When the NHL’s Return to Play Committee finalized and voted on the 24-team tournament, it was largely met with an overwhelming seal of approval. The plan was approved by the NHLPA by a vote of 29-2, with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes as the dissenting votes.
Essentially, the top four teams in each conference receive a bye and will play each other in a three-game, round-robin tournament for seeding. The bottom eight teams will face off in a best-of-five, play-in round to qualify for the traditional 16-team Stanley Cup playoffs.
Here are two teams playing in the qualifiers that could make a whole lot of noise and even be dark horse contenders to win Lord Stanley’s Cup.
In the Western Conference, the Chicago Blackhawks are the team no one wants to face. They come in as the 12th seed and will face-off against the 5th seed Edmonton Oilers. The Hawks are led by two players with loads of Stanley Cup playoff success in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. In addition, they have nasty, hard-hitting defensemen led by Duncan Keith and two-time Cup winner Corey Crawford still in net.
Now don’t get me wrong, the Oilers have this era’s version of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. The latter is this year’s scoring champ and the only NHL player to eclipse 100 points at the suspension of play. However, they have had little to no success in the postseason and enter the tournament with a very inexperienced defense. Between the pipes, they have 37-year-old Mike Smith, who has played just 24 playoff games in 14 seasons.
This will probably be the most high-scoring and fun play-in match to watch. It will likely even go the distance. If the Hawks get by the Oilers, the rest of the West must be put on notice. While Kane and Toews are both 31, they are well-rested and could put a serious hurt on any team they face in these playoffs.
New York Rangers
The New York Rangers are coming in as the 11th seed in the East. They were also one of the hottest teams down the stretch, coming within a point of the wild card before the hiatus. Head coach David Quinn got his young team to turn the corner on January 31st and they went 14-7-1 when play was suspended. This team has all the makings of a dark horse, with Artemi Panarin (95 points) leading them in scoring. His play has put him in the MVP discussion, with the previously mentioned Leon Draisaitl. New York also had the hottest goalie going down the stretch in phenom, Igor Shesterkin. The 24-year-old “Czar of NY” had a record of 10-2 in 12 games with a 2.52 GAA and a whopping .932 SV%. He did so in impressive fashion, earning a seven-game winning streak that included a 5-2 win against Carolina. Shesterkin also faced over 40 shots in 5-of-12 starts, winning every single contest.
Let’s talk about the Carolina Hurricanes, the team that voted against the plan with coach Rod Brind’Amour complaining about fairness. They are an extremely talented team, led by Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov, that play with a disciplined approach that emphasizes puck possession. That’s important because they don’t have good goaltending. Why did they vote no? Was it really about fairness? Or could it be that they lost all four games to the Rangers this year and have gone 2-10 against them in the last three seasons?
This is another series that could go the all the way. But it is more likely to be a sweep for the Rangers, if the Canes goaltending issues continue. If the Rangers get by the Hurricanes, as I expect, they stand a great chance of hoisting the Stanley Cup. Aside from Panarin and Shesterkin, the Rangers are actually very talented on defense with Tony DeAngelo finishing as the NHL’s fourth-leading scorer among blue-liners. But the big name to watch for the Rangers is center Mika Zibanejad, who scored a remarkable 41 goals in just 57 games including 14 in the team’s last 10 contests.