NHL predictions: Here’s how the qualifying round and Stanley Cup playoffs will unfold

Playoff predictions are always difficult.

After all, who could have foreseen last season that the record-tying Tampa Bay Lightning would be swept in the first round or that the St. Louis Blues, who were in last place in January, would win the Stanley Cup?

But this year is even more difficult because of all the variables as the league plays amid the coronavirus pandemic. Eight additional teams, one additional round, no fans and 4½ months of rust to shake off, all while trying to keep COVID-19 from disrupting the tournament.

Regular-season numbers and trends are ancient history. So here is our best effort to sort through the unusual circumstances and try to predict winners:

Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon had 93 points in 69 games this sason.Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon had 93 points in 69 games this sason.
Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon had 93 points in 69 games this sason.

BEST-OF-FIVE QUALIFICATION ROUND

► No. 12 Montreal Canadiens vs. No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins

Jimmy Hascup: Penguins in four.

Mike Brehm: Penguins in three.

Jace Evans: Penguins in three. 

► No. 11 New York Rangers vs. No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes

Hascup: Rangers in five.

Brehm: Hurricanes in five.

Evans: Hurricanes in five. 

► No. 10 Florida Panthers vs. No. 7 New York Islanders

Hascup: Islanders in four.

Brehm: Islanders in three.

Evans: Panthers in five. 

► No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets vs. No. 8 Toronto Maple Leafs

Hascup: Maple Leafs in four.

Brehm: Blue Jackets in five.

Evans: Maple Leafs in four. 

► No. 12 Chicago Blackhawks vs. No. 5 Edmonton Oilers

Hascup: Oilers in three.

Brehm: Oilers in five.

Evans: Oilers in four. 

► No. 11 Arizona Coyotes vs. No. 6 Nashville Predators

Hascup: Predators in four.

Brehm: Predators in four.

Evans: Predators in five. 

► No. 10 Minnesota Wild vs. No. 7 Vancouver Canucks

Hascup: Wild in four.

Brehm: Canucks in four.

Evans: Canucks in five.  

► No. 9 Winnipeg Jets vs. No. 8 Calgary Flames

Hascup: Flames in five.

Brehm: Jets in four.

Evans: Jets in five. 

Here's how USA TODAY Sports predicts the Stanley Cup playoffs to unfold in the coming months.Here's how USA TODAY Sports predicts the Stanley Cup playoffs to unfold in the coming months.
Here’s how USA TODAY Sports predicts the Stanley Cup playoffs to unfold in the coming months.

ROUND ROBIN / TO DETERMINE SEEDING

►Eastern Conference: Boston Bruins; Tampa Bay Lightning; Washington Capitals; Philadelphia Flyers

Hascup: Bruins, Lightning, Capitals, Flyers.

Brehm: Lightning, Bruins, Flyers, Capitals

Evans: Bruins, Lightning, Flyers, Capitals

► Western Conference: St. Louis Blues; Colorado Avalanche; Vegas Golden Knights; Dallas Stars

Hascup: Golden Knights, Blues, Avalanche, Stars

Brehm: Avalanche, Blues, Golden Knights, Stars

Evans: Blues, Golden Knights, Avalanche, Stars

STANLEY CUP PICKS

Hascup: Golden Knights over Bruins. Vegas has been a force since it entered the league in 2017-18, but this time it will cement itself in hockey lore after a first-round exit last year and Stanley Cup loss in Year 1. The Golden Knights control the pace with plenty of offense and deploy an underrated, effective defense. Most important, though, might be the addition of goalie Robin Lehner to back up Marc-Andre Fleury, forming more of a 1A-1B situation instead of a pure No. 2 role.

Brehm: Avalanche over Lightning. The Lightning will make up for last year by winning the Eastern Conference. But the Avalanche have built a strong, balanced team around Nathan MacKinnon that ranks fourth in offense and sixth in defense.  

Evans: Lightning over Golden Knights. Did I pick the Lightning to win the 2019 Stanley Cup only to have them immediately swept in the first round? Yes. Am I picking them to win the Cup again? Also yes. This squad is still extremely talented and certainly has the stars to finally break through. Perhaps moving to a neutral, fanless environment will ease the mental pressure that has built up around this squad following past postseason “failures.” This will allow the Lightning to simply play the game and let their skill – which is better than most teams’ – take over. 

CONN SMYTHE TROPHY WINNER (MVP)

Hascup: Mark Stone, Golden Knights. Stone had six goals and 12 points in seven games last postseason with Vegas and will put his elite two-way play on further display with a long playoff run this time around.

Brehm: Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche. He had 93 points in 69 games and would’ve likely topped 100 points for the first time in his career. And that’s with usual linemates Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog missing time. He’s poised to take the next step in the playoffs. This is his year to shine.

Evans: Steven Stamkos, Lightning. For many, Stamkos took the “playoff choker” baton from Alex Ovechkin when the Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2018. Now, that label has never been especially fair to Stamkos, but the Lightning is his team. Should he captain the group to the Cup, the narrative will probably be how his leadership following one of the franchise’s lowest moments paved the way … even if, say, Nikita Kucherov has more playoff points or Andrei Vasilevskiy plays well in net. 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NHL picks: Who wins it all? Here’s how rest of season, playoffs unfold

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