If you have not been living under a rock, you will have heard or read or seen that the NHL announced its return to play format. 24 teams will resume play if and when the league receives the green light. Now, as Commissioner Gary Bettman aptly observed during the announcement conference, every fan can find something to complain about. But, this official announcement from the NHL felt like an adrenaline shot after a months-long slumber. We haven’t had official news like this since March, so what’s the point of complaining? Instead, let’s have some fun.
With the NHL’s return closer than ever, and a playoff format decided, we can start making some postseason predictions. Here, I’ve laid out three predictions (I should call them prophecies since I know they will be correct). Will we see the NHL return to action? Who knows. But I guarantee that these premonitions will materialize.
The Toronto Maple Leafs and Auston Matthews
Prediction: The Maple Leafs will win their first playoff series since 2004, and Auston Matthews will score more goals in the first round than games played.
What can we say about the Toronto Maple Leafs? The team has been volatile, especially before Mike Babcock’s firing. Head coach Sheldon Keefe brought some stability and fortune to the team, steering them to a 27-15-5 record. Many of Toronto’s stars delivered: Matthews had 47 goals and 70 points; Mitch Marner posted 67 points in 59 games; captain John Tavares delivered with 60 in 63; and William Nylander silenced critics with 31 goals. Goalie Frederik Anderson was on pace for 30-plus wins before the pause.
The Maple Leafs’ defense may have been a cause for concern earlier this season but steadied toward the end. Tyson Barrie received (justified) early criticism for struggling but then scored an impressive 32 points in 47 games under Keefe. Jake Muzzin missed 17 games because of injury but nonetheless tallied 23 points and a plus-12 rating. Similarly, Morgan Reilly scored 27 points in only 47 games. Justin Holl emerged as a reliable defenseman, finishing the season at plus-13.
All this to say, the Maple Leafs are in decent shape. I have the feeling that the rollercoaster they endured earlier this season forced all the “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” out of their system. The pause has been a reset button – now Toronto is primed to win their first playoff series since 2004. Of course, the Maple Leafs will have to defeat the Columbus Blue Jackets to advance to the first round of the postseason, but I think they can and will.
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Now, who the Maple Leafs play in the first round is unknown. How poetic would it be for the team’s first series victory in over 15 years to come against the Boston Bruins? So much strangeness this season makes me think that is when Toronto could pull it off. And, Auston Matthews will lead the team, scoring more goals than the number of games played by the Maple Leafs in the first round. If Toronto sweeps, he will pot at least five; if they win in six, he’ll have at least seven; and, if they advance in seven, well, you get the idea.
The Carolina Hurricanes and Sebastian Aho
Prediction: The Hurricanes will lose in the Eastern Conference Final while Sebastian Aho leads the NHL in postseason points.
Last year, the Carolina Hurricanes advanced to the Eastern Conference Final only to be swept by the Boston Bruins. So, the prediction that Hurricanes will again return to the ECF may not appear bold. But, this season, injuries have plagued the Hurricanes, hindering the team’s ability to achieve its full potential. Dougie Hamilton was having a Norris Trophy-worthy season before breaking his leg and missing 21 games.
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Both Petr Mrazek and James Reimer were injured in the game that forced emergency backup goalie David Ayers into action. Newly-acquired Sami Vatanen missed seven games after joining the Hurricanes from the New Jersey Devils. And, don’t forget that underrated Brett Pesce was placed on injured reserve in February. Needless to say, the Hurricanes back end was not operating at full capacity.
Nevertheless, when the NHL paused, the Canes held the first wild-card spot. Under the NHL’s return to play format, the Hurricanes will have to defeat the New York Rangers to earn a spot in the first round. The pause has allowed Hamilton, Vatanen, Mrazek, and Reimer time to recover. Throw in more-than-capable skaters Jordan Martinook and Brady Skjei, and the Canes are in good shape. With a rejuvenated defensive core and two NHL goalies, the Canes should win and find a groove to carry them to Round 3.
This is where the offense and Sebastian Aho come in. The Hurricanes have a potent front end that Aho leads with 66 points in 68 games. Even though he received a rare offer sheet from the Montreal Canadiens last season, Aho still finds a way to fly under the radar. The kid had 38 goals this year, tied for fifth-highest in the league. But he’s not only good during the regular season – he also posted 12 points in 17 postseason games last year at just 21 years old. He should have no problem continuing that success, especially since return-to-play games will likely be looser and more open as teams find their footing – an ideal environment for a skilled player like Aho.
Throw in Teuvo Teravainen, (63 points in 68 games), Andrei Svechnikov (61 in 68) and pure sniper Vincent Trochek, and I’d say the Hurricanes boast one of the more complete and dangerous rosters heading into play. It is the combination of depth, skill, and rest that will propel the Hurricanes to the ECF. Although I don’t see them advancing to the Stanley Cup Final, I do expect Aho to lead the NHL in points at the time the Canes are eliminated.
The St. Louis Blues and Jordan Binnington
Prediction: The Blues will repeat as Stanley Cup Champions, and Jordan Binnington will bring home the Conn Smythe.
It’s not easy for a team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups, I know. I also realize that the Pittsburgh Penguins accomplished this feat only a few years ago, so repeat champions might not occur so closely together. But the Blues are the team to do it. They were first in the Western Conference at the pause with a 42-19-10 record. Earlier in 2020, the Blues went through the adversity seemingly necessary for any team to secure playoff success. On Feb. 15, the Blues were 6-8-4 in 2020. Three days later, they launched an eight-game winning streak. It seemed that the Blues were peaking at the right time.
A huge factor in the Blues’ success was the outstanding netminding duo of Jordan Binnington and Jake Allen. Binnington proved that last season was no fluke, securing 30 wins in his 50 starts. Allen was arguably the best backup in the league, posting a 12-6-3 record with a 2.15 goals against average and .927 save percentage. While a reliable duo is reassuring, the Blues will lean on Binnington in the playoffs.
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Why shouldn’t they? The guy has the confidence, skill, and experience to win consecutive championships. He flat out told Hall of Famer Marty Brodeur that he refused to be sent to the ECHL before the 2019 season. It’s that swagger that will lead the Blues to the franchise’s second Cup.
The Blues’ success this season is more impressive since Vladimir Tarasenko – the team’s leading goal scorer – missed essentially the entire year. True to the team’s spirit of hard work, the rest of the team contributed in his absence. Conn Smythe and Selke Trophy winner Ryan O’Reilly led the team with 61 points, while David Perron contributed 60.
Brayden Schenn netted 25 goals and Jaden Schwartz rebounded this season with 22. Captain Alex Pietrangelo notched 50 points, and budding-star Robert Thomas elevated his game with 42 points. And, good news for Blues fans, Tarasenko will play in the playoffs after recovering from shoulder surgery.
Then there is head coach Craig Berube, who played a significant role in turning around the Blues horrendous 2018-19 campaign. He has continued to lead the team to success, and he has the ability to fire up and coach his team to a championship. The Blues’ combination of depth, grit, goaltending, and coaching make them one of the most formidable teams in the NHL.
The Blues are one of the heaviest-hitting teams in the league. Imagine them fully recharged after a months-long pause? Yikes, I wouldn’t want to play them. For these reasons, the Blues will win the Stanley Cup, and Jordan Binnington’s stellar play will secure him the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Looking Forward to the Postseason
Regardless of how the NHL playoffs conclude, hockey fans everywhere should be happy we will (potentially) have hockey to watch. Truly, I’m thankful for the possibility. While we all have our criticisms and complaints (some valid and some not), the return to play format should produce some exciting storylines and moments that we talk about for years. The first among them, of course, will be how I made these three perfect predictions 😉.