This is a companion piece to our podcast episode! Check that out here: Clappercast Episode 53: Eastern Conference Play-in Previews.
For the Western Conference Previews, click here!
Welcome back, hockey fans! It’s an exciting time as we get set to resume the 2019-20 NHL season. As a summary, on Saturday, August 1st the NHL will restart their season with a 24-team “playoff” format. The top 4 teams in each conference get a bye through the first round, which is dubbed the play-in round. The remaining teams will play a best-of-5 play-in series to determine playoff qualification status (you win, you’re in). The teams that received a bye will play in a round robin tournament to determine seeding for the actual playoffs. After this, teams are reseeded and the playoffs formally begin as normal.
To get you all set for the upcoming action, we’ll get you prepared with our 2019-20 NHL Play-in Round Previews, starting first with the Eastern Conference.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Montreal Canadiens Preview
In our opinion, this is the most lopsided of all the play-in round series’. As long as Pittsburgh can stay healthy (and probably even if they can’t, to be honest), it is entirely theirs to lose. This is a Pittsburgh team that battled major injury troubles all season, dealt with instability in net, and still was battling with Washington and Philadelphia for the Metro Division playoff spots and even lead at times. Compared to their opponent, who barely made it into the Return to Play Program, and was the farthest out of all the teams coming back to play, it barely compares.
For Montreal, their best and probably only chance is if Carey Price turns back into the gamechanger we know he can be. They absolutely need him to step up in a big way and give the team a Conn Smythe level performance every single game. We know that Price can do this, he has in the past. But he did not have a great regular season in 2019-20, which places more pressure on him to step up.
The Penguins, despite various turnover and roster changes, roll into the playoffs with a similarly built roster to what they’ve had over the past decade +. Above average offense led by the expertise of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, a collection of wingers tagging along and filling into spots excellently, and a sufficient defense with a hot hand in net. This season, that hot hand may be Tristan Jarry, who took over the starter’s crease over Matt Murray. The latter struggled this season and was shoved aside in a similar way that Murray did to Marc-Andre Fleury a few years ago.
As mentioned, the Penguins dealt with major injury issues, but one notable winger they are getting back is Jake Guentzel. He has been huge for them in his career during the playoffs, and is arguably one of the best playoff performers of this generation of players.
For Montreal, aside from Carey Price, they will be relying heavily on their top line of Brendan Gallagher, Phillip Danault, and Tomas Tatar to shut down one of the Crosby/Malkin lines. We know that those three, when together, create one of the best shutdown trios in the league, so they will get the tough matchups. Shea Weber and Jeff Petry’s defensive pairings will take on the other line and one of these two will be on the ice for most of the games as well, as those two run two of the better and more reliable pairings in the NHL.
Ultimately, goaltending is a major point of interest in this series. For Montreal, it is whether or not Carey Price can be elite. For Pittsburgh, it is simply who even starts and takes charge to grab the starting role.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Montreal Canadiens Predictions
Sean: Pittsburgh in 3
This is my sweep choice, I just don’t see the Habs being able to match up against an experienced, strong team like Pittsburgh in this series and I am not convinced Carey Price will be enough to take them down.
Burke: Pittsburgh in 4
Price could and likely will steal one game but it won’t be enough to take the full thing.
Carolina Hurricanes vs. New York Rangers Preview
As a contrast to the first series, this one feature far more equal teams and a stronger potential battle. The lineups and matchup are set up to give us a fast paced, dynamic series.
The Hurricanes are going to excel on the back of their defense, which is currently set up to be one of, if not the best, group of defenders in the league. Top to bottom, they have approximately 9 or 10 NHL capable defenders who are able to do it all. From offensive guys like Hamilton (if he weren’t injured again) and Vatanen to defensive wizards like Slavin and all-purpose guys like Pesce, Edmundson, and Skjei, they have a defender for all situations.
That isn’t to say they are offensive slouches, as their top trio of Aho, Teravainen, and Svechnikov are always fun and exciting to watch, but the strength of their roster is the defense.
Their major weak point is in net, as neither James Reimer or Petr Mrazek are the type of game changer goalie that can take charge. We’ve seen teams go on deep playoff runs with tandems like that (Philadelphia in 2010), but you cannot rely on that happening.
They will be up against the offensive firepower of the Rangers. Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad are two of the top offensive players in the league with a supporting cast of players like Ryan Strome, Jesper Fast, and Pavel Buchnevich. Even on defense, the Rangers have offensively capable players, with Trouba, Fox, and Deangelo leading the way.
But, with that offense comes a bit of a lack of defense. The Rangers don’t have a top shutdown guy, they don’t have a higher end defensive forward, and this is where they lose the matchup against Carolina. The defensive lineup they are icing is light night and day compared to the Hurricanes.
With a trio of Henrik Lundqvist, Igot Shesterkin, and Alexander Georgiev, the Rangers do have an advantage in net. Even though Lundqvist is not the elite goalie he once was, Shesterkin is the guy of the future and played very well in his debut this year. Where the defense may falter, the Rangers will be placing faith in the goalies to lead the way.
Carolina Hurricanes vs New York Rangers Predictions
Sean: Carolina in 5
One point for the Hurricanes advantage is that we don’t want to forget that we saw how Carolina can play in the playoffs last season. That style took out the Capitals and Islanders with their high tempo, fast paced, dominating play. If they can find that same style quickly again this season, they will dispatch the Rangers quite easily, probably.
Burke: Carolina in 5
This one is set up to go the distance in a close series and will really come down to if the defensive depth of the Hurricanes can match the offensive firepower of the Rangers.
New York Islanders vs. Florida Panthers Preview
Sorry fans of these teams, this series isn’t exactly set up for much excitement. We have the low scoring, defensively minded Islanders versus the offensively sufficient but defensively questionable Panthers. These two teams are set up to match each other’s weakness. The Islanders get by on being stingy (offensively and defensively), whereas the Panthers have games with a lot of goals, but very often not in their favour.
For the Florida Panthers, the story revolves around their goaltending. Despite having a great option on paper in Sergei Bobrovsky, he struggled bigtime in net this season. He is also historically a slow starter and struggled in the playoffs, which makes his potential performance in this series unpredictable. As a backup, the Panthers do have Chris Driedger, who was excellent in his regular season action this year, but as a new player to the NHL we don’t know if that is his norm or just some rookie magic that has since worn off.
However, the Islanders will have trouble capitalizing on this potential weakness in net as they are not a very offensively talented team. They do have Mathew Barzal, who usually has a muzzle put on, but is still the team’s most talented offensive player. Contributions from Brock Nelson and Anders Lee will help, as Barzal is more the playmaker on the team to Nelson and Lee’s goal scoring. Aside from that, there is the potential for the return of playoff Jordan Eberle, who was excellent in last season’s playoffs. I do not have much confidence they will be able to properly capitalize on their opponent’s weakness.
On the other hand, Florida has no shortage of top offensive talent with Jonathan Huberdeau, Alex Barkov, and Mike Hoffman leading the way. Those guys will be in tough against the stingy and defensively sound Islanders, with their solid and reliable d-core and strong 1A/1B goaltending tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss.
New York Islanders vs. Florida Panthers Predictions
Sean: Florida in 5
Even though Florida has the on paper advantage, the Islanders have the on-ice advantage with their team system and performance. I’m placing a lot of faith in Bobrovsky that he can keep the Panthers in games while the offense takes hold, but that is a big if and this series could easily go the other way.
Burke Florida in 5
The Panthers have more offensive potential. Isles struggle to score and it won’t be easy to get into the gritty, high pressure play groove quickly to shut down Florida’s offense. There is a major question mark on whether or not the Islanders will be able to outscore the high-flying Panthers anyways.
Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Columbus Blue Jackets Preview
Much like how the Islanders/Panthers series is set up for each other’s weaknesses, this series perfectly encapsulates that concept. Columbus is the defensively strong team that gets by on grit, physicality, and shut down play. Toronto is the high-flying offensive team that focuses on skill, scoring, and talent.
This series is perfectly described with just a few questions. Can Columbus score enough to take out the Leafs? And, can Toronto prevent enough goals to stay in games and outscore their problems?
The Blue Jackets have gone through so much adversity this season. They were completely written off before the season started after losing most of their core, having minimal offense left and two rookie goalies. They battled hard and survived through major injury issues to key players, like Josh Anderson, Seth Jones, and Oliver Bjorkstrand. But they still found themselves in the playoff hunt late in the season.
The Blue Jackets will be in tough trying to put together enough offense to match up against Toronto, however. Pierre-Luc Dubois, the team’s leading scorer with 49 points in the regular season, is going to be looked at for more contributions offensively to keep pace with Toronto’s big guns. If the defensive aspect of the team’s game plays like they did in the regular season (especially so with the return of injured starters), they may only need a couple goals per game to stay competitive.
The fortitude of rookies goalies Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins will be tested in a big way as well, with their first taste of postseason action coming off of steady and, at times, impressive regular seasons.
On the flip side, Toronto’s goaltending was a negative spot for them this season. Freddy Andersen struggled and did not keep the team in games whereas the backup role was a rotating cast of a few players (including one who got his chance to play a game, did not play well, and was replaced within a couple hours of the game ending). Adding onto that, defense is not the Leafs’ strong point. They focus mostly on offense and outscoring their problems.
This poses an interesting parallel for the series, as Toronto is built similarly to Tampa Bay, who as we all know was dispatched quite handily by Columbus last season. Except Toronto is more the poor man’s version of Tampa Bay, making it even more foreseeable that Columbus could match up well against the Maple Leafs. Despite not having the star power in the lineup they did last season, Columbus can still intimidate Toronto physically and utilize the grit, frustration, and shot blocking tactics to overpower the Leafs and take the series.
We’ve seen the Maple Leafs get shut down in the playoffs multiple times before at the hands of the Boston Bruins, and year after year the team goes into the playoffs with a roster built in a similar manner that has yet to address the pain point on the roster, getting dominated physically. Despite the Leafs having one of the most offensive talented rosters in the league, that means nothing if the players can never get the space to use those skills.
Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Columbus Blue Jackets Predictions:
Sean: Toronto in 4
Despite Columbus having taken down the Lightning and having most of the roster and systems in place from the team that did it originally, I think the part of the game they rely on (the grit, physicality, intensity, defense) might take a bit to kick in after the break which gives the offense of Toronto an advantage. Besides, Toronto is only allowed to lose to Boston in the playoffs right now.
Burke: Columbus in 5
Going for the hot take shock value pick here but they have a legit shot with the players they’re getting back into the lineup and the fact they took out Tampa Bay last season.
There you have it, Clappercast’s Eastern Conference Play-in Previews! We are stoked for hockey to be back, glad it seems to be going safely, and are excited for what the next couple months brings.
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