2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs: PHT predicts First Round, Stanley Cup champion

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We’ve made our way through the Qualifying Round and Round-robin games. It’s time to begin the traditional four-round journey to the Stanley Cup.

The First Round begins Tuesday, and to get here we’ve seen some upsets, dramatic comebacks, and star performances. What will the next two months bring us? Probably some more craziness and memorable Stanley Cup playoff moments.  The PHT team have locked in our First Round and Stanley Cup predictions. The surprises that happened over the last 10 days will surely continue as we make our way to the Cup Final in late September.

Will the Blues repeat? Can the Lightning overcome those pesky Blue Jackets? What Bruins team will we see after a sluggish round-robin? Is this the year for Nathan MacKinnon and the Avalanche? Those questions and more will be answered.

[FULL SECOND ROUND NHL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE]

Here are our picks for the First Round, Stanley Cup champion, and Conn Smythe winner. Let us know in the comments who you think will take it all.

Conference Champions

Sean Leahy, NHL writer – Hurricanes/Avalanche: Why not those “jerks”? They’re fun, entertaining to watch, employ plenty of young talent. Plus, it’s a wild idea to think they could make a run through this Eastern Conference. They shut down the Rangers and showed off just how strong defensively they are, even without the services of Brett Pesce and Dougie Hamilton. What the Hurricanes can do this postseason could really shine a light on how much more love Andrei Svechnikov and Sebastian Aho really deserve.

It won’t be easy, but the Avs’ road to the Cup Final may have to end up going through the Golden Knights or the defending champion Blues. But Sakic bolstering his roster has set them up for this opportunity. The Nazem Kadri trade could be looked back upon as the GM adding that final piece to a championship puzzle.

James O’Brien, NHL writer – Lightning/Blues: With everything in turmoil, why not … go with the prediction you made (does math counting on fingers) 5,000 days ago in October? Yes, the Lightning meandered into the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and I’m worried about the health of Stamkos and Hedman. But let’s not forget that, before the Bolts were the team that got swept, they were a team that almost made a SCF with Stamkos almost entirely on the shelf. Maybe this loaded team will benefit from a little early turmoil? Look, the hockey has been good, but it’s also been unpredictable, so let’s roll with it.

The Blues are deep, they have a star player hungry to make those big bucks in Alex Pietrangelo, and Ryan O'Reilly & Co. showed they can win the toughest matchups. The defending champs boast basically every element you look for in a spirited push toward a repeat.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer – Lightning/Golden Knights: I will say up front that a lot of this pick depends on the availability of Steven Stamkos and/or Victor Hedman through the playoffs. But assuming they play and contribute, I am still very much a believer in this Lightning team. I know about the postseason failures. I know about how often their offense has wilted when they have been on the verge of doing something special. But I still believe in talent, and I am going to keep betting on talent. The Capitals eventually broke through. The Blues eventually broke through. I think the Lightning will eventually break through.

As much as I love the Avalanche roster and everything they can become in the future with this core, salary cap space, and young assets, I still think Vegas is the best team in the Western Conference this season … as long as the goaltending holds out, which was their biggest flaw early in the season when they stumbled out of the gate. Fortunately for them they addressed that at the trade deadline with the addition of Robin Lehner. It would not surprise me to see him get an opportunity in the playoffs and run with it.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Lightning/Golden Knights: Am I fully confident in this pick? No. I don’t know if the Blue Jackets are Tampa’s kryptonite, or if the Lightning will unleash a Bruins-circa-2011-vs-Philly revenge sweep. But Tampa is stacked and once again, and it feels like they made all the necessary additions to what was already a Cup-contending roster.

After watching Vegas go 3-0 in the Round Robin, all without their regular season leading scorer Max Pacioretty, they seem like the class of the Western Conference. I see the Avalanche giving them all they can handle in an epic seven-game series, but the Golden Knights will advance to their second Cup Final in three years.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor – Lightning/Avalanche: The Lightning win the East as they have the most talent, the best defenseman and best goaltender in the East. The only problem that could arise is if Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos are injured to a greater degree than we know about and the duo miss a lot of time. If those are the circumstances, they could have more trouble with Columbus who are an extremely well-coached defensive team.

The Avalanche will win the West because of their tremendous talent, including Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. The off-season addition of Nazem Kadri will do wonders for the Avs as long as he doesn’t get another post-season suspension that has been his tendency the last two years. I love Cale Makar and they get great goaltending from both Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Stanley Cup Champion/Conn Smythe Trophy winner

Sean Leahy, NHL writer – Avalanche over Hurricanes (Nathan MacKinnon): Joe Sakic should be up for the Jim Gregory Award when GM of the Year finalists are announced after the Second Round. He added depth and secondary scoring and it’s paid off. Colorado finished with the second-best points percentage in the Western Conference and have a roster full of skill. Plus, Jared Bednar just wins. He’s won an ECHL Kelly Cup and AHL Calder Cup. Now he just needs that shiny silver one the NHL hands out every year.

James O’Brien, NHL writer – Lightning over Blues (Brayden Point): Again, sticking with the Lightning over the Blues in 7. These are two deep, talented teams, ones that can throw different looks at you if certain alignments don’t quite work. It doesn’t hurt that a big postseason run could fatten the bank accounts of the likes of Anthony Cirelli and Mikhail Sergachev. Cirelli could very well propel his name into more mainstream minds with a big run, not unlike fellow Selke-worthy center Ryan O’Reilly has done in recent years. Let’s pencil in the Lightning to parallel the 2018 Capitals and win it all a year after you think they had their best chance.

Once again, I’m rolling with my picks from before. Point probably still isn’t as well-known as he should be among casual NHL fans. With Stamkos possibly out for a bit early, and Point seemingly healthy now that he’s further removed from offseason surgery, this could be the sort of mainstream breakout that could make him closer to a hockey equivalent to a “household name.” (Yes, you already knew well about Point, but we’re talking about hockey-less-knowers. *Shares your disapproving look tsk tsk*)

Adam Gretz, NHL writer – Lightning over Golden Knights (Nikita Kucherov): Everything I said about the Lightning up above remains true here. As long as Stamkos and Hedman are there (still a big if at this point) I like their chances. A lot. This is their year.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content – Lightning over Golden Knights (Andrei Vasilevskiy): Tampa is due. And recent history tells us this type of team is bound to break through. Just like Washington and St. Louis, who had been to the postseason year after year without winning it all, I predict a similar result for Tampa in 2020. They have been to the Eastern Conference Final four times in the last nine years, but have nothing to show for it…yet.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor – Avalanche over Lightning (Nathan MacKinnon): The Avalanche will win the Stanley Cup for the reasons listed above. I think they are the best team in the NHL and the lack of travel for Western teams (which used to really hurt as they could be travelling across three time zones in the first three rounds) will help the team.

Nathan MacKinnon, the second best player from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia (in case you don’t know, it’s the same hometown as Sidney Crosby) is a Hart Trophy finalist and he will add the Conn Smythe to his trophy case.

MORE:
Power Rankings: Best First Round matchups
Conn Smythe Watch: Korpisalo, Aho leading entering First Round
Rangers win 2020 NHL draft lottery, will pick No. 1 overall
Roundtable: NHL playoff surprises; vulnerable top seeds

Doc Emrick looks back at one-of-a-kind 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

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How did they pull this off?

During most playoff years, we ask this of the players. And, no doubt about it, the Tampa Bay Lightning showed a lot of perseverance fighting through bubble life to win the Stanley Cup. Doing so while Steven Stamkos played three minutes qualifies as “How did they pull this off?” material.

But, in the case of the 2020 Stanley Cup being handed out following the playoffs, this time we’re talking about the NHL, and everyone involved in keeping the playoff bubble from bursting.

It’s still surreal that we got this far.

NBC’s own Doc Emrick narrated the unlikely journey that was the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, which you can watch in the video above.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

This unlikely journey took us from second training camps, play resuming on Aug. 1, and a field of 24 teams narrowing down to the Stanley Cup champion Lightning. As Emrick says, it felt like a dream, but it came true for the NHL, even if it happened amid a nightmarish time.

Time will tell when the 2020-21 season may begin, but either way, it will be tough to forget the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, even if you’re not a Lightning fan.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB wins series 4-2)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Lighting 5, Stars 4 [OT] (recap)
Stars 3, Lightning 2 [2OT] (recap)
Lightning 2, Stars 0 (recap)

More on the Lightning winning the Stanley Cup

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Lightning had big Stanley Cup heroes beyond Conn Smythe winner Hedman

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If you’re like me, you’re prone to debate just about every Conn Smythe winner. That tradition continued with Victor Hedman winning the Conn Smythe as the Lightning won the 2020 Stanley Cup. And, as usual, you have to be a real nitpicker to actually get mad about Hedman winning it.

Because, again, Hedman ended up playing a huge role in the Lightning’s success, as the stupendous Swede has done for most of his already-impressive career.

Victor Hedman topped all Lighting players in ice time during their 2020 Stanley Cup run, and logged 25:01 time on ice (with an assist) in that clinching Game 6. Hedman flirted with a point-per-game (10 goals, 22 points in 25 games), a rare run for any skater, let alone a defenseman.

So you’re really splitting hairs by arguing against Hedman. With that, (powers up hair-slitting machine).

Other Lightning Conn Smythe possibilities after Hedman wins it

Brayden Point

TSN’s Frank Seravalli revealed that the Conn Smythe voting ended up being very close between Hedman and Brayden Point.

That’s like, “Two bad NFL wild-card teams who both probably shouldn’t make the playoffs, but one has to,” close.

Point scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal on the power play in Game 6, yet another example of the small forwards oversized clutchness.

Point finished with a whopping 14 goals and 33 points in 23 playoff games. If his injury(injuries?) carried over from the Islanders series, it was tough to tell.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Interestingly, Point was killer on the power play against the Stars, but otherwise roasted opponents most at even-strength. He generated 26 out of his 33 points when everything was even. In other words, Point often scored points in the toughest situations.

If I were voting, it would have come down to Point and his partner in crime …

Nikita Kucherov

After leading the NHL regular season in scoring during the 2018-19 season, Kucherov topped all point producers during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Kucherov grabbed an assist on that Point Cup-clincher, giving him 34 points in 25 games.

Much like Point, it was fair to wonder how healthy Kucherov was during this run. And it was unhealthy for opponents to wonder how much more damage a full-strength Kucherov might have managed.

(Splitting-hairs machine chimes in: that said, if you’re choosing between Point and Kucherov, Kucherov was more assist-heavy [7 G, 27 A]. He also leaned more on the power play than Point.)

( … Speaking of splitting, maybe Kucherov and Point split some votes?)

Andrei Vasilevskiy

Normally, when a goalie manages a .927 save percentage during a Stanley Cup run, that goalie is the talk of the town. Frankly, Vasilevskiy was on the tips of fewer tongues than Stars goalie Anton Khudobin for most (if not all) of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

Granted, Khudobin presented a more entertaining underdog story.

Vasilevskiy is as close to “established” as a goalie can get in the modern NHL. He’s the rare contemporary first-rounder. Vasilevskiy boasts prototypical size, and carries the $9.5M cap hit that makes you merely expect great things.

Yet, if you followed goalies, you realize such performances are far from foregone conclusions.

Beyond winning a Stanley Cup, Vasilevskiy pulled off one of the only things he hadn’t done during this run in Game 6: he earned a shutout. Otherwise, his run was almost completely spotless. During a postseason when teams leaned on both of their goalies to an unusual degree, Vasilevskiy played every minute for the Lightning. And they never stared into the brink of elimination during this entire run.

Conn Smythe voters couldn’t have been blamed for choosing Point, Kucherov, or Vasilevskiy, but Hedman was a fantastic choice, too. This rich list of potential winners underscores the Lightning’s daunting power, and is a quick reference as to how they won the Stanley Cup despite Steven Stamkos being limited to about three minutes of playing time.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB wins series 4-2)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Lighting 5, Stars 4 [OT] (recap)
Stars 3, Lightning 2 [2OT] (recap)
Lightning 2, Stars 0 (recap)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Stamkos joins Lightning for Stanley Cup celebration

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After controlling Game 6 against the Dallas Stars, the Tampa Bay Lightning won their second Stanley Cup in franchise history. Beyond repeat Stanley Cup champion Patrick Maroon, winning the Stanley Cup was a first for every Lightning player. Considering the road the Lightning traveled to this Stanley Cup victory, should it be surprising that they decided to mix up the celebration, and create a great moment with Steven Stamkos in the process?

As Gary Bettman noted, the Lightning chose to take that group Stanley Cup celebration photo before the trophy was raised.

In an emotional moment, Lightning captain Stamkos ended up on the ice, becoming the first Lightning player to raise the Stanley Cup, prompting a jubilant celebration from teammates. It all makes that lone goal from Game 3 even sweeter for Stamkos.

Great stuff.

Following Stamkos, Conn Smythe Trophy winner Victor Hedman got his chance to raise the Stanley Cup. Some veterans took their laps, while eventually Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and others celebrated with the Stanley Cup.

Along with the players, Jon Cooper and GM Julien BriseBois received a chance to bask in the glory. Both played big roles in the Lightning getting this far (as did former GM Steve Yzerman, now with the Red Wings).

Watch highlights of the Lightning’s 2-0 win against the Stars in Game 6 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final in the video below:

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB wins series 4-2)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Lighting 5, Stars 4 [OT] (recap)
Stars 3, Lightning 2 [2OT] (recap)
Lightning 2, Stars 0 (recap)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL successfully completes bubble Stanley Cup Playoffs

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It began 63 days ago and ended Monday night with a new NHL Stanley Cup champion.

When NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the league’s Return to Play plan in May, there was lots of skepticism that we would see a conclusion to the 2019-20 season. The plan was to start August 1 and finish the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs in late September with bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton. It was a big challenge, but worth the effort.

“I don’t want to sound Pollyanna, but canceling is too easy a solution,” Bettman said in May.

When puck dropped on the Penguins-Flyers exhibition game July 28 from Scotiabank Arena, it was different. No crowd, piped in atmosphere, and plenty of uncertainty about how the following two months would go. But round after round confidence grew that this postseason would be completed without issue. Week after week the NHL announced their latest round of COVID-19 test results, and in total, 33,174 tests were given with not one returning positive.

Yet, Bettman held off on celebrating until it was his time to award the Cup to the winning team’s captain. He was able to do just that, posing for the annual photo at center ice inside Rogers Place — this year with Steven Stamkos of the Lightning. 

“To be in this place, at this time under these circumstances is remarkable and frankly, overwhelming,” Bettman said before awarding Victor Hedman with the Conn Smythe Trophy and presenting the Cup. “It’s a testament to everybody that participated in our Return to Play and it’s a testament to a great Stanley Cup Final from the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars.”

[Lightning needed to ‘feel failure’ before earning Cup success]

The on-ice celebration, like everything else in life since March, was different. There was no raucous crowd celebrating with the players; no media on the ice grabbing postgame soundbites. It was like it had been for the last two months: the Lightning, altogether, taking part in a post-Cup tradition under unique circumstances.

What hadn’t changed were the emotions of winning. This postseason was a grind on everyone involved. The Stars and Lightning have been away from their families and inside bubbles since July. Hotel rooms became their home away from home. Video games, FaceTime calls, and the occasional time outside were highlights of off days. The road to the Cup Final was different, but when the players gave their thumbs up to the Return to Play plan they knew it wouldn’t be easy.

“I missed an anniversary, birthday, another one’s coming up, first day of school, hockey tournaments, my daughter making the swimming team, my other daughter going to her first dance class,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper last week. “Where do you want the list to go?”

“There won’t be one thing about bubble life I’m going to miss,” said Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness.

It’s over now. Six and a half months after the league and world paused, we finally have a 2019-20 NHL champion. The Lightning and Stars won’t ever forget this experience.

“It takes a lot to be in a bubble for 80 days or whatever long it was,” said Hedman afterward. “But it’s all worth it now. We’re coming home with the Cup.”

MORE:
Bubble won’t be back for full 2020-21 NHL season
Doc Emrick looks back at one-of-a-kind 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.