Mikko Rantanen

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.

[Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round 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

Lightning-Flyers, Avalanche-Golden Knights play for top seeds

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Jon Cooper wants to stop the conversation now: Steven Stamkos isn’t fit to play until he says so.

The coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning ruled out Stamkos for his team’s final round-robin game Saturday against the Philadelphia Flyers (8 p.m. EDT, NBC) that will determine the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia won’t have top-line right winger Jakub Voracek, so neither team is at full strength.

”Injuries are unpredictable,” Cooper said of Stamkos. ”As of right now, he’s out indefinitely until he’s not. And I’ll be the person to let you know when that is. But you should know that he’s working his tail off and he’s eager to come back.”

The Lightning beat Washington and Boston without Stamkos and will again turn to Vezina Trophy finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy as their starting goaltender. Carter Hart starts for Philadelphia, which is also 2-0-0 in round-robin play and will have rookie Joel Farabee on the first line in place of Voracek.

Coach Alain Vigneault would only say Voracek isn’t available to play against Tampa Bay.

”Jake’s got a unique skillset: a veteran guy that’s been around and has played in some big games,” Flyers defenseman Matt Niskanen said. ”We’ll welcome him when he comes back and in the meantime keep chugging forward with the guys we have.”

Cooper said the Lightning have been focusing on peaking for Game 1 of their first best-of-seven series, which will be next week. Vigneault’s Flyers have been attempting to balance between winning and tuning up for when their season is on the line.

Tampa Bay-Philadelphia will decide which team faces Montreal after the Canadiens knocked off the Pittsburgh Penguins in the qualifying round.

”We know they got some top players that have a lot of skill and they got a really good power play,” Hart said of the Lightning

In the Western Conference, the Vegas Golden Knights set the goal of earning the No. 1 seed from the first day of training camp last month. That will be on the line Saturday when they face off against Colorado (3 p.m., NBC). The Golden Knights are going hard for home ice in the West even though there are no fans and all games are being played in Edmonton.

”The higher the seed, the easier path you get,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said. ”When I say easy path, you get the lowest-ranked opponent, you get last (line) change, you get the benefit sometimes of a home dressing room over a visitor dressing room. There’s small benefits to it. I like the fact that our group thinks it’s important and we’ve played that way and prepared that way.”

Vegas isn’t 100% healthy yet with winger Max Pacioretty still not ready to play. DeBoer continues to say Pacioretty is close, though he’ll have to quarantine in Edmonton and produce four negative coronavirus test results before being eligible to practice or play.

The Golden Knights came back from deficits to beat Dallas and St. Louis, and look like a buzzsaw no matter who’s in goal between Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner. The Avalanche similarly have a two-headed goaltending monster in Phillip Grubauer and Pavel Francouz, and coach Jared Bednar isn’t eager to tip his hand on which one he’ll go with in the next round.

The Avalanche are also healthy. Grubauer, Francouz, captain Gabriel Landeskog, winger Mikko Rantanen and star rookie defenseman Cale Makar all missed time with injuries during the season.

With the whole crew together, Colorado is undefeated in two round-robin games and living up to the expectations set internally to get the top seed.

”We want to try and get home ice,” Bednar said. ”It’s been a goal of ours and we want it and our guys are playing like they want it. I like the focus and the intensity from our group at this point. Hopefully it takes even another step here for Vegas so we know that we’re good to go coming out of it.”

The Wraparound: Rask out for Bruins opener vs. Flyers

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2020 NHL Return to Play. We’ll break down the NHL playoff games today with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

UPDATE: While Cassidy said Rask is feeling better, Jaroslav Halak will start Sunday. Dan Vladar will serve as the backup. “He’s not going to play today. Hopefully he gets back on the ice as early as tomorrow.”

The Bruins may be without Tuukka Rask for their opening round-robin game against the Flyers on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC; livestream).

Head coach Bruce Cassidy said that the netminder felt ill and did not join the team for practice on Saturday.

“He wasn’t feeling well, so unfit to participate today,” said Cassidy. “As an afternoon question tomorrow, the natural next question is ‘will he start?’ I’ll have to talk to Tuukka later and see where he’s at. If [he cannot play] then Jaro [Halak] will be ready to go.”

A fractured finger during summer training camp forces Rask to missed a handful of practices. Fortunately for the Bruins, they have Halak to fall back on in case their No. 1 can’t go. The two netminders combined to win the 2019-20 Williams Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed since they both played at least 25 games.

Because the Bruins have three round-robin games before the First Round begins, Halak was expected to get at least one start. Both goaltenders split time during Thursday’s exhibition game against Columbus. Boston’s next game will be Wednesday against the Lightning (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

As far as definite absences go with the Bruins, Ondrej Kase finally arrived in the Toronto bubble and will not be ready. Same goes for Nick Ritchie, who has been “unfit to participate.”

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

NHL GAMES TODAY

Game 1: Coyotes vs. Predators, 2 p.m. ET (USA Network; livestream): The Predators are in the playoffs for the sixth straight season – the longest active streak in the West and behind only Pittsburgh in the entire league. Arizona making the 24-team tournament is also notable as the Coyotes snapped what was the second-longest active postseason drought in the NHL. The Coyotes sat four points out of the final wild card spot when the season paused.

Round-robin: Blues vs. Avalanche, 6:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN; livestream): The defending champs will benefit from the return of forward Vladimir Tarasenko. The 28-year-old underwent left shoulder surgery in late October and was on pace to return for the playoffs even before the season was paused. He played just 10 games this season. The Avalanche were a banged up team before the pause, missing Mikko Rantanen, Andrew Burakovsky, Philipp Grubauer, Matt Calvert and Nazem Kadri. But the long break has allowed the club to heal up, and now the only forward missing is Colin Wilson, who’s been out since October.

Game 1: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, (joined-in-progress) 9 p.m. ET (NBCSN; livestream): Toronto is the only Eastern Conference team in the Qualifying Round to switch coaches mid-season as they hope the move will produce similar results to the Blues last season, winning the Cup after Craig Berube took over in November. Last summer, the Blue Jackets lost four of their top players in free agency, with Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel and Sergei Bobrovsky all leaving Columbus. Despite losing those players, the Blue Jackets had the exact same point total through 70 games (81 points) as last season.

Game 1: Wild vs. Canucks, 10:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN; livestream): Minnesota is back in the postseason after falling short last year following six straight playoff appearances from 2013-2018, while Vancouver is in the tournament for the first time since 2015. Neither of these teams have had much playoff success in recent years as the Wild have been bounced in the opening round in each of their last three postseason series. Likewise for the Canucks, who have lost three straight opening-round series since losing in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final to Boston.

MONDAY’S NHL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE

Game 2: Rangers vs. Hurricanes, 12 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 2: Jets vs. Flames, 2:30 p.m. ET (NHL Network)
Round-robin: Capitals vs. Lightning, 4 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Round-robin: Stars-Golden Knights, 6:30 p.m. ET (NHL Network)
Game 2: Canadiens vs. Penguins, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 2: Blackhawks vs. Oilers, 10:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN)

PHT’s 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifier previews
Eastern Conference top seed round-robin preview
Penguins vs. Canadiens
Rangers vs. Hurricanes
Islanders vs. Panthers
Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets

Western Conference top seed round-robin preview
Jets vs. Flames
Oilers vs. Blackhawks
Predators vs. Coyotes
Wild vs. Canucks

Predictions for 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers
Why your team won’t (and will) win the Stanley Cup this season
NHL Power Rankings: Stanley Cup-less veterans to root for
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

Case in points: MacKinnon up for hat trick of awards for Avs

DENVER — Nathan MacKinnon believes this just may be the best edition of the Colorado Avalanche he’s seen over his tenure.

Not surprising, his teammates feel the same about him.

The proof is in the honors: The speedy All-Star forward is up for a hat trick of accolades, including the Hart Trophy (MVP), Ted Lindsay Award (most outstanding as voted by his peers) and the Lady Byng Trophy (sportsmanship).

Also not surprising, he’s got the support of his teammates to sweep in a landslide. After all, he kept the team afloat when the Avalanche suffered one significant injury after another.

With the team once again healthy — including him, after missing the final game of the suspended season with a lower body injury — he feels comfortable enough to pronounce that this squad should be a favorite in the Stanley Cup playoffs. They were the No. 2 seed behind St. Louis in the Western Conference when things were halted. They open their round-robin games to determine seeding Aug. 2 against the Blues in Edmonton.

”We’re confident that we can get it done,” MacKinnon said.

It’s been quite a season for the 24-year-old MacKinnon, who’s in his seventh year after being taken No. 1 overall in 2013. He was fifth in the league in scoring with 93 points (35 goals, 58 assists).

What’s more, he wound up 43 points ahead of Colorado’s next scorer, rookie defenseman Cale Makar. It’s the largest gap of any team since the 2007-08 Washington Capitals, when Alex Ovechkin had 112 points and Nicklas Backstrom 69.

Part of the reason for the discrepancy: So many top scorers around MacKinnon kept getting hurt. His fellow linemates, Mikko Rantanen and captain Gabriel Landeskog missed chunks of time with injuries. Rantanen was limited to a total of 42 games and missed the final 12 (he’s healthy again after the four-month hiatus).

Still, the team stayed in the thick of the race.

”We didn’t miss a beat, and that was because of players like Mac leading the charge and elevating their game when we needed him most,” said Colorado coach Jared Bednar, whose team will play an exhibition game against Minnesota on Wednesday. ”That’s what an MVP does.”

And that’s why he’s up for all the hardware. He’s competing against Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl and New York Rangers left winger Artemi Panarin for both the Hart Trophy, which is voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, and the Ted Lindsay Award.

”It’s nice to get voted by your peers. It’s always really cool to have their respect,” said MacKinnon, who didn’t practice Thursday. ”Things are going well for me. Got some good bounces.”

For a second straight season, MacKinnon led the league in shots (318). In addition, his streak with at least one shot stands at 220 games, which is the second-longest string in team history (Joe Sakic, 227 from ’95-99).

”He just plays good hockey and produces goals and points and plays good for the team,” Rantanen said. ”That’s what he’s doing the last three years. This might be the best he’s played.”

Sure, he had more goals (41) and points (99) last season, but that was over a full season and not with this volume of injuries. He got things rolling early with 25 points in November – a franchise record – despite being without Rantanen and Landeskog for most of the month.

For his success the last few seasons, he credits one big thing – the little things.

”When I really turned my game around and I really started to focus on every little detail off the ice and on the ice, I’m up for some big awards. I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” said MacKinnon, who was the captain of the Central Division as he made his fourth straight All-Star Game. ”Obviously, getting older and getting more mature helps. But I definitely had to dial it in in every aspect of my game.”

Not that he’s reading too much into all the individual accolades he could potentially take home. He’s got his eyes on a much bigger trophy. The Avalanche have hoisted the Stanley Cup twice in team history – 1996 and 2001.

”To leave a legacy, you have to win,” said MacKinnon, whose team took San Jose to seven games in the second round last season before being eliminated. ”That’s not what I’m really looking to do, leave a legacy. But I want to win with these guys. We’re such a close group. Everyone wants to see each other succeed.”

Draisaitl, MacKinnon, Panarin are 2019-20 Hart Trophy finalists

Leon Draisaitl (Oilers), Nathan MacKinnon (Avalanche), and Artemi Panarin (Rangers) were named the three finalists for the 2019-20 Hart Trophy. The award is given to the “player judged most valuable to his team” and voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association at the end of the regular season.

Nikita Kucherov was last season’s winner.

This year’s winner will be announced during the conference finals.

It’s worth noting that Draisaitl, MacKinnon, and Panarin weren’t just Hart Trophy finalists, but also the three finalists for the Ted Lindsay Award, the player-voted alternative to the Hart.

[2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule]

Hart Trophy cases for finalists Draisaitl, MacKinnon, Panarin

The Hart Trophy case for Leon Draisaitl

It’s not just that Leon Draisaitl topped all NHL scorers with 110 points. Voters must have struggled with the fact that it wasn’t even close.

Draisaitl’s teammate Connor McDavid finished a distant second with 97 points. Yes, it’s remarkable that Draisaitl was the only NHL player to crack 100+ points in 2019-20, and he added some extra gravy by reaching 110. Remarkably, Draisaitl was going on a goal-scoring tear toward the end of the regular season, finishing with 43 goals.

While “fancy stats” become more prominent in hockey debate circles — including among voters — Draisaitl’s blistering scoring pace will be hard to ignore.

Nathan MacKinnon’s Hart Trophy argument

There are two basic arguments against Art Ross winner Draisaitl: a) defense and b) quality of teammates.

MacKinnon enjoys his fair share of help on a talented, young Avalanche team, but injuries to the likes of Mikko Rantanen placed significant pressure on the Avs’ speedy center. While McDavid certainly helped Draisaitl reach 110 points, MacKinnon’s 93 points stands far higher than every other Colorado player (Cale Makar finished second in team scoring with 50).

Fans of more “complete” players might side with MacKinnon. As a Lady Byng finalist, MacKinnon played big minutes but only had 12 PIM. (Then again, Draisaitl only had 18, and Panarin just 20.)

A greater selling point might be that MacKinnon’s improved his defensive game without really sacrificing offense. Considering his promising Hockey Viz chart, via Micah Blake McCurdy’s indispensable site:

Nathan MacKinnon Hockey Viz Hart Trophy finalists

Artemi Panarin’s tremendous first Rangers season helps him rank among Hart Trophy finalists

Remember when people downgraded Panarin, believing that he was merely Patrick Kane‘s passenger?

Panarin keeps proving that he can deliver big numbers in different situations. The late-arriving NHL star also seems to somehow get better every season. Despite being limited to 69 games played, Panarin established new career-highs in goals (32) and points (95). Like MacKinnon, Panarin produced far more than any of his teammates (Mika Zibanejad ranked second on the Rangers with 75).

“The Bread Man” possesses the sort of creativity you love to see on the power play. Even so, Panarin did his greatest damage at 5-on-5, leading the NHL with 71 even-strength points.

Overall, Draisaitl, MacKinnon, and Panarin present viable cases as Hart Trophy finalists. Who do you think should be named the NHL’s MVP for 2019-20?

2020 NHL AWARD FINALISTS

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.