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2020 NHL playoffs: First Round schedule, predictions and analysis

Stanley Cup Bracket

After six round-robin games and a multitude of Qualifying Round madness, the bracket for the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs is officially set.

When the NHL decided to go right into the postseason after a hiatus that lasted almost five months, hockey fans knew that there would be chaos upon the season’s resumption in the two bubbles housing the postseason’s 24-team field.

Teams at the top of the Eastern Conference and Western Conference at the end of the regular season were forced to compete for the top seeds on each side of the bracket, and 12th-seeded teams like the Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks took advantage of the opportunities given to them to advance to the first round.

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When the dust finally cleared, eight teams remained in each conference, and the 16-team field vying for the Stanley Cup in 2020 was finalized. Each conference will be re-seeded after each round, allowing for potential upsets across the board as teams get their legs back under them following the long break from play.

While players get back into the swing of things, fans are left to evaluate each series on a “What have you done for me lately?” approach, even after dominant regular-season stretches from teams like the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues. Predictions are all over the place, and consistency is a quality that is now almost impossible to evaluate.

Regardless, to help you prepare for the first round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, here is a breakdown of each series in the first round, complete with both analysis and a full schedule.

Western Conference:

No. 1 Vegas Golden Knights vs. No. 8 Chicago Blackhawks

The third-place team in the Western Conference standings when the regular season concluded, the Vegas Golden Knights turned it on at the perfect time when bubble play got started and round robins began. As a result, the former Campbell Bowl champion wound up with the conference’s top seed as a result.

Meanwhile, their opponent, the eighth-seeded Chicago Blackhawks, are likely feeling like they’re on top of the world after unseating the Edmonton Oilers in their Qualifying Round series. Then playing as the 12th seed after a mediocre finish in the regular season, Jeremy Colliton’s lineup was able to take down the fifth-seeded Oilers in a high-scoring series that saw 31 total goals find the back of the net throughout its four games.

The Golden Knights are no stranger to an explosive offense, considering the fact that they were able to put up 15 goals of their own in their three round-robin victories. If current trends hold, fans will be in for some fast-paced play from the six forwards on the ice, and the Edmonton bubble will need some high-speed digital scoreboards to keep up with the action.

Blackhawks veterans like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will need to lead the charge if Chicago wants to return to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since winning a title in 2013, but have a tough task ahead in the form of the Golden Knights.

Vegas star Max Pacioretty could be exactly what the Golden Knights need to get over the hump that left them spending an offseason reflecting on a Stanley Cup Final loss in 2018. But, defensive improvements will need to be the true emphasis if the Golden Knights want to move forward past the first round, considering their goals against average in round-robin play (3.3 GAA).

In the end, the Golden Knights should bring the Blackhawks down to earth amid their Cinderella run, and move on to face the lowest-remaining seed in the next round.

Prediction: Golden Knights win in six games

Schedule:

Game 1: Tuesday, August 11 at 10:30 p.m. ET

Game 2: Thursday, August 13 at 5:30 p.m. ET

Game 3: Saturday, August 15 at 8 p.m. ET

Game 4: Sunday, August 16 at 6:30 p.m. ET

Game 5 (if necessary): Tuesday, August 18, time TBD

Game 6 (if necessary): Thursday, August 20, time TBD

Game 7 (if necessary): Saturday, August 22, time TBD

No. 2 Colorado Avalanche vs. No. 7 Arizona Coyotes

The Colorado Avalanche were just an overtime goal away from taking on the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round, but instead match up with the seventh-seeded Arizona Coyotes to start their Stanley Cup run.

Perhaps taking advantage of some rust at the start of round-robin play, the second-seeded Avalanche took down the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues in a 2-1 victory to start their official games in the bubble. They showed their two-way prowess with a 4-0 win against the Stars in their next game, and even put up three goals in their loss against the Golden Knights after that.

Meanwhile, the Coyotes kept the upset train rolling with a 3-1 series win against the Nashville Predators, with an overtime victory to top it all off on August 7. Arizona didn’t let their status near the bottom of the regular season totem pole get them down, and flying under the radar may even help them in their pursuit of a first-round victory against the Avalanche.

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Can Avalanche center and Hart Trophy finalist Nathan MacKinnon carry Colorado into the second round after such a dominant offensive performance (93 points on 35 goals, and 58 assists) in the regular season? Maybe, but the Avalanche will need a rookie like Cale Makar or other young players to step up if they hope to squash the Coyotes’ postseason hopes.

Goalie depth may turn into a major factor in this series, with Avalanche goalies Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz potentially topping the solo act of Coyotes netminder Darcy Kuemper, who was out for more than two months during the regular season after suffering an injury back in December. Options never hurt in the postseason, and the ability to swap goalies in and out could be a difference maker in this series.

Our view? The Avalanche move on with near-perfect performances on both sides of the puck, and slip into the second round with ease.

Prediction: Avalanche win in six games

Schedule:

Game 1: Wednesday, August 12 at 5:30 p.m. ET

Game 2: Friday, August 14 at 2 p.m. ET

Game 3: Saturday, August 15 at 3 p.m. ET

Game 4: Monday, August 17 at 5:30 p.m. ET

Game 5 (if necessary): Wednesday. August 19, time TBD

Game 6 (if necessary): Friday, August 21, time TBD

Game 7 (if necessary): Sunday, August 23, time TBD

No. 3 Dallas Stars vs. No. 6 Calgary Flames

The Dallas Stars played above their regular season standing throughout the Western Conference round robin, and took down the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues in overtime to end it all on a high note. Can they use that momentum against a red-hot Flames squad?

The sixth-seeded Flames took down their Canadian brethren, the Winnipeg Jets, in four games during their best-of-five Qualifying Round series, and it wasn’t even close at the end. The Flames outscored the Jets 10-2 in the final two tilts of the series, and the lone loss came in a 3-2 Jets victory in the two teams’ second game.

The Stars, on the other hand, had to deal with some adversity from the get-go in their round-robin games. A 5-3 loss against the Golden Knights started their postseason, followed by a 4-0 shellacking from the Colorado Avalanche. They picked up steam with their win over the Blues, which doesn’t look as impressive when factoring in St. Louis’ final seeding.

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In the long run, this may be the best bet for an upset in the Western Conference, given the similarities between the Stars and the Flames’ first opponent, the Jets. The Flames were able to burn through the Jets’ defensive-first mindset in a big way during their Qualifying Round series, and they’ll hope to do the same against Stars goaltenders Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin.

Bishop, who finished 10th in the NHL in goals against average (2.50) and who tied for 10th in save percentage (.920), is currently battling an injury, and Khudobin is coming off a hard-fought round-robin finale against the Blues. Based on the status of either, the Flames could roll right through the Stars’ defensive scheme and get out to a commanding lead to start the series.

We’ll roll with the upset here, and trust the Flames’ youngsters in Johnny Gaudreau and Sam Bennett to continue their run in the first round.

Prediction: Flames win in seven games

Schedule:

Game 1: Tuesday, August 11 at 5:30 p.m. ET

Game 2: Thursday, August 13 at 10:30 p.m. ET

Game 3: Friday, August 14 at 10:30 p.m. ET

Game 4: Sunday, August 16 at 2 p.m. ET

Game 5 (if necessary): Tuesday, August 18, time TBD

Game 6 (if necessary): Thursday, August 20, time TBD

Game 7 (if necessary): Saturday, August 22, time TBD

No. 4 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 5 Vancouver Canucks

For a team that just won the Stanley Cup 14 months ago and entered the bubble on top of the Western Conference, the St. Louis Blues did not look like it when they went through their round-robin games in unspectacular fashion.

St. Louis put up six goals in their three round-robin matchups, with four of them coming in one game. They found themselves in a situation to improve their seeding in overtime against the Stars on August 9. Through all of that, the Blues couldn’t get the job done, which seems to be the biggest difference from their performance a year ago.

They gave up six goals in that game where they put up four. They gave up a game-winner in overtime against the Stars when their seeding was on the line. They faltered their opportunity for favorable matchups after a dominant regular season, and need to get back on pace if they want to repeat as Stanley Cup champions in 2020.

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Enter the fifth-seeded Vancouver Canucks, who enter the first round after a clean run against the Minnesota Wild in the two teams’ Qualifying Round series. After dropping the first game of the series, the Canucks won Games 2-4 in high-scoring fashion: 4-3, 3-0 and a 5-4 overtime victory to end the series.

It’s a nightmare scenario for the Blues, who will come off their worst-possible performance to face a team at the top of their game after the multi-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But, much like the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference, the Blues benefit from a better finish to their round-robin play, despite the 2-1 overtime loss to the Stars. They played their best hockey at the end, and can use that momentum and make tweaks as needed with multiple days to plan for a full series with serious stakes.

It’s tough to go against a team with a talent level like the Blues, especially with players like Vladimir Tarasenko on offense, Alex Pietrangelo on defense, and star goalie Jordan Binnington in net. The Blues should move on here and take on a high seed in the next round.

Prediction: Blues win in six games

Schedule:

Game 1: Wednesday, August 12 at 10:30 p.m. ET

Game 2: Friday, August 14 at 6 p.m. ET

Game 3: Sunday, August 16 at 10:30 p.m. ET

Game 4: Monday, August 17 at 10:30 p.m. ET

Game 5 (if necessary): Wednesday. August 19, time TBD

Game 6 (if necessary): Friday, August 21, time TBD

Game 7 (if necessary): Sunday, August 23, time TBD

Eastern Conference:

No. 1 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 8 Montreal Canadiens

The Philadelphia Flyers shocked the hockey world when they took home the first seed in the Eastern Conference’s round robin. The Montreal Canadiens broke the Internet when they took down the Pittsburgh Penguins as a 12th-seeded team who squeaked into the postseason. Both of these squads get to square off at the top of the Eastern Conference bracket to try to put a halt to the other’s momentum.

The Flyers outscored their opponents 11-3 in their three round-robin matchups, all en route to a flawless 3-0 record and their top seed. They proved that they could operate in any setting, with stellar defense against the defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Bruins, and clamps on both the Tampa Bay Lightning’s and Washington Capitals’ high-powered offenses.

The Canadiens stuck to their own defensive guns in their Qualifying Round series, shutting down the Penguins in a closely-contested 3-1 series victory. They played their best hockey to end the round, shutting out the Penguins’ stars of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the way to a 2-0 series clincher on August 7.

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This may be the most intriguing series of the entire round on either side of the bracket, and it’s tough to break it all down. Canadiens goalie Carey Price provides experience in Montreal’s net, while 21-year-old goalie Carter Hart brings a youthful change of pace on the Flyers’ side of the ice.

Both offenses pack a lot of punch throughout their entire lineups, with all four lines on both sides bringing the potential to serve as icebreakers when the series begins. Meanwhile, defense across both benches will be strong throughout, and will need to be sharp for what will surely be some close games.

The consistency of the Flyers should be enough to get the job done, but not without a pesky push from the Canadiens on the way to a pivotal Game 7.

Prediction: Flyers win in seven games

Schedule:

Game 1: Wednesday, August 12 at 8 p.m. ET

Game 2: Friday, August 14 at 3 p.m. ET

Game 3: Sunday, August 16 at 8 p.m. ET

Game 4: Tuesday, August 18 at 3 p.m. ET

Game 5 (if necessary): Wednesday. August 19, time TBD

Game 6 (if necessary): Friday, August 21, time TBD

Game 7 (if necessary): Sunday, August 23, time TBD

No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. No. 7 Columbus Blue Jackets

Well, well, well, here we are again. The Tampa Bay Lightning and the Columbus Blue Jackets will square off in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second year in a row, and the latter will look for lightning to strike twice by the time the series ends.

Last year, Tampa Bay won the Presidents’ Trophy while tying an NHL record with 62 regular season wins, but had their best chance at a Stanley Cup ruined when Columbus pulled off a miraculous sweep in the first round.

The Lightning then made serious changes to their lineup to build themselves into more of a contender, adding size and strength to their defense in the forms of forwards six-foot-three, 236-pound forward Pat Maroon, six-foot-two, 215-pound forward Barclay Goodrow, and 5-foot-11, 200-pound forward Blake Coleman.

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But, the Lightning fell in their final round-robin game against the Eastern Conference foe Flyers in a 4-1 defeat, and did not end the four-team grouping on their best foot.

Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets were pushed to the brink in a few different ways against the Maple Leafs, overcoming a three-goal deficit in Game 3 to win 4-3 in overtime, before blowing a three-goal lead in Game 4 the following night. When they got a 3-0 lead in Game 5, however, they finished the job and advanced to the next round to play the Lightning.

The Lightning won each of their first two games by a score of 3-2, and have been walking on eggshells on the ice in each instance. They’ll need to open up when the Blue Jackets step onto the ice, and they’ll need to make up for the potential absence of forward Steven Stamkos, who missed each of the team’s three round-robin games when bubble play got started.

With all things considered, the Lightning should be able to compete at a consistent, high level given their experience, even with injuries to Stamkos and defenseman Victor Hedman. Tampa Bay should take this one in six games after last year’s disappointment.

Prediction: Lightning win in six games

Schedule:

Game 1: Tuesday, August 11 at 3 p.m. ET

Game 2: Thursday, August 13 at 3 p.m. ET

Game 3: Saturday, August 15 at 7:30 p.m. ET

Game 4: Monday, August 17 at 3 p.m. ET

Game 5 (if necessary): Wednesday, August 19, time TBD

Game 6 (if necessary): Friday, August 21, time TBD

Game 7 (if necessary): Saturday, August 22, time TBD

No. 3 Washington Capitals vs. No. 6 New York Islanders

With Alex Ovechkin at the helm of your offense, you would think that you would be able to take on the world. But, the Washington Capitals find themselves as the third seed in the Eastern Conference’s playoff bracket, with a matchup against the red-hot, sixth-seeded New York Islanders on the horizon.

The Islanders netted 11 goals against the Florida Panthers in the Qualifying Round, giving up seven goals in the four-game series. A 5-1 victory in Game 4 sent them into the next round on cloud nine, and feeling like they could take down Ovi and Capitals goalie Braden Holtby.

Ovechkin was left feeling like the opposite. He didn’t tally a single point in the Eastern Conference round robin, and will need to pick up the pace if the Capitals want to make a run this year. Add in an injury to defenseman John Carlson, a key cog in the Capitals’ defense, and there is little wiggle room for Washington to operate with this summer.

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Tweaks will be the name of the game for all of the top seeds on either side of the bracket heading into the first round, and the Capitals have arguably the second-most room to improve behind the Bruins in the Eastern Conference. They should get the bus back on track against the Islanders, albeit in a potential six-game series.

Prediction: Capitals win in six games

Schedule:

Game 1: Wednesday, August 12 at 3 p.m. ET

Game 2: Friday, August 14 at 8 p.m. ET

Game 3: Sunday, August 16 at 12 p.m. ET

Game 4: Tuesday, August 18 at 8 p.m. ET

Game 5 (if necessary): Thursday, August 20, time TBD

Game 6 (if necessary): Saturday, August 22, time TBD

Game 7 (if necessary): Sunday, August 23, time TBD

No. 4 Boston Bruins vs. No. 5 Carolina Hurricanes

Both of the NHL’s reigning Stanley Cup Final representatives did not play at that level in each conference’s round-robin games, with both the St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins winding up as their respective bracket’s fourth seeds.

But, in a positive for fans ready to hit the panic button in Boston, the only direction to go from here is up. The Bruins put up just four goals in their three round-robin games, and never were in the lead at any point in those battles against the Flyers, Lightning or Capitals.

If Boston wants any chance at adding some hardware to the trophy cases in Titletown, they’ll have to take down the Carolina Hurricanes for the second straight year, and will have to hope for a similar result as their four-game sweep in the 2019 Eastern Conference Final.

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Unfortunately for the Bruins, the Hurricanes could not be rocking any better heading into the first round. They swept the New York Rangers in three games in the Qualifying Round, outscoring the Rangers 11-4 in the process. Any goalie the Rangers put in net proved to be no match for the Hurricanes’ hectic offense, and it could serve as the perfect warmup as Carolina looks ahead to Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask.

Rask played in just two of the Bruins’ round-robin games after missing out on the team’s opener against the Flyers, and looked sharp despite 3-2 and 2-1 losses against the Lightning and Capitals, respectively.

Meanwhile, rust seemed to be impacting players like defenseman Zdeno Chara and the team’s top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, with the lower-level lines forced to produce lots of offense as a result.

If Boston has any chance against Carolina goalies Petr Mrazek and James Reimer, they’ll need to get back to the level of offensive play that set them ahead of the Eastern Conference pack in the regular season. If we see a repeat of the Bergeron-Marchand-Pastrnak line’s performance against the Blues from last summer, however, it could be a quick bubble trip for Bruce Cassidy’s Bruins.

We’ll bank on the Bruins bouncing back and repeating the result from last summer’s Eastern Conference Final, but based on line re-ordering/changes late in the series that finally generate offensive production.

Prediction: Bruins win in six games

Schedule:

Game 1*: Tuesday, August 11 at 8 p.m. ET

(*Postponed to Wednesday, August 12 at 11 a.m. ET)

Game 2: Thursday, August 13 at 8 p.m. ET

Game 3: Saturday, August 15 at 12 p.m. ET

Game 4: Monday, August 17 at 8 p.m. ET

Game 5 (if necessary): Wednesday, August 19, time TBD

Game 6 (if necessary): Thursday, August 20, time TBD

Game 7 (if necessary): Sunday, August 23, time TBD

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