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PuckLuck Predicts: The 2020 NHL Playoffs

It's everybody's favorite time of the year - August playoff hockey! If the qualifying rounds and round robin have proven anything, it's that the randomness and margin of error in hockey is very slim. Predicting the sport is very difficult, but there are a few points of reference to help point us in the right direction.


As I do on a game-by-game basis, I like to predict team success from the team data level, and then apply any efficiencies and/or deficiencies based on a team's projected lineup from a player-level. In a crazy year like this, this allows for slight adjustments based on opt-outs, injuries, and line shuffling.


Here is my completed NHL.com playoff bracket, with ensuing analysis:


Western Conference


There are three really strong contenders to come out of the West, in the Vegas Golden Knights, Colorado Avalanche, and St. Louis Blues. Vegas has the easiest route to the Conference Finals, facing the 12th-best regular season team in the conference, the Chicago Blackhawks, in the first round, and then facing the lowest advancing seed in the second round. Should things play out as projected, that team would be the six seed Calgary Flames.


With strong metrics all-around, especially with Robin Lehner now in net, the Golden Knights have a strong case to be in the Stanley Cup Final. If Max Pacioretty is truly healthy upon returning, that provides even more of a boost to an already deep team.


The Colorado Avalanche have a favorable first round matchup versus the Arizona Coyotes, who have struggled to score and have been relying on stellar goaltending. Colorado projects to finish that series up rather quickly, and await the St. Louis Blues - who should have a little more difficult of a time against the young talent in Vancouver.


Should all three top contenders advance, it is basically a toss-up which one prevails. Injuries, lineup decisions, and a few bounces will likely dictate which one comes out on top. Right now we have Colorado, who, despite a more difficult route, have the most consistent scoring and the proven depth up and down the lineup to keep advancing.


Eastern Conference


The Eastern Conference will be extremely interesting, because there are basically five teams with a real shot of making it to the Final. The likeliest candidate is the Boston Bruins, naturally, as they finished the regular season with the NHL's best record. It won't be a cakewalk, however, because they project to have the tightest matchup of the entire first round, against the impressive Carolina Hurricanes.


The Hurricanes may project to get edged out slightly, but they are trending in the complete opposite direction of their counterparts. The Bruins did not win a single round robin game, while Carolina went undefeated in the qualifying round. They also have been without their top defenseman, Dougie Hamilton, who has been practicing with the team and is hopeful to return for the beginning of the first round. Should they squeeze past Boston, they could be poised for a deep playoff run.


The second-highest likeliness of making to the Stanley Cup Final is beholden to the Tampa Bay Lightning. After a strong regular season and late-season additions of Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, they are a deep and dangerous team. The major question with them resides in the health of Victor Hedman, who's status for the rest of the playoffs is uncertain.


The top seed was earned by the Philadelphia Flyers, and, if they stay hot, they could easily find themselves steam-rolling their way through the Toronto tournament. The Flyers will need James van Riemsdyk, who was a healthy scratch at times in the round robin, to get back on track in order to balance out the forward group and help the powerplay.


Finally, you cannot write off the Washington Capitals. With the same core group that won the Cup a couple years ago, and John Carlson returning to practice, the Capitals are always a threat to reach the next level.


Conclusion


As was the case throughout the entire season, the Eastern Conference projects to prove to be the stronger conference. The Boston Bruins basically coasted in first place throughout the year, and, if they can rally to bounce some of the League's top teams, they will be battle-tested and ready for the speedy Colorado Avalanche. It's a long road to the Cup, so we'll check back are reevaluate come the second round.

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