Updated: Aug 21, 2020
2020 Eastern Conference First Round Predictions
After everything that has happened and all the time we’ve waited, we are going to have real playoff off hockey!! The teams are set after the Qualifying Round and Round Robin are over. The regular good-old one through eight is back with some big surprises coming out of the earlier games which reshaped what most people believed before the season was paused.
The biggest surprises of the earlier rounds came from the final 3 teams to qualify for this tournament. If you had Arizona, Chicago, and Montreal coming out of the qualifying round with a ticket to the playoffs and not the lottery, you would have been ridiculed before the August 1st restart. But here we are, just 9 days later (August 10th), and we have all three teams skating away with convincing 3-1 series victories. Based on roster talent and standings, Montreal triumphing over Pittsburgh is the biggest shock; will 2020 continue to bring wild upsets in the rounds to follow?
I will breakdown each matchup by deconstructing each team into three units (Goalie, D-Men, and Forwards); I will discuss their strength and how they will have to play to win. Based on how likely they play to that standard will help me create my verdict.
Philadelphia (1) vs Montreal (8)
Philadelphia (1): They come in as a heavy favourite, with a team that has been on fire in the Round Robin tournament; they held for the top 4 seeds in both conferences.
Goalie: Cater Hart comes in ready to face his idol while proving he is one of the top young goaltenders in the game. He won’t need to steal a game for Philly but will need to be solid. This has a very high probability of happening.
D-Men: What they lack at the top end, they make up for with solid depth. Ivan Provorov is the top player in this group which lacks a true number 1 defender. They will play as a group to slow Montreal down. I’m less confident in this group coming through as they are solid but lack elite quality.
Forwards: Sean Couturier is the best of the bunch here; they have quality depth on the team and have looked very dangerous in the round robin. They will need to solve Price early and often; I think they have great depth but Price has looked elite in the qualifier. They will need to rediscover their power play which was lost in the round robin.
Montreal (8): They come in having shocked the hockey world taking out the most recent back-to-back champions in 4 games on the strength of a solid team effort.
Goalie: Carey Price doesn’t look ready to step down as the most feared goalie in the league. Look for him to continue to dominate like he did against the Pens. Philly doesn’t have scorers on Crosby and Malkin’s level which bodes well for the Montreal goaltender. He will steal at least 1 game.
D-Men: Montreal is somewhat the opposite of Philly. They have a top 3 that carries the bulk while trying to shelter and protect the bottom 3. This group will have its hands full and will need to limit quality scoring chances on Price.
Forwards: What has long been perceived as the weakest part of the team has finally looked adequate. They will need both their young centers to keep playing above their heads. While there is no star, Montreal rolls 4 lines effectively. Their committee approach makes it easier to believe in them.
Verdict: Although Philly is the top seed and looked to be on fire in the round robin, I have Montreal in 6. Price looks like the 2014/15 version of himself and will steal the series.
Tampa Bay (2) vs. Columbus (7)
Tampa Bay (2): After being embarrassed last year by Columbus, this will be a revenge series for Tampa. Look for them to come out flying.
Goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy will be looking to avenge that sweep. After winning the Vezina last year, he was humiliated in the first round. He’s been solid all year and will turn it up for this one.
D-Men: Tampa and Carolina have the deepest defensive groups in the league. If they are healthy, they will provide a difficult challenge for CBJ. 70% chance they will be healthy enough to provide what Tampa needs.
Forwards: Again, Tampa has one of the deepest groups in the league with Hart, and Rocket Richard winners as parts of its whole. CBJ has a solid group on D but Tampa has too much fire power here. They will prove to be too much for CBJ.
Columbus: Beating the Leafs and having swept Tampa last year, Columbus will not be short on confidence. They come in believing they can do it again.
Goalie: Korpisalo and Merzlikins are both solid goalies and proved to be an elite tandem during the season. They will provide enough for CBJ to stay in most games but I don't know if they can handle Tampa at full strength.
D-Men: Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are a formidable pair, but it drops off after that. They have a solid yet unspectacular group that will have trouble handling a top tier attack from the Lightning. I don't have a lot of faith they will be able to stop Tampa.
Forwards: This group does it by committee; their big gun is Pierre Luc-Dubois who has developed into a top center. They fall short on the talent category here but work extremely hard. They will score but not enough to overcome Tampa.
Verdict: Tampa in 4. This is an easy one; a team that is motivated to avenge last year’s loss and a tired CBJ team, as they play just 40 hours after beating the Leafs, will prove for a quick series.
Washington (3) vs. New York Islander (6)
Washington (3): Washington looked to move through the round robin preparing for this round. They will be motivated with Ovechkin getting towards the end of his career and they look dangerous.
Goalie: Samsonov or Holtby. It looks like Holtby will be the goalie, and with the long break, he will look to recapture the 2018 playoff form which won the cup. I don't have much faith here.
D-Men: A strong group lead by John Carlson. They have the players to keep the Islanders down. I have a lot of faith in this group to help keep the series close.
Forwards: Ovechkin is 34 and, with 1 cup to his name, is looking to add his second. This group is deep and can score; the Islanders play fantastic team defense and Barry Trotz knows how to slow his old team down.
New York (6): Coming in off eliminating a Panthers team who had a talent advantage, the Islanders play a great team game and will look to use their system to dictate play.
Goalie: Varlamov has had a great season on the island and will look to continue the strong play he showed through the qualifier. He’s going to play solidly for them here and will look to beat the team who drafted him.
D-Men: They do it by committee. Without a top tier defender, but 6 very good defenders, the Islanders look to spread the wealth and insulate all their forward group. They do look outmatched by Washington forwards though.
Forwards: Barzal is their top gun but has plenty of depth around him. They boast multiple high-end two-way forwards throughout the lineup. They aren’t a team that looks to outscore you, but to dominate possession and to control the high danger chances.
Verdict: I’m taking the Islanders in 7. This has the feel like it will be the tightest series in the east.
Boston (4) vs. Carolina (5)
Boston (4): They looked completely out of sorts during the round robin, looking like a shell of the team that won the Presidents trophy. They will need to turn it up in this series.
Goalie: Tukka Rask has been a top goaltender for the better part of the decade. He has a solid postseason track record and will look to provide a solid performance for his team. This is very likely in my opinion.
D-Men: Boston has a solid and deep group; having Chara, a first Ballot Hall of Famer, come in as your 3rd best defender shows how deep they are. This group is a top 5 defensive core in the league.
Forwards: They have the best line in hockey and plenty of depth. It was not a fluke that they were the top team during the regular season. This group can score with depth and will look to shake off the round robin rust.
Carolina (5): They swept the Rangers, who many analysts had picked as the team to provide the upset of the qualifier. They swept them with authority.
Goalie: Petr Mrazek and James Reimer provide a solid tandem, and with a solid D core, don't need to be spectacular to secure wins. They will be solid when called upon.
D-Men: This is Carolina’s strength. They offer the best group in the league here, with Vatenen and Gardiner as your 6/7 defensemen, you have an elite group. This is where their advantage lies.
Forwards: Aho and Svechnikov showed out in the qualifier; both had flash and substance to their games and lead a very strong attack for Carolina. They have great depth around them and will look to continue the role they started against the Rangers.
Verdict: Carolina in 6. They crushed a strong Rangers team and Boston looks out of sorts. The east will be filled with underdogs moving on.
Summary of First Round Predictions:
Tampa in 4.
Montreal in 6.
Carolina in 6.
Islanders in 7.