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The OTF Staff Predicts: The 2020 Postseason

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Our staff takes a look around the league and speculates on how the postseason will go.

NHL: Arizona Coyotes at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

We gathered some of our staff to discuss the upcoming postseason. We’ll have an in-depth look at what we’re expecting from the Preds this year as we get closer to the actual start, but for now, a look around the league. A lot of eyes will be on the neighboring Hurricanes and Blue Jackets; a lot of people are ill-wishing Chicago, Eamon’s formative hockey experience makes a reappearance, and a few people predict the Preds will go all the way.

Western Conference Predictions

Bobby is not afraid of an unpopular take, and a lot of us don’t trust the Stars to do well in the round-robin portion of the qualifiers. Rachel, meanwhile, is the only one picking the Flames in the all-Canadian series.

Eastern Conference Predictions

When in doubt, pick a series by its goalies, but I’m not sure 2020 Carey Price has what it takes. Even 2015 Hart/Lindsay/Vezina Carey Price only got the Habs through one round—though he did get hurt in the next—and it took six games.

The round robin opinions are a lot more well-mixed in this conference. Does it show a more even spread of talent, or just less staff familiarity? I always struggle picking Eastern anything, myself.

Stanley Cup Final Predictions

I—Kate—didn’t do predictions because I’m chronically indecisive, but I’m going on the record now to say the Avalanche are my Cup pick and I don’t like it any more than you do.

Anyway. We’ve got some Preds believers, while meanwhile the Avalanche are the most popular runner-up. The Bruins and the Flyers are both decently-represented in our staff predictions. Laura’s Final looks joyous and I’d love to see it happen.

Which series interests you the most?

Laura: Actually, the Predators vs. Coyotes series. The Preds haven’t had huge success against them in the games I’ve attended, so it adds a bit of “anything can happen”. Will they fly, or crash and burn?

Eric: Wild vs. Canucks. On paper I think these teams seem evenly matched and it’s a contest that won’t get tons of attention, but heading into the break, these clubs were headed in separate directions. Both Minnesota and Vancouver have underwhelmed offensively this season, but the Wild seemed to be hitting their stride with a 7-3-0 record and 40 goals scored in their last ten games.

Nick: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets. This is a textbook “High-Powered Offense vs. Iron-Clad Defense” showdown. Toronto working Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner on the same line during camp should be an indication of just how much Sheldon Keefe respects Columbus’s blueline and goalie depth. Despite all the firepower, I think you’re going to see a lot of 2-1, 3-2 results in this series, and when that happens, the series becomes a toss-up.

Ann: It’s an obvious answer, but the Predators and Coyotes. You have two teams that need to thank their lucky stars they got into this playoff scenario and now they each have to, in the wise words of Gandalf, decide what to do with the time that is given them. On paper, the break benefits the Predators. The last few months have enabled Head Coach John Hynes to implement his system and get to know his team a little better. It has also given the Preds players a chance to mentally regroup from a season of change and inconcistency. The Preds and Coyotes split their season matchup, but those two games hint that if the Predators want to progress in this post season they are going to have to clean up their penalties, contain Dvorak and Kessel, and count on strong goaltending (from whoever ends up in net). The Coyotes are not a team to be trifled with or overlooked in the play-in round. While the 2017 Predators showed they can be a scrappy and serious postseason contender, the 2020 Coyotes best-of-five series will give the Predators an opportunity to reveal who they really are today.

Carson: Oilers vs. Hawks for sure. Chicago wasn’t going to make the playoffs in the pre-pandemic format, so this lifeline that the team has been tossed may inspire them to get things together. Does a core as talented as Kane – Keith – Toews – Crawford let their final postseason appearance become a sweep at the hands of the division-rival Predators? I don’t think so. I won’t go as far as to say that they will beat Edmonton, but I anticipate a closer matchup than most people think.

Rachel: Montreal vs. Pittsburgh. I think a hot Carey Price crushes the hopes and dreams of Pens fans for this season. I’m also interested in Minnesota-Vancouver. Can Kevin Fiala or Elias Pettersson be a game-breaker?

Sarah: Rangers vs. Hurricanes. The Hurricanes were the most fun team to watch in last year’s playoffs. Their youth, talent, and underdog mentality reminds me of the Predators’ Finals run. They’re a team on the verge of greatness and it’s fun to watch. The Rangers have hovered somewhere between good and disastrous for the last decade — zig-zagging between the two at any given moment. They have a talented roster this season that could easily put them on a path to victory, but the real story here is the goalie situation. What will the Rangers do about King Henrik. Of all the Cup-less Cup-deserving players still in the NHL, Lundqvist is near the top of the list, but have the Rangers moved on from him?

Bryan: New York vs. Carolina. What a glorious mess it’s going to be. For the Rangers you have the intriguing storyline of Hank vs. Igor in net, but it’s pretty likely that the obvious answer will emerge. Artemi Panarin is coming off a Hart Trophy finalist announcement yesterday, but behind him, the pickings are pretty slim. The Rangers aren’t that deep of a team, so they’re pinning most of their hopes on Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Tony DeAngelo (booooo). The Hurricanes, on the other hand, are just fun to watch. One of my favorite non-Nashville players, Dougie Hamilton, should be returning from injury and will provide an immediate boost to the Hurricanes on defense. Carolina has depth up and down the roster at forward, including the always exciting Sebastien Aho and Andrei Svechnikov. I don’t think this series will be a runaway by the Canes, but Panarin should inject some excitement into what I think will be a pretty fun series to watch.

Eamon: I’d have to go with the Toronto vs. Columbus series, for a multitude of reasons. You have the obvious, fun narratives (scrappy underdog Torts team that plays highly defensive, frustrating, and winning hockey against all odds versus the high-octane, underachieving, and uber-talented Maple Leafs; hockey’s biggest market against one of its smallest and least talked about), as well as a few that aren’t getting talked about enough, like the return of Selke candidate Oliver Björkstrand and the questions surrounding the sustainability of Elvis Merzlikins’ play in net. We’ll have some good star power on either side with Seth Jones, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares, and the aforementioned Elvis-Björkstrand tandem, and there are plenty of notable, fun names in each team’s supporting cast (Cam Atkinson, Pierre Luc-Dubois, Zach Hyman, Freddy Anderson) that all have a lot to prove. While I doubt this will be the best series in terms of the most entertaining hockey to watch—the Blue Jackets aren’t a very fun team for anyone who likes offense—I’m very excited by it as someone who loves watching variables and potential storylines unfold into concrete narratives that we can enjoy while the playoffs proceed. I’m eager to watch the two teams duke it out, and I even wrote a more in-depth look at the matchup here.

Bobby: Well, I would have said the Edmonton vs. Chicago series looked interesting but, with both Corey Crawford and Jonathan Toews deemed “unfit to play” with no indication of when they could return, Edmonton may have too much of an upper hand. Instead, I’ll go with the Jets vs. Flames series. The two teams have not gotten along in prior meetings, and both teams have clear weaknesses. It’s a travesty that Connor Hellebuyck did not win the Hart Trophy for his heroics, dragging the Jets into these play-ins. Can he bring the Jets even further?

Which will be a blowout or possibly a sweep?

Laura: My belief is—especially if Corey Crawford does not return—the Oilers could sweep the Blackhawks. Let’s all hope for that!

Eric: The Jets vs. Flames series is a very curious one to me. The Flames are mediocre and were scoring at almost precisely their expected goals rate prior to the season pause; the Jets are worse than mediocre. I have no idea who could take that series, but I could see it being oddly one-sided if one club gets going. Nothing else stands out to me as a possibility for a blowout.

Nick: I had Vancouver over Minnesota as a sweep in my official predictions. But in terms of a pure mismatch—sweet Jiminy Crickets, this Penguins-Canadiens series has the potential to get ugly. And this is no disrespect to Montreal, because despite their record (the Candiens 71 points is fewest among all playoff teams), they weren’t necessarily an awful team, especially 5v5. But when you compare their depth to Pittsburgh’s—who added the likes of Jason Zucker, Patrick Marleau, and former Cup-winner Conor Sheary to their core—it’s simply a mismatch everywhere you look. I gave the Canadiens one win in the series just out of respect for Carey Price.

Rachel: I’d love to see Chicago swept...again. Edmonton has all the tools needed to sweep the Hawks. Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid are unparalleled.

Carson: I don’t really see any obvious blowouts in any of the matchups, but I’ll take the Wild because I would personally enjoy it the most.

Sarah: I could see the Islanders sweeping the Panthers. Chicago could also be in a precarious position as well, but it’s better for everyone if they don’t have a shot at the #1 overall pick.

Eamon: I have a strong feeling that if Crawford isn’t able to start in goal for Chicago, they’ll be eaten alive by the Oilers. With Patrick Kane’s goon squad being one of the worst defensive teams in the league (if not THE worst, an honor I’d probably give to the Jets), they’ve only been held afloat this year by Crawford and Robin Lehner stopping the hemorrhaging of shots allowed. Without either of those guys between the pipes, the Oilers should be able to pick the Hawks apart with their elite shooting talent at the top end of the lineup. I’m drooling at the thought of Draisaitl pantsing Duncan Keith en route to a four-goal game, but then again, if Chicago loses out they get a shot at picking first overall. With our luck, the worst will happen.

Bobby: I predicted two sweeps because, statistically, sweeps happen. Pittsburgh over Montreal is a safe bet, but I also predict Columbus to bring the brooms out and make short work of Toronto. If you look at the amount of injuries the Blue Jackets had last season, it should be easy to conclude that this team is significantly better than the 9-seed they are coming into the play-ins. Fully heathy with the exception of Josh Anderson, the Blue Jackets are in prime position to make some noise.

To say that the Columbus Blue Jackets had injury problems would be an understatement.
https://nhlinjuryviz.blogspot.com/2019/10/201920-NHL-man-games-lost-plots.html

Add in that the Blue Jackets have a wily veteran coach in John Tortorella who knows how to stifle high-powered offenses (see: 2019 sweep of Tampa Bay Lightning) going up against a rookie coach in Sheldon Keefe, and this series could be ripe for another Blue Jacket sweep.

What’s the biggest upset you’re predicting, and why?

Laura: Umm...the Nashville Predators over everyone to win the Stanley Cup.

Eric: Not so much an upset, but I think Toronto should handle Columbus pretty well and maybe make it through a couple more rounds.

Nick: I don’t know how much of an upset this would be, but I think the Rangers have the potential for a deep run. This team really hit their stride towards the end of the season, thanks to Panarin’s MVP-caliber season and young guys like Adam Fox developing ahead of schedule. If they play like they did from January through March, this team can compete with anyone in the East.

Rachel: Is Columbus taking down Toronto considered an upset? The Blue Jackets remain dangerous and they’re continually overlooked.

Carson: I’ll take the Panthers over the Islanders. Bobrovsky came in clutch for the Jackets against the Lightning last year, and I think he can hold down the fort against an already offensively-lacking New York squad.

Bryan: I’d like to say Columbus over Toronto, since the Jackets should be much, much healthier than they were to end the regular season, but I’ll say the Avalanche over the Blues. Yeah, it’s not necessarily a huge “upset”, as they were only separated by two points, but Colorado fields one of the best teams in the league and are my pick to win the West.

Sarah: There’s rarely a time I love anything more than a major upset handed down by the lowest seeded teams. It would be wild to watch the Canadiens send the Penguins home, but that may be more wishful thinking.

Eamon: I’d be hard pressed to say any other team than the Coyotes (I hear your boos and understand, I deserve this). This is a team that counters Nashville extremely well with a patient, counterattacking approach to offense that naturally crushed the team’s system in the regular season. While Nashville is easily the more talented, better team, I’m worried about how Hynes’s new style of offense will counter Rick Tocchet’s confounding defensive structure, and most importantly I’m concerned about how the Preds will look in net (Rinne has had a poor year and Saros has been historically poor to start seasons). Arizona has arguably the best tandem in the league in Darcy Kuemper (Vezina-calibre goalie this year) and Antti Raanta (a starter anywhere else), and they get a rested Taylor Hall and Phil Kessel back in addition to guys like Hinostroza, Chychrun and Garland. They were probably the worst first-round matchup Nashville could have drawn besides the Canucks or Oilers.

Bobby: Again, I picked the Blackhawks over the Oilers, but I’m wary about that selection if Jonathan Toews and Corey Crawford are both unavailable. With their injection of young offensive talent, the Blackhawks are a fun hockey team to watch. That may not be a popular thing to say around here, but at the end of the day I want to watch exciting hockey. Kirby Dach and Dominik Kubalik both add a fun youth to the Blackhawks that has been missing. Having leaders like Toews and Keith around the young blood, and I think there’s a good chance the Blackhawks could upset the flawed Oilers.

Oh, also, Zach Kassian hit Connor McDavid so hard in a scrimmage that McDavid left the ice. So, yeah, Edmonton could be in trouble.

How do you feel about the re-seeding?

Laura: No strong feelings either way. When you get to the top teams there is no road to the Stanley Cup that is going to be easy.

Eric: Good. It makes the most sense.

Nick: It’s fine given the imperfect situation we’re in.

Ann: These teams got into a playoff scenario during a pandemic season of chaos, and they have a chance to win a Stanley Cup. Without the final stretch of regular season play, I think the postseason plans, including the re-seeding, are as fair as any other options might have been.

Rachel: Meh.

Carson: Hockey is coming back; they could put all the teams in a bowl and pick each out bingo-style to decide who plays who and I would be able to live with it at this point.

Bryan: I like it. They should do it during all playoffs. Do it more, please.

Sarah: I have no problems with it. But I also don’t feel strongly about it either way. We are in a weird position, currently. They did the best they could with what they had.

Eamon: I really don’t care much either way. The way they did it is fine, I guess.

Bobby: For the situation, it’s fine. I still prefer the divisional format as the regionalism and rivalries generated feels more collegiate; i.e. whoever comes out of each division is the divisional representative.

Playoff hot take:

Laura: Ryan Johansen takes home the Conn Smythe.

Eric: Philadelphia will come within one win of the Stanley Cup Final.

Nick: You will see at least three top four seeds eliminated in their first best-of-seven series.

Ann: I’m with Eric. I’m keeping an eye on the Flyers.

Rachel: Aside from keeping an eye on the Flyers (they’re my Cup pick), I’m watching Winnipeg to see if they can grind out a few series wins...but I don’t think they have a player with the ability to take over a series like we saw a few seasons ago against Nashville.

Carson: The “Really, it’s a good thing we got eliminated because now we’ve got a shot at Lafrenière!” takes will be running amuck on Twitter in record time.

Bryan: A lot of eyes will be on pending free agents Craig Smith and Mikael Granlund. Not just GM David Poile, but likely scouts from all over the league, especially as they only have two buildings to bounce between. Nashville’s best bet will be to try and re-sign both, and the first step is being able to get them to sign. A huge breakout playoff will likely result in a higher pay day for both, so it’ll be interesting to see how it pans out.

Sarah: The Lightning will get swept in the first best-of-7 series.

Eamon: Sean Couturier will take home the Conn Smythe, Shayne Gostisbehere will lead all defenders in postseason points, and I will bawl as the team I’ve wasted years of my life watching finally wins a goddamn championship. Claude Giroux lifting the Cup will put me in a stratosphere of joy that humanity wasn’t previously capable of.

Bobby: Pekka Rinne starts in a postseason game for the last time in his career.