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Stanley Cup Qualifier storylines include Blues' bid for repeat

Bruins determined to go distance this time; Lightning try to bounce back from sweep

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer

The 2020 NHL postseason is a storyline in itself.

Instead of the usual format with 16 teams traveling from city to city during four best-of-7 rounds in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, play will begin Saturday with the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, which have 24 teams -- 12 from the Eastern Conference based in Toronto, and 12 from the Western Conference teams in Edmonton -- competing for the Cup.

The top four teams in each conference based on points percentage will play in one of two three-game round-robins, and the Nos. 5-12 seeds will play eight best-of-5 series. The winners of those series will advance to the first round of the playoffs against the teams from the round-robins.

Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice said the format and lack of travel, which is a safety precaution after the NHL season was paused March 12 due to concerns about the coronavirus, will make for some amazing hockey.

"If you look just at the opportunity to be great, for your team to feel good, to be healthy, and to drive at a very high level -- which is playoff hockey on steroids -- there's a chance that this is as good of hockey as I've ever seen," Maurice said.

 

[RELATED: Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule]

 

There will also be plenty of intrigue, from the St. Louis Blues looking to repeat as champions, to the Boston Bruins hoping to go all the way after falling one game short last season, to the Tampa Bay Lightning trying to put their first-round sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets last season behind them.

With official games set to be played for the first time in 143 days, here are some key storylines for the Qualifiers.

 

Blues go for repeat

The Blues had the highest points percentage (.662) in the West when the NHL season was paused. But can the defending champs, who went from last place through games of Jan. 2 last season to win the Stanley Cup, win it again?

"They're hungry," coach Craig Berube said. "They want to get back."

The Blues will play a round-robin against the Colorado Avalanche (Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NHL.TV, SN360, TVAS2, ALT, FS-MW), Vegas Golden Knights (Thursday) and Dallas Stars (Aug. 9).

Video: St. Louis Blues Highlight Reel

 

Clock ticking for Bruins

With the Bruins core a year older -- defenseman Zdeno Chara is 43, center Patrice Bergeron is 35 and goalie Tuukka Rask is 33 -- the urgency has only increased for Boston to win the Cup.

After losing to St. Louis in Game 7 of the Final, the Bruins came into this season like a team that knows it missed out. They keep talking about unfinished business, and that's their mindset heading into the Qualifiers: finishing both the business of last season and that of this season, when Boston finished with the best points percentage in the NHL (.714) and won the Presidents' Trophy.

That quest is bolstered by the return of forward David Pastrnak, who missed all but one practice during training camp because of two 14-day quarantines. Pastrnak, who tied Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals for the NHL goals lead with 48, returned and scored in the Bruins' exhibition game Thursday and will be back as the right wing on the top line with Bergeron and Brad Marchand in the East round-robin against the Philadelphia Flyers (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVAS), Lightning (Wednesday) and Capitals (Aug. 9).

As forward Jake DeBrusk said, "There's a mission for us to win the Stanley Cup and finish the job."

Video: Boston Bruins Highlight Reel

 

Lightning try to strike back

The Lightning are aiming to rebound from the first-round sweep by the Blue Jackets last season, though coach Jon Cooper said it's not something they'll be bringing up.

"Now it's time to see if we can rewrite a different ending, but to sit back and look in the rearview mirror is pointless," Cooper said. "We have to look ahead and create our own path."

They hope to do so with forward Steven Stamkos and defenseman Victor Hedman, who missed Tampa Bay's exhibition game Wednesday but are expected to play in the East round-robin against the Capitals (Monday, 4 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NHL.TV, SN360, TVAS, NBCSWA, SUN), Bruins (Wednesday) and Flyers (Aug. 8).

Tampa Bay had gotten good news when Stamkos was expected back for the Qualifiers after core muscle surgery on March 2, but he sustained a lower-body injury during voluntary workouts and was limited in camp.

"When the time is right, he'll be right back in there," Cooper said of Stamkos, who scored 66 points (29 goals, 37 assists) in 57 games this season.

Hedman did not travel to Toronto with the Lightning on Sunday, remaining in Tampa to deal with a personal matter. He is expected to join them Friday. A finalist for the Norris Trophy, awarded annually to the best defenseman in the NHL, Hedman had 55 points (11 goals, 44 assists) in 66 games.

Video: Tampa Bay Lightning Highlight Reel

 

Save them a spot

Five goalies could play in the qualifier series between the Carolina Hurricanes, the No. 6 seed in the East, and the New York Rangers, the No. 11 seed.

The Hurricanes have Petr Mrazek (21-16-2, 2.69 goals-against average, .905 save percentage) and James Reimer (14-6-2, 2.66, .914). The Rangers have three options: Igor Shesterkin (10-2-0, 2.52, .932), Henrik Lundqvist (10-12-3, 3.16, .905), and Alexandar Georgiev (17-14-2, 3.04, .910).

Neither team has yet committed to a starter for Game 1 on Saturday (Noon ET; NBCSN, NHL.TV, SN, SN360, TVAS, FS-CR, MSG).

Video: Hockey is Back: Rangers vs. Hurricanes Begins Aug. 1

 

'Unfinished business' for Maple Leafs

The Toronto Maple Leafs qualified for the playoffs in each of the past three seasons but were unable to get out of the first round. They fired coach Mike Babcock on Nov. 20 after a 9-10-4 start and replaced him with Sheldon Keefe, who guided Toronto to a record of 27-15-5 the rest of the season.

The Maple Leafs, the No. 8 seed in the East, will play the Blue Jackets, the No. 9 seed, in a qualifier series beginning Sunday (8 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN, TVAS, FS-O). The Blue Jackets won a playoff series for the first time last season.

The question is whether Toronto, with forwards Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner and John Tavares, can win at least one playoff round.

"I think there's a lot of unfinished business from last season," said Tavares, the Maple Leafs captain. "We wanted to finish that off."

Video: Hockey is Back: Columbus vs. Toronto Begins Aug. 1

 

Marleau pursues Cup … again

Patrick Marleau has played 1,723 regular-season games, fifth in NHL history and the most by a player who has never won the Stanley Cup.

The forward hopes to end that drought with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the No. 5 seed in the East, in his 22nd NHL season. They will play the Montreal Canadiens, the No. 12 seed, in a qualifier series beginning Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).

After two seasons with Toronto, the 40-year-old agreed to a contract with the San Jose Sharks, the team he played his first 19 seasons with, on Oct. 8, then was traded to the Penguins on Feb. 24. He had one goal and one assist in eight games with the Penguins after scoring 20 points (10 goals, 10 assists) in 58 games with the Sharks.

Video: CAR@PIT: Marleau buries first goal with Penguins

 

McDavid seeks playoff return

Connor McDavid has reached the playoffs once since being selected No. 1 by the Edmonton Oilers in the 2015 NHL Draft. He helped them reach the Western Conference Second Round in 2017, scoring nine points (five goals, four assists) in 13 games.

The Oilers captain said last June that he was "dying to play in the playoffs." Now the center has an opportunity to help them get there. As the No. 5 seed in the West, they will play Game 1 of their qualifier series against the Chicago Blackhawks, the No. 12 seed, on Saturday (3 p.m. ET; NBC, SN).

With postseason success, McDavid can build on his legacy. He was voted winner of the Hart Trophy as the League's most valuable player in 2016-17 and led the NHL in scoring twice (2016-17, 2017-18). McDavid has scored 469 points (162 goals, 307 assists) in 351 games, including 97 points (34 goals, 63 assists) this season, when he was second in the NHL to teammate Leon Draisaitl (110 points; 43 goals, 67 assists).

Video: EDM@CGY: McDavid nets second goal on the rush

 

Flames offense against Hellebuyck

The Calgary Flames, the No. 8 seed in the West, have the potential for serious firepower with forwards Matthew Tkachuk (61 points; 23 goals, 38 assists) and Johnny Gaudreau (58 points; 18 goals, 40 points), even in a down season for the latter, who had 99 points (36 goals, 63 assists) in 2018-19. But in their qualifier series they will face the Jets, the No. 9 seed, who have Connor Hellebuyck, arguably the favorite in the voting for the Vezina Trophy, awarded annually to the best goalie in the NHL. Game 1 is Saturday (10:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NHL.TV, CBC, SN).

Hellebuyck excelled despite the Jets losing four of their six regular defensemen from last season (Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Chiarot, Tyler Myers, Jacob Trouba). He faced the most shots in the NHL (1,796), finishing with a 2.57 GAA and a .922 save percentage.

The Flames were 20th in goals per game (2.91) this season but were improving in that area late in the season; they averaged 3.77 goals from Feb. 12 until the pause, second to the Flyers (4.00).

Video: VGK@WPG: Hellebuyck stymies Vegas to earn the shutout

 

What can the Wild goalies handle?

The Minnesota Wild, the No. 10 seed in the West, have not named a starting goalie for their qualifier series against the Vancouver Canucks, the No. 7 seed, that begins Sunday (10:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NHL.TV, SN, FS-N, FS-WI). It could be Alex Stalock (20-11-4, 2.67 GAA, .910), Devan Dubnyk (12-15-2, 3.35, .890) or even rookie Kaapo Kahkonen (3-1-1, 2.96, .913).

Stalock started nine of the Wild's last 12 games before the pause, but Dubnyk has played 26 playoff games compared to four for Stalock -- three of them came for the Sharks in 2014 -- and none for Kahkonen, who has played five NHL games.

Whichever goalie Wild coach Dean Evason selects will have to contend with a dynamic offense. The Canucks were eighth in goals per game (3.25) and had the League's fourth-ranked power play (24.2 percent).

Video: Hockey is Back: Wild-Canucks Begins Aug. 2

 

Which Predators team will show up?

The Nashville Predators came into the season with high expectations after five consecutive trips to the playoffs, including losing in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. But they faltered and were 19-15-7 before coach Peter Laviolette was replaced by John Hynes on Jan. 7.

The Predators went 16-11-1 after the coaching change. The No. 6 seed in the West, Nashville will face the Arizona Coyotes, the No. 11 seed, in a qualifier series that begins Sunday (2 p.m. ET; USA, NHL.TV, SN360, FS-TN, FS-A).

The Predators relied heavily on Roman Josi, a finalist for the Norris Trophy after leading Nashville with 65 points (16 goals, 49 assists). After Pekka Rinne (18-14-4, 3.17, .895) struggled, Juuse Saros (17-12-4, 2.70, .914) appeared to take over as the No. 1 goalie, starting eight of the Predators' final nine games.

Will Nashville play up to expectations, or will this end up a lost season?

Video: Hockey is Back: Coyotes vs. Predators Begins Aug. 2

 

Ready or not

With the games about to begin, we're about to find out if the goalies will be behind the skaters due to the long layoff.

Though former NHL goalie and current "NHL on NBC" analyst Brian Boucher said he believes the shooters will be at an advantage, many of the goalies said they're happy with where they are.

"Three weeks of shots is a lot of shots," Canadiens goalie Carey Price said. "Let's start already."

 

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