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NHL Power Rankings: Best First Round matchups

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In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we get you ready for Round 1 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs by looking at the best matchups we will see.

The results of the play-in round (made necessary by the 2019-20 regular season being paused) has created some unexpected matchups  with some very unexpected teams.

We have some intriguing rematches from the 2018-19 postseason, some shots at redemption, and a Stanley Cup winning coach going against his former team.

Which matchups do we like the best?

To the rankings!

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

1. Boston Bruins vs. Carolina Hurricanes.

A rematch of the 2019 Eastern Conference Final that resulted in a Bruins sweep has storylines galore. If Dougie Hamilton is healthy and ready to play he gets another shot at revenge against the team that originally traded him, the Bruins were — BY FAR — the NHL’s best team in the league during the regular season, the Hurricanes were the most impressive team in the Qualifying Round, and both of these teams are just flat out really, really, really good. It has everything.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Columbus Blue Jackets. 

The Blue Jackets have become the NHL’s giant slayers, the underdog team that is here to completely ruin your team’s postseason. A year ago they swept this very same Lightning team — a 62-win Lightning team! — in a First Round matchup to produce one of the most stunning upsets in recent playoff history. This year they already added to the postseason misery of Maple Leafs fans by knocking them out in the qualifying round, and now they get Tampa again. All of the pressure in the world is on the Lightning in this one, and that alone adds to the intrigue of this series.

3. Vegas Golden Knights vs. Chicago Blackhawks. 

If we are being objective here, Vegas might be the best team in the West and Chicago might be the worst playoff team in the West, especially after going into seller mode at the trade deadline. But there is something about this matchup that I like. It should be exciting. Even though the Blackhawks have a horrendous defense, they still have enough top-end players in their lineup and a good enough goalie to make things interesting. Vegas has a great roster and could be getting Max Pacioretty back at some point. And there is also this: We could potentially see Robin Lehner go against the team that traded him at the trade deadline if the Golden Knights have to turn to him or give him a shot.

4. Washington Capitals vs. New York Islanders.

Two years ago Barry Trotz was coaching the Capitals to their first ever Stanley Cup. Now he is coaching against them in the playoffs as the Islanders’ bench boss. The Capitals are clearly the superior roster on paper, while the Islanders were trending in the wrong direction down the stretch run of the regular season. That should, in theory, make the Capitals the favorites. But they did not look great in the Round-Robin portion of the return to play and if Braden Holtby can not bounce back from a sub-par regular season they could have a major issue in net.

5. Colorado Avalanche vs. Arizona Coyotes.

This seems like a huge mismatch, but am not giving up on an exciting series. The Avalanche are loaded and play an entertaining brand of hockey. The Coyotes have a white-hot goalie in Darcy Kuemper that could flip things upside down, while Phil Kessel always seems to have some playoff magic and Taylor Hall gets only his second shot at the postseason.

6. St. Louis Blues vs. Vancouver Canucks.

The Canucks are back in the playoffs for the first time since the 2014-15 season and their exciting young core is going to get quite the challenge — a series against the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Canucks just showed they can beat a stingy, defense-first team by knocking off the Minnesota Wild in the qualifying round, and they are going to get an even bigger test in this series.

7. Philadelphia Flyers vs. Montreal Canadiens.

A matchup that literally nobody would have expected at any point this season. The Flyers entering this series looking like a complete buzzsaw. They were one of the hottest teams in the league during the stretch run of the regular season, they completed dominated Boston, Washington, and Tampa Bay (three of the best teams in the league) in the round-robin phase, and they are starting to look like a legitimate threat to win the whole thing. Montreal stunned Pittsburgh in the qualifying round but it might need another herculean effort from Carey Price to complete the postseason Pennsylvania sweep. 

8. Dallas Stars vs. Calgary Flames.

There is a danger in ranking this series at the bottom because there is always the possibility that Matthew Tkachuk pours a canister of gasoline on a fire and turns the whole thing into a rumble. That could happen. That ABSOLUTELY could happen. In fact, it would not surprise me at all if it did happen. But even with that possibility this is the series that does the least for me. The Flames badly regressed this season. The Stars have two great goalies and two great defensemen, but they cannot score. Neither team is going to fill the back of the net and while the potential for an exciting series is there, it just seems to have less potential than the other seven matchups.

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

West NHL playoff matchups set after Stars finish third, Blues slip to fourth

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With the Stars beating the Blues 2-1 via a shootout, the West NHL matchups are all set for the First Round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Blues joined the Bruins as teams that finished the regular season at the top of their conferences but sank to the fourth seed thanks to rough round-robin showings, while the Stars rose a spot to third. In case you missed it, the Golden Knights took first by beating the Avalanche, who settled for second in the West.

Meanwhile, three of the four East NHL matchups are set for the First Round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as the Lightning await the winner of Game 5 of Blue Jackets – Maple Leafs (on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET; livestream).

The Blues held a 1-0 lead for much of the round-robin game. Joe Pavelski then tied things up 1-1 in the dying seconds, however, setting the stage for the Stars to snatch the third seed via a shootout. It all felt … fitting.

Jeff Vinnick of Getty Images got an exclusive shot of fans who will miss the round-robin games:

G-get it? (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

All West NHL matchups set for 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

1. Vegas Golden Knights vs. 12. Chicago Blackhawks

Robin Lehner against the team he briefly played for this season? Fun/awkward.

2. Colorado Avalanche vs. 11. Arizona Coyotes

Taylor Hall against Nathan MacKinnon and the rising Avs could make for good theater.

3. Dallas Stars vs. 8. Calgary Flames

Calgary could be a threat, although the Flames have been up-and-down.

4. St. Louis Blues vs. 7. Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks boast quite a bit of starpower for a lower seed (although the West presents multiple lower seeds that, while flawed, have some big names).

Three of four Eastern Conference matchups now set for 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

1. Philadelphia Flyers vs. 12. Montreal Canadiens

(Yes, that still feels weird on a few levels.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning vs. winner of Blue Jackets/Maple Leafs Game 5

Who would you prefer to face if you were the Lightning?

3. Washington Capitals vs. 7. New York Islanders

The Capitals vs. former head coach Barry Trotz? Not bad.

4. Boston Bruins vs. 6. Carolina Hurricanes

Tough draw for the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins, huh? Boston needs to hope that the Hurricanes got a little rusty after quickly sweeping the Rangers.

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

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.

Three of four East playoff matchups set after Capitals take third, Bruins land fourth

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After the Capitals beat the Bruins 2-1 to take the East’s third spot, three of that conference’s four playoff matchups are now set. The 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers proved to be unpredictable with the Flyers in first, Lightning in second, Capitals third, and Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins fourth.

This concludes the East portion of round-robin games. The West side is complete, too, after the Stars beat the Blues in a shootout. We’ll get a totally complete playoff picture league-wide after Game 5 of Maple Leafs – Blue Jackets.

Game 5: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, 8 p.m. ET; livestream

T.J. Oshie opened the scoring, while Tom Wilson reminded people of amusing David Pastrnak tweets by nabbing the 2-0 goal that became the game-winner. Once again, the Bruins’ top line didn’t find the net, although David Pastrnak looked spry. It’s also fair to wonder about John Carlson‘s health heading into the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three of four Eastern Conference matchups now set for 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

1. Philadelphia Flyers vs. 12. Montreal Canadiens

(Yes, that still feels weird on a few levels.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning vs. winner of Blue Jackets/Maple Leafs Game 5

Who would you prefer to face if you were the Lightning?

3. Washington Capitals vs. 7. New York Islanders

The Capitals vs. former head coach Barry Trotz? Not bad.

4. Boston Bruins vs. 6. Carolina Hurricanes

Tough draw for the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins, huh? Boston needs to hope that the Hurricanes got a little rusty after quickly sweeping the Rangers.

All West NHL matchups set for 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

1. Vegas Golden Knights vs. 12. Chicago Blackhawks

Robin Lehner against the team he briefly played for this season? Fun/awkward.

2. Colorado Avalanche vs. 11. Arizona Coyotes

Taylor Hall against Nathan MacKinnon and the rising Avs could make for good theater.

3. Dallas Stars vs. 8. Calgary Flames

Calgary could be a threat, although the Flames have been up-and-down.

4. St. Louis Blues vs. 7. Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks boast quite a bit of starpower for a lower seed (although the West presents multiple lower seeds that, while flawed, have some big names).

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

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.

Top players push Coyotes into next playoff round

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The Arizona Coyotes needed their top players to be at their best to have a chance of advancing in the postseason for the first time in eight years.

Darcy Kuemper has been superb, one of the best goalies in the bubble. Taylor Hall is playing like the Coyotes hoped when they traded for him. Same thing for Phil Kessel.

Captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson has been steady in his own end, chipped in offensively and been the kind of leader a team needs in the postseason. Clayton Keller has picked up his scoring pace since the postseason started.

With their best players at their best, the Coyotes are headed to the next round after knocking off Nashville in four games.

”It’s about being in pressure situations and embracing them,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said.

The Coyotes have seen their share of adversity.

The franchise was operated by the NHL for four years after the previous owner took the team into bankruptcy and has faced an uncertain future in the desert even before the City of Glendale backed out of a multi-million dollar lease agreement in 2015.

Arizona struggled on the ice since reaching the 2012 Western Conference finals and at the box office, annually drawing some of the NHL’s smallest crowds.

The Coyotes had been building toward the reaching the playoffs in recent years with solid drafts and high-profile acquisitions, but an injury to Kuemper this season dropped them to 11th in the Western Conference standings when the season was halted because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Arizona earned a reprieve when the NHL expanded the postseason to 12 teams in each conference for the restart and the Coyotes took advantage.

Behind Kuemper’s stellar play and timely goals throughout the lineup, 11th-seeded Arizona wrapped up its first postseason series in eight years by beating the Predators 4-3 in overtime on Friday.

The win, which clinched the series 3-1, puts Arizona into the next round against Colorado.

”We’ve been through a lot of crap here and some teams that needed to mature and grow,” said Coyotes forward Brad Richardson, who scored the winning goal in the clincher. ”It feels like a lot of work came to fruition there. We’ve got a long way to go, but that was a big hurdle for our team and it feels really good.”

Kuemper had a lot to do with it.

He thrived as the No. 1 goalie after Antti Raanta was injured last season, earning an All-Star Game nod despite not being able to play because of an injury. Kuemper got this season off to another solid start before a lower-body injury in December limited him to 29 games.

The NHL’s break allowed Kuemper time to heal and he thrived under the spotlight of the postseason, starting with a 40-save game in the opener against Nashville. Kuemper was superb again in Games 3 and 4, turning away a combined 88 shots, including 49 in the clincher.

Kuemper’s 152 saves are 24 more than the next closest goalie.

”He’s unbelievable,” Kessel said. ”You watch him out there; he makes every save he should. He’s why we’re moving on.”

Kessel, Arizona’s big offseason acquisition, has been his usual productive postseason self after a regular season full of injuries, notching a goal and three assists against Nashville.

The Coyotes traded for Hall midseason in an attempt to boost their scoring and, after an up-and-down regular season, he’s also produced a goal and three assists.

Ekman-Larsson has repeatedly stepped in to rough up opposing players when they get a little too frisky and he has a goal and three assists to go with his steady blue-line play.

Keller has two goals, two assists and leveraged his 5-foot-10, 170-pound frame into a few tone-setting hits.

The others have stepped up, too. Christian Dvorak has two goals and so does Michael Grabner, including a short-handed one in Game 3. Defenseman Jordan Oesterle scored a third-period, go-ahead goal in Game 4 and Richardson scored the overtime winner after the Predators tied it with 32 seconds left in regulation.

”It’s the Stanley Cup playoffs, that’s what it is,” Tocchet said. ”It’s all about the guys being able to stay with it and at any time when we call your number, whether you’re dressed or not, you come.”

And now the Coyotes are moving ahead.

NHL Bubble Wrap: Stunning Game 3 upsets for Penguins, Oilers, and more

Game 3 upsets NHL scores Penguins Canadiens Shea Weber Blackhawks Round Robin standings
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  • There were some serious NHL Game 3 upsets, and even the way the upsets happened must have been extra-upsetting for the favorites.
  • It wasn’t always pretty, but the Panthers live to fight another day.
  • Breaking the underdog trend, powerful round-robin teams the Avalanche and Lightning won. (Then again, the Presidents’ Trophy winners won’t be the East’s top seed, so maybe that underdog trend still tracks …)

NHL Scores

Panthers 3, Islanders 2 (NYI leads series 2-1)

For the first time in more than four years, the Panthers won a playoff game. They avoided being swept by the Islanders in the process, riding some quick strikes in the third period. Florida protected Sergei Bobrovsky reasonably well, and may feel a little more confident after Wednesday. Of course, it would help if Jonathan Huberdeau can play in Game 4 after being shaken up by a collision with a Panthers teammate.

Coyotes 4, Predators 1 (ARI leads series 2-1)

Despite carrying much of the play — especially when the “JOFA” line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson were on — the Predators could only beat Darcy Kuemper once. Kuemper bounced back from a bumpy Game 2 to hold down the fort for Arizona. Taylor Hall ended up scoring the insurance goal and added an assist to give the Coyotes a chance to advance in Game 4.

Lightning 3, Bruins 2 – Round Robin Game

After losing their first two games of the Eastern Conference Round Robin, the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins won’t be able to secure the top seed in their conference. Tough break for the only NHL team to reach 100 standings points, but that’s the nature of the beast as COVID-19 disrupts both life and sports. The Lightning, meanwhile, won their first two of three round-robin games, so they have a strong chance to take the top seed.

Avalanche 4, Stars 0 – Round Robin Game

Following a buzzer-beater win against the defending champion Blues, the Avalanche didn’t leave their second round-robin game to chance. Cale Makar kicked off the scoring with a power-play goal 3:19 into the game, and the Avalanche never really looked back. So far, the Avalanche look as speedy and scary as hockey diehards were hoping.

Canadiens 4, Penguins 3 (MTL leads series 2-1)

This time around, this wasn’t about Carey Price standing on his head (or nearly doing so). In a dramatic affair, the Penguins built a 3-1 lead early in the second period. That lead, and the Penguins themselves, would absolutely fall apart. The Canadiens surged back to win Game 3, and did so convincingly. Yeah, wow.

Blackhawks 4, Oilers 3 (CHI leads series 2-1)

The Oilers and Blackhawks raise that “Yeah, wow” to … I don’t know, a “Super wowzers?” Wednesday featured some lower seeds stunning favorites, and while the Penguins carry far more clout than the Oilers, Edmonton still lost in a more staggering way. In another game of swings, Connor McDavid gave the Oilers a 3-2 lead in the dying seconds of the second period. The Oilers protected that lead for a decent portion of the third, until it all fell apart with two late Blackhawks goals. Just like that, Edmonton is on the brink of elimination. Hockey can be pretty wild, gang.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

NHL Round Robin Standings

Eastern Conference Round Robin Standings

Tampa Bay Lightning (2-0-0, 4 points)
Philadelphia Flyers (1-0-0, 2 points)
Washington Capitals (0-0-1, 1 point)
Boston Bruins (0-2-0, 0 points)

Western Conference Round Robin Standings

Colorado Avalanche (2-0-0, 4 points)
Vegas Golden Knights (1-0-0, 2 points)
St. Louis Blues (0-1-0, 0 points)
Dallas Stars (0-2-0, 0 points)

NHL’s Three Stars from Wednesday

1. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes

As Wednesday went along, NHL Game 3 upsets became a pattern, and the results became increasingly shocking. A higher seed Predators team falling to the Coyotes feels less jarring when you compare it to the other stunning NHL Game 3 upsets of the day.

Still, this was the standout effort.

Kuemper helped the Coyotes author a familiar version of this one, an upset far more typical than the Blackhawks and Canadiens more or less matching the Oilers and Penguins respectively. In the case of the Coyotes beating the Predators, much of the result had to do with a goalie standing on his head.

After a tough Game 2, Kuemper stopped 39 out of 40 shots to snare Game 3 from the Predators. Kuemper’s best work came early, as the Coyotes took a 1-0 lead into the first intermission despite Nashville managing a 19-9 SOG advantage.

2. Shea Weber, Montreal Canadiens

You can definitely ding Weber a bit when he might have let up a bit during a delayed penalty, which would have been called on him if Patric Hornqvist didn’t bury a beautiful assist by Evgeni Malkin. But, overall, Weber was fantastic in Montreal’s flabbergasting 4-3 win against the Penguins. Along with scoring one goal and two assists for three points, Weber was stout defensively. That included two goals for and zero against at even-strength. Weber likely played a prominent role in the Habs making sure the Penguins’ third-period comeback attempt was generally, shockingly feeble.

3. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers

If you feel like Jonathan Toews should get the nod, that’s understandable. Toews scored two goals, and played a big role in the Blackhawks’ win. (So did a torrent of deflections, but still, Toews was great.)

Toews will feel fine taking the win and being a victory away from the formal 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Yet, Leon Draisaitl looked like the 2020 Art Ross winner out there. Draisaitl factored into all three Oilers goals (two goals, one assist) and carried the sort of underlying stats he doesn’t always generate.

Hockey Twitter might want to “free Connor McDavid,” but some sympathy should be saved for Draisaitl, too.

2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers — top highlights from Monday

Honestly? It’s probably wise to plunk down those Oilers – Blackhawks highlights, wholesale:

If you need a single highlight, the decisive goal from Predators – Coyotes could do the trick. Derek Stepan made a fantastic pass, then Conor Garland completed the highlight-reel-game-winner by stupefying the Predators:

What a fabulous, unexpected breakout season from Garland …

Factoids

  • By grabbing an assist in Game 3, Sidney Crosby broke a tie with Doug Gilmour and Joe Sakic for eighth all-time in scoring with his 190th playoff point. Telling him that after Game 3 would probably mainly earn you a frown, though.
  • Jeff Petry already has two postseason game-winning goals for the Canadiens. Via NHL PR, he’s the sixth Canadiens defenseman to generate at least two in a single playoff run.
  • Avalanche goalie Pavel Francouz carried his sneaky-strong regular season into the Round Robin. By pitching a 27-save shutout, Francouz is the first Avalanche goalie in franchise history to earn a shutout in their playoff debut. Take that, Peter Budaj.

Thursday NHL schedule:

Game 3: Canucks vs. Wild, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Series tied 1-1)

Round-robin: Capitals vs. Flyers, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN

Round-robin: Golden Knights vs. Blues, 6:45 p.m. ET, NBCSN

Game 3: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Series tied 1-1)

Game 4: Flames vs. Jets, 10:30 p.m. ET, CNBC (CGY leads 2-1)

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.