By: Brennen Krikorian
Well, we made it.
After four grueling months of watching nothing but Netflix and 30 for 30s, live sports are finally back.
On Saturday, the NHL will begin its playoff tournament consisting of a best-of-five series to determine which of the 22 contending teams make the playoffs. Here are my predictions for each play-in series matchup.
(5) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (12) Montreal Canadiens
This matchup has been widely regarded as the most lopsided series. The Penguins have been one of the best teams in the league all season long, while the Canadiens seemed to be destined for the lottery from the beginning.
The Penguins come into the bubble with a 40-23-6 record and are determined to make another Stanley Cup run with their core before it is too late.
Led by their Hall of Fame duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, along with the emergence of Bryan Rust and recent acquisitions Jason Zucker and Conor Sheary, this team has enough offense to carry them deep into the playoffs.
To make matters even better for Pittsburgh, star winger Jake Guentzel, whose season seemed over at the start of the new year, has had enough time off to rejoin the team. Head coach Mike Sullivan will have his hands full in net. However, their former Stanley Cup hero Matt Murray is being threatened by first-time All-Star Tristan Jarry.
As for Montreal, any win they can get in this series will be a success for them.
Coming in with a 31-31-9 record, they are definitively the worst team in this tournament.
With that being said, the Habs may have a few tricks up their sleeve to pull off the shocking upset, and it all starts with Carey Price. Price has been one of the best goaltenders throughout the last decade, but has yet to receive any playoff hardware for his efforts in his career. With time slowly running out for the former MVP, the 32-year-old netminder will do everything in his power to get his team into the playoffs.
Montreal also recently received great news up front as their young star Max Domi decided he would join the team in Toronto despite having Type 1 diabetes.
Anything can happen in a five-game series, especially after a four month hiatus, but on paper the Penguins should have no problem getting by Montreal.
My Prediction: Pittsburgh wins 3-0
(6) Carolina Hurricanes vs. (11) New York Rangers
While the seeding looks lopsided in favor of the Hurricanes, this matchup has a good chance of coming down to the wire. New York completed a 4-0 sweep of Carolina in the season series and will look to keep that streak going.
Taking a look at Carolina, their minds are set on recapturing the magic they displayed in last year’s playoffs, making it all the way to the Conference Finals before falling to the Boston Bruins.
Deadline acquisition Vincent Trocheck will be able to provide secondary scoring, whereas former Ranger Brady Skjei adds to an already elite defense alongside Dougie Hamilton, Jaccob Slavin, and Brett Pesce.
The Rangers enter this play-in as one of the youngest teams with hopes of having an early start to a bright future.
The off-season addition of MVP candidate Artemi Panarin, as well as the drastic improvements made by Mika Zibanejad and Ryan Strome, make this team one of the biggest dark horses in the entire tournament.
They have also benefited heavily by their young guys excelling in large roles. Players such as Tony DeAngelo, Adam Fox, and Filip Chytil give this team a chance to be a powerhouse in the coming years.
Their goaltending is a major question mark, with three goalies that all have a possibility of seeing the ice in the tournament. It will be up to coach David Quinn to decide if he would rather stick with his veteran Henrik Lundqvist, or look to the future with Alex Georgiev or Igor Shesterkin.
This series very well may go down to the final minute before a winner is decided, but it seems like Carolina’s playoff experience and New York’s overwhelming youth becomes the deciding factor in the end.
My Prediction: Carolina wins 3-2
(7) New York Islanders vs. (10) Florida Panthers
This matchup seems like it may be the best strength for strength series in the entire tournament.
Barry Trotz (Islanders) and Joel Quenneville (Panthers) are two of the best coaches in hockey, winning a combined four Stanley Cups and three Jack Adams Awards. Both coaches also find themselves in the top five for all-time career wins.
The Islanders were able to pull off a shocking sweep in the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins last year and are looking to have similar results this season.
Although this team will not light up the scoreboard consistently, their physicality and defense have wore out teams by the time the third period comes around.
Mathew Barzal leads his team offensively and former Senator Jean-Gabriel Pageau will help out in the defensive zone as the second line centerman. On defense, the committee of Adam Pelech, Nick Leddy, and Devon Toews provides excellent two-way play, while Johnny Boychuk provides the veteran playoff experience for the blueline.
When it comes to Panthers, Florida has the exact opposite style.
At 3.30, Florida is ranked sixth in goals per game and will continue to keep that pace in the series. With five 20-goal scorers and the offensive contributions from blueliners Keith Yandle and Aaron Ekblad, it is no secret that Quenneville will try to score at will.
The big question mark for this team, and maybe even for the entire league, is how Sergei Bobrovsky will serve in net. Last off-season, Bobrovsky signed a massive seven-year contract worth $70 million with a $10 million AAV after being one of the best goaltenders in the league during his time in Columbus.
However, the 31-year-old Russian has not had the same success in Florida. In 50 games, he is 23-19-6 with a 3.23 GAA and a .900 SV%, his worst numbers since 2012.
Bobrovsky has all the potential in the world to lead his team deep into the playoffs if he can rediscover his old abilities, but if he performs like he did in the regular season, it will be a short series for the Panthers.
My Prediction: New York wins 3-2
(8) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets
Going into this season, no one would have expected either of these teams to end up in this position, but for two completely different reasons.
The Maple Leafs might have the best offensive talent in the entire league, but have historically been unable to produce at the level that is expected of them.
While some of that disappointment comes from former head coach Mike Babcock, who was fired earlier this season and replaced by Sheldon Keefe, the Leafs are still eager to win before all of their talent is gone.
Unfortunately you cannot win if you cannot outscore your opponents, and while starting goalie Frederik Andersen has played well all season, the team still ranks 26th in goals allowed. Thankfully defensemen Morgan Rielly and Tyson Barrie are both healthy to provide support on the blue line.
After losing Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, and Sergei Bobrovsky to free agency last season, the Blue Jackets were expected to be a bottom-five team in the league. Instead, Coach of the Year nominee John Tortorella had other ideas.
He was able to take the underdog mindset and apply it to his team, inevitably guiding them to a potential playoff run.
A majority of their success this season has stemmed from arguably the best defensive duo in the NHL in Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. Both stars eclipsed the 30-point plateau and led their team to finish fourth in goals allowed.
Goaltending was also a major concern after the departure of Bobrovsky, but thanks to an improvement by Joonas Korpisalo and an incredible rookie campaign by Elvis Merzlikins, their biggest weakness slowly became their biggest strength.
The Blue Jackets made a name for themselves last season, sweeping the winners of the President’s Trophy, the Tampa Bay Lightning. As great as it would be to see them prevail once again this season, the Maple Leafs have too much to lose and will not overlook this series by any means.
My Prediction: Maple Leafs win 3-1
(5) Edmonton Oilers vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks
In past seasons, it would be much more likely for these seeds to be flipped. Chicago has been a dynasty in recent memory while the Oilers have had more first-overall picks than playoff appearances in the last 10 years.
When the Oilers hired Dave Tippett to be their head coach this off-season, they knew this was the year that they needed to make the playoffs. Tippett has historically been incredible during his first season with a team and with franchise talent Connor McDavid and Art Ross winner Leon Draisaitl, this was going to be his best chance to win.
While McDavid and Draisaitl are an incredible duo, they have been more successful this year due to the help from new faces in the locker room.
James Neal has been an elite power play scorer, while rookie Kailer Yamamoto posted nearly a point per game during his freshman campaign. Based on the level of talent on this team, the Oilers should have no problem making the playoffs consistently in the future.
On the other hand, the Blackhawks are looking to build off past success in order to make another Cup run before their stars are gone.
Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Duncan Keith are all going to be first ballot Hall of Fame selections once their careers are finished, but it is no surprise that they do not want that time to come just yet.
Thankfully for them, GM Stan Bowman has been able to surround these veterans with young talent that has very high potential. Dominik Kubalik is a Calder nominee this year and Alex DeBrincat, Kirby Dach, and Alex Nylander have all been efficient throughout the season.
The Oilers superstars may get them a win or two, but the mix of playoff success and young talent in the Blackhawks locker room will ultimately be too much for Edmonton to handle. With that, here comes the first upset of the article.
My Prediction: Blackhawks win 3-1
(6) Nashville Predators vs. (11) Arizona Coyotes
These teams have been two of the most inconsistent squads throughout the whole season.
The Predators have the advantage in this series solely based off the fact that they made it to the Stanley Cup just three years ago, bringing back a lot of familiar faces from that run.
Any success that Nashville is going to have will come straight from their anchor on the blueline, Roman Josi. Josi is undoubtedly one of the best defensemen in the league, and is yet again a nominee for the Norris Trophy.
In 69 games, the Switzerland native posted a team-high 65 points while also having a +22 differential on the ice. They will need Josi’s best along with major contributions from forwards Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and centerman Matt Duchene if they want to have success in this tournament.
They will also need strong showings from goalie Pekka Rinne, who in recent memory was one of the better goalies the league had to offer, but has now found himself with career lows in all major goaltending categories.
As for Arizona, they decided that this would be the year that they go all in for a deep playoff run.
This decision was made evident by their now former GM John Chayka, who traded for winger Phil Kessel in the off-season, following that up by trading for former MVP Taylor Hall at the beginning of the year.
Unfortunately neither of these players have performed as expected, posting just 38 and 27 points respectively. Instead, the team has been led by guys such as Clayton Keller and Nick Schmaltz, along with stellar goaltending play by both Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta.
Both teams have playoff experience and seem adamant on making the playoffs, but the difference maker will be Arizona’s netminding, which has been far superior than Nashville’s.
My Prediction: Arizona wins 3-2
(7) Vancouver Canucks vs. (10) Minnesota Wild
This series is another example of two teams that not many people would have thought had a chance at playoffs this season. Unlike most people, I was personally very high on Vancouver and had them making the playoffs in my preseason predictions.
The Canucks have built themselves as one of the best young teams in the league. Elias Pettersson has made a name for himself as an elite young player, while guys like Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, and J.T. Miller have all made drastic impacts on offense.
They also added Tyler Toffoli at the deadline, whose playoff experience and success will be much needed on such an inexperienced team.
Their goaltending may have been the biggest surprise, as Jacob Markstrom had a career year in net that ultimately awarded him a spot in the All-Star Game this year.
Unlike Vancouver, Minnesota is one of the oldest teams in this tournament, with an average age of 28.3. It seemed like the Wild were going to be a lottery team at the deadline after trading away winger Jason Zucker, but a late surge awarded them a spot in the play-in series.
Kevin Fiala has been the largest bright spot for this team, posting 50 points for the first time in his career. The defense will ultimately be carrying this team with Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba, Ryan Suter, and Jonas Brodin making up a very strong top four.
The Wild may be able to sneak a game past the Canucks, but it seems likely that the Minnesota would rather have a shot in the second lottery than make it to the playoffs.
My Prediction: Vancouver wins 3-1.
(8) Calgary Flames vs. (9) Winnipeg Jets
In my mind, this series is the biggest toss up in the entire play-in tournament. This series features two elite top six forward groups and a lot of talent.
Calgary had hopes of being one of the best teams in the Western Conference, but cold stretches throughout the year cost them a chance at a bye in the play-in.
As I said earlier, this top six has all the talent in the world. Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau are both high caliber players, while Sean Monahan is one of the most underrated two-way centers in the NHL.
Their defense has been a weak link this year, but guys like Mark Giordano and Noah Hanifin have the ability to carry the load during this series. In net, David Rittich has had moments this year where he is unstoppable, despite his 2.97 GAA and .907 SV%. If he plays up to his potential, they can make some noise in the playoffs.
On the other side, it is a similar story.
Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine can score at an elite level, while Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler are two large forwards that can provide a major impact on both ends of the ice. That physicality will need to show up for the Jets to make up for the loss of defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, who took the season off due to injury and personal reasons.
With the loss of Byfuglien, as well as the off-season departures of Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers, Winnipeg’s defensive group went from one of the best to one of the worst.
However, the man in net for the Jets makes up for any defensive struggles they may have. Connor Hellebuyck has been unbeatable and is the frontrunner for the Vezina Award this year. With 31 wins, he ranks second in the league in that category. He has also posted six shutouts.
Again, this will most likely be the most even matchup in the entire tournament, but the play of Hellebuyck and the two-way play of their top forwards ultimately give the edge to Winnipeg.
My Prediction: Winnipeg wins 3-2
Cover photo via: NHL.com
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