NHL playoff predictions: In unprecedented format, hockey will get even weirder

The NHL playoffs are always crazy, and this year’s format should only increase the unexpected results.

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The Lightning are a top contender for the 2020 Stanley Cup, even in the bubble format.

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Nothing about the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs will be normal. Not the time of the year, not the 24-team field, not the best-of-five qualifying-round series and certainly not the bubble environments.

Then again, nothing about the NHL playoffs is ever normal.

Last season, the Lightning — who amassed a record-tying 62 victories during the regular season — were swept in the first round. The season before, the Golden Knights made the Cup Final in their first season of existence. The season before that, the Predators — a No. 8 seed — made the Final.

So perhaps predicting the postseason, especially in this year of chaos, is futile. But what’s the fun in that?

Western Conference qualifying round

(5) Oilers over (12) Blackhawks

The Hawks have a very real chance in this series, especially with now-healthy-again goalie Corey Crawford.

The experience meter tips drastically in their favor — they have three players with more than 120 games of playoff experience, while the Oilers have only one with more than 50 — and they won two of the three games between the teams during the regular season.

But it’s hard to argue against Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, the top two scorers in the league. They should have a field day against the Hawks’ defense, which allowed the most scoring chances during the regular season.

(6) Predators over (11) Coyotes

In a battle of regular-season underachievers, Roman Josi’s Predators should prevail against a Coyotes team distracted by Taylor Hall’s contract and general manager John Chayka’s resignation.

(10) Wild over (7) Canucks

The Canucks’ exciting young core is easy to root for, but the Wild might have the best group of defensive forwards in the league. Jordan Greenway, Marcus Foligno, Ryan Hartman and Joel Eriksson Ek all ranked in the top 16 at limiting opponents’ scoring chances.

(9) Jets over (8) Flames

Connor Hellebuyck nearly broke the Hart Trophy’s anti-goalie bias with his spectacular season, which kept a gutted Jets defensive core competitive. And never is goaltending more valuable than in the playoffs.

Eastern Conference qualifying round

(5) Penguins over (12) Canadiens

In what was already a lopsided matchup, Jake Guentzel’s return to health only further aids the Penguins. Coach Mike Sullivan would be wise to give 2019 breakout Tristan Jarry the reins in goal over Matt Murray.

(11) Rangers over (6) Hurricanes

The Rangers have won 29 of their last 35 games against the Hurricane, dating to 2011-12. They’re a strong Cinderella candidate, with MVP candidate Artemi Panarin up front and two excellent goalie options (Henrik Lundqvist and Igor Shesterkin) in back.

(7) Islanders over (10) Panthers

This is another battle of underachievers. The Islanders lost 20 of 30 games after New Year’s Day; the Panthers lost 12 of 18 after Feb. 3. But Barry Trotz has done a better job implementing his system with the Isles than Joel Quenneville has with the Panthers.

(8) Maple Leafs over (9) Blue Jackets

The Leafs’ historical playoff ineptitude aside, their offensive attack is one of the most dangerous in the league. Plus, it seems unlikely Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins can stay as good and Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen as bad as they were last winter.

West Finals: Avalanche over Blues

The Avalanche have all the pieces in place to become a dynasty.

Nathan MacKinnon might be the best all-around player in the NHL. Linemates Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, now healthy, form the best first line in hockey. Defenseman Cale Makar has a 50/50 chance to win the Calder Trophy. Goalies Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz were quietly one of the NHL’s best duos.

The Blues retain all the needed pieces for their title defense and the Stars have towering Ben Bishop in goal, but this feels like it might be the Avs’ breakthrough year.

East Finals: Lightning over Penguins

The Lightning are ready to translate their sustained regular-season dominance into the postseason. They have one of the NHL’s best offensive forwards in Nikita Kucherov, best defensive forwards in Anthony Cirelli, best defensemen in Victor Hedman and best goalies in Andrei Vasilevskiy. They’re 159-60-15 in the last three seasons for a reason.

Meanwhile, it would be surprising if at least one team from the qualifying round didn’t make a run to the conference finals. The Penguins are a good bet, although David Pastrnak, Tuukka Rask and the Bruins will have something to say about it.

Cup Finals: Lightning over Avalanche

It would be a crime if the Lightning never get a Cup out of this stacked core. If they win it this season, it certainly would hush any talk of an asterisk accompanying the adapted-format champion.

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