1. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING – By Matt Larkin
The Lightning tied an NHL record with 62 wins last season – then were epically swept in Round 1 by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Tampa players insisted they simply had one bad week, and they backed up that sentiment this season. After a sluggish start, the Lightning were by far the best team in the NHL from December onward. How could they not be? They boast the reigning Vezina Trophy-winning goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy, the reigning MVP in right winger Nikita Kucherov and the 2018 Norris Trophy winner in Victor Hedman. No team in the league has bigger star power at every position.
The Bolts aren’t just about flashy offense, either. In Brayden Point and Selke Trophy snub Anthony Cirelli, they have two of the game’s best defensive forwards. When healthy, steady Ryan McDonagh shoulders a lot of responsibility on ‘D.’ Tampa Bay’s weakness last season was an inability to win ugly hockey games with physical play from its forwards, and GM Julien BriseBois has worked to rectify that. He signed hulking Cup champ Patrick Maroon in the off-season and made deadline deals for Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow. That BriseBois was willing to sacrifice first-round picks in both trades tells us he was determined to ice a virtually flawless roster this time.
The Lightning looked invincible last year, too, of course. But they fell behind early in their Round 1 series and got frustrated. They were the NHL’s second-most penalized team in the regular season, then took 17 penalties in four games and allowed five goals on 10 Columbus power plays. This season, they took the third-most penalties in the league. Discipline remains a problem. You can get the Bolts off their game if you make them emotional. Kucherov proved that when he lost his cool, threw a dirty hit on Markus Nutivaara and got suspended for a game last post-season.
X-factor: Steven Stamkos had core-muscle surgery in late February and was given a recovery timeline of six to eight weeks. That ended his regular season and put the first round of the playoffs in significant jeopardy. With the league shut down for more than four months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Stamkos unexpectedly had ample time to heal and should be 100 percent for the playoffs. Then, during Phase 2 of the Return to Play plan, Stamkos sustained a separate lower-body injury. He's expected to be back by the Round of 16, but his status for the round-robin is foggy. He won't have much time to shake off the rust once he joins the lineup.
2. BOSTON BRUINS – By Matt Larkin
The Stanley Cup slipped through the Bruins’ fingers last spring, as they lost Game 7 of the final on home ice. This year, they played like a team hungry for revenge, winning the Presidents’ Trophy with a league-best 100 points in the shortened season.
While GM Don Sweeney couldn’t add much over the off-season, he returned mostly the same team, and it was thus no surprise to see the Bruins look like their usual selves. They remain almost peerless defensively. No team allows fewer goals per game, they boast a strong penalty kill, and they rank among the league’s best in preventing shots, scoring chances and high-danger shot attempts at 5-on-5. They do it thanks to a deep, well-rounded defense corps in which Zdeno Chara and Brandon Carlo do the shutdown work and Charlie McAvoy and Torey Krug move the puck. Goalie Tuukka Rask, who was superb in the 2019 playoffs, had his best regular season since winning the 2013-14 Vezina Trophy.
Many of the Bruins’ forwards, particularly the powerhouse line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak, are among the best two-way players in the NHL. They remain elite at controlling the possession game – and at scoring. Pastrnak won a share of the Rocket Richard Trophy with 48 goals. Marchand was on pace for second straight 100-point season.
Boston has always relied a lot on the ‘Perfection Line,’ but it skewed to the point of concern this season. At the time of the March-12 pause, the trio accounted for 47.1 percent of Boston’s goals. Last season, that number was 41.2 percent. “Stop the big line and you can beat the Bruins” is truer than it’s ever been. Sweeney acquired wingers Nick Ritchie and Ondrej Kase in February but couldn’t secure another high-end scoring threat. Boston needs depth forwards such as Charlie Coyle and Sean Kuraly to elevate their play in the post-season like they did last year.
X-factor: When Boston traded Danton Heinen for Nick Ritchie, everyone understood. Ritchie epitomizes Bruins hockey. He’s a tank at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, and in the past three seasons, among forwards with at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5, he ranks in the 95th percentile in hits per game. He was a top-10 draft pick in 2014 but never fully blossomed as an Anaheim Duck, averaging just 12 goals per 82 games. He also never played on teams as good as the 2019-20 Bruins, and his heavy game should translate better to post-season hockey, when the officials let more things go. Will he be ready to contribute right away, though? He and fellow Ducks acquistion Kase remain on the "unfit to participate" list for now.
3. WASHINGTON CAPITALS – By Ryan Kennedy
The Capitals haven’t changed much in the past couple seasons, meaning they’re still a dangerous contender for the Stanley Cup. Led by Alex Ovechkin and his 700-plus career goals, the offense is a top-five unit and gets contributions from all over. Jakub Vrana hit the 25-goal mark for the first time, while defenseman John Carlson was named a Norris Trophy finalist thanks in part to his prodigious output, which actually led all Caps skaters by a wide margin. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom can still do offensive damage, too.
While the power play is surprisingly pedestrian, Washington’s penalty kill has been excellent thanks to the dogged efforts of Lars Eller and big blueliners Jonas Siegenthaler and Radko Gudas, among others. This is important, because the Capitals take a lot of penalties.
Of course, heavy hockey tends to be the path to success in the playoffs, and Washington has burliness to spare. The leader there is Tom Wilson, the
fearsome power forward who can change the complexion of a series with a big hit or fight.
The biggest question heading into the post-season is goaltending. Braden Holtby has been on the decline for a few years now and was even spotty right before the 2018 playoffs when he snapped out of his funk and helped Washington go all the way. Rookie Ilya Samsonov has long been touted as the franchise’s future between the pipes, and he got off to a fantastic start before hitting a wall in February – but will miss the entire playoffs with an undisclosed injury under the "unfit" umbrella. The crease is now Holtby's. Can the Caps still count on him in what may be his last batch of games with the team before becoming a UFA?
Luckily for the Capitals, they’ve been down this road before and come out as champions. Experience with adversity will help them navigate the rough waters of the playoffs, and as long as netminding doesn’t sink them, they’ll be a true contender.
X-factor: The last time Ilya Kovalchuk played in a Stanley Cup final, he was a monster. That was back in 2012 with New Jersey, and the Devils lost the series to Los Angeles, but absence always makes the heart grow fonder. After half a decade in the KHL, ‘Kovy’ came back last season, and his brief stint in Montreal – after sputtering for a year-and-change with the Kings – proved he can still be an offensive force. At 37, Kovalchuk doesn’t have many chances left for an NHL title, but his big, heavy frame is tailor-made for post-season havoc. Add in a bucket load of skill, and you’re looking at a dangerous operator.
4. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS – by Ryan Kennedy
When the Flyers hired Alain Vigneault, they were in desperate need of defensive structure – and the veteran coach has delivered. Philadelphia went from being one of the worst defensive teams in the league last year to a top-10 outfit this season, while also drastically improving on the penalty kill.
Part of that can be attributed to Vigneault, but credit is also due to GM Chuck Fletcher for remaking the blueline last summer. Bringing in veterans Justin Braun and Matt Niskanen had the exact intended effect on the defense corps, adding two staunch defenders to a group that was young and talented but not exactly detail-oriented. The upshot of the veteran injection has yielded rebound seasons for Ivan Provorov and, to a lesser extent, Shayne Gostisbehere (hobbled by a knee injury).
Given that the Flyers already have one of the premier two-way centers in the game up front in Sean Couturier, this defensive development bodes well. Speaking of offense, that has also been a strength for the resurgent Flyers, who went from mid-pack last year to just outside the top five. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t captain Claude Giroux doing the most damage as usual, but young upstart Travis Konecny. The scrappy and talented right winger earned his first invite to the NHL All-Star Game and had two more points than Couturier for the team scoring lead when the season was paused. Konecny was playing on Philadelphia’s second line with Kevin Hayes as his center, so the Flyers became more of a matchup problem when Giroux broke out of his scoring funk in February.
Is Philly's goaltending problem finally solved? It remains to be seen. Carter Hart's goals saved above average is middling at 4.07, and Brian Elliott has struggled. Hart was always going to be the guy for the playoffs, and though he’s young, he showed he can win on the big stage when he led Canada to gold at the world juniors in 2018.
X-factor: Giroux has made some impressive playoff statements in the past (including when the Flyers went to the Stanley Cup final against Chicago back in 2010), but his more recent outings have been muted. Since a monster 2012 run that saw him put up 17 points in 10 games, Giroux has just 10 points total in three straight first-round exits. If the captain can’t lead by example, Philadelphia might be sunk early. On the other hand, if Giroux can ride the offensive momentum he was building up in the season’s second half, then the Flyers will be a much more difficult opponent. At the very least, it would make Gritty happy…
Sunday, Aug. 2, 3:00 p.m.: Flyers vs. Bruins
Monday, Aug. 3, 4:00 p.m.: Capitals vs. Lightning
Wednesday, Aug. 5, 4:00 p.m.: Lightning vs. Bruins
Thursday, Aug. 6, TBD: Capitals vs. Flyers
Saturday, Aug. 8, TBD: Flyers vs. Lightning
Sunday, Aug. 9, TBD: Bruins vs. Capitals
(All games listed in eastern time)
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