The long-awaited arrival of the NHL playoffs gets here in Saturday. There will be 24 teams congregated in two hub cities in Canada to settle the Stanley Cup. The top eight teams (four per conference) will get a bye and simply play amongst each other for a week to decide seeding. The other sixteen teams will match up in eight best-of-five preliminary round battles.
The eight survivors, along with the eight bye teams will then move into a normal 16-team Stanley Cup playoff format with a best-of-seven in each round. Today’s Notebook Nine focuses on the top storylines for the NHL playoffs…
All Eyes On Tampa: I’ve got the Lightning winning the Cup. Tampa Bay is simply the most complete team in hockey. They had a truckload of momentum when the season was shut down in March. The shutdown took away the momentum, but not the talent—it’ll be a tougher ride now, but this is a hungry team.
Tampa made the Finals in 2015 before losing to Chicago. They reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final in 2016 and 2018 before losing to the eventual champ (Pittsburgh & Washington). They had an embarrassing first-round loss last year after running away with the best regular season record.
The trio of Nikita Kucherov, Steve Stamkos, Brayden Point and Alex Killorn, along with Victor Hedman’s passing ability, give the Lightning the best offense in the league. Andrei Vasilvevsky is a goalie you can win a Stanley Cup with. Tampa can’t keep missing opportunities.
On a side note, this is also the city to keep an eye in the condensed sports year of 2020—the Rays and the Tom Brady-fortified Buccaneers are also legitimate hopefuls to win a championship. But the Tampa team with the best shot is the Lightning.
Four Viable Contenders: If you’re a betting man and want to bet NHL futures, you can pick multiple teams to win it. The Boston Bruins join Tampa as a (+750) betting favorite. You could also mix in the Colorado Avalanche (+900) and the last two Stanley Cup champions, St. Louis and Washington, at (+1000). If you bet the same amount on all five teams you would turn a profit so long as one of them won it. In a previous column celebrating the return of sports, I touched on storylines surrounding the goalies for the Bruins and Caps, Tuuka Raask and Braden Holtby respectively
Question Marks In Philly: Of the four bye teams in the East, the Philadelphia Flyers look like the one that doesn’t belong. They don’t appear on the same level of Tampa, Boston or Washington. The Flyers have a nice offense, well-balanced with Travis Konecny, Sean Courturier and the outstanding Claude Giroux, who’s finally been surrounded with some help. Their goalies are the question mark. If Philly sticks with young Carter Hart they could prove me wrong. If they fall into the trap of going with the mediocre veteran (Brian Elliot in this case) because of “playoff experience”, it won’t work.
Who Is Dallas? Dallas is one of the bye teams in the West and the Stars are a fascinating case. They’re second in the league in defense. Goaltender Ben Bishop has a pedigree, having started in net for Tampa’s 2015 Finals team referenced above. Bishop also has a pedigree for inconsistency, which is why the Lightning moved on from him. On the flip side, the offense is a woeful 28th in goals scored. But is it hard to imagine Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn getting a nice roll and lightning the lamp? I don’t think so. What version of the Stars show up in the hub will be an interesting story.
Don’t Bet On Vegas: The Golden Knights are (+900) to win the Stanley Cup, meaning betting markets place them on a par with the other top contenders discussed above. I don’t see where this optimism is coming from. They ranked ninth in the league in offense and 13th in defense prior to the shutdown. That’s not bad, but it’s also not anything that promises a big playoff run. They had their magic ride in 2018 when they reached the Finals as an expansion franchise. Not happening this year.
New York, New York: If we dig into the preliminary round matchups, the series involving the Rangers and Islanders are both studies in contrast. The Isles, under the tutelage of Barry Trotz, are a defense-first team. They play Florida, who offers a balanced offense. If Panther goalie Sergei Bobrovsky can wake up the echoes of his Vezina Trophy days in 2013 and 2017, the Isles could be in trouble. But those days were in Columbus, and I think the Islanders survive in a series that goes the full five games.
The Rangers are the defensively-challenged team in the Big Apple. Henrik Lundqvist’s best days are behind him in goal and 23-year-old Alexander Gorgiev is still unproven. If Gorgiev gets the starts and can lock down a pedestrian Carolina Hurricanes offense, the Rangers could ride the offense of Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider to a series win. But when it comes to predictions, I generally shy away from the bad defensive team and these Rangers were 24th in the league in goals allowed. Carolina in four.
Toronto Has To Come Through: The Maple Leafs have put the great hockey city of Toronto through a lot. They’ve lost Game 7s to Boston each of the last two years (on top of an epic collapse in 2013, another Game 7 loss to the Bruins). This year they get a chance at Columbus in the prelims. Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews are an amazing package of offensive talent but the Leafs have been terrible on defense.
This is a case where I’m going to violate my rules on defense though and pick Toronto. For one, I think Frederik Andersen is at least good enough in goal to get his team through one round. And the Blue Jackets are just really, really bad offensively. If Toronto can’t win this series, you have to wonder when they ever will advance in the playoffs.
Connor McDavid’s Time? Speaking of great young players that need to start going deep into the postseason, how about Connor McDavid in Edmonton? Already heralded as the next Wayne Gretzky even before he landed with the Oilers, McDavid has already won an MVP award. He has a great running mate in Leo Draisatl, who had scored 43 goals by the shutdown. Edmonton plays a Chicago team that’s a shadow of what they were five years ago. The Oilers need to win and the league needs McDavid to get on bigger stages.
Winnipeg vs. Calgary: There is no better preliminary round matchup than this one. Each team has the kind of goalie you can win a Stanley Cup with. Connor Hellebuyck for the Jets and David Rittich with the Flames. I’ve got Winnipeg winning this series in five games, but in either case the winner goes into the Round of 16 as the best sleeper pick to win it all.
Boston Strong? I conclude with the focus on the team I follow, the Boston Bruins. When the Bruins lost the Finals to St. Louis last year, it was lamented how Boston had gotten used to being the strong, physical team that could beat up on finesse players in the postseason. The roles got reversed against a Blues team that was big and could hit. Boston has great skill offensively—David Pastrnak is tied with Alex Ovechkin as the leading scorer. Patrice Bergeron is a terrific all-around center. Brad Marchand gets better every year. That’s a legitimate Big Three in a city that’s reserved such a nickname for trios like Bird-McHale-Parish or Pierce-KG-Allen. But no one is going to beat Tampa on skill alone and eventually the Bruins will have to show they can get in the muck, the way the champs of 2011 and the Finalists of 2013 could.