FALCON POINTS

Breaking down the 8 matchups in the NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs

Breaking down the 8 matchups in the NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs
Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images.

After a "qualifying round" of playoffs, the actual Stanley Cup playoffs are here. In a weird hockey world that saw two 12 seeds win in round one and the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference finish last in the round robin and get a four seed, things appear wide open. The lower seeds may actually have a bit of an advantage at the beginning of these series, as they have already gone through an actual elimination round, while the top four seeds played a less intense round robin. As teams still adjust to a long layoff, more upsets could be in order. It should be fun. Here is a look at the matchups:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Philadelphia Flyers (1) vs. Montreal Canadiens (8)

The Flyers were dominant in the round-robin phase and look very much like a team that can make a deep run. Montreal was the lowest seed in the qualifying tournament, but stunned Pittsburgh, and were the better team throughout the series. Philly, however, is playing much better hockey than their Pennsylvania counterparts. The Canadiens will need a big effort from goalie Carey Price, who is capable of stealing games. Young Flyers goalie Carter Hart was outstanding in the two round-robin games he played and is an emerging star. Philly has more talent, but a goalie like Price can win a series.

Prediction: Flyers in 5.

Tampa Bay Lightning (2) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (7)

Tampa is as talented a group as you will find in the NHL. They have depth on all lines, terrific defensemen and an elite goalie. Yet they have a checkered playoff past. Last season, they were dominant in the regular season and looked like a Cup lock. They were promptly swept out of the first round by the Jackets. Columbus outplayed a similarly talented team in Toronto in round one and are a tough matchup. Can the Lightning be struck down twice? Absolutely.

Prediction: Jackets in 7.

Washington Capitals (3) vs. New York Islanders (6)

The Caps still have Alex Ovechkin and a recent Stanley Cup, and have to be considered a contender against whoever they play. But the Isles play terrific defense, grind you down and get just enough scoring to win games. Plus they have the coach who won the Cup with the Caps, Barry Trotz, which gives them another edge. The Isles are a long shot Cup contender and could pull off the upset.

Prediction: Islanders in 7.

Boston Bruins (4) vs. Carolina Hurricanes (5)

The Bruins were the best team in the league in the regular season, but played flat in the round robin, winding up with a fourth seed. It seems a little unfair that they dominated all year but three games determined their fate, but that's life. By now they should have figured things out again and should be able to advance. They are a tricky team, because if they play as poorly as they did last week, Carolina could knock them out. But the Bruins should get better the deeper they get in the playoffs. The Hurricanes have a rising star in Andrei Svechnikov, who had a hat trick in the first round against the Rangers. The Bruins, however, are deeper, more talented and have the more tested and reliable goalie in Tukka Rask.

Prediction: Bruins in 5.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Las Vegas Golden Knights (1) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (8)

The Golden Knights were impressive in the round-robin, and looked like they did not miss a beat from the break. They were on a 8-2 run before the Rona interruption and swept the three seeding games since. But the Blackhawks are a scary matchup. They dominated Edmonton in the play-in round, winning 3-1 despite being the last team to qualify. They are young and shaky on defense, but still have proven Cup winners like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford. It would be foolish to count them out, but the Oilers were a much better matchup for the Hawks. If Crawford dominates in net, they have a fighting chance. But the Knights are on a different level right now.

Prediction: Las Vegas in 6.

Colorado Avalanche (2) vs. Arizona Coyotes (7)

This might be one of the more intriguing matchups of this round. The Avs look like a Cup contender, and Nathan MacKinnon is an MVP candidate and might be one of the most underappreciated superstars in the league. The Coyotes, however, are going to be a tough out. Goalie Darcy Kempner faced a ton of shots against the Predators and held up well. He will have to do the same here. Taylor Hall and Phil Kessel provide top end forward play, and Arizona matches up OK here. The Avs should win, but don't be shocked if they are pushed hard.

Prediction: Avs in 6.

Dallas Stars (3) vs. Calgary Flames (6)

Dallas is an interesting team. The Stars have Stanley Cup-level talent, but they struggle to score at times, which could be a problem in a seven-game series. They play strong D and have great goaltending, but have issues with quicker teams, which bodes well for Calgary. The Flames are also a bit of an enigma, but they seem built for the playoffs. They have two young American-born stars in Johnny Gaudreu and Matthew Tkachuk, solid depth up front and on the back end and can hold their own with most teams. Cam Talbot is the key, however. If he can consistently man the goal the way he did in the series win over Winnipeg, they have a big shot. He finished off the series with a 31-save shutout.

Prediction: Flames in 7.

St. Louis Blues (4) vs. Vancouver Canucks (5)

The defending champs were not very good in the round-robin, hence the four seed. But it will probably work out; the Canucks are an easier matchup than what they would have faced with Calgary as a 3 seed. Vancouver is an interesting young team. Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser are two up and coming stars, but the rest of the lineup is bolstered by gritty vets. Defensemen Quinn Hughes is another young star in the making. Goalie Jacob Markstrom was solid against Minnesota, but he will need to be better in this round. The Canucks could have made a run against Dallas, but hard to see them beating the champs.

Prediction: Blues in 6.

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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