The 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs officially began today, with a very intriguing match-up between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Tampa Bay Lighting. Hockey fans across the globe remember the unreal season that Tampa produced last year, ending their campaign with 128 points. They were easily everyone’s favorite to win the 2019 Stanley Cup. Columbus, however, came into their match-up with Tampa and swiftly eliminated them from the contest in 4 games. The world was in shock – the favorites were eliminated by a team that had only put up 81 points in the same season.
The unpredictability and elation that the Stanley cup playoffs brings each year raises some questions for all hockey fans. Which teams have first round match-ups that you should be watching? Which underdog can upset their opponent early in the playoffs? Perhaps more importantly, who will win? And will the 2020 champion have an asterisk next to their place in history?
The Cream of the Crop
Hockey fans everywhere are ecstatic that the NHL has decided to go forward with the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2020. It has been said plenty of times – this was an odd season, probably the only one of its kind that we will see for a very long time. Regardless of the postponed season, hockey fans were able to finally see a finalized playoff bracket on August 9th, when the Blue Jackets eliminated the Toronto Maple Leafs from the play-in round in a best of 5 series.
Upon initial inspection, a few key match-ups stick out. First off, a very intriguing rematch between Tampa and Columbus will prove to be must-watch television as Tampa has something to prove to the rest of the league based off of what happened last season, as was discussed earlier.
The #4 vs. #5 match-up of the Boston Bruins vs. the Carolina Hurricanes is a rematch from last season’s Eastern Conference Final that saw the Bruins sweep the Hurricanes in 4 games. Carolina has a very talented corps of young players, led by Andrei Svechnikov, who cut through the New York Rangers like a hot knife cutting through butter during their play-in series last week. Considering how poorly Boston played during their round-robin games, this series will be very interesting as well.
Another interesting match-up in the east is the New York Islanders vs. the Washington Capitals. The key in this match up stems from the current Islanders coach, Barry Trotz. Trotz was hired by the Islanders before the 2018-2019 season after he had just won the 2018 Stanley Cup finals with the Capitals. If anyone knows how to coach against his former team, it is Trotz. The young defensive corps of the Islanders, led by Ryan Pulock, will have their hands full with Alex Ovechkin, but this series will come down to a tactical game of hockey chess between Trotz and Todd Reirden, Trotz’s replacement in D.C.
On the western front, the Vegas Golden Knights vs. the Chicago Blackhawks has an interesting dynamic present for a few reasons. For one, Chicago traded decorated goalie Robin Lehner to Vegas at the deadline. Lehner will be ready to play hard against his former team. Furthermore, as Vegas has never missed the playoffs in their franchise history, Chicago has won multiple Stanley Cups in their recent history. Despite new coaching and management, Chicago’s core of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews knows how to win this trophy.
We cannot forget to discuss the St. Louis Blues vs. the Vancouver Canucks, simply due to the fact that the Blues are the reigning Stanley Cup champions. The Blues defeated all odds when they named Craig Berube as interim coach during the middle of the season. In the 63 games after Berube’s appointment, the Blues put up 82 points and eventually won the Stanley Cup. A lot of this due to the emergence of their rookie goaltender, Jordan Binnington. Their match-up against Elias Petterson and the Canucks will be no walk in the park, but any match-up with the defending champions is always must-watch programming.
A Fallen Giant?
Part of the drama that is the Stanley Cup playoffs is the underdog story. Similar to college basketball’s March Madness, you cannot watch the NHL post-season without seeing one underdog take down their opponent in spectacular fashion. While the seeding might tell one story in the eastern conference, the Carolina Hurricanes have a very good chance of upsetting the Bruins in their round one match-up.
The Bruins put up a clean 100 points in 70 games this regular season and honestly, they looked unstoppable. In comparison, the Hurricanes managed a respectable 81 points in 68 games in a very difficult Metropolitan Division. Despite their seeding as the #4 – #5 match-up, each team’s recent form can potentially foreshadow how this series will end. I mentioned the Hurricanes’ dismantling of the Rangers in their play-in series, which was odd to see because the Rangers swept the season series against the ‘Canes this year. Furthermore, the Bruins lost their 3 round-robin games and looked like a peewee team against the Washington Capitals on August 9th. While on paper, this isn’t an “upset,” the prior history between these teams may prove otherwise.
On the western front, a likely source of upset can be found in the Colorado Avalanche vs. the Arizona Coyotes series. Colorado put up 92 points in 70 games this season, while the ‘Yotes put up 74 points in 70 games. Despite Colorado’s stud forward Nathan MacKinnon scoring at will, this series could very well be controlled by the goaltending of Arizona’s Darcy Kuemper. Kuemper put up serious numbers this season and, after helping his team upset the Nashville Predators in their play-in series, could very well give Arizona that extra push they need to upset the Avalanche.
The 2020 Stanley Cup* Champion?
So who has the best chance to move forward and win the Stanley Cup? All things considered, it can be argued that any of these teams can raise the Cup. Each team is healthy, rested, and hungry. Plenty of players who were initially ruled out of the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs, notably stud defender Adam Pelech of the New York Islanders, are healthy and ready to make a difference in these summer playoffs.
Considering the past form of each team, one team stands out as being prime to make a run as a Cup favorite: the Philadelphia Flyers. The Broad Street bullies, led by Claude Giroux, have won 12 of their last 15 regular-season games (dating back to February 8th) and won all three of the round-robin games to earn the #1 seed in the east. Lately, they have been nothing short of electric and they are proving their case as serious Stanley Cup contenders this summer.
But, say if the Flyers win, would they be considered the 2020 Stanley Cup Champions* with the asterisk? We here at Sports Knightly do not think there will be an asterisk, for a number of reasons. For one, most teams played at least 80% of the regular season and had already made their case for whether or not they could be playoff contenders before the season was postponed. Second, the playoff format was not altered at all. The inclusion of the play-in games made for good content but did not adversely affect the integrity of the tournament. And third, it may be the most difficult instalment of this tournament of all time, considering each team is healthy and hungry.
At the end of the day, one team will reign supreme over the NHL. We are lucky to be witnessing hockey this summer, and boy will it be something else.
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