With the return of the National Hockey League right around the corner, it is time to take a look at teams flying under the radar. The teams listed below have a chance to make a deep run in their pursuit to win a Stanley Cup. Usually, strong play by the goaltenders can help carry an in-fancied team steal a game, and perhaps with it momentum to the next game. Low-scoring, one-goal games will lack the cheering and nervous energy that has been common from past springs and early summers. Hopefully, the matches will be so compelling that fans at home will be able to lose themselves in the quality of play on the ice. I like that all twenty-four teams including the top four teams in each conference are not sitting idly by as they await their opponent.
5. Columbus Blue Jackets – 9th in East – 81 points after 70 games
The Jackets are certainly one team to keep your eyes on in this tournament. Last season, they not only beat Tampa Bay but with relative ease in a four-game sweep. I like their chances to string together some confidence against Original Six member Toronto. If they can get goal-scoring from twenty-one-year-old Pierre-Luc Dubois, they should be able to jump ahead.
Blocked shots will also be key as the Leafs are more than capable of putting the puck in the net. Defensemen take a lot of wear-and-tear with pucks to the body. Zach Werenski, another youngster from Grosse Pointe, Michigan had two in his most recent outing against the Vancouver Canucks in a win. Most of all, the player between the pipes usually has the final say of who wins and loses for games of this gravity. Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins will be put under the microscope when the puck drops for Game 1 of their Qualifying Round matchup.
4. Vancouver Canucks – 7th in the West – 78 points after 69 games
Do not be deceived by their road record. Vancouver has held its own in the Pacific Division. They enter the playoffs with nine more wins than losses. They were plus eleven in goals scored and allowed. I sense they fall under the category of a team that trends water, but collectively come together as a unit and raise eyebrows in the early stages of the postseason. J.T. Miller and Elias Pettersson have had an abundance of points this term.
Jay Beagle, who spent his first ten NHL seasons in Washington, D.C. will resume his second season in the Pacific Northwest knowing what it takes to win a Stanley Cup. He does not score many goals, but he is good on face-offs with a percentage of just over fifty-nine. He has also spent a lot of time in the penalty box with thirty-eight minutes, so he can get in opponent’s heads.
The Minnesota Wild are the Canucks’ opponents for their qualifying round. They may not go as deep as say 1994 or 2011 because the West is stacked, but I believe they will scrape through to play one of the four seeded teams and cause problems for one of them.
3. Arizona Coyotes – 11th in the West – 74 points after 70 games
Before the season was put on pause, the Coyotes dropped their two fixtures, so this team was tossed a lifeline under this twenty-four team system. Their pairing with the Nashville Predators has a chance to be a lengthy series. My feeling is that both teams will chip and chase, and goals will be at a premium with their style of play. I think Arizona has good goaltending, but they do not want to be hemmed in their defensive zone but could be the case for stretches in this series. Though they are not a prolific scoring team, they will be in games because of Darcy Kuemper, who has a 2.22 goals-against average in twenty-nine starts. It remains to be seen whether or not Nick Schmaltz and Conor Garland can take some of the pressure off by putting Arizona on the front foot.
2. Florida Panthers – 10th in East – 78 points after 69 games
Florida is a team that may not have a rich history of success, but one to watch for the foreseeable future. Joel Quenneville has been successful behind the bench in Saint Louis and Chicago, winning three Stanley Cups in six years for the Windy City. Five players have more than twenty goals this season, including Jonathan Huberdeau, Alexander Barkov, Mike Hoffman, Evgenii Dadonov, and Noel Acciari. In contrast to the Coyotes, there are plenty of players to put the biscuit in the basket. The question is can goalie Sergei Bobrovsky keep the opposition off the board? He has played the majority of games among the three goalies with fifty, but only one shutout to speak of November 2nd against the Detroit Red Wings. His play will tell fans if Florida has turned a corner.
1. Winnipeg Jets – 9th in the West – 80 points after 71 games
The Jets are a side not to be discounted. They played for the West crown two years ago after upsetting the Nashville Predators. Last year, they gave the Blues all that they could handle. Like the Canucks, the goal difference is positive as they have lit the lamp 216 times. They have experienced forward veterans like Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Mark Scheifele.
Their opponent, the eighth-seeded Calgary Flames, has been an excellent shootout team, but under this year’s format, the shootout is only a possibility for the top four teams in the West and East trying to jockey for seeding during NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s press conference. That means the traditional overtime rules will be used for the qualifying round to whittle the field to sixteen, so Winnipeg will not be at a disadvantage because the Flames won six times in the one-on-one skills competition.
Before the pause in March, Connor Hellebuyck did well, with a .922 save percentage, winning thirty-one games for his club. The experience that Winnipeg brings is why I have them as the most dangerous sleeper team.
Applicable to any other sport that has chosen to resume following the pandemic, the teams that will do well consist of the players that have been able to stay fit. The hope for hockey fans is that the practices will be numerous enough that the rhythm is able to return as soon as possible. The reality is that the first few games will not always be crisp, but the trial by error will eventually lead to classic playoff games when the business end of the tournament approaches.
At the time of posting, the two hub cities for each conference have not been determined, but many of the designated cities involve teams that are eligible for the Stanley Cup. It makes me wonder if it helps the host team in any way. Will it take a toll for the eleven teams that travel, maybe not immediately, but for a team that goes deep into the tournament? Hopefully, this will work out the best way possible for the sport
Which teams do you feel have an outside chance at being competitive in the NHL Playoffs? Leave a comment below.
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Works cited: NHL app, YouTube NHL Channel video ”Return to Play Plan for 2019-20 NHL Season” on May 26th, 2020, NBC Sports