By Cole Parkinson
Alta Newspaper Group – Taber
The NHL is back! Not right now…or any time soon and there isn’t a guarantee any games will actually be played, but a guy can dream, can’t he?
Commissioner Gary Bettman laid out the league’s plan to restart the NHL season last month, and the regular season is now considered complete with playoffs starting right out of the chute.
And that’s not even technically the case because the first round of the “playoffs” are not “playoff games”, according to the announcement made.
But I’ll take any games right now.
With the top four teams in each conference automatically in the playoffs already, they’ll play each other to seed, while teams ranked five through 12 by points percentage have a best of five play-in round.
So, Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia in the east and St. Louis, Dallas, Vegas and Colorado will play round-robin games to see where each rank.
On the other side, the east sees Pittsburgh versus Montreal, Carolina versus the Rangers, the Islanders versus Florida and Toronto versus Columbus.
The west will have Edmonton versus Chicago, Nashville versus Arizona, Vancouver versus Minnesota and Calgary versus Winnipeg.
Looking at this list it may be easy to think Edmonton should have no trouble with Chicago or Toronto should smoke Columbus, but I think every single series will be a coin flip.
Teams will be getting injured players back and they haven’t played games in months so who knows what will happen.
One thing is for sure though, with the additional teams due to the play-in, teams like Montreal, Chicago, the New York Rangers and Arizona should be happy.
They were all medium to long shots at making the playoffs and now they have a chance to make it to the dance.
So an upset from one of Chicago, Montreal, Arizona or the Rangers is bound to happen, right?
I’d be shocked if at least one doesn’t, especially since the final standings mean nothing at this point.
We’re basically heading into the preseason but instead of regular-season games to follow, we get extremely important playoff games.
So, let’s look at those matchups a little closer and I’ll make predictions that will almost all be wrong, but that is a yearly occurrence for me.
Starting in the west with Edmonton versus Chicago, my gut says McDavid and Draisaitl take care of the Hawks.
These aren’t the Hawks of previous years where they dominated the league but much rather, an older, more vulnerable group that just barely got into the play-in round.
The Oilers turned some heads this year after years of mediocrity, even with McDavid and Draisaitl in the lineup.
With two of the top players in the league in their lineup, even with question marks in net and on the blue line, this could be a year where they make a deep run.
Arizona/Nashville is a tricky one.
Nashville is certainly the better team on paper, especially with Roman Josi having such a dominant year which will likely result in the Norris Trophy, but something is telling me they’re one of the teams who should win but don’t.
I don’t love their goaltending with Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros, though they do bolster one of the best defensive cores in the league.
Arizona is no world-beater either but with my guy Phil Kessel and Taylor Hall, I think as of right now, I’m taking Arizona.
With the 24 team playoff format, we’ll be getting six of the seven Canadian teams in the playoffs, including Vancouver who were already in a great position to make it to the playoffs.
I think they’re younger, hungrier and more skilled than Minnesota and for that reason, I’m taking Vancouver.
With starter Jacob Markstrom back between the pipes, I think Vancouver makes it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
The final matchup features two great Canadian teams in the Flames and Jets.
This is going to be a battle, man.
I have zero idea who would win this series and it’s easily my most anticipated play-in round matchup in the west.
With Connor Hellebuyck having such a great season, my first gut pick was Winnipeg but I don’t know.
I think Johnny Hockey will break out of his rough season at some point and it may just be in this series.
I’m taking Calgary in this one with zero confidence but I think they’ll be more ready than they were last year against Colorado.
Now to the east, starting with the matchup of Pittsburgh and Montreal.
I don’t see Montreal winning this one unless Carey Price steals three games.
Also, Montreal may be without one of their best forwards, Max Domi, who is diabetic, and may not play due to safety concerns.
I think Pittsburgh has no trouble with the Canadiens and move on.
Next, is Carolina taking on the New York Rangers.
Carolina is a great team and the Rangers have been way better than anyone could have expected so it should be a great five-game series.
Here is where I think another upset happens with the Rangers taking out the Hurricanes.
With a major game breaker in Artemi Panarin and Igor Shesterkin in net, I think New York reaches the playoffs.
Continuing with New York, the Islanders will be taking on the Florida Panthers.
Again, this is another series where I can see either side winning and taking their place in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Panthers have more skill at every position but Sergei Bobrovsky has been brutal this year and I think he’s the key factor heading into this series.
The Islanders have the best coach in the league in Barry Trotz and are a great systematic team but don’t have a ton of firepower upfront so it really is a complete coin flip.
I think the Islanders will win this one in five but they will all be close games.
And finally, of course, the Toronto Maple Leafs take on the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Leafs should probably win this series but we all know the Leafs can never make things easy on themselves, especially when it comes to the playoffs, and Columbus will not give Toronto an inch.
The Leafs may have more skill and star power, but the Blue Jackets are a tough, physical team who are incredibly well-coached by John Tortorella.
The Jackets will also be getting Seth Jones back which will be a massive boost to their blueline.
I think this is going to be an incredibly interesting series and for now, I guess I’ll take the Leafs just because after all these months, I want some positivity in my life.
I’m not confident in the pick and I think this one will be going the distance.
With training camps getting a soft start date in mid-July, there’s still plenty of time before the puck drops but right now, I can’t wait for the NHL to finally return.