After months of waiting, hockey is finally back.
All 24 teams have arrived in Edmonton and Toronto, entered the bubble, and are playing one exhibition game to get tuned up before the playoffs are set to begin on Saturday.
These playoffs will obviously be unlike any other. There aren’t fans in the stands, which nixes your standard home-ice advantage. Rosters are healthier than usual as players had over four months to rest and recover during the pause. And there’s also a 24-team field that features eight five-game play-in series and four teams per conference with byes who are playing in a seeding round.
For this week’s What Would You Do Wednesday THURSDAY EDITION question, let’s go through the play-in round and make some predictions. I’ll give my predictions in the post and you let us know in the comments who you have winning each series.
No. 5 Edmonton Oilers vs No. 12 Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks are one of those teams that has no business being in the playoffs. They were 23rd in the league at the time of the pause and they dealt key players Robin Lehner and Erik Gustafsson ahead of the trade deadline. Chicago has one of the worst bluelines in the league, so Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the two top scorers in the league this season, will have an opportunity to go nuclear. If Chicago stands any chance in this series, it’ll be because Corey Crawford, Patrick Kane, and Jonathan Toews play out of their minds.
Prediction: Chicago won’t be able to contain Edmonton’s dynamic duo. Oilers in 4.
No. 6 Nashville Predators vs No. 11 Arizona Coyotes
This is a match-up of two underachievers. The Predators were expected to be one of the contenders in the Western Conference, but they were a bubble team at the time of the pause. A poor performance from Pekka Rinne (0.895 save percentage) and disappointing offensive production from key forwards like Ryan Johansen (36 points in 68 games) led to a mediocre season in Nashville. Arizona went all-in with the additions of Phil Kessel and Taylor Hall, but they’re still underwhelming offensively. They likely wouldn’t have been a playoff team if not for the expanded field.
Prediction: I’ll bank on Nashville’s depth and experience. Predators in 4.
No. 7 Vancouver Canucks vs No. 10 Minnesota Wild
This is an interesting match-up of an old, experienced roster going up against a young, upstart team. The Wild looked like they were toast in February. They fired head coach Bruce Boudreau and traded Jason Zucker to the Penguins ahead of the trade deadline. But they caught fire under new coach Dean Evason, going 8-4 over 12 games. The Canucks had an extremely up-and-down year. They had lost five of seven games before the pause as their roster had been decimated by injuries but the time off gave Jacob Markstrom, Brock Boeser, and other depth players time to heal. They should look more like the team that came flying out of the gate in October than the one that struggled in March.
Prediction: Finally getting healthy will push Vancouver over the hump. Canucks in 5.
No. 8 Calgary Flames vs No. 9 Winnipeg Jets
This should be a tight and exciting series. The Flames had an incredibly disappointing follow-up to their 2018-19 season in which they finished with the best record in the Western Conference. The key difference between this year and last is that their depth scoring dried up. They’ll be going up against a Jets team that lost Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, and Dustin Byfuglien in one off-season, but got bailed out thanks to an MVP-calibre season from Connor Hellebuyck.
Prediction: Connor Hellbuyck will continue to be the hero. Jets in 5.
No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs No. 12 Montreal Canadiens
Like the Blackhawks, Montreal really has no business being in the playoffs, but they’re the lucky No. 12 seed that made it in
for the sake of TV revenue to fill out the field. They’ll be going up against the Penguins, who are fully rested after pushing through a challenging, injury-riddled season. The only chance Montreal has in this series is if Carey Price steals it for them, but that isn’t something we should expect given his .909 save percentage this season.
Prediction: The Penguins will breeze through this series. Penguins in 3.
No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes vs No. 11 New York Rangers
Though this is a No. 6 vs No. 11 match-up, these two Metro Division rivals were separated by just two points in the standings. The rebuilding Rangers had a surprisingly good season this year largely due to the amazing play of free-agent addition Artemi Panarin. They’ll go up against the young Hurricanes, who made a surprise run to the Eastern Conference Final last season. Another interesting wrinkle to this series is that the Rangers sold defenceman Brady Skjei to the Hurricanes ahead of the trade deadline for a first-round pick.
Prediction: The Panarin-led Rangers won’t be able to overcome Carolina’s depth. Hurricanes in 4.
No. 7 New York Islanders vs No. 10 Florida Panthers
Despite going all-in over the off-season with the additions of Sergei Bobrovsky, Anton Stralman, and Brett Connolly, the Panthers flopped. A key reason for that was Bobrovsky, who was a complete mess in his first season in Florida, posting a .900 save percentage. If Bobrovsky can pull it together, this could be an interesting series. The Panthers are actually a very strong, deep team offensively, while the Islanders are rock-solid in their own end and are one of the best teams in the league at keeping the puck out of their net.
Prediction: Bobrovsky’s struggles continue. Islanders in 5.
No. 8 Toronto Maple Leafs vs No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets
Finally, we have the Leafs, who haven’t won a playoff series since the year Facebook was launched, and the Blue Jackets, who won their first-ever playoff series last spring. The Leafs were pegged to be contenders this season, but they struggled out of the gate and eventually fired head coach Mike Babcock. The team went 27-15-5 under Sheldon Keefe, but the group still left a lot to be desired on the defensive side of the game. On the other side, despite losing Panarin, Bobrovsky, and Matt Duchene in free agency, the Blue Jackets put up a solid season largely due to elite play from rookie goaltender Elvis Merzlikins. The break gave the Blue Jackets some much-needed healing time, as Seth Jones and Oliver Bjorkstrand will be able to return to the lineup.
Prediction: A healthy Blue Jackets squad grinds the Leafs down. Blue Jackets in 5.