The NHL is finally coming back and it is time to break down each team that earned a spot in the league’s new, expanded playoff format.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent suspension of play, the league was forced to adjust. Now, the top-12 teams from each conference at the time of the hiatus are making the trip to one of two hub cities (Toronto for the Eastern Conference and Edmonton for the Western Conference) to participate in the new playoff.
As part of the expanded format, the NHL added a new round with the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, which will include a round-robin among the top four teams in each conference to determine playoff seeding for the remaining rounds while the other 16 teams will play in a best-of-5 series.
After the qualifying round, the remaining three rounds will be a traditional best-of-7 series and be determined by seeding rather than a set bracket.
In preparation for the playoffs, which start on August 1st, let’s predict each of the round-robin teams and each best-of-5 qualifying series in the Eastern Conference.
Be sure to check out the companion piece to this article that breaks down the Western Conference.
1. Boston Bruins
2. Philadelphia Flyers
3. Tampa Bay Lightning
4. Washington Capitals
It’s easy to think that the Bruins, who were the only team in the league to record 100 points this year, will easily earn the top seed in the round-robin. They have the best line in hockey with Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, and Brad Marchand as well as Vezina Trophy front-runner Tuukka Rask in net. Veterans Zdeno Chara and David Krejci also remain key contributors for the Bruins.
However, despite their talent, Boston finished with only three combined wins against the three teams they will be facing. They are also an older team and coach Bruce Cassidy has hinted at possibly resting some key players. Regardless, the Bruins are a Stanley Cup favorite and will find a way to maintain the top seed in the East.
Despite having the worst record of the four teams, the Flyers will do enough to move up to the number two seed. They are younger than the other teams, which should lead them to be able to play fast right away and not need to rest as many players. They also were one of the hottest teams prior to the break, going 14-3-1 after the All-Star break.
Their lack of recent postseason experience (first playoff appearance since 2017-18) as well as the inconsistency of Carter Hart in net (.857 save percentage on the road/.943 at home) are reasons for concern, but Travis Konecny, Kevin Hayes, Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, and Jakub Voracek should be enough to help Philadelphia challenge the Bruins for the top spot in the East.
On paper, the Lightning are one of the most talented teams in the NHL. Even with the availability of Steven Stamkos in question, they still have reigning Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevsky, and Brayden Point among others. However, as we have seen in the past (see: 2019 first round against Columbus), Tampa Bay consistently fails in the postseason.
This team could be different as they went a ridiculous 23-2-1 from late-December through February, but then went an abysmal 3-6-1 before the hiatus. This mixed with the fact they will likely rest some of their aging stars this round results in the Lightning finishing third, but they have the potential to finally win another Stanley Cup if they can overcome their past postseason demons.
The Capitals have enough talent to again go deep into the playoffs, but a few serious question marks may cause them problems. Aside from Jakub Vrana, nearly every major Washington player is 30 or older, including 34-year-old Alex Ovechkin. Goaltender Braden Holtby has looked awful and it is still unclear whether he or Ilya Samsonov will garner the bulk of starts in net. The Capitals also cooled off down the stretch, winning just five of their last 13 games.
Regardless of their issues, this is still a team that is only a couple seasons removed from a Stanley Cup, features arguably the best defenseman in the NHL in John Carlson, and a great star and leader in Ovechkin. If Holtby or Samsonov can play well in net, the Capitals will have a chance at another title. If goaltending remains an issue and the team begins to show their age, it could be an early exit for the Caps.
#5 Pittsburgh Penguins over #12 Montreal Canadiens- 3-1
Despite a myriad of injuries, the Penguins were one of the best teams in the NHL for the first half of the season. Once their stars returned, Pittsburgh surprisingly struggled through February and March, ultimately causing them to fall behind the Flyers. Regardless of their struggles, this team is still only a few seasons removed from back-to-back titles and still features two of the league’s top stars in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as well as Jake Guentzel and Kris Letang.
They were also top ten in offense and penalty killing while finishing just outside in defense as well. Injuries are still a concern for this veteran group as well whether surprise All-Star Tristan Jarry or former star Matt Murray, who posted a sub-.900 save percentage this season, will provide enough goaltending to lead Pittsburgh on a deep run, but it should be enough to get past a Canadiens team that is statistically the worst team to make the expanded playoff.
If Montreal wants to compete with Pittsburgh, they will need Tomas Tatar, Brendan Gallagher, Phillip Danault, and Shea Weber to add to their strong seasons, and Carey Price, Max Domi, and Jonathan Drouin to rebound from relatively down years. Despite their talent, the Canadiens struggled offensively throughout the year and will need a superstar-level performance by Price to keep the strong Pittsburgh offense in check. Montreal appears to have enough to potentially earn a shocking series victory, but the overall depth of the Penguins will lead them to win the series in four games.
#6 Carolina Hurricanes over #11 New York Rangers- 3-2
Following a surprise run to the conference finals last season, the Hurricanes returned this season with a balanced mix of physicality and skill. Carolina was one of the few teams that could apply both a devastating forecheck and have the ability to outskill teams. The Hurricanes boast one of the most electric offensive units in the game, featuring Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Andrei Svechnikov, Vincent Trochek, and Justin Williams. Each also adds to Carolina’s balanced attack by playing solid on the defensive end.
Injuries led to Carolina falling in the standings, but the break allowed star defenseman Dougie Hamilton to return in time for the playoffs. Goaltending could be an issue with both Petr Mrazek and James Reimer having battled with injuries all year. As long as at least one of them can stay healthy and perform well, the Hurricanes should be able to defeat the upstart Rangers.
New York was one of the hottest teams in the NHL prior to the pandemic, but it seemed they were too far back in the standings to be able to garner one of the final playoff spots. Now, with the expanded format, the Rangers have new life and could surprise with a deep playoff run.
The Rangers are led by star Artemi Panarin, who is a Hart Trophy finalist and one of the best players in the NHL. Mika Zibanejad (career-high 41 goals) proved to be the perfect Robin to Panarin’s Batman and was one of the best players in the league during the second half of the season. New York’s offense will also be aided by the return of Chris Kreider from injury as well as the possible resurgence from rookie Kaapo Kakko.
Similar to Carolina, New York’s goaltending is a big question mark. Rangers legend Henrik Lundqvist is still on the team, but has not performed well this year and rookie Igor Shesterkin has emerged as a potential star. Coach David Quinn’s decision on whether to go with the veteran Lundqvist or the talented yet inexperienced Shesterkin will determine how much success the Rangers have this year.
Carolina appears to be the superior team, but the Rangers emerged as a top team down the stretch and feature one of the league’s best players in Panarin. New York also won each of their four regular season matchups against the Hurricanes. Ultimately, Carolina’s depth and recent postseason experience will lead them over the Rangers, but New York still has a legitimate shot at pulling off the impressive upset.
#10 Florida Panthers over #7 New York Islanders- 3-2
The Islanders play a tough, physical brand of hockey and put a huge emphasis on defense, ranking top-10 in the league. With bruisers Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin leading the way, New York has the rare ability to wear teams down with their slow and abrasive style of play, which usually pays dividends in the playoffs.
After star Robin Lehner left New York prior to the season, goalies Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss were not able to replicate Lehner’s Vezina-level stats, but the duo has still been very solid in net. Good goaltending is necessary for New York’s defensive-first approach to work and the Islanders are fortunate to have two quality netminders.
As good as this team is defensively, there are serious concerns on the offensive end. The Islanders were the third worst possession team in the league, failed to have any point-per-game players, and ranked near the bottom in total offense. Despite their struggles, New York has several players who can catch fire in a series with Anders Lee, Mathew Barzal, Jordan Eberle, Brock Nelson, and Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Still, Varlamov, Greiss, and the defense can only take the team so far and the Islanders will need to score more if they want to go far in the postseason.
After having a big offseason last summer, the Panthers were one of the most disappointing teams in the NHL, but now have a chance to sneak up on some teams in this expanded format behind Stanley Cup winning coach Joel Quennenville. In contrast to the Islanders, Florida has the league’s sixth-best offense with Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Mike Hoffman, and Evgenii Dadonov leading the way.
The Panthers were not spectacular defensively, but were still league-average behind star defenseman Aaron Ekblad. The big issue for Florida was goaltending as marquee free agent signing Sergei Bobrovsky was one of the worst goaltenders in the league. Hopefully, the break allowed the two-time Vezina winner to get his mind right and return to his previous form.
This series pits two contrasting styles of play against each other and should go the full five games, regardless of who wins. Despite New York’s stingy defense, Florida’s high-powered offense will score enough goals to pull away from the offensively-challenged Islanders. Ultimately, Bobrovsky will decide who comes out with a victory. If he can recapture the postseason success he had with Columbus or at least be league average, Florida will emerge victorious.
#8 Toronto Maple Leafs over #9 Columbus Blue Jackets 3-2
Similar to the Islanders-Panthers series, this series pits two contrasting styles of play against each other. Led by 47 goals by star Auston Matthews, the Maple Leafs were a top offensive team in the league this season. Toronto boasts arguably the most talented offense in the East as John Tavares, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Zach Hyman, Kasperi Kapanen, and veteran Jason Spezza should all provide more than enough scoring behind Matthews.
Although they surprisingly struggled to score at times in 2019-20, the main reason the Maple Leafs were largely disappointing was due to their defense, which ranked as one of the worst in the league. They did battle injuries and the likely return of Morgan Rielly along with Tyson Barrie and Jake Muzzin should resolve some of Toronto’s defensive woes. However, there are still some serious concerns near the bottom half of their defense that may be too much for their high-powered offense to overcome.
In net, Frederik Anderson has been decent with a .909 save percentage despite being inconsistent. There were stretches where Anderson looked to be one of the best goalies in the NHL, then others where he could not stop a beach ball from going in the net. Hopefully, the defense can provide Freddie with more support, but he will need to be more consistent if the Maple Leafs want to defeat a tough Columbus team.
Behind surprise rookie Elvis Merzlikins and his .923 save percentage in net, the Blue Jackets were a top five defensive team this year. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski may also be the best defensive pairing in the league. After losing several key pieces last summer, Columbus was a surprise team this year, which was mostly due to their tough, defensive style of play.
Offensively, the Blue Jackets finished below league average in goals and total offense. They have talent in Pierre Luc Dubois, Nick Foligno, and Boone Jenner, but they all will need to score if they want to keep up with the Maple Leafs high-powered attack.
Columbus has good coaching in John Tortorella, a top-end defense, and recent postseason success, all of which are clear advantages against Toronto. Still, the break allowed the Maple Leafs to get healthier and reset mentally to finally win a playoff series. As long as Anderson is solid in net and the defense limits a weak Columbus offense, Matthews, Marner, and Tavares should score more than enough for the Maple Leafs to win in four or five games.