Photo: The Point Hockey
The day all hockey fans have been waiting for arrives Saturday! The best-of-five Stanley Cup Qualifiers kick off with five games taking place in the hub cities of Toronto (Eastern Conference) and Edmonton (Western Conference). The round-robin tournament games for seeding begin Sunday. NoVa Caps previews all five games while we all get ready for the NHL’s return.
#11 New York Rangers vs. #6 Carolina Hurricanes, 12 NOON ET (NBCSN)
The Hurricanes and Rangers kick things off north of the border. The Rangers went 4-0-0 and posted a +9 goal differential in four games against the Hurricanes this season and the Hurricanes have lost 30 of 36 games against New York dating back to 2011-12 (6-25-5). While the Rangers’ 3.33 goals-per-game this season ranked fifth in the NHL, the Hurricanes were not far behind as their 3.19 average was 11th. However, the Hurricanes’ average of 2.84 goals-against per game was tied for 11th while the Rangers’ average of 3.14 goals-against per game was tied for the third-worst among the 24 teams resuming play.
The Hurricanes feature one of the NHL’s deepest defenses with Jaccob Slavin, Dougie Hamilton, and Brett Pesce leading the way, though Hamilton did not practice on Friday. Center Martin Necas skated with the team. Neither player skated in the team’s exhibition game against the Washington Capitals on Wednesday.
For the Rangers, it is finally time to make a decision in the crease. Rookie Igor Shesterkin, who went 10-2-0 with a .932 save percentage and a 2.52 goals-against average in the regular season appears to be the favorite, but Alexander Georgiev (17-14-2, .910 save percentage, 3.04 goals-against average, two shutouts) and Henrik Lundqvist, the long-time face of the Rangers’ franchise, are two solid options. The Hurricanes will likely start Petr Mrazek (21-16-2 with a .905 save percentage, a 2.69 goals-against average, three shutouts) in Game 1.
The Hurricanes finished the regular season with a 38-25-5 record and the fourth-best goal differential in the Eastern Conference (+29) while the Rangers went 37-28-5 with a +12 goal differential.
#12 Chicago Blackhawks vs. #5 Edmonton Oilers, 3 PM ET (NBC)
Arguably one of the most intriguing series features superstars like forwards Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat on the Blackhawks and centers Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the NHL’s two leading point scorers from the regular season, on the Oilers. The Oilers’ 3.03 goals-against per game was the league average while the Blackhawks were a little worse at 3.06. The Oilers’ average of 3.14 goals-per-game was also league average while the Blackhawks were 18th with an average of 2.97 goals-per-game.
Defenseman Brett Seabrook did not travel to Edmonton with the Blackhawks after he underwent three major surgeries on his right shoulder and both hips in a one-month span. Corey Crawford, who went 16-20-3 with a .917 save percentage, a 2.77 goals-against average, and one shutout during the regular season, will start for the Blackhawks after missing the first two weeks of training camp with COVID-19.
The Oilers face a decision in the crease with Mikko Koskinen, who went 18-13-3 with a .917 save percentage, a 2.75 goals-against average, and one shutout, and Mike Smith, who went 19-12-6 with a .902 save percentage, a 2.95 goals-against average, and one shutout, both options.
The Blackhawks went 2-1-0 with a +1 goal differential in three games against the Oilers in the regular season, including a 4-3 win at United Center a week before the NHL season paused. The Oilers finished the regular season with a 37-29-5 record but McDavid and Draisaitl accounted for nearly 35% of the team’s production, indicating that they are thin on scoring, while the Blackhawks finished with a 32-30-8 record.
#10 Florida Panthers vs. #7 New York Islanders, 4 PM ET (NBCSN)
The two teams have two different focuses on their games as the Islanders averaged only 2.78 goals-per-game (the fourth-worst among teams resuming play) but also averaged 2.79 goals-against per game (ninth). Meanwhile, the Panthers averaged 3.30 goals-per-game (sixth) while they also averaged 3.25 goals-against per game, the worst among teams resuming play.
After a miserable first season in the Sunshine State where he went 23-19-6 with a .900 save percentage and a 3.23 goals-against average, Sergei Bobrovsky allowed five goals on 34 shots in a 5-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Panthers’ exhibition game on Wednesday, which heightens concern on top of his poor season. Meanwhile, fellow Russian Semyon Varlamov had a solid first season in New York and went 19-14-6 with a .914 save percentage, a 2.62 goals-against average, and two shutouts.
The Islanders swept all three regular-season meetings with the Panthers and outscored them by four goals, though they have not played since December 12.
The Islanders finished the regular season 35-23-10 while the Panthers went 35-26-8. Though, the Islanders went 19-20-8 (26th in the NHL) in their last 47 games after a franchise-record 17-game point streak (15-0-2) early in the season.
#12 Montreal Canadiens vs. #5 Pittsburgh Penguins, 8 PM ET (NBC)
The primetime game features a number of All-Starts as Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and center Evgeni Malkin face off against goaltender Carey Price and the Canadiens. The Penguins fought through adversity all season with key players missing games but they are nearly at full-strength with forward Jake Guentzel, who did not play after December 30 recovering from a shoulder procedure, and others returning. They also loaded up at the trade deadline with the acquisitions of forwards Evan Rodrigues, Jason Zucker, and Patrick Marleau, giving head coach Mike Sullivan some options.
The Penguins averaged 3.20 goals-per-game (10th) while the Canadiens averaged 2.93 (19th) during the regular season. The Penguins’ 2.84 goals-against per game tied the Hurricanes for 11th while the Canadiens’ 3.10 goals-against per game tied the Nashville Predators for 19th.
The reason the Canadiens might have a chance to upset the Penguins is goaltender Carey Price, who has been a Vezina Trophy winner two times in the past five years (2015, 2017) and posted a 27-25-6 record, a .909 save percentage, a 2.79 goals-against average, and four shutouts this season. Meanwhile, the Penguins are still deciding whether to go with Tristan Jarry (20-12-1, .921 save percentage, 2.43 goals-against average, three shutouts) or Matt Murray (20-11-5, .899 save percentage, 2.87 goals-against average, and one shutout) for Game 1 Saturday.
In addition, the Canadiens were relatively strong based on advanced stats as their 54.01% expected goals percentage and 54.43% Corsi for percentage both ranked second in the league to the Vegas Golden Knights (56.07% expected goals percentage, 54.76% Corsi-for percentage). The Penguins, who finished the regular season with a 40-23-6 record, took two of three meetings against the Canadiens, who went 31-31-9, during the regular season and had a +1 rating in their season series.
#9 Winnipeg Jets vs. #8 Calgary Flames, 10:30 PM ET (NBCSN)
This all-Canadian matchup should be a good one. The Jets won the lone regular-season matchup between the two teams, though that was 2-1 in overtime at the NHL Heritage Classic on October 26. The Flames averaged 2.91 goals-per-game (20th) during the regular season and 3.06 (tied with the Blackhawks for 16th) while the Jets averaged 3.00 goals-per-game (17th) and 2.83 goals-against per game (tenth).
Vezina Trophy candidate Connor Hellebuyck was spectacular this season. Despite facing an average of 33 shots-per-game (tied 17th in the NHL), the 27-year-old went 31-21-5 (second in NHL in wins) with a .922 save percentage (tied for ninth with Los Angeles Kings’ Cal Petersen), a 2.57 goals-against average (sixth), and six shutouts (first). He is the big x-factor in this series. Meanwhile, David Rittich of the Flames posted a 24-17-6 record, a .907 save percentage, a 2.97 goals-against average, and two shutouts.
While the Flames’ goals-against statistics do not indicate it, the team features one of the NHL’s deepest bluelines after the acquisitions of defensemen Derek Forbort (from the Kings) and Erik Gustafsson (Blackhawks). In addition, they will have 21-year-old Juuso Valimaki available after the young blueliner after he tore his ACL during offseason workouts last August and did not play at all during the regular season. The Jets’ blueline was a major concern heading into the season after the team lost defensemen Tyler Myers (signed with Vancouver Canucks in free agency), Ben Chiarot (signed with Canadiens in free agency), and Jacob Trouba (traded to Rangers) but the team was able to outperform their expectations, in large part due to Hellebuyck. After the team acquired defenseman Dylan DeMelo from the Ottawa Senators on February 18, the Jets were third with an average of 1.91 goals-against per game.
The Jets finished this season with a 37-28-6 record, which was actually the sixth-best in the West, but they fell in the standings due to the points percentage re-sorting. The Flames were 36-27-7, including 24-15-3 after replacing head coach Bill Peters with associate Geoff Ward.
By Harrison Brown