After a nearly five-month-long hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHL returns to action Saturday with a 24-team return-to-play tournament. The top 12 teams in the Eastern and Western conferences will battle it out in empty arenas in Toronto and Edmonton, respectively, fighting to bring home the Stanley Cup. While the top four teams in each conference automatically advance, seeds five through 12 will face off in eight best-of-five qualifying series for the right to join the best competitors in the 16-team Stanley Cup playoffs.
The NHL postseason is always unpredictable, but this season’s unique format promises to bring one of the most thrilling, dramatic and chaotic playoffs yet. Let’s preview each qualifying round matchup and make predictions for who will advance.
No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 12 Montreal Canadiens
This may be the most lopsided matchup of the qualifying round, as the experienced Penguins face off against a rebuilding team that snuck its way into the tournament despite being 10 points out of a playoff spot at the season’s pause. The Canadiens will need goaltender Carey Price to stand on his head to have any chance of winning this series, but Sidney Crosby and the Penguins should make quick work of Montreal.
Prediction: Penguins in three
No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes vs. No. 11 New York Rangers
The Hurricanes are coming off a trip to the Eastern Conference finals, and with their deep defensive core, Carolina is absolutely the favorite in the series. The Rangers shouldn’t be counted out though, with the advantage in net and MVP candidate Artemi Panarin leading the way up front. In a hard-fought series, New York might have what it takes to pull off the upset.
Prediction: Rangers in five
No. 7 New York Islanders vs. No. 10 Florida Panthers
The Panthers have a high-flying offense led by Aleksander Barkov but have struggled to put it all together this season. Coupled with serious problems in net from the inconsistent play of two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky, Barry Trotz’s gritty, defensive-minded Islanders team should find a way to get past the Panthers.
Prediction: Islanders in four
No. 8 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets
These teams are almost complete opposites — the star-studded Maple Leafs, with sky-high expectations, up against the quietly solid Blue Jackets, whom no one expected to get to the playoffs after losing much of their core in the offseason. John Tortorella’s well-coached Columbus team will give Toronto problems, but playing in their home rink, the Leafs should find a way to sneak out with a series win.
Prediction: Maple Leafs in five
No. 5 Edmonton Oilers vs. No. 12 Chicago Blackhawks
In their home arena, the young and skilled Edmonton Oilers draw a tough test in the veteran-laden Blackhawks squad. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews will keep the Hawks in the series, but in the end, the robust offense of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl will be too much for Chicago to handle.
Prediction: Oilers in four
No. 6 Nashville Predators vs. No. 11 Arizona Coyotes
The Coyotes will seek leadership from experienced forwards Phil Kessel and Taylor Hall, who are new to the team this season, against a Predators squad with a lot of playoff experience and depth. Arizona totes a solid team, but hasn’t made the playoffs since 2012 and will struggle against a more skilled and well-rounded Nashville squad.
Prediction: Predators in three
No. 7 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 10 Minnesota Wild
This matchup is another battle of opposites, pitting the aging Wild against a young Canucks team on the rise. Minnesota’s experience should help it, but Vancouver’s star power and edge in goal should take it to a series win.
Prediction: Canucks in four
No. 8 Calgary Flames vs. No. 9 Winnipeg Jets
This could be the closest matchup of all the Western Conference qualifying rounds and should be a fun one, with two talented teams that both underachieved this season pitted against each other. Winnipeg has a clear advantage in net with Vezina candidate Connor Hellebuyck, but the Flames are a deeper team with a better defense, and that should give them a slight advantage in a series that is a borderline toss-up.
Prediction: Flames in five
After an extended break, the NHL is finally back, and fans are in store for one of the most unique and unpredictable playoffs ever. Of all the teams participating in the qualifying rounds, the Nashville Predators out West and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the East look best positioned to make a run to the Stanley Cup, with Pittsburgh looking to rake in the title as the eventual champion.
Still, with shortened series and players hitting the ice for the first time in more than four months, these games are sure to be full of surprises that may render these predictions ridiculous by the end of the postseason. All fans should know is to expect the unexpected and get ready to welcome back hockey with open arms.
Benjamin Coleman covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].