It took a long time to get here, but the Stanley Cup playoffs are ready to start — officially — this afternoon.
The pandemic paused play for nearly five months, with the NHL using a never-before-seen qualifying round that produced some surprising results. What we’re left with are 16 teams to compete for the Stanley Cup, with four rounds of best-of-seven series as normal, in this abnormal year.
The games begin today, starting with Tampa Bay against Columbus at 3 pm ET/12 pm PT.
Here’s a look at the matchups, as well as some predictions as to who will come out on top.
Western Conference matchups
Vegas Golden Knights (1) vs Chicago Blackhawks (8)
After a subpar season by their standards, the Vegas Golden Knights are on a roll coming into the playoffs after three straight wins over the other top teams in the West during the round-robin.
Vegas is deep and can play the game any way you want to play it. After going to the Stanley Cup Final in 2018 and being ousted early in 2019, they’re hungry.
They’re matched up against the Chicago Blackhawks, who have some great veteran players from their Stanley Cup years, along with some good young players on the rise. But let’s be real, Chicago has no business being in the playoffs.
Prediction: Golden Knights in 4.
Colorado Avalanche (2) vs Arizona Coyotes (7)
Offense meets defense in this matchup featuring the fourth-highest scoring team (Colorado Avalanche) and the fourth-best defensive team (Arizona Coyotes) from the regular season.
But that only tells part of the story.
Arizona had the fifth-worst winning percentage in the NHL after January 1, and despite an impressive series win over the Nashville Predators, aren’t in the same class as the Avalanche, who are an elite team still on the rise.
Prediction: Avalanche in 5.
Dallas Stars (3) vs Calgary Flames (6)
Had it not been for a late goal against the St. Louis Blues on Sunday, the Dallas Stars would have been riding a nine-game losing streak into their series against the Calgary Flames.
The Flames are without Travis Hamonic, but otherwise are looking sharp after dusting off the undermanned Winnipeg Jets in the qualifying round.
Dallas was the second-best defensive team in the league during the regular season but they’re trending in the wrong direction. If Cam Talbot can continue giving Calgary solid goaltending, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t, the Flames will upset the Stars.
Prediction: Flames in 7.
St. Louis Blues (4) vs Vancouver Canucks (5)
After a sluggish start in their series against the Minnesota Wild, the Vancouver Canucks quickly found their form and are riding a three-game winning streak into this series against the St Louis Blues. The defending champions had the best record in the West this season, but have lost all three round-robin games in the Edmonton bubble.
Are the champs sleeping giants just waiting for the games to get serious? Or are they ripe for the picking by the young upstart Canucks?
Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, and the rest of the Canucks will give them a scare, but dethroning the Blues will prove to be too difficult.
Prediction: Blues in 7.
Eastern Conference matchups
Philadelphia Flyers (1) vs Montreal Canadiens (8)
The Pittsburgh Penguins were worried about Carey Price stealing a series win against them, and though the Montreal Canadiens netminder played great, they were more than a one-man team.
The Habs are riding high, but they’re up against the Philadelphia Flyers, who have just won three games in a row in the Toronto bubble. Carter Hart should even the goaltending matchup, which will allow Philadelphia to win the series. But it won’t be easy.
Prediction: Flyers in 6.
Tampa Bay Lightning (2) vs Columbus Blue Jackets (7)
The Tampa Bay Lightning appear poised to win the Stanley Cup every year it seems, though they’re facing adversity as they prepare for a rematch against the Columbus Blue Jackets, who swept them last season.
Without Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman to start the series, Tampa Bay is vulnerable to a team that knows how to beat them. The highest-scoring team in the NHL this season, the Lightning are deep, and they’ve likely learned their lesson from one year ago.
The hard-working Blue Jackets will give them a scare, but the Lightning will limp to a seven-game series win.
Prediction: Lightning in 7.
Washington Capitals (3) vs New York Islanders (6)
With most of their key players from the 2018 Stanley Cup-winning team still playing at a high level, the Washington Capitals are a Cup contender again in 2020.
Led by the Capitals’ old coach Barry Trotz, the New York Islanders play a structured game and can roll all four lines, but they’re overmatched in this series. Washington’s top-end talent will be too much to handle.
Prediction: Capitals in 6.
Boston Bruins (4) vs Carolina Hurricanes (5)
The Boston Bruins were the league’s best team during the regular season but they’re still without a win in the Toronto bubble. They’ve up against the most dangerous team to move up through the qualifiers, in the Carolina Hurricanes, who swept the New York Rangers and looked good doing it.
The question mark for the Canes is in goal, though Petr Mrazek was excellent against the Rangers. The Bruins are an elite team but Carolina is catching them at an opportune time and will pull off the upset.
Prediction: Hurricanes in 7.