Photo: Norm Hall/Getty Images
After the first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs featured a whopping five upsets, just imagine the possibilities for this year with 24 teams and a play-in round for all teams ranked fifth through twelfth in their conference. A best-of-five could benefit those bubble teams who will play live-or-die hockey before facing one of the bye teams. So who has the best chance to pull off upsets in the play-in round? NoVa Caps takes a look at four teams with a very good chance of beating the odds.
Likely Opponent: Calgary Flames
While the Flames’ acquisitions of Derek Forbort and Erik Gustafsson at the NHL trade deadline only strengthened one of the league’s top defensive groups, the Jets’ average of 2.83 goals-against per game ranked 10th and only improved with the addition of Dylan DeMelo. Sure, Dustin Byfuglien won’t be back, but the Jets were able to survive more than six months without him relatively unscathed.
The Jets clearly have the edge in scoring with weapons like Blake Wheeler, Mark Schiefele, and Kyle Connor on the wings while the Flames’ average of 2.91 goals-per-game ranked 20th in the NHL.
Facing Connor Hellebuyck, who is a favorite for the Vezina Trophy after going 31-21-5 (second in the NHL in wins) with a .922 save percentage (tied for ninth with Los Angeles Kings’ Cal Petersen), a 2.57 goals-against average (16th), and a league-high six shutouts, will also be no easy task for the Flames, whose .9189 team save percentage was at the league average.
Likely Opponent: Nashville Predators
Nashville is loaded and Arizona was mediocre in the run up to the pause. So why do the Coyotes have a shot? Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne has disappointed this season as he lost the starter’s job to Juuse Saros, who has just seven games of postseason experience in his career, after posting an 18-14-4 record, an .895 save percentage, and a 3.17 goals-against average this season.
Meanwhile, the Coyotes’ .9293 save percentage ranks fourth in the NHL and the team boasts one of the league’s best goaltenders this year in Darcy Kuemper, who went 16-11-2 with a .928 save percentage (fifth), a 2.22 goals-against average (tied with Dallas Stars’ Anton Khudobin for fourth), and two shutouts this season.
While both teams are known for their deep bluelines, the Predators’ underperformed as their average of 3.10 goals-against per game was tied for the 11th-most in the NHL and their 76.1% penalty-killing efficiency was the third-worst despite being at the league-average in terms of shots against per game (31.3).
The Predators’ offense gets the edge as the Coyotes’ average of 2.71 goals-per-game ranked 23rd, but Arizona still has lots of firepower upfront with Taylor Hall, Phil Kessel, Conor Garland, and Nick Schmaltz. A young team can be a handful in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the Predators were given a run for their money in 2018 after winning the Presidents’ Trophy by the youthful, eighth-seeded Colorado Avalanche. This matchup could be trouble for Nashville.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Likely Opponent: Toronto Maple Leafs
Though they struggled right before the pause, the Blue Jackets went 19-3-5 from December to February and were looking like a surprise team. While their offense has been abysmal for the past three seasons, the unit has lots of talent with Cam Atkinson, Gustav Nyquist, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Pierre Luc-Dubois.
And it’s not like the Maple Leafs are without any flaws, as their average of 3.17 goals-against per game this season is the second-highest among teams competing in the tournament (Florida Panthers: 3.25). That’s an area where the Blue Jackets thrive as their average of 2.61 goals-against per game was tied with the Coyotes for third in the NHL.
Even after losing a two-time Vezina Trophy winner in Sergei Bobrovsky in free agency, the Blue Jackets’ .9281 team save percentage was the fourth-best in the NHL this year. Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs were the fourth-worst and the worst among any team that would have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs under normal conditions in that category with a .9115 save percentage. The losses of Bobrovsky and forward Artemi Panarin over the offseason could be used as fuel for the Blue Jackets after they swept the top-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round last Spring. Also, a John Torterella-Sheldon Keefe coaching matchup is definitely not in favor of the Maple Leafs.
Likely Opponent: New York Islanders
If you take out a franchise-record 17-game point streak (15-0-2), the Islanders were 20-23-8 this season including 19-20-8 after the streak ended. The Panthers have a marked advantage in offense as their average of 3.30 goals-per-game was sixth while the Islanders’ average of 2.78 goals-per-game was 22nd.
While the Panthers couldn’t do much worse than a 3.25 goals-against per game average (fourth-most), they have the talent on paper to turn it around with the likes of Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle, and Anton Stralman on the backend.
Bobrovsky’s first season in Florida didn’t go well, but he caught fire come springtime last year as he posted a .932 save percentage and a 2.01 goals-against average in the Blue Jackets’ stunning sweep over the Lightning after a disappointing regular season. Islanders goaltender Semyon Varlamov has not played a Stanley Cup Playoff game since 2014.
The coaching matchup is intriguing in this series with Barry Trotz (who is fourth in NHL history with 845 wins) and Joel Quenneville (second with 925). Quenneville’s Chicago Blackhawks won the only Stanley Cup Playoff series between the two coaches, beating the Trotz-led Predators in the 2010 Western Conference Quarterfinals.
If Bobrovsky can find his game, the Islanders could find themselves in some big trouble.
By Harrison Brown