Previewing the 2020 Eastern Conference Qualifying Round

Our weird year has led to weird circumstances in the sporting world. Many major events that don’t happen on a seasonal basis (like the Summer Olympics) have been cancelled or postponed, while those seasonal sports were delayed and/or truncated. In North America, the three major sports leagues that would have been playing from March on, the NHL, NBA, and MLB, have had to adapt their schedules, but right now it looks like those three leagues are on track to get back to work in the next few weeks.

The NHL is cutting right to the chase and beginning the playoffs rather than playing any of the remaining regular season games. Likely you have heard by now the format for determining the seeds for the playoffs, but to refresh: the top four teams in each conference will play in a round-robin format to determine their seeds, one game each against one another, while the next eight teams in the standings will participate in a best-of-five play-in tournament. I’ll quickly preview each of these, and offer my predictions.

Eastern Conference Round Robin

The top four teams in the East after the shortened regular season were Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington, and Philadelphia. The Bruins followed up their Finals appearance last season with a League-best record, six points ahead of their Finals foes in St. Louis and eight ahead of the Lightning, so they figure to be the prohibitive favorites to make the Finals out of the East again. Tampa’s playoff hopes didn’t start to fully coalesce until after the calendar turned to 2020, when they went 23-2-1 from December 23 to February 17. The Capitals took control of first in the Metro Division in mid-October and never really gave it up for certain, although Philadelphia made a strong push for first and got to within one point before the season was paused. Incidentally, Boston did not have a great season against their round-robin foes, going 3-3-4. Washington had the best record, going 6-4, while both Tampa and Philadelphia went 5-3-1.

If I could venture a guess at the seedings, I’m not going to overthink this that much and say Boston will come out on top: they’ve got plenty of veteran leadership and experience, although Washington has won a Cup more recently. Tampa Bay is not very confidence-inducing, particularly in light of their first round sweep out, but they have a lot of talent and I think the break may actually help them get organized. The abrupt halt of the regular season ruined Philadelphia’s momentum, so while I am almost inclined to move them up a spot or two here, let’s say their lack of depth and relative inexperience will keep them in the bottom spot. Thus, I’m thinking the seeding will be:

  1. Boston
  2. Washington
  3. Tampa Bay
  4. Philadelphia

Big picture: none of the round robin teams have a lot of pressure. They will all make the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but without any home-ice advantage to play for, all that matters here is the first round matchup: the #1 seed will play against the weakest team to make it out of the play-in round, although “weakness” is, again, relative to what the team looks like on paper. Until the games start, we’ll really have no idea who will actually be a tough opponent. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to witness a round-robin “tournament” in this fashion!

Eastern Conference Play-In Round

There are four pairings of the next eight teams in the Eastern Conference standings, and they will face each other in best-of-five series to determine who will move on to the First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (we can probably call it the Conference Quarterfinals again?!). They are:

  • #5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #12 Montreal Canadiens
  • #6 Carolina Hurricanes vs. #11 New York Rangers
  • #7 New York Islanders vs. #10 Florida Panthers
  • #8 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. #9 Columbus Blue Jackets

Let’s take a quick look at each matchup, and I’ll make my best prognostication.

Pittsburgh vs. Montreal (PIT won regular season series 2-1): Obviously we’ll be talking about this more as we actually get to the games, but I do not expect Pittsburgh to let Montreal shock them. It’ll help the Penguins considerably that they will have Zach Aston-Reese, the under-appreciated defensive forward, back in the lineup, and even more so should Jake Guentzel get back on the ice. No one would have thought back in February that the Penguins would be so lucky as to have a chance to win the Cup with Guentzel, and now the conditions have arisen that they may get an entire postseason with him! It is really unbelievable and it will definitely give them a big boost at both ends of the ice. Who’s in goal? Honestly, who cares? Just score more goals than them!

It should be telling that Montreal has the worst record of any team in the play-in round, one point behind Chicago and just three points ahead of Buffalo and New Jersey. Carey Price put in another underwhelming performance for the purported best Canadian goaltender in the world, but he’s the best they’ve got so they’re going to have to hope he pretends he’s playing in the Olympics. They’ll be seriously hamstrung if Max Domi, a Type 1 diabetic, cannot play due to concerns about his immune system; he was third on the team in scoring and in power-play points. There’s also questions about defenseman Victor Mete’s availability, and he does decently as a second/third pairing defenseman so that could expose Montreal’s depth.

On paper, this is a major mismatch, and it ought to be. I expect the Penguins to advance handily, probably in a sweep but maybe in four games so Sidney Crosby can win a game on his birthday.

Carolina vs. NY Rangers (NYR won regular season series 4-0): A few years ago I was anticipating the arrival of the Carolina Hurricanes, as they started to build a decent roster of talented, young players. Last year they made the playoffs for the first time since making the Conference Finals in 2009 (ask the Penguins how that went), and they again made it to the Conference Finals but were swept out by the Boston Bruins. The problem is that they cannot find consistent goaltending; they acquired Petr Mrazek to take over for Cam Ward, but Mrazek couldn’t maintain his good form from the regular season, and he was outperformed by Curtis McElhinney. This year they acquired James Reimer to be a better backup for Mrazek, and Reimer outperformed Mrazek. Inconsistent goaltending is not a good way to get ahead!

It will be interesting to see who starts in goal for the Rangers. Veteran Henrik Lundqvist and Alexander Georgiev, in his second full season with New York, split the workload this season and came up with about the same results. Meanwhile, rookie Igor Shesterkin played in twelve games and won ten of those games: perhaps he is the goaltender of New York’s future? Lundqvist did win three of the four games New York played against Carolina this season (Shesterkin won the other one) and Lundqvist has more career wins against only two other teams (New Jersey and Philadelphia) in 15 and 19 fewer games played. I think Lundqvist will get the nod for at least Game 1.

The Rangers are in great position to pull off an upset. They had Carolina’s number in their four regular season matches, and they have the flexibility in goal that the Hurricanes do not have. Carolina might have the advantage on paper, and that could matter more in the context of this series, but it could be closer than their rankings suggest. I’m willing to say New York in 5.

NY Islanders vs. Florida (NYI won regular season series 3-0): When Florida acquired Sergei Bobrovsky in free agency this offseason, they were probably hoping for more Vezina-caliber work from the former Columbus Blue Jacket. Instead, they got his career worst performance, which wouldn’t sound so bad if the Panthers didn’t score the sixth-most goals in the League. That’s right, little old Florida had a better offense than all but Tampa Bay, Toronto, Washington, Colorado, and the Rangers, but their defense was also fifth-worst in the League. But the Atlantic Division being as uncompetitive as it was, they were just three points behind the Maple Leafs for third in the division while being seven points ahead of Montreal. Realistically, they had no business being in the playoffs, but here we are!

As for the Islanders, they too had a newly-acquired Russian in goal this season, Semyon Varlamov; unlike the Panthers, New York actually has a good defense, as they had the League’s fifth-best defense while allowing the eleventh-fewest shots against. It set a good foundation for Varlamov to have a good first year on the island, and it helped make up for an offense that was towards the bottom of the League in goals and second-to-last in shots.

I’m expecting this series to go to the Islanders, in four games.

Toronto vs. Columbus (TOR won regular season series 1-0-1): This series is going to be a study of the contrast between the high-event Maple Leafs and the low-event Blue Jackets. Toronto, who led the League is total goals per game (for and against), was second only to Tampa Bay in goals scored and allowed the seventh-most goals against. Both teams took a lot of shots on goal (Toronto third-most, Columbus fifth-most), but shot quality was considerably different as Toronto’s shooting percentage was 10.3% while Columbus’ was 7.9%. Defensively though, the story is the opposite: Columbus allowed the fourth-fewest goals and the seventh-fewest shots against while Toronto allowed the seventh-most goals and the twelfth-most shots against.

The problem for Columbus in this series is the streaky nature of their goaltending tandem. Both Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins have gone back and forth on winning and losing streaks, which makes it hard to pick one over the other. Statistically, Merzlikins had the better year, so that should settle it, but neither player has a playoff record and Korpisalo is the veteran. Ultimately, it’s the Columbus defense that will need to do the heavy lifting in preventing Toronto from having their way offensively.

This season the Maple Leafs did not get the kind of performance out of Frederik Anderson that they’ve come to expect; in fact it was one of his worst seasons thus far. If he can play more like he has the last couple of years, Toronto should not have much of an issue with Columbus. In any event, I expect the Maple Leafs to eke out the series win, but it will probably take five games.

If my predictions bear out, the “first” round of the Eastern Conference playoffs would look like this:

#1 Boston vs. #8 NY Rangers
#2 Washington vs. #7 Toronto
#3 Tampa Bay vs. #6 NY Islanders
#4 Philadelphia vs. #5 Pittsburgh

I’ll have the Western Conference preview soon.