Eastern Edge: Previewing the first round matchups of the 2020 NHL Playoffs
In this week's Eastern Edge, we preview the Eastern Conference playoff matchups. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below or shoot me a message on Twitter @BrennanDeSouza! Check out all the Dobber writers' playoff predictions here and feel free to tell us how foolish our picks are!
Philadelphia Flyers vs. Montreal Canadiens
Just as we all predicted, the Montreal Canadiens eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins after four games of play-in action. Okay, seriously, if you picked Montreal to beat Pittsburgh, you're a lot braver (and/or luckier) than the rest of us.
While the Habs certainly deserve credit for ousting the star-studded Penguins, I think that Pittsburgh's poor performance had a greater influence on the result of this series than Montreal's strong play. The Penguins weren't able to match the level of hunger and intensity that the Canadiens brought to this series. I can easily highlight players on Montreal's roster that elevated their play during this matchup, but it's much more difficult to think of standout players from Pittsburgh. To give you a few specific examples, Carey Price, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Nick Suzuki, Artturi Lehkonen, Jeff Petry and Brett Kulak all played extremely well for the Habs. The thing is, Montreal's roster includes so many players that can be difference makers – in addition to the ones I already mentioned. Guys like Phillip Danault, Brendan Gallagher, Tomas Tatar, Jonathan Drouin, Joel Armia and Max Domi have all had strong stretches of play during recent seasons, but they weren't huge factors during the play-in round. With that in mind, I'm curious to see if a new set of Canadiens will step up during this first round against the Flyers.
Coach Claude Julien shuffled his lines during the Pittsburgh series, breaking up his reliable top line of Tatar-Danault-Gallagher to create one line with Danault, Lehkonen and Paul Byron, and another with Tatar, Gallagher and Suzuki. I have to say, the Byron-Lehkonen-Danault line looked excellent against the Penguins. Each player is strong defensively, allowing the line to shut down the opponent's attack, control possession and dominate play. The sample size is obviously small, but I really like what I saw from them. I'm curious to see if coach Julien will keep them together against the Flyers or if he reverts to his old combinations.
One storyline that's gaining a lot of traction as we enter the Round of 16 is how much more prepared play-in teams are for playoff action compared to round-robin teams. A team like Montreal is used to an intense level of play after four meaningful games against the Penguins. In contrast, the Flyers didn't have much at stake during round-robin action as they were already guaranteed a playoff spot. Despite the low stakes, Philly displayed a high level of intensity as they came out victorious in all three of their round-robin games, defeating three excellent teams in the Bruins, Capitals and Lightning. The regular season seems like a distant memory at this point, but it's worth noting that Philadelphia was one of the league's hottest teams before the season paused – and it doesn't look like they've lost any momentum. The Flyers have a really strong roster, and just like the Penguins, they comfortably outmatch the Canadiens on paper. However, the theme of 2020 seems to be unpredictability, in both hockey and everyday life. So, while the Flyers will probably win this series, I think the Habs have a better chance than most people are giving them. I for one wouldn't be all that surprised to see Montreal win this series, but I can't ignore how well the Flyers have been playing.
My Prediction: Flyers in 7.
Carolina Hurricanes vs. Boston Bruins
Carolina swept the Rangers in convincing fashion during the play-in round. Boston lost all three of their round-robin games. Heading into Game 1 of this series, we have two teams with seemingly opposite trajectories. The thing is, you can't read too much into Boston's round-robin struggles because the Bruins didn't have much to play for. Bruins' forward Brad Marchand even referred to the games as "preseason games", which lack the intensity of regular playoff games. Be that as it may, I personally think the Bruins missed an opportunity to gradually elevate their level of play and transition into playoff mode. I don't think they'll be able to match Carolina's level of intensity when this series kicks off on Tuesday and I think the Hurricanes could steal this series.
Carolina has a really strong, underrated roster. Sebastian Aho had the second-most points during the play-in round as he tallied eight points in three games. Only Connor McDavid outscored Aho, as he put up nine points – but he also had an extra game to get that extra point. Andrei Svechnikov was outstanding in the play-in round as well, tallying five points in three games. The Hurricanes have an excellent defensive corps that can also contribute offensively. That reality was on display against the Rangers as Sami Vatanen put up three points and Jaccob Slavin tallied two. Dougie Hamilton missed the play-in round against New York but is expected to return against Boston, further strengthening Carolina's blueline. Goaltending has always been a question mark for the Canes, but Petr Mrazek and James Reimer played really well against the Rangers. I expect the team's strong defense to help Mrazek and Reimer maintain that success against the Bruins.
My Prediction: Hurricanes in 7.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Tampa Bay and Columbus – a rematch of last year's first round matchup that saw the Blue Jackets sweep the heavily favoured Lightning. Before we look at this year's edition of the matchup, I think it's important to reflect on what happened last year.
Tampa was dominant during the 2018-2019 regular season, posting 62 wins as they secured the President's Trophy. To give you some perspective, Calgary finished second in the regular season standings and only registered 50 wins. After such an amazing regular season performance, Tampa was set to face a Columbus team that barely made the playoffs. As you can imagine, overconfidence inevitably crippled Tampa's roster as they failed to register a single win against the Blue Jackets. While the Lightning certainly underperformed, Columbus deserves a ton of credit for the defensive dominance and strong team play they displayed during that series.
Fast forward to the present and you'll see that circumstances are similar but different. While Tampa still comes in as the favourite, they didn't display the same regular season dominance that they did last year. Again, Columbus comes in as the underdog, but to a lesser extent as they've just defeated a star-studded Toronto roster in the play-in round. I personally think that the Lightning were humbled by last year's loss to the Blue Jackets. I think the core of this team learned a valuable lesson and that they're hungry for redemption. Sure, I'm throwing a lot of clichés at you that don't necessarily mean anything – but it's the 2020 playoffs and we're all dealing with a global pandemic. Nobody knows what's going to happen next, I'm just sharing my perspective. As I write this, we don't know whether Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos will be available for this series, but I still think Tampa can come out victorious whether or not those guys are in the lineup. I expect a really strong showing from Brayden Point who has developed into a superstar and will hopefully get more recognition for his elite abilities during this series.
My Prediction: Lightning in 5.
Washington Capitals vs. New York Islanders
I'll admit, I underestimated the Islanders prior to their play-in series with the Panthers. I thought that Florida's high-end talent would overwhelm New York's strong defensive structure. I thought that Sergei Bobrovsky could stand tall against an Islanders' offense that didn't seem all that dangerous during the regular season. Boy, was I wrong.
As they comfortably defeated the Panthers, the Isles impressed me with their offensive depth while reinforcing my confidence in their defensive system. New York's attack was firing on all cylinders as many different players got on the scoresheet. Anthony Beauvillier led the way with five points through four games – Dobber has prophesized Beauvillier's emergence for some time now, so I'm definitely buying this breakout performance. Ryan Pulock, Josh Bailey and Devon Toews all managed a point-per-game pace through their four-game play-in round. It's great to see two young defensemen thrive offensively as they break free from limited roles of past seasons. The list of scoring contributions goes on as Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored three goals in four play-in games, while Jordan Eberle, Brock Nelson and Mathew Barzal each put up three points. We've always known about New York's defensive strength, but with their offense stepping up, the Islanders could be a force in this year's playoffs.
The Isles will have their hands full against a strong Washington team that boasted outstanding performances from John Carlson and Alex Ovechkin this season, as well as a breakout showing from Jakub Vrana. The Capitals have a deep team with plenty of scoring options, but their offense could be short-handed with John Carlson's status up in the air due to injury. While the Caps have more 'game-breaking' players on their roster, I've been extremely impressed with New York's overall team game and think they can come out victorious here.
My Prediction: Islanders in 7.
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