Hockey is set to return August first in the hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto. They’ll begin with the Stanley Cup qualifying round and round-robin play. Scotiabank Arena in Toronto will play host to the Eastern Conference. The qualifying round will be best-of-five with the winners advancing to the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs with the round-robin teams, who are competing for playoff seeding. There are some interesting matchups in the Eastern Conference and it’ll be great to watch when hockey finally comes back.
Stanley Cup Qualifying Round: Eastern Conference Matchups
Blue Jackets vs Maple Leafs
The Columbus Blue Jackets will face off against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the play-in round. These two teams had different experiences in the first round of last season. Columbus swept the Lightning while Toronto lost in seven games to the Bruins. In the offseason, the Blue Jackets lost a couple of key players like Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. Even with the losses, they seem to be doing well. They finished in the second wild-card spot with 81 points and the goalie situation has a lot to do with it. Columbus has a great tandem in net this season with Elvis Merzlikins (13-9-8, 2.35 GAA) and Joonas Korpisalo (19-12-5, 2.60 GAA). They also have key players stepping up like their points leader Pierre-Luc Dubois (49 points) and their goals leader Oliver Bjorkstrand (21 goals).
On the other hand, the Maple Leafs had so bad of a start that they fired coach Mike Babcock. Their current coach, Sheldon Keefe, has them headed in the right direction. They finished third in the Atlantic Division with 81 points. Auston Matthews has looked tremendous for the Maple Leafs, as he had 47 goals with 33 assists and Mitch Marner‘s 67 points paired well with that. Goaltender Frederik Andersen has been a little off this season and will have to up his game to keep this team in it. Toronto has a good offense and the blue line has some weapons as well. The Maple Leafs have to keep their head up as they try to escape
Rangers vs Hurricanes
Familiar foes will meet once again. These teams were close in the standings as the Carolina Hurricanes finished in the first wild card spot with 81 points and the New York Rangers finished on the outside looking in with 79. They met each other four times in the regular season and the Rangers won all four. Panarin is a Hart Trophy finalist with 95 points and Mika Zibanejad has added 75 points. The goaltending has been a little shaky as both Henrik Lundqvist and Alexandar Georgiev have a goals-against-average of over 3.00. They do have one goaltender who has been injured but will make a difference if he starts and that’s Igor Shesterkin, who’s taken more reps in practice than anyone.
The Hurricanes have a good offensive attack with solid goaltending. They have three players with over 60 points in Sebastian Aho (66), Teuvo Teravainen (63), and Andrei Svechnikov (61). Their top goaltender has a goals-against-average of 2.69 and that’s Petr Mrazek. They also have one of the best defense pairings in the league with Dougie Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin. This series has the potential to go seven games in a dog fight to the end.
Canadiens vs Penguins
Loaded with experience, the Pittsburgh Penguins look to shine past the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup qualifying round. They finished third in the Metropolitan Division with 86 points. The Penguins hit a little bit of a bump in the road going into the stoppage in the form of a six-game losing streak. Injuries have halted them but now that they’re almost fully healthy, this Penguins team is dangerous again. You can never count them out when they have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on their team. Malkin leads the team with 79 points but they also had Bryan Rust step up when needed with 56 points. They have a solid goaltending duo going into the qualifying round with Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry. This team has the veteran talent to expose anyone and they shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Their opponents, the Canadiens, were on the outside looking in before the stoppage of play. They’re 12th in the Eastern Conference with 71 points but they got lucky with this format. Now, they need to take advantage of this opportunity with one of the best goalies in the game and that’s Carey Price. The Canadiens offense hasn’t done much this season and the defense hasn’t been much better. If they can rely on one other player than Price, it’s Thomas Tatar, who has 61 points. It’ll be a difficult series for the Canadiens to win but maybe they can steal a game or two with their star goaltender.
Islanders vs Panthers
The New York Islanders were one point behind the Blue Jackets and the Hurricanes for the first and second wild card spots. They were making a real push but now they’re in and will face the Florida Panthers, who were only one point behind them. Ever since Barry Trotz became the coach for the Islanders, they’ve focused more on defense and goaltending. That also means the offense has suffered as a result. It just goes to show you that with great defense and goaltending, you can compete in any kind of game.
The Panthers got one of the best coaches in the history of the NHL with Joel Quenneville and signed one of the top free agents with Bobrovsky. This season has not gone according to plan for the Panthers and Bobrovsky. He’s had a poor season, to say the least as he’s posted a 23-19-6 record with a 3.23 goals-against-average and a .900 save percentage. The Panthers haven’t had a strong defense this season but with numbers like this, he’s a big part of the problem. The offense has had to bail Bobrovsky and the defense out plenty of times. They’ve gotten great performances from Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, and Mike Hoffman. These two teams couldn’t be more opposite and it’ll be a great best three out of five series.
Around The Rink
Round-robin play will feature the top four teams in each conference. Those teams will face each other to determine seeding for round one of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The four teams in the Eastern Conference are the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, and Philadelphia Flyers. As mentioned, games will be starting on August first as multiple games will be played each day. The return of hockey is getting closer and we can’t wait for it to begin.
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