NHL East qualifier preview: Storylines to watch

Kyle Cantlon
·6-min read

As a 24-team NHL postseason is set to kick off at the beginning of August with best-of-five qualification rounds and no fans allowed to fill the arenas as a pandemic still rages across many parts of the world, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed and distracted by the absurdly eerie backdrop encompassing this season’s playoffs.

But from an intrigue standpoint, you can’t ask for much more.

A first-to-three series tacked to the beginning of the standard four-round grind, featuring completely rested and healthy rosters — and several extra teams that shouldn’t even be here — is the delightfully chaotic combination we deserve after suffering through the last five months, devoid of our pucks.

With eight teams in the East bubble teeing off their respective qualifying rounds this weekend, here’s a look at the juiciest storyline from each upcoming clash.

Leafs core looks for first series win as tough decisions loom

The Maple Leafs’ window seems like it’s just been opened, but as a flat salary cap looms over the NHL for at least the next couple seasons and some of the team’s key pieces — namely Morgan Rielly and Freddie Andersen — look for new deals in the not-so-distant future, it’s going to close in a relative hurry, too.

After shelling out big deals and investing a large percentage of its cap space to star forwards Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and Willy Nylander — all supremely talented but not exactly “physical” in the traditional sense — the Leafs made it clear they were putting most of their eggs in one clearly defined basket. They’re three or four years into this quasi-rebuild plan, which is yet to yield a playoff series win after being bounced in the first round each of the past three seasons.

[Related: How the Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets match up in their qualification clash]

GM Kyle Dubas used up his “coach-change card” earlier this year after axing Mike Babcock and the bench boss Dubas seemingly planned to have leading this core the whole time is finally in place. With Sheldon Keefe’s personality, possession and metric-driven playbook at the helm, Rielly and Andersen secured for now on team-friendly deals, and the “big four” entering various stages of their production primes, the winning has to start immediately.

We’ve never really seen a template for a team building its way to a Cup the way Dubas and Co. are trying to do so now, so some results this summer (like a couple series wins) will go a long way in proving this strategy actually has a chance.

Will Sergei Bobrovsky show up for Florida?

A large chunk of the attention from the Islanders-Panthers series will be directed toward Florida’s underperforming $70-million man in net. Sergei Bobrovsky’s game — without even taking into account his enormous salary — has been barely average and even dismal at times during his first campaign with the Panthers after signing that large seven-year mega-deal last offseason.

He posted some of the worst numbers of his career and ranked near the bottom of the entire league in key metrics like save percentage (.900, 52nd), goals saved above average (-14.91, 62nd), and quality start percentage (41.7%, 57th). The eye test hasn’t done the former two-time Vezina winner any favours, either, as the technical aspects of his game looked sloppy, out of sorts and often a step behind for a good chunk of the season.

[Related: NHL round-robin preview: Who will secure the No. 1 seeds?]

That has to turn around ASAP if this very average Florida team is to have any chance against a stingy, well-structured Barry Trotz-led Islanders squad who don’t generate a whole lot of offense but don’t allow much, either. The margin of error for the Panthers is going to be so razor thin, especially in a five-game set, that Bob is going to have to be nearly perfect. One or two soft goals against a team that doesn’t give up anything could very well cost Florida this series.

Bobrovsky won’t face a ton of rubber or high-quality chances, but he’s going to have to find ways to lock down those 25-save, 2-1 or 1-0 wins after not showing a huge ability to do so this season or consistently in past postseasons.

If he can flip the script after four and a half months off, however, Florida does have a chance here.

Carolina’s depth versus the Rangers’ starpower

The Rangers have the 2020 MVP in Artemi Panarin and the firepower of Mika Zibanejad to back him up, while the Hurricanes boast one of the league’s most balanced attacks and superior depth at every forward position, plus the back end.

The Canes have “the most good players” sprinkled throughout their lineup, but the Rangers have arguably the two best — and most dangerous and explosive offensive weapons — featured in this matchup.

Does depth and balance or sheer firepower win out in a short, best-of-five series? Can a star player of Panarin’s caliber steal a series by himself? Let’s find out.

Where will this Penguins modern dynasty finish among the best ever?

Look, this matchup is about as one-sided as you can get. The Penguins, largely depleted in the regular season, still managed the fifth-best record in the East, while the Canadiens, who snuck into the postseason this year via the NHL’s expanded format, finished 24th overall and well outside of the playoff picture.

Of course, if you’re Montreal, and you compete in a league that features so much parity from top to bottom and feature a goaltender in Carey Price who is as capable as any of catching a hot hand and stealing some games, there’s always at least a minuscule chance — especially in a short series.

For me this time around, however, the intrigue isn’t in the potentially hot goalie leading an underdog to a series win — it’s the Penguins, their stars, and where this group will rank in history when it’s all said and done. Just how dominant can a fully healthy and rested Penguins squad be, especially against a team that has no business being there this year? How many Stanley Cups will this modern dynasty finish with when all is said and done? How many more playoff MVP’s for Sid and Geno? Where will the duo end up ranking all-time among the greats?

This Montreal series can either be a dominant, statement win for the Penguins on their march toward dynasty status, or, the much less likely scenario: Pittsburgh could take a big dump, lose to a team they had no business losing to, and begin the painful free-fall process back to a perennial lottery franchise.

Just how it should be.

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