2020 NHL playoffs preview: First-round matchups, series picks


The 2020 NHL playoffs will officially begin on Tuesday, as the 24-team tournament — with five-game qualification round series and round-robin seeding matchups — has moved on to a more recognizable, 16-team version.

This round includes several matchups where revenge will be on the mind of one team (or both, for separate reasons), and based on what we saw in the earlier round, no favorite should consider itself safe from a stunning upset.

How will the matchups play out? Let’s take an in-depth look at each matchup and make our picks for which teams will advance.

Note: Emily Kaplan previewed the Eastern Conference, and Greg Wyshynski did the honors for the Western Conference. Advanced stats are from Hockey Reference, Natural Stat Trick and Evolving Hockey

More: Check out the full NHL postseason schedule here.

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Eastern Conference

What we learned in the qualification round: The Flyers were the hottest team in the NHL at the pause — tied for the best record from Jan. 8 onward — and picked up right where they left off, running the table in the Eastern Conference round-robin. Philly flexed its scoring depth, while Carter Hart (and Brian Elliott, in one appearance) looked sharp in net.

The 12th-seeded Habs shocked everyone by knocking out the full-strength Pittsburgh Penguins. The easy storyline is that Carey Price stole the series. While Montreal’s 32-year-old goaltender was excellent, it was the Canadiens’ entire defensive structure that proved the Habs won’t be an easy out. Shea Weber is playing the best hockey of his Montreal career.

First line: The Flyers’ two top forwards, Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier, were both held without a point in the qualification round. Jakub Voracek wasn’t available for the Flyers’ final round-robin game, but Joel Farabee plugged in seamlessly, recording a goal. Although it hasn’t clicked yet, the Flyers’ top line is typically scary good (and Giroux entered this summer with 0.9 points per game in 72 playoff appearances, so expect more from him). Phillip Danault joins Couturier as one of the best two-way centers in the league, but he’s been bumped down for checking-line duties as Montreal has trotted out Tomas Tatar, Nick Suzuki and Brendan Gallagher as its first line. The trio boasts talent but combined for just one goal against Pittsburgh. Advantage: Flyers

Forward depth: The Flyers’ second line, with Kevin Hayes, Travis Konecny and Scott Laughton, has looked especially dominant. You’re in good shape when a guy like Nicolas Aube-Kubel (on waivers in September) can score a pair of goals against reigning Vezina Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy. Another good sign for Philly: GM Chuck Fletcher did a nice job shoring up center depth. For the Habs, having Danault lower in the lineup can mean matchup nightmares, and Montreal feels great about the way rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi looks in this tournament. Max Domi as a fourth-line center isn’t too shabby, either. Advantage: Flyers

Defense: Weber, the 34-year-old captain, was a force in the Pittsburgh series. Ben Chiarot, Jeff Petry and Weber have been shouldering big workloads this summer, and all three have looked fantastic. As for Philly, if you were previously unaware about how good Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim are, this summer is a good introduction (spoiler: They’re very good). Shayne Gostisbehere‘s reemergence as an offensive threat is a wild card, though we’re still concerned about his defensive decision-making. Philadelphia sparkled defensively in the round-robin, allowing a mere 26 shots per game. Advantage: Tie

Goaltending: You’re going to hear a lot about 21-year-old Carter Hart during this series, and for good reason. Philadelphia’s prized prospect is finally getting playoff experience and has looked great so far. The Flyers also boast better goaltending depth, as Elliott turned away 16 of 17 shots against the Caps in the round-robin. But Hart grew up idolizing Carey Price, and last round proved why the Habs goaltender still tops those player polls every year. Price was sensational against Pittsburgh, leading all goalies in this tournament with a .947 save percentage, with the Penguins controlling the shot share for most of the series. Advantage: Canadiens

Coaching: These two coaches went head-to-head in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final — Claude Julien with the Bruins, Alain Vigneault with the Canucks — and Vigneault also brought the Rangers to the Cup Final in 2014. Julien put on a master class in game-planning against Pittsburgh, creating defensive mismatches. You see why Vigneault is a Jack Adams candidate this year, as he pushes all the right buttons with his group. (One small example: trusting rookie Farabee on the top line against the Lightning and being rewarded with a goal). Advantage: Tie

Special teams: Neither team has scored a power-play goal this summer, which is troublesome. But we have more proof of concept with the Flyers, who were around the league average at 20.8% during the regular season. The Habs’ man-advantage unit is so unproductive, it can often be a liability. The Flyers’ penalty kill has been flawless, but they’ve been short-handed only seven times this postseason. The Canadiens allowed three power-play goals to the Penguins — nothing about which to be ashamed — but more troublesome is that they took 17 penalties through four games. Advantage: Flyers

Prediction: Flyers in six. The Habs showed they have a blueprint for shutting down a talented team, but no team looks as dangerous right now as Philadelphia.

What we learned in the qualification round: The Blue Jackets are giant killers, and they’ll get a chance to fully cement their legacy by eliminating the high-powered Lightning for the second straight year. Despite losing Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene in free agency, Columbus proved its foundation — propelled by a swarming forecheck — is strong. There is no drop off in goal from last season, and the Blue Jackets have enough scoring to win games. The most impressive aspect for the Blue Jackets in the qualification round wasn’t how they shut down the Maple Leafs (limiting Toronto to 10 goals through five games, including just three goals at 5-on-5) but rather, how they responded in Game 5 after a colossal meltdown in Game 4. That’s championship mettle.

The Lightning, meanwhile, played the entire round robin without Steven Stamkos, and some of it without Victor Hedman. Though both star players were missed, it’s clear GM Julien BriseBois (and his predecessor, Steve Yzerman) built the deepest team in the league, because they were not missed that much. Tampa Bay’s depth — sprinkled with reinforcements added both last summer and at the trade deadline — was on full display. And now the Lightning get a chance to avenge last year’s embarrassing first-round sweep against the very team that ousted them. There is no shortage of drama in this series.

First line: The 2020 postseason has been a coming out party for Pierre-Luc Dubois (averaging more than 20 minutes per game, and scoring a hat trick in Game 3) and we’re here for it. The No. 3 pick of the 2016 draft, his entry-level contract expires this offseason and he’s due for a huge payday. Cam Atkinson (41 goals two seasons ago, just 12 in in an injury-shortened 44 games this season) is a fine wingman, but they don’t quite compare to Tampa Bay’s one-two punch of Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov. Ondrej Palat is also an upgrade at left wing over Alexandre Texier, a young player still getting his feet wet in the NHL. Advantage: Lightning

Forward depth: A knock on Columbus the past few seasons is that there is not enough depth scoring, though the Blue Jackets are improving. Gustav Nyquist (42 points in 70 regular season games) was a strong free agent addition, and teenager Liam Foudy‘s speed and wherewithal to shoot on a bad angle in Game 5, which gave the Blue Jackets a 2-0 lead, earned him a permanent spot in the lineup. If there’s something that stands out about Tampa Bay’s roster, it is their forward depth. There are no weak links in the bottom nine, and the group got even stronger as Julien BriseBrois added two third-liners at the trade deadline: Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman. Anthony Cirelli is one of the best two-way forwards in the league, while Tampa Bay also added Stanley Cup winner Patrick Maroon last summer, who gives them some physicality they lacked last season. Advantage: Lightning

Defense: The Blue Jackets weathered a scare late in the qualification series when Zach Werenski missed the final 10 minutes of Game 4. Werenski was able to return for Game 5, and although Columbus dressed seven defensemen as a precaution, the 23-year-old looked fine. Werenski and Seth Jones are the best young pairing in the league, and the Blue Jackets rely heavily on them (Jones leads all skaters in the tournament averaging 29:28 per game; Werenski is at 25:55). The bottom four is decent, but Columbus’ strength is the entire team’s defensive buy-in and structure, which can stifle even the highest-paid offenses. We’re unsure of the status of Victor Hedman, which is a huge wild card considering Tampa’s No. 1 D-man is a Norris Trophy nominee this season. The Lightning have more impressive depth — and, most importantly, experience — behind Hedman than the Blue Jackets have behind their top pair, but not enough to give a clear edge. Advantage: Tie

Goaltending: Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner and is up for another this season. After last year’s first-round sweep, Vasilevsky said: “I have to do better” and he’ll get a chance for revenge this season. Vasilevskiy had dominant stretches this season (including a two-month stretch starting in December where he went 19-0-2 with a 1.98 goals-against average and .934 save percentage). Vasilevskiy got a decent warmup in the round robin, and gave up only seven goals on 89 shots (.921 save percentage). In any other series, Vasilevskiy would get an obvious edge. But no team is as confident in their goalies right now as Columbus is in Joonas Korpisalo (and Elvis Merzlikins, though he is nursing an injury). Korpisalo was sensational against the high-octane Leafs, with a .956 save percentage, 1.45 goals-against and two shutouts in four starts. Advantage: Tie

Coaching: Jon Cooper has led the Lightning to incredible heights — in the regular season. He’s still trying to get over the playoff hump, and until he does, the advantage will go to John Tortorella. Not only did Tortorella out-coach Cooper in last year’s series, but the Columbus boss is coming off a season where the Blue Jackets endured tremendous turnover and terrible injury luck, and still came out as a playoff team. Advantage: Blue Jackets

Special teams: The Lightning’s power play had only five opportunities in round-robin play, but they connected on two of them — and remember, that’s without Stamkos, who has scored 155 power-play goals in his career. A third of Stamkos’ goals this season came on the man advantage, so he’d be a huge addition here. The Blue Jackets are on the opposite end of the spectrum. They had 14 opportunities against the Leafs, but didn’t score any power-play goals (and did allow a shorthanded goal). Both teams have very good penalty kills. Advantage: Lightning

Prediction: Lightning in seven. The Blue Jackets have enough for another upset, but the ultra-motivated Lightning get a chance for revenge. Tampa Bay is more well-rounded than the Maple Leafs, and should be able to overcome the absences of Stamkos and/or Hedman if necessary.

What we learned in the qualification round: The Capitals entered the round robin looking like a team that knew the round-robin games weren’t the actual playoffs. They weren’t too clumsy, but the lack of intensity was quite apparent at times. Washington’s biggest stars (namely, Alex Ovechkin) were quiet through the three warm-up games. A date with old coach Barry Trotz in the next round should wake them up.

In the qualification round, the Isles were their typically stingy selves, even going up against a good offensive team in the Florida Panthers. New York allowed only three goals at 5-on-5 in four games against the Panthers and overall limited Florida to fewer than two goals per game. Perhaps most encouraging is that the Isles’ offense — which can sometimes be dormant — looked lively, as they scored 13 goals in the four games.

First line: The Capitals’ top line of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson is a well-oiled machine. They have a little bit of everything: power, creativity and physicality. Ovechkin was held off the scoresheet in the round robin, but if he heats up … well, you know what happens. Anders Lee, Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle combined for three goals in four games against the Panthers but looked especially strong defensively, as they didn’t allow a single even-strength goal while on the ice. Eberle is a point-per-game player in 12 playoff appearances for the Isles (after just two assists in 13 playoff games with Edmonton). The edge goes to the known commodity, though Washington’s top line needs to up its intensity from round-robin play. Advantage: Capitals

Forward depth: There were lots of positives from the Isles out of the Panthers series. Anthony Beauvillier (three goals, two assists) and the entire second line added a spark, and the addition of Jean-Gabriel Pageau definitely shores up the center depth. There are too many nonfactors in the bottom six, though, whereas Washington has done a good job rounding out the bottom of its lineup. The fourth line, specifically, was a bright spot this season. Washington’s second line of Jakub Vrana, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie could function as a first line for a handful of NHL teams. Advantage: Capitals

Defense: Is John Carlson available? That’s the big question for the Caps, who were without their Norris Trophy nominee for the entire round robin. He’s questionable for Game 1. Washington can manage OK without Carlson (the Caps limited round-robin opponents to 26.7 shots per game), and the addition of Brenden Dillon at the trade deadline is impactful. But Washington’s blue line doesn’t compare to New York’s. The Isles have better depth (Andy Greene was a seamless replacement for Johnny Boychuk, who was injured in Game 1 of the Islanders series). They also have a better top pairing now that Adam Pelech has returned from his Achilles tendon injury. Pelech and Ryan Pulock looked good against Florida. Advantage: Islanders

Goaltending: The Capitals are clearly in ride-or-die mode with Braden Holtby, who becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer. Part of it is necessity. The Caps’ preferred backup, Ilya Samsonov, did not travel to the bubble after being injured during the pause, and 24-year-old Vitek Vanecek has zero games of NHL experience. Although the 30-year-old Holtby had one of his worst statistical seasons, he is still the guy who won the team a Stanley Cup, who can lock in and take over a game when needed. The Isles boast depth, feeling comfortable turning to either Semyon Varlamov or Thomas Greiss. However, Varlamov is the No. 1 right now, with a .932 save percentage and 1.77 goals-against average in four starts against the Panthers. Advantage: Islanders

Coaching: It’s not just that Barry Trotz (1,674 career game coached, fourth-most all time) has more experience than Todd Reirden (151 career games coached, 196th all time). Trotz also has the benefit of having coached the Capitals for four years, including their 2018 Stanley Cup. He knows his opponents inside and out. Advantage: Islanders

Special teams: The Isles connected on four of 16 man-advantage opportunities against the Panthers. That’s not bad, considering that they had the 24th-ranked power play this season. Washington’s power play didn’t have its best season (ranking 17th), but trotting out Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk (404 career power-play goals between them) on one unit is scary stuff. The Caps didn’t allow a power-play goal while short-handed eight times in the round robin; the Isles allowed four in 14 opportunities versus the Panthers. Advantage: Capitals

Prediction: Islanders in seven. On paper, the Capitals are the more talented and dangerous team. But the Isles are already in playoff mode, and their defensive structure will stifle Washington, which didn’t get much out of its stars in round-robin play.

What we learned in the qualification round: The Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins were the only team to hit 100 points in the pandemic-paused season and tied the Flyers for the league’s best record from Jan. 8 to the pause. But they lost the No. 1 seed in the round-robin, dropping all the way to fourth, after laying a dud in their three tuneup matches. Boston has yet to hold a lead this summer. That leads to a less than ideal match against the Hurricanes, who looked dangerous in their qualification series sweep of the New York Rangers. Carolina’s top line is buzzing, and its defensive depth is no joke. The Canes were without top defenseman Dougie Hamilton for the entire series, though he’s back practicing with the team. Hamilton, who hasn’t played since January, should be good to go after Carolina was the only team to earn a week’s rest between rounds.

First line: Boston’s top trio of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak is often called the “Perfection Line” because, well, they can usually do everything and dominate games. Pastrnak tied Alex Ovechkin for the goal lead this season, but he and his linemates were scoreless during round-robin play. “You look at our top line, they’ve been held off the score sheet, and I believe it’s going to be a tough task for Carolina to do that on a consistent basis,” Boston coach Bruce Cassidy said. “I think that those guys will be able to get their game going.” It wouldn’t be surprising to see Cassidy deploy Bergeron against Sebastian Aho. That’s because the 23-year-old Finn is on a tear, along with linemate Andrei Svechnikov. The duo combined for six goals and 13 points in three games against New York. While Boston has the edge in experience and pedigree, current events even things out. Advantage: Tie

Forward depth: The Bruins are used to the top line carrying the load offensively, as there’s a decent drop-off from there. The second line struggled to find chemistry in the round-robin, though it’s encouraging that Jake DeBrusk scored in the finale versus Washington and Ondrej Kase is back after missing all of training camp and the first week of bubble games. Carolina’s bottom-nine forwards weren’t necessarily more productive than Boston’s, but the Canes are more balanced throughout. Adding Vincent Trocheck (second-line center) at the trade deadline was a sneaky good move because it bumps Jordan Staal down to make the third line — along with Warren Foegele and Justin “Mr. Game 7” Williams — one to watch. Also keep an eye on rookie Martin Necas, who had a goal and assist (both at even strength) against New York. Advantage: Hurricanes

Defense: The Hurricanes doubled down on blue-line depth at the trade deadline, adding Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen. The qualification round allowed both players to acclimate to their new team; that’s especially true of Vatanen, who was injured when he was acquired in February. You cannot understate the impact Hamilton could have, though Jaccob Slavin will likely assume No. 1 defenseman duties to begin. The Bruins’ top four of Zdeno Chara, Charlie Coyle, Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo is as solid as they come. While the Canes are deeper (and have a better third pairing), it’s tough to discount Boston’s experience. Advantage: Tie

Goaltending: On paper, the Bruins have the obvious edge here. Starter Tuukka Rask entered this summer with 90 games of playoff experience (.927 save percentage, seven shutouts) and is coming off another strong season. Boston feels great about its backup, Jaroslav Halak, who started in 29 of the 70 games this season. Rask and Halak won the William Jennings Trophy for having the fewest combined goals scored on them in the league. The Canes’ goaltending duo of Petr Mrazek and James Reimer was a big question mark heading into the postseason but overachieved against New York. In the qualification round, the tandem had a 5-on-5 save percentage of .971 — a big improvement from the .912 in the regular season. Advantage: Bruins

Coaching: This feels like as good a place as any to mention that this is a rematch of the 2019 Eastern Conference finals. The Bruins swept the Canes, who had run out of steam after an emotional knockout of the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals in the previous round. Even so, Rod Brind’Amour gets great buy-in from his players, and their possession-heavy style can be effective. The nod, though, goes to Cassidy for his experience and because he’s a Jack Adams nominee for motivating his already-accomplished roster to consistent excellence this season — well, the regular season at least. Advantage: Bruins

Special teams: The Hurricanes were short-handed 14 times in three games against the Rangers (not good) but allowed just one power-play goal, and it was a 5-on-3 (good). Carolina’s power play clicked at 14.3% against the Rangers, but the Canes were 22.3% in the regular season. Boston had the league’s second-best power play this season, but like much of the offense, it stalled in the round-robin (zero goals). The Bruins also had the third-best penalty kill in the regular season. Advantage: Tie

Prediction: Hurricanes in seven. The Stanley Cup playoffs are all about momentum swings. Although the Bruins are the more talented and accomplished team on paper, the Canes have looked hungrier and come into this series hot. It might take Boston too long to turn up the intensity after an uninspiring first two weeks in the bubble.

Western Conference

What we learned in the qualification round: That there’s still some bark left in that old dog from Chicago. The Blackhawks do have some notable young players in their supporting cast, but it was center Jonathan Toews (seven points) and especially goalie Corey Crawford that led their qualification-round upset effort over the Edmonton Oilers. Can the No. 12 seed in the West pull off another stunner against the Golden Knights, the top seed in the conference after their three round-robin wins?

First line: Sometimes, all it takes in the playoffs is for one line to catch fire. For Chicago, that line was Toews flanked by Brandon Saad and rookie of the year finalist Dominik Kubalik in the qualification round, which had a 71.2% goals scored advantage at 5-on-5 while playing against the Oilers’ top offensive lines. If Max Pacioretty is healthy and ready to roll for the Golden Knights after missing the round robin due to injury, the Knights will have the option of playing him and Mark Stone with either Chandler Stephenson (an incredible 71.9% expected goals percentage in the regular season as a trio) or William Karlsson (68.3% in the same stat). Whomever they chose, that could end up being the best line in the series. Advantage: Golden Knights

Forward depth: Besides the top line, the Golden Knights can flex considerable depth at forward. Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith remain as dynamic offensive duo, and skated with Paul Stastny in the round robin. Alex Tuch remains an X factor offensively; he’s played with Nick Cousins, an agitating sort who came over from the Canadiens at the trade deadline. Ryan Reaves, Tomas Nosek and William Carrier are valuable depth players. The Blackhawks’ best player, Patrick Kane, played with usual linemates Alex Nylander and Dylan Strome but also saw time with a couple of young, more explosive players: Alex Debrincat and 19-year-old rookie Kirby Dach. David Kampf, Matthew Highmore and Ryan Carpenter gave the team some grit down the lineup. Advantage: Golden Knights

Defense: Toews rightfully sang the praises of Duncan Keith in the Edmonton series, as the 36-year-old defenseman played 25:36 per game and had a 60.75% expected goals percentage skating with 19-year-old Adam Boqvist. Calvin de Haan and Connor Murphy made for an effective pairing, while veteran Olli Maatta and Slater Koekkoek filled out the group. For the Knights, trade deadline coup Alec Martinez and Shea Theodore are trying to find the groove they had to end the regular season. Brayden McNabb and Nate Schmidt have been their most reliable pairing this season. Nick Holden and Zach Whitecloud fill out the group. Veterans Deryk Engelland and Jon Merrill are in reserve. Advantage: Tie

Goaltending: Without question, the most intriguing storyline of this series is the possibility that Robin Lehner faces the team that traded him at the deadline. The Blackhawks obviously didn’t know they’d be in the postseason when they made the deal, but they did know they were out of the Lehner business by trading him. So there’s a level of revenge here. Neither he nor Marc-Andre Fleury were all that good in the qualification round, but remain a formidable tandem. Crawford got better as the series went on for Chicago, after having his training interrupted by a COVID-19 diagnosis in July. But he’s still probably the third best goalie in this series. Advantage: Golden Knights

Coaching: Peter DeBoer had a wild ride this season. He was fired by the San Jose Sharks, and then hired by the team whose fans (and players) loathed him, to replace the popular Gerard Gallant. DeBoer is famous for getting instant results from his teams, and went 15-5-2 after taking over. With two trips to the Stanley Cup Final, he has a wealth more experience than Jeremy Colliton, but the Blackhawks coach pushed a lot of correct buttons in their series win over Edmonton. Advantage: Golden Knights

Special teams: Chicago’s power play sputtered at 28th in the NHL during the regular season, but the Golden Knights’ penalty kill clicked at just 76.6% and still wasn’t any great shakes in the round robin. The Vegas power play ranked ninth in the regular season, but Chicago is no doubt breathing a sigh of relief that these aren’t the Oilers on the man advantage after killing just 70.6 percent of the power plays in the first round. Advantage: Tie

Prediction: Golden Knights in four. The Blackhawks are now playing a team that can roll four lines and executes a 200-foot game. If Lehner plays the majority of these games for Vegas, it’s an even wider gap between the two teams.

What we learned in the qualification round: The Avalanche are a team to be reckoned with in this tournament. They went 2-0-1 in the round-robin, posting a 1.67 goals-against average. They held the possession advantage in each game, averaging 37.7 shots on goal while allowing 28.3. The Coyotes outlasted the Nashville Predators in four games with a surprising amount of offense (3.50 goals per game) and an expectedly excellent performance from Darcy Kuemper, who followed up a dominant regular season with a .933 save percentage on an NHL-high 163 shots in the qualification round. It was the first time Arizona had advanced in the postseason since 2012, and the Coyotes did so after being rocked by the resignation of GM John Chayka on the eve of their bubble life.

First line: When necessary, the Avalanche can put together one of the most effective lines of the last three seasons, with Nathan MacKinnon centering Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. But coach Jared Bednar prefers to play Landeskog on his own line. Vladislav Namestnikov has most recently played up with MacKinnon and Rantanen, although Andre Burakovsky has skated with them as well. The Coyotes’ top line featured Christian Dvorak with the team’s two biggest offensive stars in Phil Kessel and Taylor Hall, who each had four points in four qualification-round games. They got rolled in possession but averaged 3.88 goals per 60 minutes against Nashville. Advantage: Avalanche

Forward depth: This is the first time in months that the team GM Joe Sakic put together last summer has been completely healthy. The Avs’ second line of Nazem Kadri with Landeskog and Valeri Nichushkin was a possession monster in the round-robin. Burakovsky can play throughout the lineup and was skating with center J.T. Compher and winger Joonas Donskoi. Matt Calvert and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare are an effective checking duo regardless of who else is on the line. The Coyotes’ second scoring line features Clayton Keller (two goals in the qualification round), Conor Garland and Derek Stepan. Carl Soderberg has skated with Christian Fischer and Lawson Crouse, while Brad Richardson and Michael Grabner (two qualification-round goals) are effective down the lineup. Advantage: Avalanche

Defense: Cale Makar, a finalist for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, is one of the most explosive offensive players in the series. Ryan Graves (a plus-40 in the regular season) is his steady partner. Erik Johnson and Samuel Girard were the best possession duo on the team in the round robin. Ian Cole is their third-pairing puck mover, skating with Nikita Zadorov. For the Coyotes, Oliver Ekman-Larsson (four points) had an outstanding series against Nashville and is paired with Jason Demers. Alex Goligoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jakob Chychrun and Jordan Oesterle fill out an underrated group. Advantage: Tie

Goaltending: This is a meeting of two of the best goalie tandems in the NHL, if healthy. Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz of the Avalanche helped the team to a 2.71 goals-against average in the regular season. Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta, the latter of whom was injured in the Nashville series, helped the Coyotes to a 2.61 goals-against average. But we have to give Arizona the nod here because of the way Kuemper played in the qualification round, stealing the series. “Darcy kept us in. That’s the facts. They were peppering us. He let us get our legs under us,” coach Rick Tocchet said. Can he do it again? Advantage: Coyotes

Coaching: Colorado’s Bednar has won championships in the ECHL and AHL, and is looking for his first title as an NHL coach. He has a good handle on this roster and did an underrated job in keeping the Avalanche on track through their injuries this season. Arizona’s Rick Tocchet has a reputation as a players’ coach rather than a tactician, but that ignores the impressive defense he’s had the Coyotes playing for multiple seasons. He also knew exactly what buttons to press when the going got rough in the Predators series. Advantage: Tie

Special teams: In the regular season, the Coyotes (19.2%) and Avalanche (19.1%) were virtually tied in power-play effectiveness, but Arizona was only 2-for-12 in the qualification round while Colorado was 4-for-16. However, the Coyotes are the superior team on the penalty kill (82.7%), ranking fifth in the regular season. Advantage: Avalanche

Prediction: Avalanche in six. Solving Kuemper won’t be easy, and he should be able to steal a couple of games. But the Avalanche don’t give up much defensively either. Both teams have their offensive standouts — we’re here for the MacKinnon vs. Hall showdown — but in the end, the Avalanche have just a bit more depth to take the series and advance.

What we learned in the qualification round: The Flames made quick work of a severely undermanned Winnipeg Jets team, which was missing stars Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine when they were eliminated in Game 4. Dallas went 1-2-0 in the round robin, but the Stars’ last game — a shootout win over St. Louis — was the kind of low-event game they can win with their defense and goaltending.

First line: The Stars have tried everything to get Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin to up their production this season. Although Seguin was out of the lineup toward the end of the round robin, he should be good to go against Calgary. Although a reunion with Alexander Radulov is never out of the question, the best trio could be with Roope Hintz in the middle. The Flames have two lines that could be considered their “first,” and they couldn’t be more different: Sean Monahan centering Elias Lindholm and Johnny Gaudreau, and the trio of Andrew Mangiapane, Matthew Tkachuk and Mikael Backlund, which was their best line in the regular season and first round. We’ll consider the 3M Line 2.0 the Flames’ top one, and we’ll give them the nod. Advantage: Flames

Forward depth: Beyond those top two lines, the Flames got a surprisingly strong series from Milan Lucic, Dillon Dube and Sam Bennett (63.0% expected goals percentage), and they have a fourth line of Derek Ryan, Mark Jankowski and Tobias Rieder, who scored his first playoff goal and fifth goal in two seasons against the Jets. The Stars can toss some line salad from time to time, but Andrew Cogliano, Blake Comeau and Radek Faksa are a solid defensive line that has carried over from the regular season. Radulov has skated with Joe Pavelski and Mattias Janmark, and Corey Perry saw time with the explosive Denis Gurianov and Jason Dickinson during the round robin. Keep an eye on Pavelski, a proven playoff performer who was acquired for moments such as this. Advantage: Tie

Defense: Even without Travis Hamonic, who opted out of the restart because of COVID-19 concerns, the Flames have a strong blue line. Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie remain of the NHL’s most dependable duos. Noah Hanifin saw most of his time against the Jets skating with Rasmus Andersson. Derek Forbort and Erik Gustafsson, both acquired at the trade deadline, made for a surprisingly efficient duo. If the best defenseman in the series isn’t Giordano, it’s Miro Heiskanen of the Stars, the brilliant 21-year-old who skates with Jamie Oleksiak. Esa Lindell and John Klingberg are, like the Brodie pairing for Calgary, a proven commodity. Andrej Sekera and Stephen Johns played together in the round robin and are still trying to jell. Advantage: Stars

Goaltending: Dallas had the second-best goals-against average in the regular season thanks to Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin, one of the league’s best goaltending batteries. Either one could play in this series, and they’d be fine, though Bishop’s .927 save percentage is stout. Cam Talbot was stellar in the qualification round, with a .945 save percentage and a 1.51 goals-against average. But that was against a pop-less Jets lineup. Dave Rittich is rested and ready if necessary. But this is a heavy advantage for Dallas. Advantage: Stars

Coaching: It’s amazing how some of the storylines of the season have converged in the quarterfinal. For example, we have two longtime assistant coaches who replaced their predecessors this season because of off-ice issues. Rick Bowness of the Stars got the bench after the Stars fired Jim Montgomery in December for “unprofessional conduct,” which Montgomery later confirmed was alcohol abuse. Geoff Ward was named head coach in November after Bill Peters resigned because of allegations of abuse and racist language used in previous coaching jobs. Both have plenty of experience, though only Bowness has been a head coach in the playoffs. That was in 1992. Advantage: Tie

Special teams: While the teams were in a dead heat on the power play — the Flames had a 21.2% conversion rate, 0.1 better than that of the Stars — Calgary had the eighth-best penalty kill in the regular season, and Dallas was 17th. Advantage: Flames

Prediction: Stars in seven. Get ready for seven games of closely played, low-event hockey. In the end, the Stars will force it to a win-or-go-home game, and their veterans — including their goaltender – will come through.

What we learned in the qualification round: The Canucks’ young core of stars — many playing their first playoff games — had its Bar Mitzvah in the qualification round, as Vancouver eliminated the defensively stingy Minnesota Wild in four games. The defending Stanley Cup champions, meanwhile, sleepwalked through the round robin with a 0-2-1 record; uncharacteristically poor possession numbers; and an alarming trend of getting outplayed in the third period, having been outscored 6-0. Can the Blues flip the switch for the games that matter?

First line: The Blues have a couple of choices here, but we’ll go with the trio that saw the most time together this season: Ryan O’Reilly, centering David Perron and Zach Sanford. You know what you’re getting out of O’Reilly, who had 61 points in 71 games to lead the Blues. Perron is a streaky goal scorer, while Sanford is a big body in the offensive zone. The Canucks’ top line became a dominant one when Vancouver acquired J.T. Miller last summer and paired him with Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson. The Canucks had a 57.4% expected goals rate in the series against the Wild after posting a 57.89% expected goals rate at 5-on-5 in the regular season. They’re a force. Advantage: Canucks

Forward depth: Vancouver’s second line is anchored by another member of the young core in Bo Horvat. He’s skating with Tanner Pearson and Loui Eriksson, who in the span of a decade has gone from underrated to overrated back to underrated and is now somehow both an object of ridicule and someone for whom fans root. Down the lineup are Antoine Roussel, Brandon Sutter, Jake Virtanen, Jay Beagle and Tyler Motte. Micheal Ferland, who returned after a long layoff to start last series, is “unfit to play” to start this one. The Blues, meanwhile, roll four lines with many familiar names from their Cup run. Brayden Schenn centers a second line with Jaden Schwartz and a returning Vladimir Tarasenko, who is still getting the rust off from his months-long shoulder injury rehab. Robert Thomas, Tyler Bozak, Alexander Steen, Troy Brouwer and Oskar Sundqvist fill out the lineup. Ivan Barbashev is away on paternity leave, while Sammy Blais might be injured to start this round. Advantage: Blues

Defense: Alex Pietrangelo, the Blues’ captain, could have easily have been a Norris Trophy finalist this season. He skates with Carl Gunnarsson, while Colton Parayko has seen time with trade deadline pickup Marco Scandella. Justin Faulk and Vince Dunn were an effective duo during the round robin. For the Canucks, the most fascinating name is Quinn Hughes, who skated 24:11 per game and played with both Chris Tanev and Tyler Myers at times. But he’s been protected: a whopping 90.5% of Hughes’ shifts have started in the offensive zone. Alexander Edler has seen time with Tanev and Troy Stecher, while Oscar Fantenberg is also in the mix. Advantage: Blues

Goaltending: Jordan Binnington was a star last postseason, providing the backbone for the Blues as an unflappable rookie all the way through their Game 7 win on the road for the Stanley Cup. But while he was good in the regular season, he wasn’t dominating, with just 3.25 goals saved above average. Jacob Markstrom had 11.56 goals saved above average, and the Canucks were reliant on him as the last line of defense for a team that didn’t always play a lot of it. He was stellar in their qualification-round series win, with a .926 save percentage. Jake Allen of the Blues and Thatcher Demko of the Canucks are capable backups. Advantage: Tie

Coaching: Blues fans better hope Craig Berube continues to have his finger on the pulse of this team and can get St. Louis into another gear as the “real” playoffs begin. Travis Green has been one of the NHL’s most underrated coaches for a while and did a masterful job in getting his team to break through against a very good Minnesota defense for his first series win in the NHL. Advantage: Tie

Special teams: The Canucks won the special-teams battle with Minnesota and will have to do the same against a Blues team that might be better than them at 5-on-5. Vancouver’s power play was right behind St. Louis’, in fourth place in the regular season, while the Canucks’ penalty kill (16th) ranked right above the Blues’. Advantage: Tie

Prediction: Canucks in 6. It’s entirely possible the Blues don’t carry a single difficulty they had in the round robin into this round against Vancouver. But it’s absolutely certain Vancouver will carry its confidence from its qualification round win into this series. It was a crucial, “proof of concept” series victory for a team learning how to win. With their speed and goaltending, we think the Canucks pull the upset here over the defending champions.

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