2020 NHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference Qualifying Round Primer For All Matchups


July 29, 2020

The Stanley Cup playoffs finally are here, at least in some form.

The COVID-19 pause made the 2019-20 season the most unique campaign in league history, and the season finally will get restarted this weekend, assuming all goes according to plan.

We’re doing things a little different this season, of course, with round-robin games determining the top four seeds in each conference and multiple best-of-five playoff series to determine the full playoff field. By adding eight teams to the mix, we could be looking at pandemonium before the “real” playoffs even begin.

Here’s a rundown of the Eastern Conference play-in series set to begin Saturday, Aug. 1:

No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 12 Montreal Canadiens
Saturday, Aug. 1: Canadiens vs. Penguins, 8 p.m. ET ? NBC
Monday, Aug. 3: Canadiens vs. Penguins, 8 p.m. ET ? NBCSN
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Penguins vs. Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET ? NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Penguins vs. Canadiens, TBD (if necessary)
Saturday, Aug. 8: Canadiens vs. Penguins, TBD (if necessary)

Goals per game: Pittsburgh 3.20 (10th) | Montreal 2.93 (19th)
Goals allowed per game: Pittsburgh 2.84 (12th) | Montreal 3.10 (19th)
Power play: Pittsburgh 19.9% (16th) | Montreal 17.3% (22nd)
Penalty kill: Pittsburgh 82.1% (10th) | Montreal 78.7% (19th)

Season series
— Penguins won the series 2-1
Dec. 10: Penguins 4-1
Jan. 4: Canadiens 3-2 (OT)
Feb. 14: Penguins 4-1

We all know this tournament is happening in the bubbles, meaning home-ice advantage is all but gone. But last change still belongs to the designated home team, which could be a big advantage for Pittsburgh against Montreal. Even Montreal head coach Claude Julien acknowledged the Habs could struggle to get Phillip Danault’s line on the ice to try and shut down the Sidney Crosby line. Of course, one of the other advantages Pittsburgh should enjoy is greater depth both on the front and back end. The Penguins also have a decisive edge in playoff experience, although it’s an interesting debate as to how much that matters in a bubble in August. But still, there’s something to be said for having endured Stanley Cup playoff runs in the past. No team in the bubbles had fewer points than Montreal, so unless Carey Price can get red-hot (admittedly very possible), the Canadiens should have problems trying to pull the upset.

No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes vs. No. 11 New York Rangers
Saturday, Aug. 1: Rangers vs. Hurricanes, noon p.m. ET ? NBCSN
Monday, Aug. 3: Rangers vs. Hurricanes, noon p.m. ET ? NBCSN
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Hurricanes vs. Rangers, 8 p.m. ET ? NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 6: Hurricanes vs. Rangers, TBD (if necessary)
Saturday, Aug. 8: Rangers vs. Hurricanes, TBD (if necessary)

Goals per game: Carolina 3.19 (11th) | New York 3.33 (5th)
Goals allowed per game: Carolina 2.84 (11th) | New York 3.14 (23rd)
Power play: Carolina 22.3% (8th) | New York 22.9% (7th)
Penalty kill: Carolina 84% (4th) | New York 77.4% (23rd)

Season series
— Rangers won the series 4-0
Nov. 7: Rangers 4-2
Nov. 27: Rangers 3-2
Dec. 27: Rangers 5-3
Feb. 21: Rangers 5-2

A fascinating matchup between two seemingly even-matched teams that were anything but in their season series. The Rangers beat the brakes off the Hurricanes all season, although that feels like years ago at this point. Carolina is a more balanced team; they don’t do anything extraordinarily well, but they do everything pretty well. Meanwhile, the Rangers have the better high-end talent, especially up front — they have an elite top-six forward group led by Hart Trophy finalist Artemi Panarin. The big issue in this one, though, might be the injury to Carolina defenseman Dougie Hamilton. The Canes do have the depth advantage and are the better special teams squad. As is usually the case in the playoffs — especially in a short series — goaltending could be the difference. New York’s Igor Shesterkin was playing like the NHL’s best goalie (.932 save percentage in 12 games) at the time of the pause.

More NHL: Eastern Conference Round-Robin Primer — What To Know About All Four Teams

No. 7 New York Islanders vs. No. 10 Florida Panthers
Saturday, Aug. 1: Panthers vs. Islanders, 4 p.m. ET ? NBCSN
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Panthers vs. Islanders, noon ET ? NBCSN
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Islanders vs. Panthers, noon ET ? NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Islanders vs. Panthers, TBD (if necessary)
Sunday, Aug. 9: Panthers vs. Islanders, TBD (if necessary)

Goals per game: New York 2.78 (22nd) | Florida 3.30 (6th)
Goals allowed per game: New York 2.79 (9th) | Florida 3.25 (29th)
Power play: New York 17.3% (24th) | Florida 21.3% (10th)
Penalty kill: New York 80.7% (15th) | Florida 78.5% (20th)

Season series
— Islanders won the season series 3-0
Oct. 10: Islanders 3-2
Nov. 9: Islanders 2-1
Dec. 12: Islanders 3-1

That two of these games will start at noon ET kind of tells you how excited you should be for this series. One thing is for sure, though: This is going to be a well-coached series with New York’s Barry Trotz trying to send Joel Quenneville packing in his first playoff appearance behind the Florida bench. The Panthers, despite being swept by the Isles in the regular season, do have some of the ingredients for a deep postseason run. They have a proven, Cup-winning head coach in Quenneville along with an offense that could get hot fast. The defense is an issue, but there’s a reason Florida shelled out $70 million to sign Sergei Bobrovsky. If the former Vezina Trophy winner springs a leak, however, it could be a quick exit for the Panthers.

No. 8 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets
Sunday, Aug. 2: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, 8 p.m. ET ? NBCSN
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, 4 p.m. ET ? NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 6: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets, TBD
Friday, Aug. 7: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets, TBD (if necessary)
Sunday, Aug. 9: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, TBD (if necessary)

Goals per game: Toronto 3.39 (3rd) | Columbus 2.57 (28th)
Goals allowed per game: Toronto 3.17 (26th) | Columbus 2.61 (4th)
Power play: Toronto 23.1% (6th) | Columbus 16.4% (27th)
Penalty kill: Toronto 77.7% (21st) | Columbus 81.8% (12th)

Season series
— Split 1-1
Oct. 4: Toronto 4-1
Oct. 21: Columbus 4-3 (OT)

The more things change the more they stay the same for the Maple Leafs. Toronto’s forward group is among the best in the game, while the defense has glaring and gaping holes. However, is Columbus — a team led by Pierre-Luc Dubois’ 49 points — the kind of team that can expose Toronto’s weaknesses? This is a classic offense-defense, strength-weakness matchup. Toronto is a great offensive team, and Columbus is a stout defensive team. CBJ head coach John Tortorella is among the best tacticians the league has to offer, and he’s had a whole bunch of time to prep for the “home team” Leafs. We’ve seen him frustrate plenty of teams in the past by packing it in and blocking shots, but few opponents have offered as much talent as Toronto. If the Maple Leafs can solve Torts’ riddle, it’s hard to see Columbus having anywhere near enough firepower to match Toronto, even with the Leafs’ shaky defense.

More NHL: Western Conference Round-Robin Primer — What To Know About All Four Teams

Thumbnail photo via Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports Images
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