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.
With the play-in portion over, we’re continuing with the first round of the playoffs and to prepare you for that, we’re previewing every series. If you want to read our Eastern Conference previews, click here, if you want to stick with our Western Conference preview, read below.
VEGAS (1) VS. CHICAGO (8)
The Chicago Blackhawks wouldn’t be in the 2020 playoffs under normal circumstances. They finished with a 32-30-8 record, so it’s pretty unlikely that the Blackhawks would have clinched a postseason berth had the campaign not been paused. How unlikely are we talking? Well, the Blackhawks traded goaltender Robin Lehner to Vegas on Feb. 24 because at the time, it was a textbook move of a seller trading to a contender.
These are unusual times though. After the pause, the NHL created a 24-team format that involved a play-in round for the true playoffs and Chicago barely made the cut for that. Up against the Edmonton Oilers, Chicago thrived, winning the series in four games. The question is: How much of that series should be credited to Chicago being that good and how much of it should be attributed to Edmonton’s unique issues?
In the qualifying round series between Chicago and Edmonton, Connor McDavid scored five goals and nine points, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored two goals and eight points, and Leon Draisaitl scored three goals and six points. Edmonton still won just a single game. How? The Oilers lack offensive depth, their defense is shaky, and their goaltending is suspect. Arguably there’s no team that’s more dependent on their top forwards, so while Chicago couldn’t contain those elite players, they didn’t need to. They just needed to beat everyone else on Edmonton, which would render McDavid, Nugent-Hopkins, and Draisaitl’s contributions moot.
Vegas is a very different beast than Edmonton. The Golden Knights are a top-to-bottom solid team. They’re loaded with potential scoring threats in Mark Stone, William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, Paul Stastny, Reilly Smith, and Max Pacioretty to name the highlights. They’re deep enough that even without scoring leader Pacioretty for the round robin, Vegas still scored 15 goals in three contests. By the way, the Blackhawks likely won’t have the luxury of seeing Vegas play without Pacioretty as he’s projected to be ready for Game 1.
The Golden Knights also have a solid defense and two great goaltenders in Marc-Andre Fleury and Lehner. It remains to be seen who will start in Game 1, but obviously it would make for an interesting storyline if Chicago was up against the goaltender they traded at the deadline.
Vegas is rightfully the favorites in this series, but even if the Golden Knights are a greater challenge than the Edmonton Oilers, Chicago shouldn’t be dismissed. As they showed against Edmonton, there’s some bite to this team. A lot of the core from Chicago’s glory days might be gone or well past their prime, but that’s not true of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. They’re still part of Chicago and as dangerous as ever. After years of the duo being good soldiers on a rebuilding squad, they’ve been given an unexpected opportunity to compete in the playoffs this year and they’re taking full advantage of it. Toews had four goals and seven points in four games in the qualifying round while Kane had a goal and four points. The Blackhawks also have an interesting young group backing up Toews and Kane that includes Dominik Kubalik, Kirby Dach, Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome, and Alexander Nylander. It hasn’t all come together quite yet, but they’re good players and in any given game, any one of them has the potential to be a difference maker.
Plus, while the Blackhawks traded away Lehner, they still have Corey Crawford in net. Crawford is 35-years-old now and can’t be expected to play at the same level he did when he played a major role in Chicago’s 2013 and 2015 Stanley Cup championships, but he shouldn’t be overlooked. That said, he didn’t look great against Edmonton with a 3.75 GAA and .891 save percentage in four starts and the Blackhawks will likely need a better performance out of him this time if they are going to overcome the odds.
I’m projecting Vegas to win this one in five, but there are certainly enough of dangerous pieces on that Blackhawks roster to make it entirely viable that they’ll make this a far tougher series or even pull off the upset.
Vegas Projected Lines
Marc-Andre Fleury only made one start in the round robin, but he left plenty to be desired. He stopped 13 of 17 shots in a 6-4 win against St. Louis.
Chicago Projected Lines
Corey Crawford wasn't exactly great in the qualifying round. He had a 3.75 GAA and .891 save percentage in four starts.
COLORADO (2) VS. ARIZONA (7)
Arizona had an awfully shaky season. The Coyotes added Phil Kessel in the summer of 2019 and Taylor Hall back in December, and yet despite that the Coyotes’ biggest issue was an inability to score goals. So the question now is if they’ll be able to get past a team that never seems to have that problem.
The Avalanche are led by one of the best forwards in the league in Nathan MacKinnon, but they’re far from being a one-man threat. Andre Burakovsky, Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, Nazem Kadri are backing him up, helping the Avalanche put forth two very dangerous lines. That depth allowed the Avalanche to keep moving forward during the regular season even in the face of significant injuries to key players, so you can imagine how dangerous they are now that the team is almost entirely healthy.
Colorado is more than just an offensive juggernaut though. Pavel Francouz and Philipp Grubauer combined to be one of the most effective goaltending duos of 2019-20. In the regular season, Colorado ranked sixth in the league with 2.71 goals allowed per game. That’s perhaps the biggest point that deflates Arizona’s chances. The Coyotes got through the regular season almost entirely through their strong defensive play, but even then they were only a little stingier than Colorado with 2.61 goals allowed per game. So if Colorado is way better than Arizona offensively and nearly as good as them defensively, what hope does Arizona have?
Well, one glimmer of hope for the Coyotes is goaltender Darcy Kuemper. He was well on his way to winning the Vezina Trophy before his season was interrupted in mid-December. He returned in late February and largely picked up where he left off with a 2.22 GAA and .928 save percentage in 29 starts. With him healthy for the playoffs, the gap in goaltending between Arizona and Colorado widens and though Kuemper will have his work cut out for him against the high-powered Avalanche offense, it’s entirely possible that Kuemper will end up stealing some games for Arizona.
The other factor is that while the Coyotes struggled offensively during the regular season, that’s not the same as being incapable of scoring. Kessel, Hall, and Clayton Keller are still potential difference makers up front even if they left something to be desired in the regular season. Plus the Coyotes did manage to score 14 goals in four games against Nashville in the qualifying round by leaning on an incredibly balanced attack. Those 14 goals came from an amazing 11 different players. If Arizona can pull off a similar trick against Colorado, then they’ll surprise some people.
Those are big ifs though. It’s certainly not out of the realm of feasibility that Arizona can win this series, but I’m projecting Colorado to take this in five games. When I look at the Avalanche’s lineup from top to bottom, I see a potential Stanley Cup champion. I don’t see the same with the Coyotes, though the fact remains that they’re here and have an opportunity to prove the naysayers wrong.
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Colorado Projected Lines
No one on the Avalanche did particularly bad in the round robin. Gabriel Landeskog wasn't anything to write home about though with no goals and two assists in three games.
Arizona Projected Lines
Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson has a goal and four points in four playoff games. He also had two goals and five points in his last four regular season contests.
Alex Goligoski didn't get a point in the Coyotes' four-game qualifying round series. The Blueliner had 32 points in 70 contests during the regular season.
DALLAS (3) VS. CALGARY (6)
You wouldn’t think a team with Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov, Joe Pavelski, and Corey Perry would be one of the worst offensively...but, well, they are. Dallas averaged just 2.58 goals per game in the regular season, which put them in 26th place in the league. Of all those elite forwards mentioned at the top, just Seguin finished with over 40 points and none of them scored 20 goals. In fact, the Stars’ lone 20-goal scorer was Denis Gurianov, who only had nine assists. Fast forward to the round robin and the Stars offense wasn’t looking any better. Dallas managed a mere four goals over three games during that tournament for seeding.
Fortunately for the Stars, that pathetic offense has been compensated for by a strong defense and goaltending. Ben Bishop posted a 2.50 GAA and .920 save percentage in 44 games while Anton Khudobin had a 2.22 GAA and .930 save percentage in 30 contests. They combined to provide Dallas with the second best defense in the league at 2.52 goals allowed per game. Still, is the Stars’ one note threat enough to keep them afloat in the playoffs?
It doesn’t help that Dallas might be missing Seguin – aka their only forward with 40 or more points – after he was deemed “unfit to play” in the round-robin finale on Sunday. Bishop was also questionable for that game, though the luxury of having two elite goaltenders is that when one isn’t healthy, you can just use the other. Seguin is the much bigger concern as his absence takes their major weakness and just amplifies it further.
Calgary doesn’t share in Dallas’ offensive problems. The Flames scored 16 goals in four games against Winnipeg in the qualifying round. Granted, the Flames’ offense wasn’t nearly as impressive in the regular season, but they had five different players with at least 45 points in Matthew Tkachuk, Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm, Sean Monahan, and Mikael Backlund. This is a team that can pile on the goals when they’re hot and right now, they’re hot.
They also have an interesting X-Factor in Milan Lucic. He’s not typically much of an offensive threat anymore, but he did have a goal and four points in the qualifying round. Getting any offense out of him is a luxury that the Flames aren’t counting on, but given his recent performance, there’s certainly going to be some additional attention paid to him.
Speaking of hot, Cam Talbot had a 1.51 GAA and .945 save percentage in four starts. While Dallas has the better goaltending, if having a goaltender get hot at the right time is the key to a deep playoff run, then Calgary is looking pretty scary right now.
That all said, while the Flames offense can be impressive, it also can absolutely be shutdown. The Jets weren’t able to do it, but scoring against Dallas will be a far tougher challenge for the Flames. The two teams played each other in the regular season with mixed results. Dallas ended up with a 1-1-1 record against Calgary. The Stars kept Calgary’s attack largely under control in the first two games, but the Flames won the third contest 5-1.
Despite the seeding, I see the Flames as the favorite in this series and I’m predicting that they’ll take it in seven games. But the potential is there for the Stars’ defense to frustrate the young Flames and turn this series in Dallas’ favor.
Dallas Projected Lines
Miro Heiskanen has stood out with four assists in three round robin games. That already matches his 2019 playoff total of four points in 13 contests.
Jamie Benn has no points and a minus-four rating in three playoff contests this year. The Stars will need much more out of him going forward.
Calgary Projected Lines
Sean Monahan led the charge for the Flames with two goals and six points in four qualifying round games. However, if you want to talk about the player who most exceeded expectations, you'd have to highlight Milan Lucic, who scored a goal and registered three assists in four contests.
The Flames were pretty strong all-around, so Matthew Tkachuk stands out for being just okay. He finished the four-game qualifying round series with a goal and an assist.
ST. LOUIS (4) VS. VANCOUVER (5)
It’s weird to see the St. Louis Blues, who are the defending Stanley Cup champions and had the best record in 2019-20, as the fourth seed, but that’s a by-product of the round robin. In fact, while you’d typically look at a fourth seed versus fifth seed matchup as the closest, 14 points separated the two teams in the regular season. So will this be a one-sided affair?
Well there certainly is that potential. The Blues will be icing nearly the same team that won the Stanley Cup in 2019. Their core is still in their prime and due to the lengthy NHL pause between the regular season and the start of the 2020 playoffs, fatigue isn’t an issue for St. Louis, like it is for most defending champions. While the Blues didn’t have a long 2019 offseason, at this point they’re as rested as Vancouver, if not a little more so because while the Canucks had to battle the Minnesota Wild in the qualifying round, the Blues went through the round robin, which had comparatively low stakes.
The Blues didn’t look particularly good in the round robin, hence their fourth seed position, but there’s reason to believe that St. Louis will turn up the heat now that the games have elevated to do-or-die mode. Or at least that’s the hope. The Blues had to claw their way into the playoffs in 2019 after an underwhelming 21-22-5 start, so they had tons of momentum that they carried into the 2019 postseason. The 2019-20 Blues by contrast have absolutely no moment. There was the prolonged pause and then they played those round robin games. You would assume that a veteran team like them can dial it up when the stakes are raised, but that’s actually not something that this group has had to do in the past, so the journey’s still out on if they can do it.
By contrast, Vancouver is a young, enthusiastic team fresh off a critical battle with the Wild. If there’s a team that has momentum on their side going into Game 1, it’s the Canucks. Even then, that might not be enough.
Vancouver has an exciting young core of forwards JT Miller, Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser, and defenseman Quinn Hughes. It’s not hard to see how, with proper management and guidance, this core can deliver Vancouver a championship in the future. But it’s not quite there yet. They still have growing to do and experience to gain. This is the Canucks’ first postseason since 2015 and the last time Vancouver made it past the first round was back in 2011 when Pettersson was 12-years-old. For the Canucks, just getting this far is a win.
They’re absolutely still going to give it their all and they can’t be taken lightly. That core might be better in a couple years, but even as they are, they’re capable of doing some serious damage against any team in the league. On top of that, Jacob Markstrom is a solid goaltender who has the potential to frustrate the Blues. This series isn’t a gimme for St. Louis and if the Blues can’t dial it up, then Vancouver will run past them.
That said, this is St. Louis’ series to lose and I’m projecting that the defending champions will claim it in six games.
St. Louis Projected Lines
Colton Parayko has found the back of the net twice in three round robin contests. That's after he scored 10 goals in 64 regular season games.
Jordan Binnington made two starts in the round robin and St. Louis lost both contests. He had a 4.10 GAA and .895 save percentage in two starts.
Vancouver Projected Lines
Quinn Hughes scored a goal and six points in four contests during the qualifying round. He's currently leading all blueliners in playoff points.
Tyler Myers has no points and a minus-two rating in four playoff games this year. He has contributed five blocks and eight hits though.