Just in case you weren’t aware, hockey is on track to be back in a little over a week! As the NHL inches moves towards Phase 4 of Return to Play where all 24 remaining teams travel to their respective Hub City for their first exhibition game (which start July 28th).
Over the course of the next week we will break down all eight qualifying round series as well as the round robin for the top four teams from each conference. With that in mind let’s first look at the top four from each conference.
- Boston Bruins – 100 pts
- Tampa Bay Lightning – 92 pts
- Washington Capitals – 90 pts
- Philadelphia Flyers – 86 pts
I cannot put into words how excited I am to see Boston play Tampa again after their last meeting. I am not going to break down each game individually but I will say that I think that when it is all said and done, the top seeds in the East will slot out as follows.
- Tampa Bay Lightings (3-0-0)
- Boston Bruins (1-1-1)
- Philadelphia Flyers (1-1-1)
- Washington Capitals (1-2-0)
Tampa beats Boston in OT, game gets chippy, maybe Maroon drops the gloves with someone, but I don’t think we should expect the same fireworks. Boston beats Philly in OT to secure the two spot and Washington defeats Boston to make things interesting but falls short. An angry Washingtons Capitals vs the Pens in the first round….
- St Louis Blues – 94 pts
- Colorado Avalanche – 92 pts
- Las Vegas Golden Knights – 86 pts
- Dallas Stars – 82 pts
Quickly, Dallas sits at the number four spot despite Edmonton having more points based on win percentage as Dallas had two games in hand. Last year’s defending champs come in as the top team in the West, and the Avs, who had the largest single season improvement in the West are the early favourites.
- Colorado Avalanche (2-0-1)
- St Louis Blues (2-1-0)
- Las Vegas Golden Knights (1-2-0)
- Dallas Stars (1-2-0)
Colorado had a lot of their top talent sidelined with injuries this season but they are healthy and back in the line up. St Louis will edge out Colorado in a nail bitter in OT but they will lose to the Dallas Stars knocking them into the two spot. Vegas will sneak into third by way of a tie breaker as a I see them finishing with the same record as the Stars.
Now let’s move on to what I believe will be the most exciting Qualification Round series.
(11) NEW YORK RANGERS vs (6) CAROLINA HURRICANES
The Rangers finished fifth in the NHL in Goals For this season with 234 (11 back of first). Their line up includes Ted Lindsay and Hart finalist Artemi Panarin who finished third in league scoring as well as 2019-20 goal scoring sensation Mika Zibanejad. Pavel Buchnevich and Ryan Strome took major steps forward in their development and played vital roles on this team. All of this and I haven’t even mentioned 2019 second overall pick Kaapo Kakko.
The Hurricanes on the other hand are a bit more top heavy in terms of scoring, but they also have more depth and skill spread across their bottom six forwards. Aho, Teravainen and Svechnikov were on another level this season leading the way offensively for this team. Their second line does not have as much fire power as their opponents but they are a very good shut down line that can score goals. Their bottom six includes Vincent Trocheck, Ryan Dzingel, Martin Necas and Warren Foegele, all of whom can hurt you physically and on the score board.
This one is very close but I give the edge to the Rangers, they have more skill spread out across their line up. This series should be very telling of how much grit and sand paper these guys have because as you will see, playoff experience is an issue for the Rangers.
If I were building a team from scratch and you asked me which of these defense cores I would prefer to have it would be the Rangers because they are young with a very high potential ceiling. For right now, they are just young and unexperienced with only 131 playoff games played on the back end (Staal accounts for 104 of those games). Carolina on the other hand is very deep with underrated talent and they are getting back Dougie Hamilton who was a potential Norris candidate before his injury.
Despite how much I like the young talent the Rangers have in guys like Trouba (ok maybe not so young), Fox and DeAngelo, the Hurricanes have the clear advantage on the blue line.
Up until this year the Ranger’s crease belonged to Lundqvist, however father time remains undefeated and Hank could very well find himself in the press box for this series. Igor Shestyorkin was a revelation this year and in his small sample size he was absolutely dominant, single handedly winning the Rangers a few games towards the end of the season. If the spotlight of the playoffs becomes too big for Shestyorkin the Rangers have a very capable back up in Alexander Georgiev.
The Hurricanes have a bit of their own time share going on in nets between Petr Mrazek and James Reimer. Mrazek should be the starter, he played very well in the Canes playoff run last season and he has big game ability. He has been streaky through out his career which is part of the reason why they have James Reimer as almost a 1B/2 goalie.
This is an interesting situation in nets because there is a world where we could see as many as five goalies start a game in this series given the amount of firepower both teams possess on offense. If Igor can continue his form the Rangers have the advantage in nets by a landslide which should help offset a bit of the defensive advantage the Canes have.
On the Power Play, these teams are neck and neck as they finished seventh (Rangers at 22.9%) and eighth (Hurricanes at 22.3%) on the season and their both possess arguably a top 10 first Power Play unit. The big difference is on the Penalty Kill, the Hurricanes rank fourth in the league at roughly 84% compared to the Rangers at 77.4% ranking them near the bottom of the league.
The Rangers will need to get their Penalty Kill in order fast, they gave up the second most shots in the league (34 per game) this year and if they get into any sort of penalty trouble things could slip away from them quick. On the opposite bench, if the Hurricanes can keep the Rangers off the board 5on4 while capitalizing on their own chances, it could be the difference in not only a game but the series.
New York Rangers – Kaapo Kakko
Kakko may not have had the flashy high scoring rookie season that people hoped for when he was drafted second overall. No better time to put all of that behind him and start fresh with an opportunity to gain valuable playoff experience. The Rangers top two lines have more than enough skill to compete with the best of them, but if Kakko can find another gear and drive the offense for the third line, chipping in with a couple goals he can have a major influence on this series.
Carolina Hurricanes – Ryan Dzingel
Dzingel doesnt’t exactly have ample playoff experience but if he can find chemistry with Trocheck, who was picked up at the Trade Deadline, this could push the Canes into the next round. In case you haven’t noticed there is a bit of a premium being placed on the third lines in this series, but this is the case every year in the playoffs. The offensive firepower in this series should lead to an abundance of goals being scored, so whichever team’s third line can outproduce the other should very well find themselves moving on.
This has all the makings to be one of, if not the best series of the Qualification Round. Both teams are young, fast and love to score goals. Recapping the anaylsis, for each segment it is advantage for:
Forwards – Rangers
Defense – Carolina
Goaltender – Rangers
Special Teams – Carolina
X-Factor – Rangers
Winner: (11) New York Rangers
First series to be broken down and we already have an upset! The Rangers are my pick for this year’s dark horse team. Panarin is up for the Ted Lindsay and Hart, Zibanejad had the highest goals per game in the NHL this season, and Shestyorkin is about to put the league on notice.
Sorry Carolina fans, nothing personal but this is not to say I would be surprised if they won but if Mrazek is off, this is over from the start. Whoever wins this series should make some noise in the first round, but for the Rangers, their reward for winning is a first round matchup with one of the top teams in the league.