Sweet 16: NHL playoffs qualifying round tough to predict
The NHL’s regular season is over and the chase for the Stanley Cup is on if hockey returns this summer.
The league settled on a 24-team postseason format that Calgary Flames captain Mark Giordano supported back in March as the coronavirus was shutting down sports.
“You can’t eliminate teams who are out on points percentage or stuff like that,” Giordano said. “I think you go 12 and 12. More teams get in this year, maybe a couple of byes at the top and play it out.”
The top four teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences get byes into the final 16 except for a handful of round-robin games to determine seeding. That’s Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia in the East and St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas in the West.
“It rewards those teams that had a good regular season, and it’s going to serve as almost a little bit of a preseason for those top four in each conference,” said NBC Sports analyst Patrick Sharp, who won the Cup three times as a player with Chicago. “There’s standings on the line and you want to position yourself the best you can, but it’s an opportunity for those guys to kind of get the rust off and get ready for a tough opponent because whoever they face in that first round is going to be coming off a pretty intense series.”
The top seeds would face the winners of these eight opening-round, best-of-five series:
No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 12 Montreal Canadiens
Penguins captain and three-time champion Sidney Crosby didn’t mind going directly into playoffs given the limited timing. His reward is a matchup against elite goaltender Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens, who had 15 fewer points than Pittsburgh when the season was halted.
Season series: Penguins won two of three.
What Sharp says: “Price could be key in this series. ... Pittsburgh is a team that’s going to get healthy, hopefully. They had some key guys injured before the shutdown that were going to miss significant games down the stretch.”
No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes vs. No. 11 New York Rangers
Carolina was one of two teams (along with Tampa Bay) that voted against this playoff format. The Hurricanes shouldn’t need emergency goaltender David Ayres anymore with Petr Mrazek and James Reimer healthy and Dougie Hamilton ready to return on defense.
Season series: Rangers won all four.
What Sharp says: ”I like the way (the Hurricanes) compete, and they can shut games down with the best of them. Now they got their goaltenders healthy, Dougie coming back. I like their chances. ... They were an exciting team to watch, the New York Rangers. (Winger Artemi) Panarin is making everybody better offensively.”
No. 7 New York Islanders vs. No. 10 Florida Panthers
This is a rematch of a 2016 series, but basically everything has changed for these teams since. Barry Trotz has put his stamp on the Islanders, and three-time Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville is in his first season with high-flying Florida.
Season series: Islanders won all three.
What Sharp says: ”It’s two different styles of play. The Islanders and Barry Trotz and (GM Lou Lamoriello), they’re going to be a very disciplined, defense-oriented team ... That neutral zone’s going to be clogged. And for a team like the Panthers that showed this season that they would trade a few chances to get a few chances ... it’s going to be a tough matchup for them.”
No. 8 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets
If Toronto is to bring the Cup home for the first time since 1967, Auston Matthews and Co. first have to deal with the pesky Blue Jackets who eliminated the top-seeded Lightning in the first round last year.
Season series: Split two games.
What Sharp says: ”You know what you’re facing with the Blue Jackets. It’s going to be an in-your-face game, a hard-nosed matchup. And Toronto, you finally get away from Boston but now you’ve got to face a team like Columbus that we saw how well they played against Tampa Bay last year, so it doesn’t get easier for Toronto.”
No. 5 Edmonton Oilers vs. No. 12 Chicago Blackhawks
Connor McDavid gets just his second taste of the playoffs in his fifth season. No. 97, who had 97 points in the regular season, gets to ride alongside NHL leading scorer Leon Draisaitl against an aging Blackhawks opponent.
Season series: Blackhawks won two of three.
What Sharp says: ”I don’t know if you can slow (McDavid) down in a playoff series any easier than you can in the regular season. ... That’s a tough matchup for anybody, especially Chicago, a team that gives up more prime scoring chances than anybody that’s left in the playoff group.”
No. 6 Nashville Predators vs. No. 11 Arizona Coyotes
Nashville and Arizona each made a major in-season move. The Predators replaced coach Peter Laviolette with John Hynes and the Coyotes traded for 2018 MVP Taylor Hall. Only one of them will get into the final 16.
Season series: Split two games.
What Sharp says: ”It seems like the coaching change did make a little bit of difference for the Preds. ... Arizona is a team that has trouble scoring goals, but they can clamp things down defensively. They have great goaltending, they keep the puck out of the net at a pretty good clip. Those are teams that are going to be tough to play in these short, best-of-five series.”
No. 7 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 10 Minnesota Wild
The Canucks get goalie Jacob Markstrom back from a knee injury, and he has had the benefit of skating at home in Sweden during the pause. Minnesota interim coach Dean Evason gets a chance to show he deserves the full-time job.
Season series: Wild won two of three.
What Sharp says: ”They’ve got some core pieces there in Vancouver that are going to get a taste of the big stage, the big playoff matchups. It’s going to be great for their development. ... (The Wild) have that one last crack to show what they have as a group. This might be the last chance that this core group in Minnesota has to kind of win a few playoff rounds.”
No. 8 Calgary Flames vs. No. 9 Winnipeg Jets
The constantly changing Flames face the continuity of the Jets, and the winner of this series could make some real noise in the West. Some big changes are probably coming for the loser.
Season series: Jets won only meeting in overtime.
What Sharp says: ”It seemed like (the Flames) were starting to find their groove. But they’re facing a team in Winnipeg that right before the shutdown, they were playing some intense hockey. They knew what they were up against. They kind of dug in for the playoffs.”