One of the most glorious sentences of 2020 is just three words long.
Hockey is back.
The NHL is rip-roarin’ and ready to go, as everything is set and scheduled for the Stanley Cup Playoffs to begin on the first day of August. Official team training camps opened up last week, and teams will make the trek to their respective hub cities on July 26.
With the cities of Edmonton playing host to Western Conference teams and Toronto entertaining teams from the East, 2020 is due to be the first time in 27 years that the Stanley Cup will be awarded on Canadian soil. With the Stanley Cup Finals being played in Edmonton, the winning team will have won the championship in the country of Canada for the first time since the Montreal Canadiens won the cup in their home arena in 1993.
However, to get to the finals, 22 teams will have to be eliminated from this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in league history.
The best-of-five play-in series begins on Saturday, August 1. Sixteen teams will compete for the right to advance to the “official” first round of playoffs. The winning eight teams will move on, while the losing eight teams will see their COVID-extended season come to an end and will be entered into Phase 2 of the Draft Lottery for the chance to draft future phenom Alexis Lafreniere first overall.
I think I speak for all NHL fans across North America when I say: “BRING ON THE HOCKEY BABY!”
Here are my official predictions for the play-in round, including which teams will advance and which will be eliminated, with a bonus prediction of which losing team will win the draft lottery on August 10.
WESTERN CONFERENCE (all games to be played at Rogers Place in Edmonton)
Vancouver’s lineup is loaded with young talent, while Minnesota’s lineup is loaded with experienced veterans. With these two teams clashing in the play-in round, you’re in for an intense battle. The Canucks’ young guns of Boeser, Pettersson and Horvat will have their time to prove that they can play with the big boys. Minnesota will put up a great fight and does have a slight advantage in goal tending, but I think Vancouver takes the edge on this one. This series will go all five games, with at least two overtime games.
PREDICTION: Vancouver in 5
This match-up is a no-brainier to me. Nashville is the better team, period. With arguably one of the top defensemen in the league in Roman Josi, the Predators found their groove under new head coach John Hynes in the later part of the season. The Arizona Coyotes have proved at times that they can keep up with some of the top teams in the league, but there’s just something about that Taylor Hall curse. Nashville’s high-powered offense will carry them in this series.
PREDICTION: Nashville in 3
Buckle up, folks as this is poised to be one hell of a matchup. Don’t let the 5th-vs-12th thing fool you; this series will not be a walk in the park for the Edmonton Oilers. With 4 and a half months to rest and both teams coming into this one healthy, plus two of the best duos in hockey in McDavid-Draisaitl and Kane-Toews, this series will go right down to the final buzzer. I, however, feel that Edmonton’s young and speedy offense, as well as how successful they’ve been under first-year Head Coach Dave Tippett, will be just a little too much for the aging Blackhawks group in the end.
PREDICTION: Edmonton in 5
Blood is sure to boil and fists are sure to fly in this heated contest between two teams from the Canadian prairies. With a healthy lineup on both sides, it’s very tough to pick a winner in this series. Mix a healthy Winnipeg core in Laine, Connor, and Scheifele with Calgary’s Tkachuk, Gaudreau, and Monahan, and try to pick a winner out of that. It’s almost impossible. This one could very well go either way, and there will definitely be some very dramatic, high-intensity overtime games, but solely for prediction purposes I’m going to take the slight underdog from Manitoba.
PREDICTION: Winnipeg in 4
EASTERN CONFERENCE (all games to be played at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto)
In a battle of two teams that were beginning to gain some traction in the standings before the regular season was halted, this will be an interesting series. The Islanders are backed by a fairly solid defensive core, and the young offensive talent of Mat Barzal and Brock Nelson. However, the Florida Panthers have Sergei Bobrovsky in between the pipes, and three-time Stanley Cup winning Head Coach Joel Quenneville. I’m going to sway a little towards the unpopular opinion on this one and go with the team from the South.
PREDICTION: Florida in 4
The New York Rangers have had a roller coaster season if there ever was one. They started the season off hot, then cooled down, then got hot again, and then cold. Despite the team’s play though, Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad were crazy good all season long. The Carolina Hurricanes have some very skilled young forwards of their own, however. But the Hurricanes also sold almost the whole farm to the Panthers in exchange for Vincent Trocheck, who is good, but not crazy good. I’ve got the Rangers as my dark horse team in the East.
PREDICTION: New York in 5
An experienced, talented hockey team out of Pittsburgh against a very young team from Montreal still finding its groove. The thing about this match-up is that had the season gone the full 82 games, the Canadiens most likely would not have qualified for the playoffs, which draws mixed reactions from hockey fans alike. At the end of the day, you just can’t vote against a healthy Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Guentzel and the rest of this experienced Penguins team, most of whom have played in the big dance before. The only way I can see Montreal maybe having a chance is if goaltender Carey Price quite literally stands on his head.
PREDICTION: Pittsburgh in 3
Let’s be real here. This matchup features one of the most talented offences in the NHL against, plain and simply, the Columbus Blue Jackets. Sure, Blue Jackets Head Coach John Tortorella is a Jack Adams nominee and is arguably one of the best hard-nosed coaches in the league, but I just don’t see his team getting by the Maple Leafs. Toronto does have a recent significant history of losing in the first round, but this technically is not the first round. Next round’s 16 team format will be. The Leafs do still have quite a few holes on defence and the Blue Jackets have received absolutely stellar goaltending this season, but on paper this Leafs offence walks all over the Jackets.
PREDICTION: Toronto in 4
BONUS PREDICTION: 2020 NHL DRAFT LOTTERY WINNER
Regardless of how the play-in round turns out, we do know one thing for certain. One of the eight losing teams from the play-in round will win the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery. Based on my predictions above, the eight teams I have losing and earning a chance to draft Alexis Lafreniere first overall are: Minnesota Wild, Arizona Coyotes, Chicago Blackhawks, Calgary Flames, New York Islanders, Carolina Hurricanes, Montreal Canadiens, and the Columbus Blue Jackets.
It would be such a great hockey story to see Alexis Lafreniere, a French Canadian boy from Quebec, be drafted by his home-province team from Montreal. However, I do not think Montreal will get so lucky.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the first overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft will be awarded to the New York Islanders.
Can you imagine Lafreniere, Barzal, Eberle, and Nelson when all of them are firing on all cylinders? Couple that with a Cup-winning coach in Barry Trotz, the Islanders would be a very scary team.
All they would need is a permanent home arena, and the boys from Long Island would be a force to be reckoned with.
Featured photo courtesy of USAToday.com
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