It was an action-packed week of competition when the 24-team Stanley Cup tournament began on August 1. Phase 4 of the NHL Return to Play has to be viewed as a great success so far amid plenty of uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The matches played in the best-five-series portion of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers delivered plenty of drama, suspense and intensity.
The Carolina Hurricanes, New York Islanders, Montreal Canadiens and Columbus Blue Jackets emerged from that group and will join the Tampa Bay Lightning, Philadelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins in the next round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
PHILADELPHIA (1) VS. MONTREAL (8)
Philadelphia was 11 points behind Boston when the 2019-20 season was paused and moved up from the No. 4 spot to secure the top seed in the Eastern Conference. The Flyers posted a 3-0-0 record during the round-robin portion of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, while outscoring the Bruins, Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning by an 11-3 margin. Philadelphia surrendered just one goal against in each contest. The Flyers had a 14-4-0 record prior to the NHL’s hiatus and that high level of play has followed the team into the summer.
Philadelphia used Carter Hart and Brian Elliott during the round robin, but the crease will belong to Hart during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He faced the Bruins and Lightning during the round robin, while stopping 57 of 59 shots for a 1.00 goals-against average and .966 save percentage.
The trio of Scott Laughton, Kevin Hayes and Travis Konecny did most of the heavy lifting for the Flyers last week, while combining for 11 points. It’s scary to think what will happen once Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, Jakub Voracek, James van Riemsdyk and Ivan Provorov get going offensively. Voracek didn’t play on Saturday, but he could be available for Game 1. Michael Raffl was hurt in the team’s round-robin opener and it’s uncertain when he will be available to return. The Flyers may also get Oskar Lindblom back at some point.
Montreal advanced to the round of 16 after eliminating the Pittsburgh Penguins in four games. The 12th-seeded Canadiens were 15 points behind the Penguins at the pause of the 2019-20 campaign. Montreal’s 31 wins during the regular season ranked 24th overall in the league. Still they get full marks for shutting down the Penguins. Pittsburgh averaged just 2.00 goals for per game in the series. Montreal’s penalty kill surrendered only three goals while being shorthanded 17 times.
Carey Price played a significant role in the series. He stopped 126 of the 133 shots he faced, while posting a 1.67 goals-against average and .947 save percentage. Price didn’t get a great deal of offensive support, as Montreal averaged 2.50 goals for per game, but the defense pairing of Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot played very well against the Penguins.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi was a pleasant surprise for Montreal. He tied for the team lead in goals (2) with blueliners Weber and Jeff Petry. Kotkaniemi, who was demoted to the minors during the regular season, rejoined the team after pause and earned his spot in the lineup.
Price demonstrated why most NHLers still revere and fear his talents. He was white hot against the Penguins and held his teammates in several games until Montreal was able to take advantage of a breakdown. However, the danger that Price represents is not expected to be as profound in a best-of-seven series compared to the best-of-five format from the previous round. The Flyers will be another difficult matchup for the Canadiens. Philadelphia has been on a roll thanks to a deep roster and very good goaltending. The Flyers were a well-oiled machine during the round robin, while dominating the powerhouses of the East, and they are unlikely to replicate the lapses that derailed the Penguins against the Canadiens. Montreal won’t be taken lightly, but they probably won’t sneak up on Philadelphia either.
Philadelphia Projected Lineup
Scott Laughton accounted for three goals and two assists over a three-game point streak during the round robin. Kevin Hayes was held off the scoresheet once in three outings, while earning four helpers.
Montreal Projected Lineup
Shea Weber tied for first on the team with two goals and four points in four outings after he didn’t pick up a point in Games 1 and 2. Paul Byron, who had four points (one goal, three assists) in four matches, was held off the scoresheet once in the series. Artturi Lehkonen had one goal and two assists during a three-game point streak to close out the series. Jeff Petry’s three-game point spree (two goals, one assist) came to an end in Game 4.
Tomas Tatar didn’t register a point in four games versus Pittsburgh after he led the Canadiens in goals (22), assists (39) and points (61) during the regular season. Brendan Gallagher picked up one assist in four playoff contests. Max Domi was held of the scoresheet in four games of the qualifying round.
TAMPA BAY (2) VS. COLUMBUS (7)
Tampa Bay will have the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference after going 2-1-0 during the round robin. The top spot in the East was lost for the Lightning in the team’s round-robin finale versus Philadelphia, but that defeat proved to be far more costly when Victor Hedman was forced to leave the contest due to injury. It’s currently unclear what his status is going into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Lightning were already playing without the services of Steven Stamkos, who has been trying to come back from a lower-body injury since the NHL returned. His availability is uncertain as well. Jan Rutta is also dealing with an ailment, so this is a banged up Tampa Bay team going into the next round.
Tampa Bay is still dangerous despite the uncertainty surrounding some of their key players. Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn were productive during the round robin. Johnson topped the team with two goals and three points, while Killorn and Point also had three points apiece.
Andrei Vasilevskiy had a 2-1-0 record with a 2.29 goals-against average and .921 save percentage during the round robin. If Tampa Bay’s back end is depleted by injuries then there will be some additional pressure on Vasilevskiy to be at his best.
Columbus defeated Toronto in an action-packed and often unpredictable five-game series. The The two teams traded shutout wins in Games 1 and 2. Then in Games 3 and 4 both teams squandered three-goal leads to eventually lose in overtime. In Game 5, it was Columbus that emerged on top thanks to another shutout victory.
The duo of Pierre-Luc Dubois and Cam Atkinson combined for five of the team’s 12 goals in the series. Nick Foligno and David Savard chipped in with three points apiece. However, it was strong defense and superb goaltending that got Columbus through to the next round.
Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins were tremendous between the pipes for the Blue Jackets. Korpisalo posted two shutouts, including one in his NHL playoff debut, to conclude the series with a 2.05 goals-against average and .938 save percentage in three appearances. Merzlikins was unable to dress in Game 5 because of an injury, but he played well when called upon.
Tampa Bay will be seeking redemption after Columbus swept them from the playoffs last year. The team acquired some depth and physicality to make more of a run at the Stanley Cup, but potential absences of Stamkos and/or Hedman could complicate matters. Columbus is a stingy squad and they can make life frustratingly difficult for members of the opposition. Toronto didn’t score a 5-on-5 goal for the final 182 minutes and 46 seconds of the series. Columbus was also shorthanded just 13 times. If the Lightning are going to succeed where Toronto failed, they will have to be far more opportunistic and make life more difficult for Zach Werenski, Seth Jones and whoever the Blue Jackets have in net. Tampa Bay has the players that can make that happen, but it certainly would improve their chances if Hedman and Stamkos return in short order.
Tampa Bay Projected Lineup
Brayden Point generated one goal and two helpers during a three-game point spree. Tyler Johnson finished the round robin with two goals and one assist in two outings, while Killorn had one goal and two assists during that same two-game span.
Columbus Projected Lineup
Cam Atkinson had a productive series with two goals three assists in five games.
Oliver Bjorkstrand didn’t have a point in the series, while being credited with nine shots on goal. Gustav Nyquist picked up just one assist and seven shots in five matches, while Boone Jenner only had one goal on 14 shots on target.
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BOSTON (4) VS. CAROLINA (5)
Boston captured the Presidents’ Trophy with a record of 44-14-12 during the regular season, but dropped to the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference after going 0-3-0 in the round robin. Boston lost two contests by one goal, but it was a lackluster showing from the NHL’s top team from the 2019-20 regular season.
Tuukka Rask went 0-2-0 with a 2.55 goals-against average and .917 save percentage. He gave the Bruins a chance to win both games he played, but didn’t get nearly enough support from his teammates.
Carolina was the first team to advance from the Stanley Cup Qualifiers following a three-game sweep of the New York Rangers. The Hurricanes dominated the best-of-five series, while outscoring the Rangers by an 11-4 margin. The Rangers got one goal against Carolina on the power play over 14 opportunities.
Carolina didn’t have stud blueliner Dougie Hamilton in the lineup for the entire series because of an injury sustained during summer training camp and Brett Pesce, who is working his way back from shoulder surgery, was unavailable as well. Carolina hopes to get Hamilton back for Game 1 and Pesce is unlikely to make an appearance against the Bruins. However, the team didn’t miss a beat in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers thanks to a deep defense corps and a dangerous offense.
Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov scored three goals apiece in the series. Aho led the team with eight points and Svechnikov was second with five points. Sami Vatanen picked up three assists, including two with the man advantage while filling in on the top power-play combination.
Boston’s poor performance in the round robin will no doubt create plenty of hype for the Hurricanes going into the series even though they have been off since last Tuesday. The round robin may not be a great indicator, though, because those games lacked the same urgency of teams competing in a best-of-five series. After all, those clubs had to win to avoid elimination. The Bruins are expected to ramp it up, but if they can’t get into a groove, especially offensively, then that could make them ripe for an upset. Carolina has the depth, speed and skill to give Boston trouble even if the Bruins were firing on all cylinders. The Hurricanes were swept in the Eastern Conference Final by the Bruins last year. This is shaping up to be a much different series.
Boston Projected Lineup
David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand didn’t post a point in three games during the round robin. Pastrnak led the team with 13 shots on goal, while Marchand had five on target. They were both among the top-six scorers in the league during the regular season.
Carolina Projected Lineup
Sebastian Aho had three goals and five assists during a three-game point streak in the qualifying round. Andrei Svechnikov had a three-game point spree with three goals and two helpers during that span.
Justin Williams, Vincent Trocheck and Jordan Staal didn’t register a point against the Rangers in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers. Trocheck had five shots on goal in the series, while Williams had four and Staal had three.
WASHINGTON (3) VS. NY ISLANDERS (6)
Washington earned the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference with a win over Boston on Sunday. The Capitals went 1-1-1 during round-robin play, while scoring five goals and allowing six goals against.
Braden Holtby registered a 1.98 goals-against average and .925 save percentage in three starts. The Capitals don’t have Ilya Samsonov because of an injury, so Holtby played in all three games to get ready for team’s knockout stage of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The big guns for the Capitals didn’t exactly light it up during the round robin, but the team got goals from five different players including T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, Richard Panik and Travis Boyd. John Carlson didn’t see any action in the round robin because of an injury he suffered in the team’s exhibition contest. Washington hopes to get him back for Game 1 against the Islanders. Lars Eller should be available after leaving the bubble for the birth of his son.
The New York Islanders eliminated the Florida Panthers in four games to advance to the round of 16 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Florida was kept on their heels for most of the series and averaged just 25.8 shots for per game played.
Florida was held to 1.75 goals for per game by the Islanders, as New York outscored the Panthers 13-7 in the series. The only blemish for the Islanders was the penalty kill, which surrendered four power-play goals against over 14 Florida opportunities.
Semyon Varlamov played in all four games for the Islanders, while posting a 1.77 goals-against average and .932 save percentage.
The Islanders were led offensively by Anthony Beauvillier, who had three goals and five points, but the team benefited from some balanced scoring. Ryan Pulock. Josh Bailey and Devon Toews picked up four points apiece.
Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored three goals, while Jordan Eberle and Brock Nelson had two markers each. Mathew Barzal started to warm up at the end of the series, which is encouraging for the Islanders. Johnny Boychuk, who was hurt in Game 1 against Florida, could be available for the series opener versus Washington.
The Capitals will be a much harder matchup than the Panthers, but this is a team that Islanders coach Barry Trotz knows very well. He helped the Capitals win the Stanley Cup in 2018. Getting Carlson back would aid Washington tremendously. The Capitals blueliner racked up one goal and four assists against the Islanders during the regular-season series. If he’s back and Washington’s other stars get going then they will be a handful for the Islanders, especially if New York’s penalty kill doesn’t improve.
Washington Projected Lineup
Radko Gudas didn’t play in Washington’s round-robin finale, but he led the team in scoring with two points in two games.
NY Islanders Projected Lineup
Anthony Beauvillier collected three goals and two assists during a four-game point streak. Ryan Pulock finished the qualifying round with one goal and three helpers over a three-game point spree. Josh Bailey was held off the scoresheet once in the series, while posting four assists. Devon Toews earned an assist in each of the four contests, while Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored a goal in three of four outings.
Anders Lee didn’t find the scoresheet in four games versus the Panthers.