NHL Stanley Cup playoffs first-round previews and predictions
A Stanley Cup playoffs unlike any other get underway this weekend in the Canadian bubbles of Toronto and Edmonton. The bubble model has been working out quite nicely for Major League Soccer and the NBA (Major League Baseball wishes it had implemented the same strategy), so the NHL has to feel good about its chances of bringing the 2019-20 campaign to a successful conclusion.
In all likelihood there will be a team lifting Lord Stanley’s chalice this fall. But who will it be?
Well, that’s a good question; but right now we are focused on the first round—which begins on Saturday. Eight teams in each conference are playing for four spots in what will be traditional eight-team brackets (the top four teams in each conference already have byes and will play a round-robin against each other for seeding). So let’s take a look at the eight first-round series and make our predictions.
(5) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (12) Montreal Canadiens
The Penguins head into this playoff series with a regular-season record of 40-23-6 (.623 winning percentage). On the other hand, the Canadiens have a far worse mark of 31-31-9—barely earning them a spot in the Toronto bubble. This will be the first time the Canadiens enter the playoffs since 2017 and they feature a roster of hopeful young stars surrounding a veteran goaltender. Carey Price is sporting a 27-25 record and a .909 save percentage, which are respectable numbers given that he does not have a whole lot of help. As for an experienced Pittsburgh squad, it won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017 and could win another one. Captain Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Tristian Jarry make up the core and are the reason why their team should easily take care of the Canadiens here. Even a sweep is well within the realm of possibility. Pick: Penguins (-230).
(6) Carolina Hurricanes vs. (11) New York Rangers
With an impressive regular-season record of 38-25-5, the Hurricanes opened as slightly heavier favorites but you can now find them at -140. Can they repeat the same type of energy and fight they did back in the 2019 playoffs? The playoff ‘Canes are a different team—at least if the 2018-19 campaign is anything to go by. This marks the first-ever postseason meeting between the two franchises, so the Rangers may not recognize what they are about to see from Carolina. Hurricanes goalie Petr Mrazek will be in the spotlight once again after thriving in it last year to the tune of five playoff wins. Two of those victories were shutouts. On the flip side, this is the first time since 2016 that the Rangers are in the postseason. It is unclear who will get the starting nod in net, as Igor Shesterkin was a surprise success late in the regular season (10-2 record) but is largely unproven. Pick: Hurricanes (-140)
(7) New York Islanders vs. (10) Florida Panthers
We jumped all over the Islanders at -110 a couple of months ago and thought they would become even heavier favorites, but you can still get them at -115. Head coach Barry Trotz will be looking to win another Stanley Cup as he leads his Islanders against Florida. New York is known for having a brutish blue line, and this season it is allowing just 2.79 goals per game—ninth fewest in the NHL. It won’t be easy against the Panthers, who are lighting the lamp 3.30 times per contest in 2019-20. At the other end of the ice, however, goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has been inconsistent the whole season (.900 save percentage) and Florida is surrendering 3.25 goals per game. Pick: Islanders (-115)
(8) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets
The Maple Leafs will hope to continue showcasing offensive firepower as they move into the postseason. Toronto is one of the best scoring teams in the NHL, averaging 3.39 goals per game. That is what propelled the franchise to a fourth straight playoff appearance. Some bad news, however, is that the Leafs have not made it out of the first round since 2003-04. Will they be able to finally break the curse? On the other side of this matchup, the Blue Jackets should be fully healthy for this series—which they were not throughout the regular season. That is part of the reason why a lot of bettors are all over Columbus, but we like Toronto not only because of its offense but also because goalie Frederik Andersen has been solid. He is 29-13-7 this season with a 2.85 GAA and .909 SVP. Pick: Maple Leafs (-160).
(5) Edmonton Oilers vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks
Chicago got its wish for a revised postseason format granted. Normally 12th place would not be anywhere close to the playoff picture, but this time around it is good enough. The Blackhawks’ 32-30-8 record pales in comparison to that of the Oilers (37-25-9). Edmonton is led by superstars Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and goaltender Mikko Koskinen. Those three can easily turn it up during the series and take over this average Blackhawks team. Even though Chicago won two out of the three matchups against Edmonton during the regular season, they were mostly high-scoring games with ugly defense. The Oilers will be much more inspired in the playoffs and a return to form will allow them to slow down the fast-pace Chicago squad. It may not be a sweep, but Edmonton has the firepower to win this series. Pick: Oilers (-160).
(6) Nashville Predators vs. (11) Arizona Coyotes
Arizona goes into this series with an overall record of 33-29-8. The Coyotes can be one of the most exciting teams to watch with their physical, shutdown defense. They finished the regular season with an outstanding 2.47 goals allowed per game, which was fourth-best in the league. That can be attributed in part to one of the league’s most surprising goalies in Darcy Kuemper, who is a big reason why we smell a minor upset here. Kuemper finished the season with a 16-11-2 record, yielding just 2.22 goals per contest. It’s still unknown how many games Kuemper will play as he splits time with Antti Raanta, but either way this club is formidable on defense. Even though the Predators (35-26-8) may have the upper hand on offense with scoring 3.1 goals per game, their defense is subpar. They are allowing nearly three goals per game, so Arizona should be able to sneak in a couple per game and keep the game close and in control. Plus money on the Coyotes is good value. Pick: Coyotes (+115).
(7) Vancouver Canucks vs. (10) Minnesota Wild
This five-game series features two high-scoring teams (Vancouver is averaging 3.25 goals per game; Minnesota is averaging 3.16 goals per game). They are practically twins with their style of play and their regular-season records (Vancouver went 36-27-6; Minnesota went 35-27-7). Even though the Wild enters as slight favorites, we like the plus money being given to the Wild. In addition to their offensive firepower, the Wild also boast a stout goaltender in Alex Stalock—who compiled a 20-11-14 record and a 2.67 GAA. Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom went 23-16-4 with a decent 2.75 GAA but was more up and down and did not finish the regular season as strong as Stalock. This series gets underway on Saturday, when Vancouver is a -125 Game 1 favorite (be sure to check out our daily NHL expert picks). Pick: Wild (+110).
(8) Calgary Flames vs. (9) Winnipeg Jets
This should be one of the most competitive first-round series, and whoever wins will make it farther than last year. Both teams were bounced right away in the 2018-19 playoffs, but they are back to avenge those early losses. A key factor in this five-game set could be penalty killing. The Flames have been one of the best in the league at killing power plays, ranking eighth in that department (82.1 percent). Over the last 196 man advantages for the opposition, they have allowed just 35 goals. On the other side, Winnipeg would be the second-worst penalty killing team in the playoffs if the original 16-team format was in effect (22nd in the league at 77.6 percent). Additionally, Calgary has an advantage with a superior goaltender in David Rittich. In the regular season Rittich posted a 24-17-6 record and he has a serviceable backup in Cam Talbot. It is also worth noting that the Flames are one of the best teams away from home…and everyone (other than Toronto and Edmonton) is away from home these days. Pick: Flames (-120).