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Many sportswriters now espouse the stance that predictions are meaningless and therefore they refuse to participate. This seemingly high-minded approach simply means that they are afraid of being criticized for being wrong. With the Stanley Cup Qualifier round about to begin, the HabsWorld writers provided their predictions on who will advance to the next round and how they will do it. Today the first of two articles will cover the four Eastern series, including our beloved Montreal Canadiens.

Eastern Conference

Montreal Canadiens vs Pittsburgh Penguins

Norm Szcyrek predicts: Penguins in 3 games
Brian La Rose predicts: Penguins in 4 games
Allan Katz predicts: Penguins in 5 games
Kevin Leveille predicts: Penguins in 4 games
Paul MacLeod predicts: Canadiens in 5 games

(Norm) No Habs fan thought the team had a chance at the playoffs when the NHL was put on pause in the middle of March. But here they are with a chance, albeit a very small chance. The Penguins won back to back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017. They have one of the best centre combinations in the league with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Their team system is still very good, and they could still provide a fear factor in the playoffs. With a healthy roster, and with one of their two goalies grabbing the reins as the starter, this team will be a dangerous one to face. The Habs will need an extremely huge effort and a lot of luck to upset Pittsburgh. Carey Price will need to be at his MVP level best, and if he is that may help in a short five-game series. This team was limping along during the shortened end of the regular season, so it’s difficult to pick any specific trend to give the nod to Montreal staging an upset. This will be a good learning experience for the younger Habs, albeit a bitter one for the veterans.

(Brian) I think this series has the potential to be relatively close. Montreal’s speed has the potential to cause Pittsburgh some fits and the Habs should hold a distinct advantage in goal (on paper, at least). However, the Penguins have a lot more firepower than the Canadiens and for the first time in quite a while, they’re pretty much all healthy (aside from Nick Bjugstad who might not crack their lineup anyway). Pittsburgh is a team that’s built for a long playoff run while Montreal is built for an early trip to the golf course with them selling at the deadline. The Habs can do enough here to not embarrass themselves and keep the games competitive but the Pens should prevail in the end.

(Alan) It feels like everyone is trying to figure out what the weirdest upset is going to be and Montreal is one of the teams that sportswriters and fans are seeing as possible victors. Breaking down any series scientifically will be more impossible this year than any other year. Strange things (read upset, injuries and Covid-19 issues) are going to happen. In a sense, the most predictable thing about all these playoffs is that they will be unpredictable. On paper, in person, on a video game, the Pens are vastly superior to the Habs. Their two centres are better than anyone on the Habs and that’s one heck of a one-two punch, simply stated one of the best one-two punches in the history of the sport. Price is an awesome talent, but he is in the discount bin (talent-wise) as he slides from a generational goalie to a good goalie. But my prediction of Pittsburgh in five games is simply based on being a Habs fan. I want the Habs to take it to an exciting fifth game and whatever happens then is a victory for the team. Win, they move on, confident in themselves, with their youth learning a ton… Lose, they get either a very good draft pick or a godsend of a draft pick. Fact is they should lose in three, so losing in five is not bad if wishful thinking.

(Kevin) Here is the most lopsided matchup on paper and yet many experts are throwing up caution signs here… I’m not sure why. Let’s start with just about the only thing that should be even in the series and that is the unimpressive blue lines on both sides of the ice. Montreal’s inability to find a 2D is matched by Pittsburgh use of one defender at even strength and another on the PP to make it work at the top. Montreal holds a slight advantage named Petry on the second pair, but Pittsburgh has better depth unless Montreal’s youngsters really step up to the plate. Montreal holds a decisive advantage between the pipes, but playoffs can be a strange beast, and anyone can catch fire or fall flat. If that happens on either side of the goaltending matchup, this will be a short series. Finally, the Pittsburgh offence is admittedly far superior to Montreal’s. It will be very interesting to see which young Hab can find the needed gear to keep up. Making this a five-gamer would mean that some young guns played outstanding, but the Pens pedigree gets them to the playoffs, Habs head to the lottery.

(Paul) Speaking of tough times, the Canadiens are going to have a tough time beating the Penguins. I’m in the vast minority picking the Habs to win on the back of a stellar Carey Price and an improved team defence. Just to give some sense of how weird 2020 has become, for the first time in my life, I won’t be devasted by a Montreal loss, particularly if the hockey gods were to gift us Alexis Lafreniere.

Toronto Maple Leafs vs Columbus Blue Jackets

Norm Szcyrek predicts: Blue Jackets in 5 games
Brian La Rose predicts: Maple Leafs in 5 games
Allan Katz predicts: Maple Leafs in 4 games
Kevin Leveille predicts: Blue Jackets in 5 games
Paul MacLeod predicts: Maple Leafs in 5 games

(Norm) Columbus has perhaps the best top blueliners in the league in Zach Werenski and Seth Jones, who represent one of the best shutdown pairs in the league, capable of handling any top line in the NHL. Just ask Tampa Bay last April in the playoffs, when Columbus completely shut down the best team in the regular season and swept them in four games. Pierre-Luc Dubois rose to the team’s top centre role and Oliver Bjorkstrand led the team in goals. Toronto has plenty of firepower in Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and William Nylander. I have a strong feeling the Leafs will not adapt well to the closer checking of the postseason. Their defence and goaltending are somewhat suspect in a short series, so I am giving the edge to Columbus this year.

(Brian) This was the toughest series to predict. On paper, it should be a mismatch but the reality is that the two sides were pretty close in the standings and the Blue Jackets are literally welcoming a third of their roster back from injury including some key players. If Columbus has sharp goaltending, they could take this series pretty quickly but there are question marks for both of their young netminders and both struggled mightily in Phase 3 scrimmages. I have questions about how far Toronto can go in this postseason as I don’t trust their defence and they’re more of a finesse team but I think they’ll be able to get through this one.

(Allan) As a Montrealer, I feel ill picking the Maple Leafs. The fact is, solid management and drafting has resulted in a decent team and if they can shake off their underachieving ways, their firepower should get them a victory. Columbus has worse karma than the Maple Leafs. The city is named after an acknowledged mass murderer in Christopher Columbus. It’s still better than the Attila the Hun Blue Jackets. Their last name is ironic since the Maple Leafs are the real Blue Jackets, but except for Columbus’s unfortunate city name and their silly last name (Hey, the second choice was the Columbus Red Thermal Underwears), the team has the type of defence that should do well in the playoffs. But I’ve lived and worked in Toronto, have family there and can only hold a grudge against this team so much. The stars will align and Maple Leafs will win.

(Kevin) I’m picking the slight underdog, but this is a tough one. There’s no denying that the Leafs hold more firepower, but the Jackets may be the worst possible matchup for the Leafs here. The big, physical, and defensive-minded Jackets mean that Toronto may need to defend to win. The Blue Jackets’ blue line is significantly better than the Leafs, but Toronto will be welcoming back Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly which could help them. However, if the Leafs stand any chance in this series, they’ll need Freddy Andersen to have a better series than his 19-20 season. Then again, Columbus likely needs Elvis Merzlikins to keep up the unexpected play from the season. So why pick Columbus considering the even matchup? Toronto’s recent history of not fairing well in long series and Columbus getting over that hump last year gives them the confidence to win the series gets extended and I think it will.

(Paul) The Leafs manage to squeak by the plucky Blue Jackets in five and I can only hope that they get beaten and battered doing it. Another ode to 2020, for the first time in living memory, I am actually cheering for the Leafs to win a series. See: Lafreniere, Alexis. After this series, Leaf fans who have already planned the virtual parade route will be crushed by yet another epic Leafs collapse in the next round.

New York Rangers vs Carolina Hurricanes

Norm Szcyrek predicts: Rangers in 5 games
Brian La Rose predicts: Rangers in 4 games
Allan Katz predicts: Hurricanes in 5 games
Kevin Leveille predicts: Hurricanes in 3 games
Paul MacLeod predicts: Rangers in 5 games

(Norm) Here is the first series that is going to be interesting to follow, with great potential for an upset. Carolina is the favourite when you look at the standings, with a strong defence corps, some exciting players up front with Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov, and a bunch of jerks. Their goaltending is clearly their weak spot, with both netminders showing inconsistencies in their play. The Rangers are the clear underdog. Their top line duo of Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad are one of the most dangerous scoring pairs in the league over the past few months. New York’s top goalie for many seasons, Henrik Lundqvist was injured and struggled when he returned which opened the door to rookie Igor Shesterkin, who played well.

(Brian) There’s a reason Carolina kept voting against the Return to Play and CBA. They didn’t want this series. I can’t blame them much either as I wouldn’t want to face the Rangers. The reason New York was down so low in the standings was their goaltending but Igor Shesterkin turned that around pretty quickly and they got on a roll when he came up. I like Carolina’s defence but they’re down Brett Pesce and Dougie Hamilton and their deadline pickups (Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen) are a step back. I also still don’t trust their goaltending but I was guilty of that a year ago and look where that got me. I can see the Rangers doing some damage this postseason so I have to pick them here.

(Alan) This is one tough pick. Carolina is the better team, but the Rangers swept them this year. Carolina has a solid defence, but their biggest unanswered question is, “How in the world did Carolina ever get a hockey team?” They seem like a team from the WHA or a Mighty Duck movie. But the Rangers are like the Maple Leafs of the USA, a good team that rarely matches their potential. The Rangers do have a solid offence to go up against the Carolina defence, they have pulverized the Wind Swept Carolina team this season, but it’s a new day; the Hurricanes are young and I’m picking them in five.

(Kevin) On paper, this is a series that really should be short-lived. The stat sheet says otherwise since the Rangers won all four games this season without even conceding a point. Despite this fact, one of the better Ranger defenders in Brady Skjei will be suiting up for the Hurricanes. The Canes almost pulled a Columbus as they were quite aggressive in acquiring players to make the postseason. Recent additions to an already capable roster include Justin Williams, Vincent Trocheck and Skjei. The Canes have more offence even if the Rangers hold the best player in Artemi Panarin. The Canes hold the advantage on the blue line too. So, what will it take for the Rangers to make this a series? The Rangers only move is between the pipes. Carolina will rely on Petr Mrazek which lacks the wow factor of the rest of their roster. On the other side, the Rangers should sit their future Hall of Famer as Igor Shesterkin will look to continue on his 10-2 and .932 career start. I’ve got the Canes making quick work of the Rangers here as too many Rangers will be new to the playoffs.

(Paul) The Rangers will win on the back of outstanding goaltending and a hungry underrated squad while the Hurricanes will turn out to be a weak tropical storm.

New York Islanders vs Florida Panthers

Norm Szcyrek predicts: Islanders in 5 games
Brian La Rose predicts: Panthers in 5 games
Allan Katz predicts: Islanders in 4 games
Kevin Leveille predicts: Islanders in 5 games
Paul MacLeod predicts: Islanders in 4 games

(Norm) Here is another series with a strong chance of an upset. The Panthers were in the tenth position to start this Play-In round while the Islanders were seventh. In some ways, the two teams are opposites of each other. New York is a strong defensive team, while Florida is a strong offensive team, under new veteran coach Joel Quenneville. The Panthers’ Jonathan Huberdeau was off to a career start before the Covid-19 shutdown occurred. Islanders head coach Barry Trotz took over this team last season and propelled them into playoff positions his first two seasons with a generally no-star lineup. Mathew Barzal is the closest to a star-calibre player, but nearly all of their forwards are solid two way players that can contribute something on offence. Similarly, their defencemen are not well-known players but each plays well into the team system and their position in the standings illustrates their success. Their goaltending is capable with veterans Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss. I could see this series go to either team, but I am leaning towards the squad with the better overall system.

(Brian) Florida is one of those teams that I thought should have been better than they were. The main reason for that was Sergei Bobrovsky playing like a backup goaltender which wiped out the goaltending advantage they thought they had when they handed him a deal close to Carey Price’s. His postseason track record isn’t great but last year, he was on the top of his game. I don’t think they need him at his best as New York’s attack isn’t the greatest but if he’s even good, they’re a slight favourite. This feels like a series where the games are going to be 2-1 or 3-2 but I’ll give the Panthers the narrow edge due to their better forward group.

(Alan) The state of Florida might eventually drop off of America. The place is nuts, hot, humid, with huge bugs and scores of residents that look like the undesirables pictured on the Wal-Mart’s series of “odd” shoppers. I assure you I am being subjective in this criticism. I’m going with Barry Trotz here as the difference maker. Defence versus offence: I’m betting on defence and an Islander victory.

(Kevin) This is a very intriguing matchup in that both teams are such opposites. The Islanders feature two mid-tier goaltenders in Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss while the Panthers paid the big bucks to acquire Sergei Bobrovsky. However, a quick look at the season’s stats makes this a much more even goaltending matchup as Bob hasn’t delivered while the other two get to play behind a strong defensive team. The Islanders are also a team that rely heavily on a defensive system while struggling somewhat offensively. They face the Panthers who were porous defensively for much of the 19-20 season while being quite strong offensively. This one could really go either way, but I think the Islanders pull this off for two reasons. First, they have experience winning a playoff round last season. Second, I believe in the ability of the Islanders to create just enough offense to get by over the ability of the Panthers to shut this down.

(Paul) Islanders have a solid team and the Panthers are relying on Sergei Bobrovsky. A tough time to be a Panther fan, but then again, it usually is.