Social Shot Distancing: Staff Picks for Round Zero

Good Morning all. The NHL returns to play this week with meaningful games between the bottom 16 to make the real playoffs and the top 8 to determine seedings in Round 1. We’ve gotten the staff together along with our GWG Challenge winner from the regular season, congrats to JD, to lay down the knowledge on who’s going to move on and who’s going home.

The play-in series are best-of-5 which was how the first round was set up when Cup playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1980 with the WHA merger. It’s a rough way to go since game 1 is much more important than in best-of-7. There will be upsets.

Let’s get to it

Western Conference

5) Edmonton Oilers vs. 12) Chicago Blackhawks

Fun Fax: Edmonton has missed the playoffs 12 times and picked #1 4 times since reaching the finals in 2006, both are on the table. Chicago scored 6 more goals at 5v5 and had a better 5v5 goal differential (even vs -16) this season. The Oilers gave up 0.285 more goals per expected goal against 5v5 than the Hawks. This one is closer than it should be. 

Oak: The Blackhawks are currently “hopeful” that Crawford will travel with the team to Edmonton. If he doesn’t travel, their goaltending situation would be three of Collin Delia, Kevin Lankinen, Malcolm Subban and Matt Tomkins. Not looking good. Even if Crawford does travel, their chances are pretty low. Edmonton wins.

Jackie: This match has the chance to produce a lot of scoring and that indicates unpredictability. Edmonton hasn’t yet found the key to sustained success and Chicago could still squeeze out a good performance from their aging stars. Special teams might decide this one where Edmonton has a stark advantage.

J D: Assuming Crawford is able to go, the only matchup I’d give Chicago the advantage over Edmonton is in net. While Edmonton lacks depth, I wouldn’t trust Chicago’s most effective shutdown line of Carpenter-Kampf-Highmore to stop Draisaitl or McDavid, no matter if they remain split up or get reunited for the series. Edmonton takes the play-in round.

Vlad: It’s tempting to say this is “the year” that Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl show that their squad is ready to supplant Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane as a long-term playoff duo in the Western Conference.  I’m not ready to go that far.  Both teams have question marks in goal and on defense, so this may really come down to which duo will outperform the other.  McDavid and Draisaitl certainly have the pedigree to go head to head on the scoring sheet with Toews and Kane, and the desire to prove that they belong in “the show” by knocking out one of the best Western Conference teams over the past decade would provide plenty of motivation.  On the Chicago side, Toews and Kane are now five years removed from their last Stanley Cup, and their supporting cast is a shell of what it once was.  Their window may be closing sooner instead of later, and for a team that won three titles in five years, conceding what may be considered a playoff birthright to another franchise could be the tonic to get the Blackhawks the (final?) postseason berth before the window closes for good.  Chicago defeats Edmonton to advance to the first round and eliminates any “home ice” advantage for the host city’s club for the playoffs.

earl: I’m all in on the upset here. The Oilers are a quick-strike special teams machine that really doesn’t have much beyond their two stars at 5v5. That’s pretty much the opposite of built for the playoffs. Chicago has plenty of warts but they have some experience and some speed, they can pull this off.

Consensus: 3-2 Oilers

6) Nashville Predators vs. 11) Arizona Coyotes

Fun Fax: The Coyotes are attempting to make the playoffs for the first time in 8 years and only the 5th time since 2001. The Preds have been on a steady downturn since their finals appearance and the ill-fated trade with the Avs in 2017. 

Oak: This is gonna be a really unfun series to watch. Nashville continues to not remember how to play well with good players, Rinne continues to have his bad year, and average play from Saros isn’t going to cut it. Arizona wins.

Jackie: We may not see many goals scored from this series as both teams know defensive structure well plus have above average goaltending, which should yield a tight contest between the two. I’m choosing experience in this one and feel that Nashville will find their groove during this postseason with a veteran team who has yet to put it all together.

J D: The Coyotes made multiple trades to become more offensively dynamic and add experience, but they only managed to get older – for the seventh time in eight years since changing from Phoenix to Arizona, they didn’t have a single player on pace for 60 points (prorated to an 82 game season). While Nashville’s days as a dominant defensive team are over, they still have enough talent throughout the lineup to win this one.

Vlad: Like Chicago, Nashville’s window is starting to close.  This may be Pekka Rinne’s last chance to make the playoffs, and on paper, there shouldn’t be any reason to think they won’t.  There are ample threats on offense that would give a lot of teams headaches, but Nashville floundered all season long and unless everything works just right, only then will they squeak past Arizona.  On the Arizona side, they don’t have the forward depth to go head-to-head with the Predators, and even then, the weapons they do have on offense have been misfiring for a large part of the regular season.  Only one player scored more than 20 goals for the Coyotes all season, and that was Conor Garland.  Taylor Hall, brought in specifically for a playoff run and much-needed offense, scored only 10 goals in 35 games for Arizona, good for fifth place on the roster behind our old friend Carl Soderberg, who was one of only two Coyotes skaters who scored 17 goals. That kind of production is a one-way ticket to the Golf Channel if that trend continues against Nashville.  Any shot the Coyotes might have will come from the crease.  Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper are why the Coyotes are even a part of the qualifier, and both goalies will literally have to steal each game if that same lack of goal support carries over from the regular season.  And yet, I think that’s exactly what’s going to happen.  Arizona advances.

earl: I’d love to see the Preds blow this but they aren’t going to lose to a team like Arizona. Nashville shoots a lot and scores a ton of goals, using that to suppress opponents. Not that successful in practice but it will be enough to beat a team with coaching and management issues piled on to their drab roster.

Consensus: 3-2 Preds

7) Vancouver Canucks vs. 10) Minnesota Wild 

Fun Fax: Fun is a bit of an overstatement anytime Minnesota is involved. Neither team made the show last year and VAN has been absent since 2015. The Wilds gave up more GA/xGA at 5v5 than anyone in the NHL this year (1.307), yes more than Detroit even. This matchup features the NHL’s 3rd fastest team vs the 2nd slowest in terms of xG pace, so root for fast. 

Oak: Cale Makar doesn’t even get the chance to go head to head with Hughes because Dubnyk gets hot and the Wild limp their way into not winning the lottery. Minnesota wins.

Jackie: Unfortunately, I see the unexciting result of this one as well. The Wild do mediocre the best and that means advancing to at least round one therefore Minnesota will pull what’s considered the upset as the Canucks are still a young team figuring things out at the next level.

J D: As funny as it would be to see a capped out and mediocre Vancouver team play next season without their unprotected first round pick, they have the gamebreaking players Minnesota lack and I think that talent wins out.

Vlad: In the event that Minnesota emerges victorious, there’s a good chance that the Avalanche will get their opportunity to avenge their 2014 playoff exit, and I am all about making the Wild suffer.  I think that Vancouver’s young talent will make things interesting, but Minnesota will choke enough life out of their offense that it’ll play into the hands of the Wild.  Unfortunately, no one outside St. Paul will notice because there are more exciting games to watch.

earl: Like I mentioned above this one comes down to speed. If the Nucks talent can overcome their own dumb roster along with Minny’s dumb roster then it’s a win. I think they will, this format should favor teams with some quick strike ability early in the series. A lot of the stats crowd loves the Wilds shot metrics but I see a lot of score effects driving that, false indicator.

Consensus: 3-2 Wilds (underdog)

8) Calgary Flames vs. 9) Winnipeg Jets 

Fun Fax: The Jets are on a slide since making the WC finals 3 years ago while the Flames are the perpetual bubble team. Winnipeg was two games over .500 in regulation while Calgary was two games under. Winny had the worst xG differential in the league at 5v5 (-34.5), good thing they have a Vezina contender. 

Oak: Gaudreau continues to not show in the playoffs, as Rittich and Talbot prove that they aren’t the answer. It’s the Connor, Scheifele, Wheeler, Laine, and Ehlers show. Winnipeg wins.

Jackie: One of the toughest series to handicap but the playoffs often are about goaltending and I’ll side with the impending Vezina trophy recipient in Connor Hellebuyck. He will be enough to hold the fort down and mitigate Winnipeg’s suspect defense to at least advance to the real playoffs.

J D: Winnipeg’s defence is atrocious, and yet Hellebuyck’s Hart-calibre play will singlehandedly take them from the fake playoffs to the real ones.

Vlad: How do the Calgary Flames not bounce back after the beatdown at the hands of the Avs?  That is going to be one roster that will want to prove that last season’s early playoff exit was a fluke, but it has been a tough road for them all season long.  What better way to do that than to go up against the Winnipeg Jets, who no longer have the services of Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba to hinder them.  Should be no problem for Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Elias Lindholm to return to the form that saw them combine for 259 regular season points last year.  Except…there’s a small problem: Connor Hellebuyck.  If  This combo managed a whole five points on Philipp Grubauer  in that first round last season.  I’ll wager Hellebuyck gives up less.  Winnipeg has better options up front and they will likely tear through the Flames’ defense almost as easily as the Avs did last year.  Add in that both David Rittich and Cam Talbot will be on very short leashes, and it’s unlikely that there will be anything other than a Winnipeg series victory.

earl: This one’s pretty easy for me. Flames have too many problems compared to last year’s team and Winnipeg can goalie this one to gain a 1st round berth if they have to. Despite their laughable defense they still have a solid forward corps.

Consensus: 5-0 Jets (underdog)

Eastern Conference

5) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. 12) Montreal Canadiens

Fun Fax: The Habs slipped into this menagerie last but their record in regulation (19W/31L) was worse than both Jersey and Buffalo. Somehow they ended up t-5th in the NHL (with Vegas) for time spent with the lead. The Pens haven’t missed the playoffs since Crosby’s rookie season in 2006…

Oak: We all know this is where Laffy is going to end up, right? Either Montreal loses and he goes where he’d love to play, or Pittsburgh loses, wins the lottery, and the universe implodes. Your daily reminder that Pittsburgh has Marleau, because I keep forgetting. Not that he’s the reason they win, but they do. Pittsburgh wins.

Jackie: It seems each team has tried to one-up each other already with covid scares during training camp but full-health or something near to it is expected for when real games begin. This match sets up as more interesting than on paper but would take a monumental effort from the Habs to knock off Pittsburgh who was sixth in the league overall at the pause. The series might unexpectedly go the distance but Pittsburgh eventually gets the job done.

J D: Despite NHL players voting Carey Price the league’s best goalie, the Habs finished bottom 10 in goals allowed this season because of his sub-average play. The Canadiens have stolen series from better teams with a worse goalie, but they’d also need Kotkaniemi to come out of his sophomore slump and Drouin to put it all together for the first time since Halifax to stand a chance at taking out Crosby, Malkin, and the Penguins.

Vlad: With both teams seemingly putting their COVID-19 scares behind them, this series is assuredly Pittsburgh’s to lose.  Even with some potential question marks around its goaltending, they still have the best player in the world, Sidney Crosby, who was literally the face of the last health scare the NHL played through (remember the mumps outbreak of 2014?) and his team still made the postseason!  Coincidence?  Probably.  Defeating the Habs?  Even if Shea Weber and the Habs’ defense can minimize the damage done by Crosby’s line, There’s still Evgeni Malkin’s line to solve.  Au revoir, Montreal; Pittsburgh moves on.

earl: I think Montreal has a puncher’s chance against a fairly old and flawed Pittsburgh team. If they shoot enough, and they love to shoot, it could work in a short series. Ultimately, there are too many holes in the Habs lineup and they move to the lottery which could be the real payoff.

Consensus: 5-0 Pitt

6) Carolina Hurricanes vs. 11) NY Rangers 

Fun Fax: The Rangers own a 1st round pick from the Canes, although not necessarily their own, from the Brady Skjei trade (both teams went .500 after the trade btw). The Canes have made the playoffs 4 times since 2001 and made the 3rd round every time. The Rags have made the playoffs 11 times in the same period but only made 3rd round 3 times. 

Oak: The Rangers rally around Hank (who is on the bench) and Panarin continues his Hart bid. He’ll score a bunch against Mrazek. Or Reimer? Whoever they go with. New York wins.

Jackie: I’ll have to put faith in the analytics and that the Hurricanes will exert consistent pressure in this series. The Rangers have enough stars to hope for a special performance or two but it won’t be enough to edge Carolina who can score as well.

J D: Carolina’s blue line is banged up before a single game gets played, which would be great news for one of the league’s top scoring teams – if the Rangers had a blue line capable of preventing the Canes from spending the whole game in their zone. Carolina wins the highest scoring series of all the play-ins.

Vlad: I was very upset that the Hurricanes ended the Washington Capitals Stanley Cup run last year, but I was equally impressed in the way that they did it.  That Capitals roster was stacked and the Hurricanes earned plenty of respect to pull out that Game Seven win.  They followed it up with a sweep of the New York Islanders through the second round, but were swept themselves by Boston in the Eastern Conference Final.  That young squad is ready for the next step, and while Artemi Panarin put together a very solid effort in his first year on Broadway and got the Rangers dreaming of a postseason berth, they’ll have to keep dreaming.  Carolina claims the right to play on.

earl: This should be one of the best, if not the best, round 0 series. Plenty of talent on both sides and enough flaws to make things exciting. Canes should have a huge quality-generation and differential advantage, which hasn’t always paid off for them. I think it does here, barely.

Consensus: 4-1 Canes

7) NY Islanders vs. 10) Florida Panthers 

Fun Fax: Like the WC 7-10 matchup this features chaos vs boredom. The Panthers are looking for their 3rd playoff berth this century, also haven’t won a series since defeating PIT in a game 7 so they could get smoked by the Avs in the Cup Finals 1996. The Cats won 30 games in regulation this year, the Isles won 24. Hmmm.

Oak: Bobrovsky remembers how to goalie, while Barkov and Huberdeau dominate the Isles. Florida wins.

Jackie: As much as the Islanders might bore everyone to death their approach will work to keep the chaotic Panthers at bay. Florida goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is running out of excuses if he doesn’t put in a special performance but it’s very tough to just turn a season around. If New York grabs a hold of this series early it might be over quick.

J D: As desperate as we all are for meaningful hockey, this series plays out according to the Islanders wishes and is borderline unwatchable in the process despite all the wasted talent playing in this series.

Vlad: I already picked one boring team to advance in the qualifier, and I’m hesitant to do it again.  I will be curious to see how this matchup plays out in the crease.  Sergei Bobrovsky successfully backstopped his way to a first round sweep with Columbus last year, but that’s been the only playoff series win of his career.  His counterpart in Semyon Varlamov, as Avs fans are well aware, hasn’t fared much better in the postseason.  Varly’s ace in the hole may be his coach, Barry Trotz, who is only two years removed from his Stanley Cup victory with Washington.  The only hope for Florida is for Aleksander Barkov, Mike Hoffman, and Jonathan Huberdeau to run roughshod over the Islanders’ defense early and often.  Chaos is the Panthers’ brand, and that’ll give Florida their first postseason berth since the 2015-2016 season.

earl: Panthers should win this one pretty easily but Barry Trotz is magic in the postseason when he has time to prep and bore everyone to death. I think the short series works in the Cats favor and they get a lead before suppression sets in. The telling stat for me is the differential in regulation wins with Florida much better despite the opposite being true in total points.

Consensus: 3-2 Florida (underdog)

8) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. 9) Columbus Blue Jackets 

Fun Fax: One these teams will have a 3-year playoff streak snapped. The Jackets had 15 loser points this season, 3 more than BOS, OTT & NJD. The Leafs scored 33 more goals at 5v5 than the Jackets, they also gave up 35 more against. These two teams have completely opposite strategies and yet end up very close on paper. Should be very interesting.

Oak: This series is probably one I am most excited for. I want Toronto to win because I don’t want them to have a shot at Laffy. CBJ is deep, and finally healthy. Elvis has been great and Korpisalo has been solid. I think it goes the distance, but CBJ grind it out. Columbus wins.

Jackie: I see a good tug of war brewing for these teams which have completely different styles as chaos meets structure. It may become a battle of momentum but it’s much more difficult for Columbus to generate offense and therefore I’ll give the nod to Toronto.

J D: Being from Toronto I have an acute awareness of the pessimistic Leafs fan mindset – it’s not so much that the worst case scenario comes to pass so much as the scenario that builds up the most hope before ending in heartbreak. With that in mind, the perfect storm would be a combination of three things: 1) Toronto beats Columbus before 2) losing to Boston yet again in the first round, while…

Vlad: No reason to think that Columbus can’t beat Toronto.  The Blue Jackets’ sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning last year has to definitely bring a lot of confidence to that locker room.  They may not have Bobrovsky in goal, but Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins have put together a very solid tandem and their respective performances all season have put any concerns they’d have in the crease to rest.  Toronto will likely breathe a sigh of relief that they didn’t draw Boston, but probably a little too much relief, as they will likely underestimate (read: look past) Columbus.  That will assuredly cost the Maple Leafs a playoff berth, and will undoubtedly kickoff a pandemic of a different kind in Toronto.

earl: This is a matchup of polar opposites and it looks like Columbus would be more comfortable with that than the Leafs. The Jackets have a relentless forecheck and that’s going to pin Toronto in their zone a lot. Bad things tend to happen in the Leafs defensive zone and this will be no different.

Consensus: 3-2 Jackets (underdog)

Round Robin

Oak: I think the Avs get the top seed and that their biggest obstacle is St. Louis. Dallas had the Avs’ number all year, but even if they continue to do so, I don’t think they’re good enough to surpass Vegas or St. Louis. And to be honest, Dallas just doesn’t scare me. With Vegas, the Avs crushed them twice. No worry there. St. Louis is legit good, however Binnington hasn’t been the savior he was last year and I think the Avs speed and depth allows the Avs to beat St. Louis.

Jackie: It’s not the end of the world if the Avs don’t get the top seed, you just hope they can win at least one game to get ready for round one. I’ll go with Vegas grabbing the top spot. In the east I think Philadelphia sets up a bit as a team of destiny so I’ll give them the top seed as well.

J D: Colorado and St. Louis will both finish the round robin 2-1 with St. Louis getting the #1 seed after the tiebreaker, while Boston holds onto the top spot out East.

Vlad: Boston will likely come out on top for the Eastern Conference.  I’m not sold on Philadelphia, and Braden Holtby’s struggles this season take the Capitals out of the mix for me.  Tampa could make things interesting in the round robin, but I think they fall short of the top spot.  As far as the Western Conference is concerned, Colorado will take the top spot.  The Blues will be their biggest obstacle in getting there, but being the first team that the Avs face in the qualifier will only benefit them.  Neither club has played each other with its full roster compliment, and both teams going in fully healthy will be the playoff matchup to truly determine who is the better club.  It’s one thing to win, but it’s a whole other task to defend.  The Blues have that added pressure; the Avs don’t, and that’s to their benefit.

earl: I see the Avs beating STL and Vegas and losing to Dallas as usual. Maybe that’s good enough, maybe like JD mentioned it’s not. Without knowing the Rd 0 results it’s tough to call that good or bad. Most importantly they need to get ready for the real games so some good prep and health is the best result.

Tampa is the top all-around team for me in the East and this is the kind of showcase where they don’t have to deal with Boston’s suppressive style night-in, night-out and get the top seed.

Draft Lottery: Phase II

Oak: Much like Hercules, Elias Pettersson will visit the sisters of fate, and say, “but what about Vancouver? Wouldn’t that be funny?” They agree. Vancouver wins it.

Jackie: It’s destiny that Montreal wins the first overall pick to select their French-Canadian franchise hero in Alexis Lafrenière.

J D: …3) Columbus wins the lottery – and Leafs fans who still aren’t over having the highest odds to get McDavid after the third ball will have to reckon with being the team that could have had Lafreniere.

Vlad: 2020 has been the year of chaos, and in chaos, stability is desperately needed.  Therefore, Edmonton will be the constant that we can all count on to provide that stability when they draft Alex Lafreniere at number one.  Let your freak flag fly once more, Oilers fans!

earl: lol, the Habs of course.

 *  *  *

We like the underdogs in the 7/10 and 8/9 series but go with the stronger favorites in the others. The only unanimous picks were Pittsburgh & Winnipeg while in 5 of the 8 series we split 3-2 so there are some good arguments either way. The only guarantee is chaos with as many as 52 games to be played in the next 9 days.

Thanks to the staff for chipping in here and special ones to J D for taking the time to join us. We appreciate it.

earl06

Scoring LW, punchy climber for the Ardennes classics, spirit guide

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