasn’t enough depth or talent on this roster for them to compete this season. As such, GM Marc Bergevin was a seller at the deadline, dealing Ilya Kovalchuk, who meshed well with the team during a 22-game stint, as well as Nick Cousins, Nate Thompson and Marco Scandella. There’s young talent in the system, including 20-year-olds Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, plus KHL import Alexander Romanov, who is not eligible this summer. However, this is a team that was 24th in the NHL at the pause, and it really has no business playing this postseason.
First line: Jake Guentzel had shoulder surgery in December and was iffy to return if the season had gone on as scheduled. Thanks to the four-month-plus break, he’s back riding shotgun on Sidney Crosby’s wing, and that means danger for opponents. Guentzel has proven that he can thrive without Crosby (he’s coming off his first 40-goal season and was on pace for another career best before he went down), but the two of them playing together is special. The Habs counter with a formidable first line: Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher are both strong wingers, and Phillip Danault is one of the most underrated two-way centers in the league. Although this is a strength for the Habs, they just can’t match the Pens’ top-end talent. Advantage: Pittsburgh
Forward depth: Because Max Domi missed half of training camp, the Habs have him playing on their fourth line entering their exhibition game, which is a decent option considering that Claude Julien won’t have the last change in the first two games of the Penguins series. But Malkin as a No. 2 center is usually a mismatch, and that’s true against the Habs. Overall, there’s more ability and veteran savvy lower in the Penguins’ lineup. Heck, Patrick Marleau and Patric Hornqvist, with a combined 252 career playoff games, are third-liners! Advantage: Pittsburgh
Defense: The Habs’ defense is solid, anchored by Shea Weber (at age 34, he’s still got it) and Jeff Petry (steady and underrated). There’s a drop-off when it gets to the third pairing, but the top four is very good. Pittsburgh also has a shaky third pairing with the inconsistent Jack Johnson, but the top four — Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, John Marino and Marcus Pettersson — are reliable. Marino, a rookie, has been especially impressive. Neither team is particularly active using bodies to clog lanes, ranking 20th and 21st in blocked shots per 60 minutes. Advantage: Pittsburgh
Goaltending: A strong anti-Habs sentiment arose this spring, as many around the NHL questioned Montreal’s getting a postseason invite. The Canadiens posted the 24th-best record in the league, yet could easily steal a shortened series if Carey Price gets hot. With all due respect to the 32-year-old Price, whom many NHL players still cite as the goalie they would most trust in a must-win Game 7, it would take a heroic and overburdened performance to single-handedly steal this series. Plus, Pittsburgh’s goaltending isn’t shabby at all. In fact, the Pens offer more depth with Tristan Jarry (who was ninth in the NHL with a .921 save percentage) and Matt Murray (who has two Stanley Cups). Although Jarry had his first All-Star season, he was less reliable down the stretch, which means Murray might get the initial nod. We’re going to have to call this a wash. Advantage: tie
Coaching: It’s a surprise that Mike Sullivan wasn’t named a finalist for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year. Pittsburgh was without nearly every key player at some point this season, and Sullivan squeezed every bit out of a rotating cast. This team buys in. Claude Julien has coached more than 100 playoff games and won a Stanley Cup with Boston in 2011, but we’ll give the edge to Sullivan for what he was able to pull off in the face of adversity. Advantage: Pittsburgh
Neutral-ice advantage: Montreal was 14-17-6 at home this season but an impressive 17-14-3 on the road. Being at a neutral site shouldn’t intimidate this group. The Penguins had the second-most home wins in the league, with 23, and were 17-15-2 on the road. If we can give the Habs an edge anywhere, it’s here. Advantage: Montreal
Special teams: Neither team has a dominant power play (the Pens are 16th in the league at 19.9%, and the Canadiens are 22nd at 17.7%), but now that Pittsburgh is at full strength, it has the advantage. The fact that Jason Zucker and Jake Guentzel are both available should help Pittsburgh a lot. The Pens have a top-10 penalty kill, and the Canadiens are 19th in the league. Advantage: Pittsburgh
Series pick: Pittsburgh in four. This is one of the more mismatched qualification-round series. A motivated and rested Penguins roster should have no trouble finishing off the Habs.
How they got here: The Rangers are nearing the end of their rebuild, a transition that was accelerated by signing Artemi Panarin to a blockbuster free-agency deal last summer. It’s possible that Panarin is New York’s most successful splash free-agent signing ever (and the Rangers have no shortage of history in this department), as the Russian winger is a finalist for the Hart Trophy in his first season with the team. The Rangers were buoyed by strong goaltending and a sizzling February in which they won 11 of 15 games, catapulting them back into the wild-card race.
The Canes were banged up when the NHL went on pause — and recently endured a stretch without both of their starting goaltenders — but were still in playoff position. Carolina was building off last season’s Eastern Conference finals run while incorporating a handful of new faces into the lineup. The Rangers swept the season series, but Carolina cumulatively outshot New York in those four games.
First line: Carolina’s top trio of Teuvo Teravainen, Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov are young and dangerous. They like to control possession and combined for seven points — including three goals from Aho — in the four games against the Rangers this season. Mika Zibanejad is having a breakout season as New York’s top center, and he’s flanked by Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich. The three developed good chemistry. Kreider is a hard worker with plenty of big-moment experience: 23 goals in 77 career NHL playoff games. Advantage: tie
Forward depth: The Rangers have an MVP candidate (Panarin) on their second line. That’s scary stuff. Although Panarin developed good rapport with Ryan Strome, the Rangers’ center depth is severely lacking, especially with Filip Chytil and Brett Howden as the No. 3 and No. 4. The bottom six, in general, doesn’t inspire much confidence. Carolina is much better equipped with forward depth, especially after trading for center Vincent Trocheck at the trade deadline. Advantage: Carolina
Defense: Here’s an area in which we see a big talent gap. The Rangers’ defense has been a sore spot all season, allowing 34 shots per game (second in the league). The Blueshirts have some exciting offensive talent on the blue line but no defenseman who profiles in a true No. 1 shutdown role. The Canes feature far more depth. Carolina brought in Sami Vatanen at the deadline because management thought Dougie Hamilton wasn’t going to be healthy for the postseason. Hamilton was having a Norris Trophy-esque campaign when he broke his leg. Although the pause gave him enough time to get back, he was nursing another injury at the end of training camp. Given that Vatanen is also available, plus the incredibly reliable Jaccob Slavin, the Canes have superior talent as well as depth, even if Brett Pesce won’t be available until later rounds. Advantage: Carolina
Goaltending: This is the other big mismatch in the series. But while the Canes have the edge on defense, New York boasts much better options in net. The Rangers will likely start 24-year-old hotshot rookie Igor Shesterkin (a dazzling .935 save percentage at even strength) but can easily call on Henrik Lundqvist if needed (you know, the guy who, in 22 career playoff games facing elimination, is 15-7 with two shutouts, a .941 save percentage and a 1.86 goals-against average). New York also has Alexandar Georgiev, one of the league’s better backups. For Carolina? It’s a not-super-inspiring choice between Petr Mrazek and James Reimer. Advantage: New York
Coaching: Rod Brind’Amour knew how to push all of the right buttons in his rookie season as a coach, leading his team to the Eastern Conference finals. His guys usually buy in big and can smother opponents with their forecheck. David Quinn has squeezed a lot out of this young roster and along with management has kept the three-goalie controversy at bay. Based on recent experience, we have to give Brind’Amour the edge. Advantage: Carolina
Neutral-ice advantage: The Canes were a top-10 road team this season, but the Rangers were top-five. Neither team stood out at home, but traditionally both fan bases can create incredible home-ice environments in the playoffs. Advantage: New York
Special teams: The Rangers have a fantastic power play; it ranked seventh in the league, converting 22.9% of the time. The Blueshirts excel by bringing together Panarin and Zibanejad on the first unit. Chris Kreider is a force in front of the net, and Tony DeAngelo is quite proficient on the point. The only problem? Carolina’s power play was nearly as effective, converting at a 22.3% rate. The Rangers’ penalty kill isn’t a strength, ranking 23rd in the league. The Canes have the fourth-best penalty kill in the league to try to slow down the Rangers. Advantage: Carolina
Series pick: Rangers in five. This series promises to be entertaining, but it’s going to come down to goaltending. The Rangers simply have better options in net, and that will help them pull off an upset.
How they got here: The Islanders were the hottest team in the league this fall, going on a franchise-record 17-game point streak that ended just before Thanksgiving. Things looked super for Barry Trotz’s defensively minded team. Scoring was still an issue, but the Isles sure could stifle opponents with their structured system. To help his offense, New York GM Lou Lamoriello traded for Jean-Gabriel Pageau — arguably the top center available — at the trade deadline and subsequently signed the 27-year-old to a six-year extension. However, right before the season paused, the Isles lost their footing, losing seven straight. The sojourn could help this team reset.
The Panthers had hefty expectations after their most expensive offseason ever. Besides splurging for two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky, the Panthers showed that they meant business by bringing in three-time Stanley Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville. Bobrovsky struggled in his new home, and it took time for Florida players to adjust to Quenneville’s system and his demands. The team shed some salary at the trade deadline, dealing popular forward Vincent Trocheck, and had a hard time recovering, losing 12 of their final 18 games. At the time of the pause, Florida was on the outside of the playoff picture.
First line: For both teams, the main attraction is the top-line center. In New York, it’s the crafty Mathew Barzal, the only Isles forward with more than 54 points. In Florida, it’s captain Aleksander Barkov, who is continually lauded by his peers as one of the most underrated players in the league. Barkov is flanked by Frank Vatrano and Evgenii Dadonov. Vatrano and Barkov click well after often playing on the penalty kill together, and Dadonov was on pace for his first 30-goal season. Barzal seems to have better options with power forward Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle on his wings, even if neither player is having his best season production-wise. Advantage: New York
Forward depth: Only the Detroit Red Wings scored fewer goals than the Islanders this season, and Lee and Brock Nelson are the only Isles players to crack 20 goals. New York’s forward group is sound but not exciting and not very productive. Pageau’s addition on the third line is a boost, but he’s still getting acclimated to his new team. The Panthers, by contrast, have five 20-plus goal scorers. Quietly, Florida’s offense cruised this season, ranking sixth in the NHL. Although they’re missing Trocheck, they still have an edge. Advantage: Florida
Defense: The Islanders had the league’s fourth-best defense. A lot of credit goes to Trotz’s tried and true system (deservedly so), but New York has the personnel to back it up. Specifically exciting is the return of top-pairing defenseman Adam Pelech, who was written off for the season because of an injured Achilles tendon. Pelech and partner Pulock were having a fantastic season and hopefully will pick up where they left off. They also have plenty of veterans to round out the group. The Panthers have had struggles in their zone. That has been an issue all season and is something management might be forced to address in free agency. Advantage: New York
Goaltending: We know how good Bobrovsky can be when he’s on; just look at last year’s spectacular first-round sweep of the Lightning, when he posted a .932 save percentage to lead Columbus to its first playoff series win. But after signing a big, lengthy contract with Florida, Bobrovsky had his worst statistical season since 2011-12. We also know that historically he has had some playoff lapses. Bobrovsky is a wild card here. On the other hand, New York has two viable options in Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss. Although Varlamov (11 more starts, two more shutouts) will likely get the initial nod, Trotz feels comfortable going to either netminder. Advantage: New York
Coaching: This is a powerhouse coaching matchup. Among active coaches in the league, Quenneville and Trotz rank first and second, respectively, in wins. Quenneville has three Cups with the Blackhawks but is dealing with a whole new challenge in Florida. Trotz won a Cup with the Caps but doesn’t have as many weapons with this group. Advantage: tie
Neutral-ice advantage: The Isles were better at home than the Panthers this season. The Panthers were better on the road than the Isles. You could argue that New York has an edge because it’s used to playing in two different arenas for home games, but that feels like a stretch. Advantage: tie
Special teams: The Panthers showed glimpses of good power plays and penalty kills, but both trailed off — especially the penalty kill — in the season’s final two months. Florida allowed 29 power-play goals in its final 39 games. Although the Islanders’ power play is dreadful (ranking 24th in the league), their penalty kill is average. Advantage: tie
Series pick: Islanders in five. The Panthers’ offense presents a problem, but in the Islanders’ defense we trust. The key for New York is its goal scoring. The Isles were eliminated by the Canes in last year’s playoffs after scoring only five goals in four games and will need to do better than that.
How they got here: Last year’s all-in playoff push for the Blue Jackets exhausted a lot of resources and led to a summer of turnover. Columbus was expected to regress as it recovered. Then John Tortorella did what he does best: Coach the heck out of a team, giving them an “us against the world” vibe. It helps that there wasn’t any drop-off in goal, despite the team’s saying goodbye to two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky. The Jackets believed in two largely unknowns — Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins — and each played beyond expectations. Columbus had to endure rough injury luck throughout the season, including being without No. 1 defenseman Seth Jones at the season’s pause. The Blue Jackets were hovering just around the wild-card spot when the NHL paused but seemed poised to make a late push.
As for the Maple Leafs? Once again, expectations for this team were sky high, especially as they boasted the most expensive group of forwards in the league. But once again, defense was a concern. The season turned out to be a roller coaster. Mike Babcock was fired (and replaced by the much younger Sheldon Keefe). Key players were injured. Performances were wildly inconsistent. Even still, Toronto stayed afloat in the top-heavy Atlantic Division, in part because the Panthers performed below expectations despite their expensive summer. The postseason offers a fresh start for this group, but they have to be wary of the Blue Jackets’ stymying forecheck, which doomed the Lightning in last year’s first round.
First line: Pierre Luc-Dubois, the No. 3 overall pick in 2016, is coming along nicely in his third NHL season. His wingers, Alexandre Texier and Oliver Bjorkstrand, are two young players the Blue Jackets are excited about. But let’s be honest, you’d probably take a trio of William Nylander, Auston Matthews and Zach Hyman any day. Matthews — who was taken two spots above Dubois in that 2016 draft — alone outscored the Blue Jackets’ top line this season. (Matthews had 47 goals. Columbus’ trio combined for 45). Advantage: Toronto
Forward depth: Since Artemi Panarin left, there isn’t as much discrepancy between the Blue Jackets’ top scorers and everybody else’s. Although it’s much more spread out, production isn’t exactly eye-popping. The top eight scorers have between 10 and 21 goals. Columbus is a bottom-third team in goals per game (2.53). It didn’t help that Cam Atkinson, coming off his first 40-goal season, missed 36 games. The Maple Leafs? Their second line (Ilya Mikheyev, John Tavares and Mitch Marner) would be a great first line for most teams in the league. Toronto might have an X factor in 18-year-old Nick Robertson, who scored 55 goals in 46 OHL games this season. ESPN’s Chris Peters named Robertson his prospect of the year; the teenager earned his spot on the 31-player roster in training camp. Don’t be shocked if he gets game action. Advantage: Toronto
Defense: In Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, the Blue Jackets have the best young No. 1 pairing in the league. Jones is healthy again, which is a huge coup. In general, these two teams are stylistically different. The Leafs rely on their offensive firepower but defensively have holes. The Blue Jackets have terrific defensive structure throughout and pride themselves on stifling the top offenses in the league. Columbus allowed two or fewer goals in nearly half of its games this season. Advantage: Columbus
Goaltending: Frederik Andersen had an up-and-down season, but we know he has the capability to go on a hot stretch, which could present problems for the offensively challenged Jackets. Toronto shored up its backup role (a longstanding sore spot) by acquiring Jack Campbell. The Blue Jackets, however, come in with two dynamic youngsters who led this team all season and combined for the fourth-best team goals-against average in the league. Neither Korpisalo nor Merzlikins has NHL playoff experience, but Merzlikins has had standout performances for Team Latvia in World Championships. Advantage: Columbus
Coaching: Sheldon Keefe has been a breath of fresh air for the Maple Leafs, as he has worked with the young and talented roster to maximize its strengths. But John Tortorella is already a legend; he has won Cups, has devised game plans to upset giants and has a tried-and-true approach of riling up his team by, well, getting fired up himself. Advantage: Columbus
Neutral-ice advantage: Sure, they have to stay in hotels and be away from their families, but this game is being held at the Toronto Maple Leafs’ arena. No matter how you spin it, there’s some element of home-ice advantage. Advantage: Toronto
Special teams: The Leafs have a top-five power play, which is what you’d expect from a team with that many talented forwards. They’ll go up against a formidable Blue Jackets penalty kill, but Toronto comes in with the edge. Toronto’s penalty kill struggled this season, but Columbus’s power play is among the league’s worst. Advantage: Toronto
Series pick: Toronto in five. It isn’t going to be easy — Columbus should give Toronto fits with its forecheck — but playing at their home arena, this is the Leafs’ series to lose.
How they got here: The defending Stanley Cup champion Blues didn’t miss a beat — or star forward Vladimir Tarasenko, surprisingly — as they finished atop the Western Conference with 94 points. Right there with them were the Avalanche (92 points), who overcame injury adversity of their own, thanks in part to a Hart Trophy-nominated performance by Nathan MacKinnon. The Golden Knights fired Gerard Gallant, hired Peter DeBoer from the archrival Sharks and won the Pacific Division with 86 points. The Stars fired coach Jim Montgomery in December because of off-ice issues, promoted assistant Rick Bowness to interim coach and finished fourth in the West with 82 points.
First line: The two best lines in the round robin aren’t currently playing together: Colorado’s MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, a candidate for the best line in hockey, and Vegas’s William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, a longstanding trio that dominates when united. The Golden Knights also have a dynamic line when they move Karlsson in with Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty, who is still working his way back into the lineup. The Avalanche line is just too good to keep apart for too long if they’re all healthy. Advantage: Colorado
Forward depth: The Blues return much of the wrecking crew from the previous postseason, including Tarasenko, who was limited to 10 regular-season games because of shoulder surgery. GM Joe Sakic addressed some depth issues for the Avalanche by acquiring Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Vladislav Namestnikov and the surprisingly good Valeri Nichushkin in the past year. The playoff acumen of Joe Pavelski will be valuable for Dallas, but the Stars are still a top-heavy team at forward. The Golden Knights have a stellar top six and the “meat grinder” line with Ryan Reaves. It’s close between the Blues and Avalanche, but overall, it’s difficult to deny the champions’ depth here. Advantage: St. Louis
Defense: The three best defensemen in the round robin are Alex Pietrangelo, who should have been a Norris finalist for the Blues; Miro Heiskanen, the brilliant 21-year-old for the Stars; and, with due respect to Shea Theodore, Cale Makar of the Avalanche, as there’s no denying the brilliance of the Calder Trophy candidate, at least offensively. Top to bottom, the Blues have the edge in overall blue-line depth, especially with the smart deadline addition of Marco Scandella. Advantage: St. Louis
Goaltending: These are four tremendously good goalie tandems. Few goalies can claim to have won the Stanley Cup on the road in a Game 7, but Jordan Binnington is one of them. Both Binnington (12.9 goals saved above average) and Jake Allen (10.8) were terrific this season. So were Colorado’s Philipp Grubauer (12.6) and Pavel Francouz, who went 21-7-4 with a .923 save percentage. For a while, the Stars laid claim to the best goalie tandem in the West, with Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin, who combined for a 2.52 goals-against average, second only to that of Boston. But when the Golden Knights traded for Robin Lehner at the deadline as insurance in case Marc-Andre Fleury‘s struggles continued, that changed the conversation. It’s a very tight race, but we have to give the Knights the edge. Advantage: Vegas
Coaching: Craig Berube of St. Louis was a finalist for the Jack Adams last season after the Blues’ second-half turnaround. The Golden Knights’ DeBoer has taken two teams to the Stanley Cup Final but lost both times. Colorado’s Jared Bednar never gets the credit he deserves behind the bench, with three straight 90-plus-point seasons. Bowness, the NHL’s oldest active head coach, kept the Stars together through a tumultuous season and built on the system that was already in place. He hasn’t coached in the playoffs since 1992 with the Bruins. Although DeBoer might be the best tactician here, Berube has shown to be the best fit with this team. Advantage: St. Louis
Neutral-ice advantage: The Golden Knights suffer the most here, as playing in Vegas during the playoffs gives them a distinct home-ice advantage. But given this surreal situation, the Blues have to get the nod as a veteran team that has shown an uncanny ability to play through adversity and, more importantly, move on from it. Advantage: St. Louis
Special teams: The Blues had the best power play among these teams, ranking third at 24.3%, despite not having Tarasenko. The Avalanche (81.4%) had the highest-rated penalty kill (13th), with Dallas (17th) and the Blues (18th) behind them. The Golden Knights were ninth on the power play and 27th on the kill. Advantage: St. Louis
3. Dallas Stars
4. Golden Knights
The Knights are still healing, the Stars are a stout defensive team, and we’re predicting that the Avalanche make an early statement with a win over St. Louis for the top seed in the conference.
How they got here: The Oilers rebooted their hockey operations side with the hiring of GM Ken Holland and coach Dave Tippett last summer, leading to a 37-25-9 (.585 points percentage) record, their best since 2016-17. Edmonton was carried by its two stars, with Leon Draisaitl (110 points) winning the Art Ross and becoming a Hart Trophy finalist for the first time and Connor McDavid finishing with 97 points in 64 games.
While the Oilers had a 93.3% chance of making the playoffs at the pause, per Money Puck, the Blackhawks (32-30-8, .514) had a 3.4% chance as the last-place team in the Central Division. Sellers at the trade deadline, the Hawks are a playoff team, thanks to the 24-team postseason expansion, a head count that we’re sure was in no way influenced by the ability to get Chicago into the tournament.
First line: The Blackhawks’ line of Patrick Kane (84 points) and Alex Nylander flanking center Dylan Strome played well in the regular season and looked good in training camp. They can create pressure for turnovers and, most importantly, get Kane the puck as often as possible. The Oilers hit on something with Draisaitl centering Kailer Yamamoto and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but in camp, they moved Nuge off that line to skate with Connor McDavid and Zack Kassian. We’ll consider that the Oilers’ top line, and because it has Connor McDavid on it, we’ll give them the nod. Advantage: Edmonton
Forward depth: There was a country mile between the offensive outputs of McDavid and Draisaitl and that of the next-highest scorer on the team, Nugent-Hopkins (61 points). This is very much a two-line team, with some pieces added or subtracted from the stars’ lines. One intriguing name is Andreas Athanasiou, the Oilers’ trade-deadline pickup from Detroit. He’ll likely start in the bottom six to add some offense down the lineup. Alex Chiasson can contribute offense as a depth forward. James Neal started on fire for Edmonton; he’s now expected to skate on the fourth line, having gone 13 games without a goal before the pause. The Blackhawks got a breakout rookie season from Dominik Kubalik, who scored 30 goals to secure a Calder Trophy nomination. He’ll see time with Jonathan Toews (60 points). Alex DeBrincat took a step back from last season, with a 0.64 points-per-game average, but is dangerous. Brandon Saad had a strong goal-scoring season. One wild card: rookie center Kirby Dach, a 19-year-old who should get time on the top power-play unit. The Blackhawks will be without spark plug Andrew Shaw, who is still working back from a concussion. Overall, Chicago is a better 5-on-5 team than Edmonton, and depth at forward is part of that. Advantage: Blackhawks
Defense: Oscar Klefbom (25:25 ice time per game) and Darnell Nurse (23:27) anchor the top two defensive pairings for the Oilers, with Klefbom playing mostly with Adam Larsson and Nurse skating with Ethan Bear. Veteran Kris Russell, Matthew Benning and Caleb Jones fill out the lineup. The Oilers took a hit when defenseman Mike Green, whom they acquired at the trade deadline, opted out of the restart. The Blackhawks will also be missing a defenseman, as 35-year-old veteran Brent Seabrook tried to make a go of it but will remain in Chicago after undergoing three surgeries in the past year. His former defensive partner, Duncan Keith (24:23 average time on ice), remains the blue-line standard-bearer, skating the majority of his time with 19-year-old Adam Boqvist (13 points). The duo of Olli Maatta and Slater Koekkoek were sneaky good (56.11 expected goals percentage). Calvin de Haan and Connor Murphy round out the group. Overall, with these two groups, you’re trying to figure out which mediocre blue line is worse. Advantage: tie
Goaltending: This comparison begins and ends with Corey Crawford‘s health. The Blackhawks’ goalie missed the start of training camp because of a positive COVID-19 test. He traveled with the team, but his training for the restart was impacted. Malcolm Subban — acquired from Vegas when Chicago traded Robin Lehner to the Golden Knights — and Collin Delia are the other options. If Crawford plays and can be as effective as he was in the regular season (14.2 goals saved above average), he’s the best goalie in the series. For the Oilers, Mikko Koskinen (11.4 goals saved above average) was multitudes better than Mike Smith statistically, yet there’s a chance that both could see time. Because Crawford’s status is so murky, we can’t call a winner here. Advantage: tie
Coaching: Jeremy Colliton remains maligned in Chicago, as the Blackhawks finished right around the same points percentage as last season. Their defensive improvement was thanks to better goaltending. Their offensive decline (2.97 goals per game) was troubling. Overall, no one is sure what a Jeremy Colliton team looks like. Dave Tippett obviously had the luxury of two star players pulling the rope for Edmonton, but he created a structure that allowed them to improve defensively year over year. Plus, he certainly has some years on his counterpart. Advantage: Edmonton
Neutral-ice advantage: One of the true X factors in the Western Conference playoffs is what, if any, advantage Edmonton will receive by playing at home. It’s stuck in the bubble like the rest of the teams. The Oilers won’t always get to use their locker room. But being in a familiar environment during an awkward postseason tournament has to give them some benefit. Advantage: Edmonton
Special teams: This series — and, frankly, all of their playoff series — will hinge on the Oilers’ power play. Edmonton clicked at a 29.5% conversion rate, the highest since that of the 1978-79 New York Islanders. They also were second in the NHL on the penalty kill (84.4%). Chicago was 10th on the kill (82.1%), but its power play was 28th (15.2%). That is the most lopsided advantage in this series. Advantage: Edmonton
Series pick: Edmonton in four. McDavid and Draisaitl can win a best-of-five sprint on their own against a team that didn’t earn a playoff spot.
How they got here: The Predators made significant changes last summer in trading defenseman P.K. Subban and signing center Matt Duchene and then made another significant one during the season when they fired longtime coach Peter Laviolette after 31 games, replacing him with former Devils coach John Hynes (16-11-1). Nashville had a 35-26-8 record (.565 points percentage) and was right on the wild-card bubble at the pause of the season.
The Coyotes also made a big change last summer in trading for Phil Kessel and two more during the season. They traded for Devils star Taylor Hall in December and then watched the stunning departure of the man who traded for him right before the season was started, as the Coyotes claimed that GM John Chayka “quit” on the team. Arizona finished 33-29-8 (.529 points percentage), making the postseason thanks to the NHL’s expanded playoff field.
First line: Nashville coach John Hynes told ESPN that his top line could be reunited in the postseason. Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson didn’t see much time (125 minutes) together this season because of injuries and ineffectiveness. But when they find their groove, they’re one of the best lines in hockey; witness last season’s 58.25 expected goals percentage. The Coyotes’ top line of Christian Dvorak, Conor Garland and Hall has been solid offensively (3.41 goals per 60 minutes) but nothing special defensively (3.28). Advantage: Nashville
Forward depth: The Predators are hoping to get a bit more offense out of Duchene in the postseason, in which he had 10 points in 10 playoff games for Columbus last season. He’ll skate with Kyle Turris and Mikael Granlund at the start. The line of Craig Smith, Nick Bonino and Rocco Grimaldi has consistently been the Predators’ most effective trio. Some combination of Calle Jarnkrok, Colton Sissons, Austin Watson and Colin Blackwell will fill out the lineup. The Coyotes’ top scorer this season? Center Nick Schmaltz with 45 points, with forward Clayton Keller right behind him (44). They’re in the mix with Carl Soderberg (35 points), Lawson Crouse (25), Derek Stepan (28), Michael Grabner (11) and Kessel on the scoring lines. Kessel is the key to the team’s depth, seeking to rebound from a disappointing regular season, with 14 goals in 70 games. He said he was battling a nagging groin injury that has now had months to heal. Advantage: Nashville
Defense: Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis give Nashville one of the best defensive pairings in the NHL. They drive possession and have a 55.87 expected goals percentage. Offensively, Josi kicked into a different gear this season, with a 0.94 points-per-game average, earning a Norris Trophy nomination. The second pairing of Dante Fabbro and Mattias Ekholm should have been more effective than it was, sitting slightly on the positive side of possession and the negative side of goal differential. The rest of the blue line features a mix of Jarred Tinordi, Yannick Weber, Dan Hamhuis and Korbinian Holzer. The Coyotes’ Oliver Ekman-Larsson had 30 points in 66 games during an injury-riddled season, but after an injury scare in training camp, he appears ready to roll. His primary partner in the regular season was Jason Demers. Alex Goligoski and Jakob Chychrun played together the most, and Ilya Lyubushkin, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Jordan Oesterle filled out the lineup. But given the top pairing for Nashville, the Preds get the nod here. Advantage: Nashville
Goaltending: Pekka Rinne is a franchise legend who is three seasons removed from backstopping Nashville to the Stanley Cup Final. But at 37 years old, his numbers fell off a cliff this season: an .895 save percentage with a negative goals saved above average (-1.6) in going 18-14-4. Understudy Juuse Saros, meanwhile, had 12.3 goals saved above average and a .914 save percentage in going 17-12-4. Hynes has said that both goaltenders could see time in the playoffs. Did the season pause help Rinne recharge? Meanwhile, Arizona has a good problem: Both Darcy Kuemper (15.6 goals saved above average) and Antti Raanta (13.4) were spectacular this season, as Arizona was third in the NHL at 2.61 goals against per game. The team is in good hands with either netminder. Advantage: Arizona
Coaching: Rick Tocchet is a well-liked coach whose teams just can’t generate enough offense. The additions of Hall and Kessel moved Arizona out of the shooting percentage basement, but the Coyotes were still 24th in the NHL at 8.6%. Hynes is also well-liked by his players — Hall in particular sings his praises based on their time with the Devils — but it remains to be seen if he’s the guy to get more out of this roster than Laviolette did. Hynes has five playoff games to his credit. Tocchet, as a coach, has none. Advantage: tie
Neutral-ice advantage: Nashville excelled on the road (18-12-4), while Arizona played better at home (17-12-4), but we’re leaning to the Coyotes for two reasons. First, a smothering defensive style has an advantage in a lifeless building. Second, although the Predators didn’t dominate at home, their arena in the postseason is an absolute party and a very tough place to play. Advantage: Arizona
Special teams: Arizona has a better power play (19.2%) than Nashville (17.3%) and holds a distinct advantage on the penalty kill: fifth in the league (82.7%) vs. third from the bottom for the Predators (76.1%). Advantage: Arizona
Series pick: Arizona in five. On paper, this series leans Nashville, especially when you consider that the Predators weren’t healthy most of the season. But in some ways, neither were the Coyotes. In a sprint to three wins, we’ll take goaltending and a motivated Taylor Hall in an upset.
How they got here: The Canucks are making their first postseason appearance since 2015, thanks to a 36-27-6 record (.565) that had them on the bubble as the season was paused. Vancouver augmented a young core with some veteran acquisitions, and that young core just kept getting better, as defenseman Quinn Hughes became the third straight Canucks player to earn a Calder nomination. Minnesota appeared to be headed to also-ran status when coach Bruce Boudreau was fired after 57 games. But coach Dean Evason went 8-4-0, the Wild started generating more offense, and they were added to the expanded postseason as a team on the upswing.
First line: The Canucks traded for Tyler Toffoli at the trade deadline and watched him score 10 points in 10 games. He was added to the top line with young star Elias Pettersson (66 points in 68 games) and J.T. Miller, whose 72 points led Canucks scorers this season. That’s wo veterans with playoff experience flanking one of the best young offensive talents in the NHL, and if that doesn’t work, coach Travis Green could just pull the cord and parachute Brock Boeser back on to the team’s best line in Toffoli’s place. The Wild don’t have a monster top line rolling into the postseason, so we’ll go with “whatever line Kevin Fiala is playing on.” The 23-year-old winger broke out with 23 goals in 64 games, proving that not every aspect of Paul Fenton’s brief tenure as general manager was a bust. Fiala was skating with winger Jordan Greenway (28 points) and center Eric Staal (47 points) during training camp. Advantage: Vancouver
Forward depth: This would be an entirely different debate had Minnesota been permitted to have Kirill Kaprizov, the Russian phenom, on the roster, but alas, the NHL wouldn’t allow the rookie to be added. As it stands, the Wild have a forward group made up of aging veterans such as Zach Parise (46 points), Mats Zuccarello (37 points), Marcus Foligno (25 points) and Mikko Koivu (21 points) playing with younger talent such as Luke Kunin (31 points), Joel Eriksson Ek (29 points) and Alex Galchenyuk, who had seven points in 14 games after being acquired from Pittsburgh in the Jason Zucker trade. If the top line remains as expected, the Canucks have a stout second line of Tanner Pearson (45 points), Bo Horvat (53 points) and Boeser (45 points in 57 games). Loui Eriksson didn’t provide much offensive (13 points) but was part of an effective line with Horvat and Pearson for stretches this season. The rest of the lineup was inconsistent: a line of Adam Gaudette, Antoine Roussel and Jake Virtanen struggled at times, and forwards such as Jay Beagle, Tyler Motte, and Brandon Sutter filled out the lineup. Advantage: tie
Defense: Hughes was a game-changer offensively for the Canucks, with 53 points in 68 games and averaging 21:53 of ice time per game as a 20-year-old rookie. He’s paired with veteran Chris Tanev. The Canucks’ other veteran mainstay, Alexander Edler, had 33 points in 59 games and will likely play with Tyler Myers (21 points), a pairing that was slightly more effective than Edler’s duo with Troy Stecher. The third pairing could see Stecher paired with veteran Oscar Fantenberg or, potentially, rookie Olli Juolevi, the fifth overall pick in 2016 who dazzled in training camp, much to the befuddlement of those who wrote him off as a bust. For the Wild, Jared Spurgeon and Ryan Suter are a top-tier defensive duo, with a 57.49 expected goals percentage. As usual, Suter was a workhorse (24:38 average ice time), with Spurgeon (22:34) right behind him. Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba were also strong, with a 53.56 expected goals percentage in more than 834 minutes together. After that … well, there’s a drop-off. Brad Hunt and Carson Soucy could be the third pairing. Keep in mind that defenseman Greg Pateryn opted out of the restart, though he wouldn’t have remedied the depth problem. Advantage: Minnesota
Goaltending: This is the key to the series, especially for the Wild. Alex Stalock was Evason’s goalie during his brief stretch behind the bench. He was Minnesota’s top goalie this season, too, with a .910 save percentage and a 2.67 goals-against average. We can’t be too hard on Devan Dubnyk, who missed a month of the season to attend to a family health issue. But the numbers are the numbers: Dubnyk had a .890 save percentage and a minus-9.4 goals saved above average. It was his second straight season of statistic decline. The Wild were second in the NHL in expected goals against per 60 minutes (2.00). That their actual defense didn’t come close to that effectiveness is due in part to how porous their goaltending was. It isn’t a stretch to say that Jacob Markstrom, a pending unrestricted free agent, could have been a Vezina finalist this season. He had a .918 save percentage and a 2.75 goals-against average in going 23-16-4, a strong last line of defense with a plus-11.8 goals saved above average. Thatcher Demko is a capable backup, but this is Markstrom’s show. Advantage: Vancouver
Coaching: Both coaches are making their debuts as bench bosses in the Stanley Cup postseason. Green has impressed with his ability to juggle his lineup while putting faith in his young players to excel. Although the Wild were playing solid team defense under Boudreau, their shot totals and offensive pressure increased in Evason’s brief time behind the bench, an audition that, combined with his preparation during the pause, removed the word “interim” from his job title. Advantage: Vancouver
Neutral-ice advantage: These were two dominant home teams, with Minnesota going 19-11-5 and Vancouver going 22-9-4. The Wild have the kind of veteran players who can adapt to the vacuum of an empty arena. The intrigue is in how the young players on Vancouver will adapt to a crowd-less series. Advantage: Minnesota
Special teams: Both teams had a strong power play, with Vancouver ranking fourth (24.2%) and Minnesota ranking 11th (21.3%) in the NHL. The Canucks’ penalty kill got over that magic number of 80% (80.5%), and Minnesota was 25th in the league (77.2%). If the Canucks earn power-play time, watch out. Advantage: Vancouver
Series pick: Canucks in five. There is a strong analytics case for the Wild to win this series. In fact, the “veteran team takes out young, top-heavy, offensive upstart” narrative being applied to Edmonton vs. Chicago is what you get here. But if the qualification round ends up being “fun, messy chaos in front of a goalie you hope makes the save,” well, that’s basically Vancouver’s style. I was one of the only writers who picked the Canucks for the playoffs in October. I’ll pick them again here to win three games against a tough out in Minnesota and advance to the Round of 16.
How they got here: How close was the Western Conference bubble at the time of the COVID-19 pause? No. 6 Nashville was separated from No. 9 Winnipeg by .002 in points percentage. The Jets would have been in on points (80, after a 37-28-6 season) but out on points percentage (.563). Calgary would have been out on points (79, having gone 36-27-7) but in on points percentage (.564). Thanks to the NHL’s playoff expansion, they’re both in — and facing each other.
First line: The Flames are expected to roll center Sean Monahan and winger Johnny Gaudreau out with their most frequent collaborator, forward Elias Lindholm. The trio wasn’t nearly as effective this season as it was last season, with an expected goals percentage of 49.55. Some of that was on Gaudreau, who didn’t find his point-per-game form until after the All-Star break, after which he had 20 points in 20 games and skated to a plus-4. This a dangerous line if it can get rolling, but the magic hasn’t been there for most of the season. The Jets’ top line was also its top line last season: Mark Scheifele centering Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler. They’re outkicking their coverage this season, posting a 58.11 goals-for percentage while managing a 49.58 expected goals-for percentage. They possess the puck and give up considerably less defensively than their top-line counterparts. Advantage: Winnipeg
Forward depth: The second line for Winnipeg features Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine, with Cody Eakin between them. They saw a brief six games together before the pause, with Eakin having come over from the Golden Knights. The Jets have used a line of Adam Lowry, Andrew Copp and Jack Roslovic in training camp that was absolutely dominated (35.54 expected goals percentage) in 27 regular-season games. Mason Appleton and Mathieu Perreault worked well together this season and could be paired with Nick Shore. Gabriel Bourque is in the mix. Alas, Bryan Little is not, as the solid center was left off the training camp roster as he recovers from a perforated eardrum. The Flames’ second line was their best this season: Andrew Mangiapane, Matthew Tkachuk and Mikael Backlund — the 3M Line 2.0 — combined for a 57.48 expected goals percentage at 5-on-5. Tkachuk led the team with 61 points in 69 games. Derek Ryan, Dillon Dube and the much-maligned Milan Lucic were an effective defensive trio, despite exhibiting limited offensive pop. Sam Bennett is a wild card, as he could play up on the third line or on a fourth-line featuring Mark Jankowski and Tobias Rieder. Advantage: Calgary
Defense: Calgary took a hit on the blue line when Travis Hamonic opted out of the NHL restart, but it’s a testament to the Flames’ depth that this remains an above-average group. Mark Giordano followed his Norris Trophy season with a huge regression to the mean, but he and T.J. Brodie are an outstanding top pairing. Noah Hanifin actually put up better numbers skating with Rasmus Andersson than with Hamonic. Erik Gustafsson and Derek Forbort, both trade deadline pickups, have played only seven games with the Flames. Michael Stone, Oliver Kylington and top prospect Juuso Valimaki are in the mix. One of the reasons goalie Connor Hellebuyck‘s performance this season earned him a Vezina nomination was that the Jets lost four of their six defensemen from last season to trades, free agency and whatever went on with Dustin Byfuglien. Hellebuyck was standing on his head behind a porous group. The Jets’ blue line got a nice boost at the trade deadline, with Dylan DeMelo coming in from Ottawa, giving Josh Morrissey a solid partner. Neal Pionk had a strong offensive season, but his pairing with Dmitry Kulikov was inconsistent. Nathan Beaulieu, Tucker Poolman, Luca Sbisa and Anthony Bitetto are all in the mix. But this one’s no contest. Advantage: Calgary
Goaltending: Speaking of no contest … Hellebuyck was the league’s top goaltender this season, with a 31-21-5 record in 58 games, a .922 save percentage and 19.86 expected goals saved above average. He’s the reason the Jets made the postseason and the best argument for why they can win this series. The Flames have a goalie competition that might not be one after a strong training camp from Cam Talbot, who was the superior goalie to David Rittich in the regular season. Don’t sleep on the fact that Talbot had a strong, 13-game postseason run with Edmonton three years ago, with a .924 save percentage. Advantage: Winnipeg
Coaching: Paul Maurice of Winnipeg has coached 80 more playoff games than Geoff Ward of Calgary, which is to say that he has coached 80 playoff games. That’s an obvious advantage here, though Ward deserves a ton of credit for taking over after Bill Peters resigned in November following an abuse investigation and guiding the Flames to a 24-15-3 record thereafter. Advantage: Winnipeg
Neutral-ice advantage: The biggest bummer of the qualification round is not getting a chance to watch this all-Canadian series play out in front of a “white out” crowd in Winnipeg and the “C of red” in Calgary. Advantage: tie
Special teams: The Flames were 12th in the NHL on the power play (21.2%), with the Jets 15th (20.5%). But the Flames had a big advantage on the penalty kill, in which they were eight (82.1%) to the Jets’ 22nd-ranked unit (77.6%). Advantage: Calgary
Series pick: Flames in 4. Hellebuyck steals a game, but the depth disadvantages for the Jets — especially on defense — tilt the series to Calgary.