• Dean Gutic

2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifying Round Preview and Predictions

Updated: Aug 16, 2020


NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers logo

Hockey is finally coming back. After the ongoing coronavirus pandemic put a halt to the 2019-20 NHL season in Mid-March, the NHL and NHLPA came to an agreement in the beginning of July on a new CBA and return to play protocols.


The protocol consists of an expanded playoff format with 24 teams, along with two hub cities that will host 12 teams per conference. Those hub cities being Toronto, who will host the 12 teams from the Eastern Conference and Edmonton, who will host the top 12 teams from the Western Conference who qualify for the return to play tournament.


Included in the 24 team return to play tournament, there will be a best of five qualifying round for the 8 teams in each conference that didn’t finish in the top 4 of their respective conference. The seeding in the qualifiers is determined by how each of the eight teams in their conference finished before the season was put to a temporary stop.


With hockey being right around the corner, let me give you a preview and my predictions for what will happen in each series, in the qualifying round.


Western Conference:


#5 Edmonton Oilers vs #12 Chicago Blackhawks

Connor McDavid (left) and Leon Draisaitl (right) celebrating a goal against Chicago

Preview:


To kick things off, let’s go into our first series between the Edmonton Oilers and the Chicago Blackhawks. The Oilers finished the regular season 2nd in the Pacific division with 83 points, while the Blackhawks finished at the bottom of the Central division with 72 points.


The Blackhawks are 2-1-0 in head to head meetings against the Oilers this season. The Blackhawks scored 2.97 goals per game and allowed 3.06 goals, while the Oilers scored 3.14 goals a game and allowed 3.03 goals.


The Oilers have the best Power-Play in the league along with a very good penalty kill, which I believe could be a factor in this series given the Blackhawks do not have a good defense. The Oilers also struggle defensively, but they do have an offense that can lead them to some wins.


Despite the Blackhawks being the more experienced team and having star players such as RW Patrick Kane and C Jonathan Toews, the Blackhawks have lost talent over the years as the team would start to regress and hasn't been the same since their Stanley Cup contending days. Kane at least has had himself a nice year posting 84 points in 70 games, but like the Blackhawks, Toews has regressed and hasn't been the same since the team started to decline.


Meanwhile, the Oilers, showing improvements from last season, look to keep building around their two young star players in C Connor McDavid and Hart trophy candidate C Leon Draisaitl. With the Oilers having more to offer at the table, I don’t believe this team will show signs of slowing down which makes me believe they will be able to get past the Blackhawks in the qualifying round.


Prediction: Oilers in 4


#6 Nashville Predators vs #11 Arizona Coyotes

Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper hug each other after a win

Preview:


We now shift our focus to the Nashville Predators vs Arizona Coyotes series. The Predators finished the regular season 5th in the Central division with 78 points, while the Coyotes finished at the bottom of the Pacific division with 74 points.


The Predators are 1-1-0 in head to head meetings against the Coyotes this season. The Predators scored 3.07 goals per game and allowed 3.1 goals, while the Coyotes scored 2.71 goals a game and allowed 2.61 goals. A series that consisted of originally two non-playoff teams that have struggled this season.


The Predators have been a disappointment this year with players such as C Matt Duchene who hasn't lived up to the contract he got from Nashville, having 42 points in 66 games with only 13 goals and 2018 Vezina trophy Winner Pekka Rinne also hasn’t been the same since his Vezina year posting a career low 3.17 GAA and a .895 save percentage.


The Coyotes on the other hand, started off the season hot and when they needed a piece to help the team in scoring, they traded for 2018 Hart trophy winner LW Taylor Hall. A trade that looked promising that even I thought would help solidify the coyotes as a playoff contender and help fix their scoring woes. Instead the Taylor Hall effect comes into play and since that trade the Coyotes have gone downhill. However, what’s kept the Coyotes going is goaltender Darcy Kuemper’s excellent play giving up only 2.22 goals per game along with a stunning .928 save percentage. I believe that a long break like this may help a struggling team such as the Coyotes.


I think the difference maker will be who benefits most from the break, along with experience and special teams. The Predators have more experience, but the Coyotes are the more disciplined team. This series will go the distance, but I believe that Kuemper has what it takes to win and is going to lead the Coyotes past the Predators. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Predators came out of this series, but I’m feeling the Coyotes in this one. I just don’t think Rinne or the Predators will have an answer when they need it most.


Prediction: Coyotes in 5


#7 Vancouver Canucks vs #10 Minnesota Wild

Elias Pettersson (40) putting one past Devan Dubnyk

Preview:


Our next series is the Vancouver Canucks vs Minnesota Wild series. The Canucks finished the regular season 4th in the Central division with 78 points, while the Wild finished near the bottom of the Pacific division with 77 points.


The Canucks are 1-1-1 in head to head meetings against the Wild this season. The Canucks scored 3.25 goals per game and allowed 3.1 goals, while the Coyotes scored 3.16 goals a game and allowed 3.14 goals.


The Canucks have had an up and down year. It seemed like they were an unpredictable team. You didn’t know if Vancouver was good or not. There will be one time they are at the top of the division and it seemed like they would be a threat, then next thing you know they go downhill. This is one of the cons of having a team that is young and inexperienced along with a thin defensive core and a lack of depth. However, the Canucks do have a lot of young talent and a stellar offense.


Then we have the Wild, who have a big problem at the goaltender position, but they have an elite caliber defense and a solid offense that can create scoring chances but have a problem capitalizing on those chances. If the Wild can’t convert their chances or contain the pace of this young Canucks team, it is going to be a long series for them.


Despite having a lack of depth, experience and defense, I believe the Canucks are going to get by the Wild. I feel that with a young and talented offense that is fast, it is going to be too much for the Wild to handle along with a top five Power Play unit. Not capitalizing and having goaltending issues will haunt the Wild this series.


Prediction: Canucks in 4


#8 Calgary Flames vs #9 Winnipeg Jets

Connor Hellebuyck making a kick save

Preview:


Our final series in the Western Conference is the Calgary Flames vs Winnipeg Jets. The Flames finished the regular season third in the Pacific division with 79 points, while the Jets finished 4th in the Central division with 80 points.


The Flames are 0-1-0 in head to head meetings against the Jets this season. The Flames scored 2.91 goals per game and allowed 3.06 goals, while the Jets scored 3 goals a game and allowed 2.83 goals.


Like the Canucks, the Flames are another team who have had an up and down year. The Jets have done somewhat better than what I expected, especially after losing key players in the offseason such as D Jacob Trouba to the Rangers and RW Kevin Hayes to the Flyers but a big part of why they have been too better is due to spectator goaltending from a Vezina caliber goaltender in Connor Hellebuyck. Hellebuyck has had himself a nice season allowing only 2.57 goals a game and putting up a .922 save percentage and leads the league with six shutouts.


Out of every series in the West, this one is the toughest one to pick with both teams evenly matched for the most part. This is anybody’s series to win and a series to watch.


The Flames on one hand have a better offense, but not by much along with both teams having problems defensively although the Flames do have the better penalty kill. However, out of every position on both teams, the one that has the biggest gap and factor in this series is goaltending.


While the Jets have Hellebuyck, fellow Flames goaltender David Rittich has had a rough year in net allowing almost 3 goals a game and posting a .907 save percentage and has cost the Flames in some games. I believe the goaltenders in this series will be the difference maker, in which it favors the Jets.


The biggest question I believe is how much pressure will be put on Hellebuyck and how he can lead this team past the Flames. I believe he can.


This will be the series where Hellebuyck makes his case for the Vezina trophy and why he is the best goaltender this year in the NHL. A lot of pressure to put on Hellebuyck but I believe he’ll be able to handle it as this leads me to picking the Jets in a very close, yet entertaining series.


Prediction: Jets in 5


Eastern Conference:


#5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs #12 Montreal Canadiens

Evgeni Malkin (left) Kris Letang (middle) and Sidney Crosby (right) celebrating a goal

Preview:


We now go into the Eastern Conference as we start off with the Pittsburgh Penguins vs the Montreal Canadiens. The Penguins finished the regular season 3rd in the Metropolitan division with 86 points, while the Canadiens finished 5th in the Atlantic division with 71 points.


The Penguins are 2-1-0 in head to head meetings against the Canadiens this season. The Penguins scored 3.2 goals per game and allowed 2.84 goals, while the Canadiens scored 2.93 goals a game and allowed 3.1 goals.


Out of every series that I’ve done a preview and prediction for, this is the one series that I feel will not be close. The Penguins are a much better team than the Canadiens, as they’re more well-rounded, more talented, more experienced and they have more star power. The Penguins are just simply better than Canadiens in every aspect. The Penguins are a Darkhorse team to go far in the playoffs. A team like this with solid goaltending, a solid defense and an offense that can create scoring chances and finish can be and is a dangerous team in the playoffs. Carey Price isn’t the same goaltender as he was last year and during the Canadiens quests to the Stanley Cup in the mid 2010’s. I don’t think the Canadiens will be able to handle the Penguins nor be prepared for them. Especially after their performance in their exhibition game against Toronto granted it was an exhibition game, but it is also a bad sign of things to come for the Canadiens in this series.


Prediction: Penguins in 3


#6 Carolina Hurricanes vs #11 New York Rangers

Artemi Panarin (left) and Mika Zibanejad (right) hug after a goal

Preview:


We now shift our focus to the Carolina Hurricanes vs New York Rangers series. The Hurricanes finished the regular season fourth in the Metropolitan division with 81 points, while the Rangers finished 7th in the Atlantic division with 79 points.


The Rangers swept the Hurricanes in the regular season by defeating them in all four games. The Rangers scored 3.33 goals per game and allowed 3.14 goals, while the Hurricanes scored 3.19 goals per game and allowed 2.84 goals.


This is another interesting series that can go either way and that is also pretty even, despite the head to head meeting during the season saying otherwise.


The Hurricanes have an elite defense that can shut you down and is disciplined enough to win along with a pretty solid offense and special teams unit. The only concern to have if you’re Carolina is how will they perform after a long break and staying healthy, especially since they don’t have D Dougie Hamilton. Even without Hamilton, the Hurricanes still have one of the deepest defensive cores in the NHL which goes to show how important depth can be.


Then you have the Rangers who have a lot of star power on offense. An offense that consists of two star players in Hart trophy candidate LW Artemi Panarin and C Mika Zibanejad, who can score on any given night. However, the problem that holds back the Rangers is defense. The Rangers have one of the worst defenses in the NHL, as they are ranked 26th in expected goals against and 23rd in killing off penalties. The Rangers don't allow a lot of goals simply because of their excellent goaltending from their starting rookie goaltender for the qualifiers Igor Shesterkin, but they don't control the puck and give up way too many high danger chances which cost them many times this season. They also don’t have depth or as much experience as the Hurricanes. Speaking of lack of experience, Shesterkin will be making his playoff debut, however without any playoff experience this could be a bit risky to throw the rookie in the qualifiers over an experienced goaltender such as Henrik Lundqvist. Although this does seem a bit risky, a change in scenery in net for the Rangers could also benefit them. The Rangers also benefit from having a lot of star power, which could help propel them past the Hurricanes.


When Shesterkin was playing before the year was shut down, he was looking like he could be the long term goalie that the Rangers need. I also think the star power that the Rangers have will help them squeak by the Hurricanes in a close series.


Prediction: Rangers in 5


#7 New York Islanders vs #10 Florida Panthers

The Islanders celebrating a goal on the road

Preview:


Our next series is the New York Islanders vs Florida Panthers. A rematch from their series back in 2016, which the Islanders won in six games. The Islanders finished the regular season fourth in the Metropolitan division with 80 points, while the Panthers finished fourth in the Atlantic division with 78 points.


The Islanders are 3-0-0 in head to head meetings against the Panthers this season. The Islanders scored 2.78 goals per game and allowed 2.79 goals, while the Panthers scored 3.3 goals a game and allowed 3.25 goals.


We have the Islanders, who started off hot in October and November, then had a roller coaster of a season before they went on a slump in March prior to the season being put on pause. The Islanders are and have been one of the worst offensive teams in hockey for the past couple of years. They have had trouble putting the puck in the net and also have struggled getting the puck towards the net, and are one of the league's worst teams when they are on the Power Play. Although trading for Senators C Jean-Gabriel Pageau seemed like a smart move for the Islanders, after scoring the first two games in his debut with the team, Pageau went on a slump as the Islanders scoring woes continued to show night in and night out. The offense seemed hopeless and they just couldn’t finish their chances nor win games. However, defense has been the Islanders bright spot. The Islanders have one of the league's best defenses, given head coach Barry Trotz’s solid defensive scheme and solid goaltending from Semyon Varlamov, who looked good in Wednesday's exhibition game against the Rangers in a 2-1 victory, and backup goaltender Thomas Greiss. The Islanders may not have many scoring chances, but they also don’t give other teams many scoring chances.


Now the Panthers on the other hand have had a disappointing year. I honestly thought this team would be a wild card team. Especially after the offseason they had when they not only brought in former Stanley Cup champion head coach from the Blackhawks Joel Quenneville, but also acquired a few key pieces such as former Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Despite making such moves, the Panthers fell short of expectations and didn’t pan out as well as I thought they would. The Panthers are one of the best offensive teams in the NHL. This team knows how to get the puck towards the net and capitalize on their chances when it’s there. Unlike the Islanders, the Panthers have a pretty solid power play. However, these teams switch roles. The Islanders are good defensively but not so good offensively, whereas the Panthers have a nice offense and can score, but defensively they have struggled all year and Bobrovsky isn’t the goaltender the Panthers hoped he’d be. Bobrovsky has been pretty disappointing giving up 3.23 goals per game while posting a .900 save percentage. Although it was only an exhibition game, the Panthers put up a pitiful performance all around losing 5-0 to the Lightning. Yes it’s one game, but a game like that has to be concerning if you’re the Panthers.


Overall these teams are somewhat even but I believe the Islanders are good enough to beat the Panthers in this series. Their coaching and experience will be a factor along with their defense, which I believe is disciplined enough to beat a team like the Panthers. After being in a slump, this break may help a struggling team like the Islanders regroup from their slump and recover. I don’t think this series will be a sweep, but I don’t think this series goes the distance.


Prediction: Islanders in 4


#8 Toronto Maple Leafs vs #9 Columbus Blue Jackets

Mitch Marner skating up the ice with the puck

Preview:


Our final series of the NHL Stanley Cup qualifying round will be the Toronto Maple Leafs vs the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Maple Leafs finished the regular season third in the Atlantic division with 81 points, while the Blue Jackets finished fifth in the Metropolitan division also with 81 points.


The Maple Leafs are 1-1-0 in head to head meetings against the Panthers this season. The Maple Leafs scored 3.39 goals per game and allowed 3.17 goals, while the Blue Jackets scored 2.57 goals a game and allowed 2.61 goals.


This series personally, was the toughest one to choose a winner for because both of these teams are evenly matched and fully healthy.


You have the Maple Leafs who have a lot of star power on the offensive side of the puck and can score at any given time. They have a bunch of star studded talent such as C John Tavares, LW William Nylander, C Auston Matthews, RW Mitch Marner, you name it. The Leafs also have had themselves an interesting year, especially losing to a zamboni driver at home, but nonetheless they are here now and ready to make a run. However, I have a few concerns for the Maple Leafs regarding defense, goaltending, and running into the wrong team again. Although the Maple Leafs offense has won them some games, their defense and goaltending has also hurt their chances of winning games. An offense can do so much sometimes, but can’t carry the load all the time. The consistency of Frederick Andersen and if he’ll bounce back post break is another question the Leafs will be searching for to answer, granted they did help their goalie situation with a trade for former Kings Goaltender Jack Campbell to help back up Andersen, and start when needed. Also, if the Leafs get past the Blue Jackets, they better hope they don’t run into the Bruins again.


On the other hand you have the Blue Jackets who have had an interesting year. They’ve dealt with many injuries, lost a lot of key players this offseason, yet they were still in the hunt for a decent portion of the season. The Blue Jackets are the opposite of the Maple Leafs as they are one of the top Defensive teams in the NHL. The Blue Jackets have a great head coach in John Torterella who has helped carry the Blue Jackets along with great goaltending from both All Star Joonas Korpisalo who allowed only 2.60 goals per game with a .911 save percentage and backup Elvis Merzlikins who allowed only 2.35 goals per game with a .923 save percentage, which you can make the argument that the Blue Jackets have the best goaltending tandem in hockey. However, what makes me worried about the Blue Jackets heading into the playoffs is if their defense and goaltending can keep up their play like they did before the season was temporarily stopped and if they can stay healthy. At least they are fully recovered now, but health is key, especially in the playoffs and in a series like this.


Overall, it wouldn’t stun me who comes out of this series because this is a very close series. This series can honestly go either way and whoever wins deserves it. In a series that goes the distance, I think the Maple Leafs get by. I could see the Blue Jackets winning and possibly shutting down the Maple Leafs offense, but despite having great defense and goaltending, I think the Maple Leafs offensive star power will be a bit much for the Blue Jackets to handle, and gives the Maple Leafs the upper hand. This isn’t the same Blue Jackets team as last year that beat the presidents trophy winning Lightning and that’s going to hurt them. They don’t have those types of players like C Matt Duchene or LW Artemi Panarin on the team anymore to lead them. Last year, I thought it was the Blue Jackets last shot and I’m a bit surprised they got to the qualifiers, but I’m still sticking with my gut and going with the Maple Leafs.


Prediction: Maple Leafs in 5


The NHL is right around the corner and I can’t wait for the season to start back up. HOCKEY IS BACK PEOPLE.

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