Earlier this week, the NHL officially announced its schedule for the qualifying round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which will feature a total of eight matchups across both conferences.
Furthermore, a round-robin tournament between the top four seeds in each conference will commence Aug. 2 to determine official playoff seeding for the remainder of the postseason.
In the Eastern Conference, this will include the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, and Philadelphia Flyers. In the Western Conference, it will consist of the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights, and Dallas Stars.
The plan is for six games per day — three in each conference — with the action starting at noon local time in both hub cities. Since the Eastern Conference is being hosted in Edmonton, they will technically start at 2 ET, while the Western Conference — taking place in Toronto — will start at noon ET.
This is an absolute dream for hockey fans, and should be an exciting way to begin the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference qualifying-round matchups.
(5) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (12) Montreal Canadiens
The Canadiens had no business being a part of this year’s playoff picture, but due to the expanded format, they were able to sneak their way in as the 12th and final seed. They will face off against a team riddled with postseason experience, as the Pittsburgh Penguins seem destined for another deep playoff run.
The Penguins lead the season series 2-1 and should have no problem dispatching a depleted Canadiens roster.
Given the inconsistent effort from veteran goaltender Carey Price this season, I fully expect a three-game sweep from Pittsburgh as they set their eyes on the Stanley Cup trophy.
(6) Carolina Hurricanes vs. (11) New York Rangers
The Rangers match up very well with Carolina, as they swept the season series 4-0. This is definitely one of the most intriguing matchups of the qualifying round, as New York was one of the hottest teams in hockey back in March.
The Rangers are sure to give Carolina all it can handle throughout this series, as they are currently one of the trendiest upset picks of the qualifying round — receiving immense action across sportsbooks.
At +120 to win the series, it shows you how valued they are in the bookmakers’ eyes, and it would surprise no one if they wound up beating Carolina in what figures to be a tightly contested series.
Give me the Rangers in 5.
(7) New York Islanders vs. (10) Florida Panthers
The Islanders won all three affairs against Florida this year, though each contest took place within the first month of the season.
New York should be the favorite here, as Florida netminder Sergei Bobrovsky has struggled this season after signing a mega-deal last summer.
His .900 even-strength save percentage shouldn’t exactly inspire many in the Panthers organization, as he will need to turn it around in a big way if they have any chance at making some noise this postseason.
Neither team boasts a particularly strong special teams unit, so look for this series to come down to who plays better five on five, and which goalie can step up when it matters most.
Florida ranks sixth in goals per game, which will put the pressure on Islanders goaltender Semyon Varlamov to have a strong showing.
This is a true pick ’em that could go either way, but I expect the Islanders to outlast Florida based on their previous regular-season success.
(8) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets
All the pressure in this series will be on the Maple Leafs, who must avenge their recent postseason failures. After signing All-Star center John Tavares, the Leafs surprisingly struggled to put it all together this season, as it took a while for them to finally hit their stride.
They are the more talented team with the more reliable goaltender, which should be enough to carry them over a pesky Columbus group.
The Blue Jackets have played with a chip on their shoulder all season long, as head coach John Tortorella has proven time and time again his ability to get the absolute most out of his players.
Given Columbus’ tough, physical playstyle, expect them to give Toronto all they can handle in what should be a long, grueling series.