On thin ice: NHL playoffs preview, predictions

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After a thrilling qualifying round filled with drama, upsets and chaos, the first round of the NHL playoffs officially begins Tuesday. The top eight teams in the Eastern and Western conferences will descend upon fanless arenas in Toronto and Edmonton, respectively, battling it out for the right to bring home the Stanley Cup. The top four teams in each conference advanced automatically, but seeds five through eight each earned their way to the 16-team Stanley Cup playoffs by virtue of winning a shortened series against another playoff hopeful. Will the extra time to rest advantage the top squads? Or will the experience of just coming off a win-or-go-home situation turn the tides in favor of the underdogs?

All this and more will be revealed when the teams hit the ice Tuesday. The potential storylines from the eight matchups provide no shortage of intrigue, and with how unpredictable life in the NHL bubble has been so far, fans can be sure to expect much more mayhem to come. Let’s preview the 2020 NHL playoffs, breaking down and making our picks for each first-round matchup, then predicting who will ultimately win the Stanley Cup.

Eastern Conference 

No. 1 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 8 Montreal Canadiens

The Canadiens pulled off the upset of the qualifying round, knocking off Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins on the back of solid team play and a historic performance from goaltender Carey Price, who found a way to turn back the clock. Unfortunately for them, their reward is a date with the top-seeded Flyers, one of the hottest teams in the NHL. Philadelphia won nine of its last 10 games before the pause, then picked up right where it left off with a 3-0 record in the qualifying round robin. The Flyers are a deep, well-coached team and should bring Montreal’s Cinderella story to an end.

Prediction: Flyers in five

No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. No. 7 Columbus Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets are a plucky underdog of their own and found a way to upset the star-studded Toronto Maple Leafs in the qualifying round. The Lightning know of this all too well, as just last season, they were unceremoniously swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the eighth-seeded Blue Jackets after putting up the best record in the NHL. This time, though, the talented Tampa Bay squad will be looking for revenge, and Columbus won’t be able to recapture last year’s magic.

Prediction: Lightning in six

No. 3 Washington Capitals vs. No. 6 New York Islanders

Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals draw a tough test in the gritty, defensive-minded Islanders, coached by none other than Barry Trotz, who won the Capitals a Stanley Cup in 2018. This is a series that should go down to the wire, but the offensive firepower on Washington should be enough to see it through to the next round.

Prediction: Capitals in seven

No. 4 Boston Bruins vs. No. 5 Carolina Hurricanes

Boston is coming off a heartbreaking defeat in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final last year, but it will bring back much of the same squad and is eager to make amends. It struggled in the round robin, though, and will draw an upstart Carolina team that made its presence known by pulling off the only sweep in the qualifying round. This should be one of the closest series of the qualifying round, but the Hurricanes are a team on the rise and could put the league on notice with a surprise victory over the Bruins.

Prediction: Hurricanes in seven

Western Conference

No. 1 Vegas Golden Knights vs. No. 8 Chicago Blackhawks

If the Canadiens pulled off the biggest qualifying round upset in the East, the Blackhawks did it in the West with a gutsy performance to knock out Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers on their home rink. The Hawks have the perfect mix of veteran experience and young talent to give any team a run for its money and will surely put up a fight against the Knights. Vegas, though, is loaded at every position and will eventually overwhelm Chicago.

Prediction: Golden Knights in six

No. 2 Colorado Avalanche vs. No. 7 Arizona Coyotes

The Coyotes are returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2012 and are likely just happy to be there. Arizona is on the rise, but it hasn’t realized its potential just yet, and when pit against a powerhouse Avalanche team led by the transcendent Nathan MacKinnon, it’ll fall to the side.

Prediction: Avalanche in five

No. 3 Dallas Stars vs. No. 6 Calgary Flames

Dallas has star power, good goaltending and a solid defensive core, but has struggled to put it all together at times this season. Calgary, too, has had troubles getting everything to click this year, and putting these two teams against each other should bring out perhaps the closest first-round matchup in the West. The Stars, however, struggled before the break and in the qualifying round robin, while the Flames might be heating up at just the right time. That should be enough for them to pull off an upset.

Prediction: Flames in six

No. 4 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 5 Vancouver Canucks

The defending Stanley Cup champions did not look like themselves when they returned to play after the break, as the Blues disappointingly went 0-3 in the qualifying round robin. They’ll need to figure things out quickly against a young and talented Canucks team, or they’re at risk of getting sent home. St. Louis has the talent and pedigree to get things back on track, and while Vancouver won’t make it easy, it’ll find a way to get it done.

Prediction: Blues in six

Stanley Cup predictions

Out East, Tampa Bay, Philadelphia and Carolina look poised to make a run for the Cup. Meanwhile, in the West, Vegas, Colorado and St. Louis seem like the favorites to represent the conference in the Stanley Cup Final. The Lightning and Golden Knights, though, are true juggernauts and might be on a collision course to match up in a slugfest for the Stanley Cup. Between the two, Tampa Bay seems more talented, deep and, most importantly, motivated, and that might be enough for the franchise to bring home its second Stanley Cup.

Prediction: Lightning over Golden Knights in seven