Rick Zamperin: Predicting the most unpredictable NHL playoffs ever

Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen (31) makes a save against the Montreal Canadiens during second period NHL exhibition hockey action ahead of the Stanley Cup playoffs in Toronto on Tuesday, July 28, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Finally! 142 days after the National Hockey League pressed the pause button on their season due to the coronavirus pandemic, the quest for the Stanley Cup will begin on Saturday.

Welcome to Stage 4 of the NHL’s return to play protocol — the playoffs.

The non-traditional 24-team tournament features a dozen teams in the bubble cities of Toronto and Edmonton and while the top four teams in each conference (Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington, Philadelphia in the East, and St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas in the West) will play a round-robin format to determine where they will be seeded, the remaining 16 teams will square off in best-of-5 playoff qualifiers (seeded 5 through 12) that will provide us with the traditional 16 team playoff format.

Click to play video: '630 CHED broadcasting Edmonton Oilers action from outside the NHL bubble' 630 CHED broadcasting Edmonton Oilers action from outside the NHL bubble
630 CHED broadcasting Edmonton Oilers action from outside the NHL bubble – Jul 29, 2020

So as we enter the most unpredictable time in the most unprecedented season in NHL history, there’s no better time to predict what will happen. It’s daring, I know.

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There is so much talent in each round-robin tournament that I might as well flip a coin, but I will say that I think Tampa Bay is on a mission to prove their playoff disaster from last season is in their rear-view mirror and St. Louis wants to prove that their 2019 Stanley Cup victory was no fluke.

Round-robin predicted finish
East: 1. Lightning, 2. Bruins, 3. Capitals, 4. Flyers
West: 1. Blues, 2. Golden Knights, 3. Avalanche, 4. Stars

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Now on to the fun part. Half of the 16 teams participating in the playoff qualifiers will be eliminated by Aug. 9 at the latest and will hope their luck improves during Phase 2 of the NHL Draft Lottery as one of the eight clubs will win the right to select two-time CHL player of the year Alexis Lafreniere.

Here’s how I think the eight playoff qualifiers will pan out.

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No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 12 Montreal Canadiens – The Habs are big underdogs in this series, and for good reason. Montreal had an extremely slim chance of making the playoffs and now have to face Sidney Crosby and the explosive Penguins. Crosby and the Pens are rested, and healthy, and, I believe, will win the series in four games.

No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes vs. No. 11 New York Rangers – This has all the making of being a very entertaining series when you think about the likes of Hart Trophy finalist Artemi Panarin and his Rangers teammate Mika Zibanejad going up against Carolina’s Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov. But it is goaltending that wins in the post-season and New York has a definite advantage here. I see the Rangers winning in five.

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Questions raised over NHL players’ private COVID-19 tests compared to the public – Jul 29, 2020

No. 7 New York Islanders vs. No. 10 Florida Panthers – Another series that features a ton of young talent, such as Florida’s Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, and New York’s Mathew Barzal. The Panthers are a great offensive team, but the Isles’ defensive structure will lead them to a series win in five.

No. 8 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets – This series is easy to break down as both teams play completely different styles. The Maple Leafs score a lot of goals and give up a lot, while Columbus doesn’t score but also doesn’t allow a lot of goals either. Toronto goalie Frederik Andersen is under the most pressure in this series and will deliver in the clutch. Leafs take the series in five.

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No. 5 Edmonton Oilers vs. No. 12 Chicago Blackhawks – Similar to Montreal, Chicago has no business being in this position and it will be interesting to watch how their new lease on life will propel the likes of 3-time cup champions Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Still, the Oilers are led by two of the best players in the game in superstar Connor McDavid and Hart Trophy favourite Leon Draisaitl. Edmonton wins in four.

No. 6 Nashville Predators vs. No. 11 Arizona Coyotes – This may be one of the most evenly matched playoff qualifiers. Both teams battled injuries throughout the season but are healthy again. One big key is the matchup in goal. Predators star Pekka Rinne had a down year while Arizona’s tandem of Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta have been brilliant. Add a motivated Taylor Hall, who’s looking for a new contract in the offseason, and the Coyotes may have an edge. Take the upset, Arizona in five.

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No. 7 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 10 Minnesota Wild – Minnesota has the edge when it comes to playoff experience and veteran leadership but I get the feeling that Vancouver’s young core of star players — Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes and Brock Boeser — won’t be phased by their first taste of post-season play. Plus, Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom is a huge advantage over Wild goalies Alex Stalock and Devan Dubnyk. Vancouver wins in four.

No. 8 Calgary Flames vs. No. 9 Winnipeg Jets – Bring it on! The only all-Canadian matchup of the qualifying round stacks up as one of the best among the eight series. This will be the most physically intense series and pits Winnipeg’s dynamic offensive players against Calgary’s deep blueline. Jets goalie Conor Hellebuyck will outduel Flames puck-stoppers Cam Talbot and David Rittich in a tightly contested series that harkens back to the old Smythe Division days. Winnipeg in five.

Read more: Flames, Jets the all-Canadian clash

If all of these predictions hold true (let’s face it, all of them won’t) these will be the Round 1 Stanley Cup playoff matchups:

Eastern Conference
1. Lightning vs. Rangers
2. Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
3. Capitals vs. Islanders
4. Flyers vs. Penguins

Western Conference
1. Blues vs. Coyotes
2. Golden Knights vs. Jets
3. Avalanche vs. Canucks
4. Stars vs. Oilers

If there is one thing that sticks out in Round 1, it’s Toronto against Boston, again. Oh boy.

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Rick Zamperin is the assistant program, news and senior sports director at Global News Radio 900 CHML.

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