Hockey Returns: Breaking Down the NHL’s Eastern Conference Qualifying Round
By Kevin Mejia
This is the final edition in a three-part series breaking down the NHL’s return. Find Part One, previewing the Round Robin qualifying round, here. Find Part Two, previewing the Western Conference qualifying round, here.
Like last week, let’s establish the context of what we’ll be looking at here in the qualifying round preview. The X-Factor on each team is the difference maker for each team. Who is going to be the player we expect to perform and will perform? It’s the no brainer difference maker. It’s the player on the team that is a leader on the ice. Without this player, the makeup of each team would be dramatically different to say the least. The reasoning behind each breakout player for each team is different. These players might be returning from an injury, they might be one of the best players on the team, they might be a player that will play up to their abilities. Breakout players are uncertain picks for players who might have a big impact on the qualifying round. Finally, we have a matchup to watch. This matchup can be on the ice, a mental game, or a specific one on one to focus on.
Qualifying Round Preview: East
5 Pittsburgh Penguins (40-23-6) vs. 12 Montreal Canadiens (31-31-9)
Pittsburgh Penguins X-Factor: Sidney Crosby – No doubt in my mind Sid wants to get back on the ice. In a season where he was over a point per game and got hurt, the captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins is undoubtedly one of the best players in the game right now. Crosby’s postseason résumé is the best in the salary cap era. The savvy vet will lead by example as he has done so many times in his career.
Montreal Canadiens X-Factor: Carey Price – The goaltender for the historic Montreal Canadiens will need to play up to the hype of his mammoth eight year $84 million contract. Price only posted a .909 save percentage this season and was on pace to allow the most goals in a season in his career. From 2013 to 2017 Price played with at least a .923 save percentage, and now has fallen off. The last time the Habs ventured into the playoffs, Price was sensational with a .933 save percent but the Canadiens couldn’t break through the first round. Price will need to play with confidence and poise to carry a weak offensive team.
Pittsburgh Penguins Breakout Player: Jake Guentzel – A player who was lost to injury mid-season, Guentzel’s earliest return date was going to be the playoffs. Now, returning just in time for the qualifying round, Guentzel brings a dynamic scoring ability to any center he plays with. In the postseason, Guentzel sits first among active players with .585 goals per game. Even though this is not the postseason, Guentzel’s scoring knack will be highlighted.
Montreal Canadiens Breakout Player: Max Domi – A tough kid from Manitoba, Max Domi has skills that his father, Tie Domi did not possess, however, Max still packs a punch. Domi will fight in this series at least one time, that is a guarantee. Domi has the skill to put up a Gordie Howe hat trick (goal, assist, and fight) against the Pens, but he will likely take a lot of pressure from defenseman Kris Letang. Domi can be a pain in front of the net and will frustrate the Penguins’ forwards. Domi’s job is to make life miserable for anyone playing against him, which he will, along with getting on the scoresheet.
Matchup to Watch: The Malkin Line vs. Jeff Petry and Brett Kulak – Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot will have the lovely task of defending Sidney Crosby and his line, but that leaves the Penguins’ second line, featuring star center Evgeni Malkin, open for business. Malkin and linemates Jason Zucker (moving down as Guentzel takes his spot with Crosby) and Bryan Rust will have a field day against Jeff Petry and Brett Kulak. Malkin’s physical game will likely wear down on the pair. This line will likely feast on the two defensemen. If Petry and Kulak want success, they must steer Malkin away from the middle of the ice and match his physical play. The two must not lose sight of Jason Zucker as well, a dangerous goal scoring forward. Getting beat by the worst forward of the three (no slight to Bryan Rust) will let the Canadiens pair win this matchup.
Final Thoughts: This series has the potential to be an interesting one, however it will not last as long as most expect. The Penguins have the depth and best player out of the two teams in Sidney Crosby. Don’t get it twisted, Carey Price will stand on his head all series, but the Montreal defense is not good enough. New addition Jason Zucker will highlight the Penguins march to the postseason. Alexis Lafrenière will be a member of the Montreal Canadiens next season.
Prediction: Pittsburgh Penguins defeat Montreal Canadiens, 3-1
6 Carolina Hurricanes (38-25-5) vs. 11 New York Rangers (37-28-5)
Carolina Hurricanes X-Factor: Sebastian Aho – Sebastian “Sea bass” Aho is one of the most underrated skaters in the league, as the Finnish forward was tied for sixth (with Jets forward Kyle Connor) in goals scored with 38 on the shortened season. Aho is a great two-way forward who mans the center position for the Canes. Sea Bass anchors a daunting line with Teuvo Teräväinen and Andrei Svechnikov on the wings, one of the best lines in the league. Sebastian Aho will surely lead by example, as he posted 12 points in 15 playoff games last spring.
New York Rangers X-Factor: Artemi Panarin – Going from Sea Bass to the big fish of the offseason, the Rangers landed Artemi Panarin. The Breadman has blessed Broadway with his raw talent; the forward possesses great playmaking abilities while being able to carry the puck and score on his own. Panarin’s 95 points puts him top three in overall scoring this season. In four postseasons Panarin sits at .96 points per game including 11 points in 10 games last postseason with Columbus. Breadman’s skills as a winger make him one of the most valuable players in the league.
Carolina Hurricanes Breakout Player: Dougie Hamilton – After playing in major markets like Boston and Calgary, Dougie Hamilton has finally found a home in Carolina. The shutdown defenseman will have the task of stopping Mika Zibanejad’s line. Hamilton has a physical prowess about his game which allows for game changing net control. Clearing the net for goalies like Petr Mrázek and James Reimer will be key against a speedy Rangers lineup. Hamilton effectively jumps into rushes and scores at will, the d man had 14 goals before getting injured. Hamilton’s abilities will allow for defensemen like Joel Edmundson to get more favorable matchups.
New York Rangers Breakout Player: Adam Fox – A rookie in a big city with no pressure has led to one of the most underrated performances of the year. Adam Fox is an effective puck moving defenseman who generates offense. Any defenseman that can move a puck up ice effectively in today’s game is one worth having in the lineup. Fox improved the Rangers whenever he was on the ice. With him on the ice, the team generated more offense than without him. To go along with this, the defense was better when he was on the ice as well. Overall, Fox likely won’t have much of an impact on the scoresheet, but his impact will be felt when he is on the ice for the Rags.
Matchup to Watch: Rangers’ Bottom Six Forwards vs. Carolina’s Bottom Defense Pair – The Rangers bottom six forwards will be ones to watch, as they take on the likes of Jake Gardiner, Hayden Fleury, and Trevor Van Riemsdyk. The third line of the Rangers, one of the worst in the league, centered by Brett Howden has potential with wingers Kaapo Kakko and Brendan Lemiux, but will likely struggle. The trio scored a combined one goal in four games against Carolina this season. Looking at the current fourth line of the Rangers, Steven Fogarty, Greg McKegg, and Julien Gauthier, we see zero points in games against Carolina. To be fair, McKegg played in two games, Fogary none, and Gauthier one game. If Filip Chytil can return, there will be an immediate impact on the ice. Gardiner, Fleury, and Van Riemsdyk must not let their guard down against the bottom six of the Rangers.
Final Thoughts: A season series dominated by the Rangers pushes me to believe in the Rangers, but there is just something about the Hurricanes when it comes to clutch time. The Canes have all the talent in the world, they just need to piece together the mental game. The Rangers will be a tricky opponent to deal with, especially Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, and the return of Chris Kreider. The Canes will dominate the pace of play, but the Rangers will give them a run for their money.
Prediction: Carolina Hurricanes defeat New York Rangers, 3-2
7 New York Islanders (35-23-10) vs. 10 Florida Panthers (35-26-8)
New York Islanders X-Factor: Mathew Barzal – Islanders fans rejoice as this young dynamic center is the cornerstone of the franchise. Isles star Mat Barzal is a bonified number one center in the league, as he has some of the craftiest mitts in the NHL. Barzal’s edgework when it comes to skating is some of the best of the forwards in the league, as he often uses a quick stop and go move to destroy his defenders. The playmaking forward put up 60 points in 68 games before the season came to a pause.
Florida Panthers X-Factor: Jonathan Huberdeau – The French-Canadian forward for the cats has taken the next step this season. Huberdeau was on pace to tie his career high in points, which he set last season. Huberdeau might not be the two-way genie like captain Aleksander Barkov, but he has set a new pace, leading the team in points. An electric feel comes his way as he has consistently scored at least 23 goals in the past 3 seasons, the playmaking forward is a forced to be reckoned with and must be guarded precisely.
New York Islanders Breakout Player: Jean-Gabriel Pageau – A trade deadline acquisition, JGP has all the talent in the world to be an effective third line center. Pageau made his value known this season, putting up a career high 24 goals before being traded to the Isles and scoring another two goals. Pageau is a stud at the faceoff dot, winning 53.5% on the season. The skating motion might be a bit slow with Pageau but his strides as a goal scorer more than make up for it. If Pageau can score like Jordan Eberle did last postseason, the trade will be viewed as a success.
Florida Panthers Breakout Player: Noel Acciari – Formerly a Boston Bruin, Acciari played in the 19 playoff games last postseason, only putting up four points. This season, with more direction and better time on ice, Acciari is proving to be a lethal threat that can score if played correctly. Potting 20 goals in 66 games this season for the cats, Acciari proved to be a valuable bottom six forward. One caveat to Acciari’s 20 goals – he scored six of them in back to back games: two hat tricks. Another forward, a bit more consistent to watch, is Brett Connolly. Connolly netted 19 goals and 14 assists on the season.
Matchup to Watch: Sergei Bobrovsky vs. Islanders Offense – The Isles struggle to do one thing consistently: score goals. The Isles place 22nd out of the 24 teams when it comes to goals scored this season. They sit in front of Columbus and Dallas, who both scored 180 goals. The Islanders only had two players (three counting Pageau) score more than 20 goals for the team. Comparatively speaking, the Panthers had five players score 20 or more goals. With that, we move to Sergei Bobrovsky, the $10 million man. Bobrovsky, was not on the ball this season, as he struggled to reach a .900 save percent by the end of the season. Who knows if Chris Driedger will come in and replace Bob? If Sergei does play, we might see an offensive illusion from the Islanders. If the Isles can get depth scoring going, this series will be over sooner rather than later.
Final Thoughts: As nice as it would be to see the Panthers advance to the playoffs, there is just no way it is happening. The Islanders defense is electric and will take care of the Panthers’ forwards. Sergei Bobrovsky will play like he did in the regular season, poorly. The Panthers offense will not be able to keep up, even with the Islanders struggling to score. Expect low scoring games.
Prediction: New York Islanders defeat Florida Panthers, 3-1
8 Toronto Maple Leafs (36-25-9) vs. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets (33-22-15)
Toronto Maple Leafs X-Factor: Auston Matthews – Auston Matthews is becoming a household name amongst NHL fans as the fourth year forward for the Leafs is one of the best goal scorers in the league. Matthews has one of the best releases in the league. The California native tends to pull in the puck and quickly snap a deadly shot top shelf. The talent is undeniable. Matthews’ drive and physical play makes him an elite two-way forward as well. Matthews can also set up goals with a great touch on the puck. There is no containing the elite center.
Columbus Blue Jackets X-Factor: Joonas Korpisalo/Elvis Merzlikins – Two for the price of one. The Blue Jackets have an interesting decision to make when it comes to their starting goaltender. Do you play with the consistent, veteran goalie who posted a solid .911 save percent or do you go with the rookie goalie who stole the show this season with the veteran goalie hurt? Elvis Merzlikins lit the hockey world on fire, posting an astounding .923 save percent for the Jackets in 33 games. Merzlikins even posted five shutouts this season. Korpisalo, the vet, has never made an appearance in a postseason game, but will likely get the nod from head coach John Tortorella. Goaltending will not be an issue for the Blue Jackets, with both goalies playing exceptionally well.
Toronto Maple Leafs Breakout Player: Zach Hyman – Zach Hyman is an absolute grinder. There is no Leaf that works harder at his game than Hyman. Hyman scores the dirty goals at the front of the net that no other player wants to work for. He wins the net front battles against defensemen that are colossal compared to him. Without even looking at his stats, Zach Hyman is someone you want on your team. This season, Hyman came off an injury and put up a 33-goal pace. His 37 points (21 goals) in 51 games pace would have put him over his career high of 41 points if the season had finished out. Oh, did we mention he plays with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner?
Columbus Blue Jackets Breakout Player: Seth Jones – Coming off an injury mid-season, all was lost for Seth Jones unless the Blue Jackets made the postseason. Now, with the season resuming in early August Jones will have fully recovered from his hairline fracture and ankle sprain. Jones is an established commodity in Columbus, after playing three years in Nashville to start his career. Jones knows his capability as a two-way defenseman. Before his injury, Jones had six goals and 24 dimes in 56 games. Jones can shut down his opponent at will. Seth Jones likens to a young John Carlson. An integral piece of the Blue Jackets lineup, Jones will make the right decisions and contribute on the scoresheet.
Matchup to Watch: The Matthews Line vs. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski – Auston Matthews centering Zach Hyman and Mitch Marner is one of the most potent lines in the league. With Mitch Marner’s creativity with the puck, there is nothing this line can’t do. Anyone on this line is capable of scoring three goals in a game if they desired. Matthews, the natural goal scorer, potted 47 on the season. Matthews also has the prowess to set up plays with a dynamic style of skating. Hyman, the grinder, goes in the corners along the boards and will likely matchup against Zach Werenski and Seth Jones the most. The three heavies will body each other all series and will get the brunt of the physical play. Don’t sleep on Auston Matthews to hit hard in the corners as well. Werenski and Jones will have a tough time with this matchup, as the pair might even have to be split to contain John Tavares’s line.
Final Thoughts: These two teams always play closely contested matches and we will see a brand of physical game from Columbus that might throw the Leafs off a bit. Expect the Blue Jackets to take game 1 in stride, however, the Leafs will adjust and learn to hit back. Frederik Andersen must play well for the Leafs to advance. William Nylander and John Tavares will show out in this series. This series will likely have a few overtime games to boot. It’s jump ball.
Prediction: Toronto Maple Leafs defeat Columbus Blue Jackets, 3-2
Header Photo Credit: (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
Penguins Photo Credit: (Photo by Sara Schmidle/Getty Images)
Canadiens Photo Credit: (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
Hurricanes Photo Credit: (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)
Rangers Photo Credit: (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)
Islanders Photo Credit: (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)
Panthers Photo Credit: (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)
Maple Leafs Photo Credit: (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)
Blue Jackets Photo Credit: (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)