The 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs according to NHL 20 – First Round

NHL 20 - Stanley Cup Playoffs

With the NHL season on pause indefinitely due to the coronavirus outbreak, hockey fans are left wondering “what if?” What if the season wasn’t interrupted and teams were preparing for the Stanley Cup Playoffs to begin shortly? While we’re left waiting to find out whether or not the playoffs will even happen this year, I figured there’s still one way to figure out what would have happened. That’s right, we’re going to the very reliable EA Sports NHL 20 to simulate the playoffs and see what would have happened had the season not been put on hold.

The playoff matchups are based on how the standings looked when the season was paused, so a few playoff hopefuls are missing out in this, but hey, that’s life. I’m also kind of limited by what the Playoff Mode in this game actually offers too. For example, I have to simulate everything one game at a time and can’t go back to see scores from previous games. It’s almost like EA’s focus for this was entirely on how they could make money, and not how to make a good game. While that’s a whole other topic entirely, I’ll simulate the first round of the playoffs for this article, and then let you know who wins and some of the stats from the first round. I’ve been rambling on long enough, let’s get into this.

Western Conference

St. Louis Blues (C1) vs. Nashville Predators (W2)

Will the reigning Stanley Cup Champions repeat in 2020? There’s plenty of reason to say yes. They’re the top team in the Western Conference with 94 points, and have almost the exact same roster as when they won the Stanley Cup last season. Meanwhile, the Predators saw them end their season at 78 points. While they’ve been making moves to improve their roster while still maintaining the core group of players over the last few seasons, they just haven’t been able to click this year.

Well, similar to their run during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Preds picked the right time to get hot. Nashville made quick work of the defending champs, beating the Blues in four straight to earn the sweep. Ryan Johansen led the way for the Predators with eight points in four games and was one of six players on Nashville to average at least one point per game. As impressive as the offense was for Nashville, the real story was in net. Pekka Rinne put any doubts to rest after posting two shutouts, a .974 Sv% and 0.75 GAA in the series. 

At the other end of the ice, Jordan Binnington struggled for the Blues. Maybe the extra hockey from last season had finally caught up to him, but for whatever reason, he just wasn’t at the same level as we’ve become accustomed to seeing. A .850 Sv% and 4.10 GAA meant trouble for St. Louis. That’s bad, but the rest of the team wasn’t much better. Vladimir Tarasenko led the team in scoring but only had two points in the series.

Result: Nashville wins series 4-0

Colorado Avalanche (C2) vs. Dallas Stars (C3)

Both of these teams made it into the playoffs last season as the Wild Card teams, and both of them saw their playoff run end in the second round. This time around they’ve secured division spots, but one of them will have their season come to an end earlier than the year before.

It took a Game 7 to decide this series, with the Stars winning that deciding game. Dallas had three players tied for the team lead in points, with Tyler Seguin, Radek Faksa and Miro Heiskanen all finishing the series with six. The depth of the Stars was on full display throughout the series, with ten skaters registering at least four points in the series, including newcomers Corey Perry and Joe Pavelski. In net, Ben Bishop wasn’t perfect, but he was reliable with a shutout, .923 Sv% and 2.41 GAA in the series. Ultimately, his play proved to be the difference in the series when comparing his stats to what happened between the pipes for Colorado.

The Avalanche relied on Philipp Grubauer over Pavel Francouz, but Grubauer struggled throughout the series. With a 3-3-1 record, .900 Sv % and 3.19 GAA, the difference between his play and Bishop’s was the deciding factor in the series. Colorado’s scoring proved to be a fairly balanced attack, with five players tied for the team lead with five points each. An issue for the Avalanche was that Nathan MacKinnon didn’t really take over the series the way that many people would have expected. He didn’t struggle, recording two goals and two assists throughout the series, but those numbers aren’t quite what fans have become used to seeing from MacKinnon. In the end, the Avalanche fell just short.

Result: Dallas wins series 4-3

Vegas Golden Knights (P1) vs. Winnipeg Jets (W1)

After their run to the Stanley Cup Final in their first season, the Golden Knights failed to replicate that same level of success last season. Of course, part of that had to do with a blown call in the first round against the San Jose Sharks, but even still the Knights didn’t match that same level of success throughout the regular season last year. This year, however, they found themselves back at the top of the Pacific Division. Meanwhile, the Jets got into the playoffs in the first Wild Card spot after a tough stretch in January. But after years of high expectations, Winnipeg had a lot to prove this season.

Since the expansion draft, Vegas has done a really good job of adding some more star players to their roster, trading for Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny. However, in the first round it was one of their expansion selections, Jonathan Marchessault who led the team in scoring with eight points. In a bit of a surprising move, the Knights went with Robin Lehner in net (I’m not sure why, ask EA), but it didn’t make much of a difference. Fleury played in one game, posted a .857 Sv% and 3.00 GAA but it was enough to get the win. However, that would be his only appearance in the series. Lehner’s numbers weren’t great either, with a .907 Sv% and 3.10 GAA.

Meanwhile, Connor Hellebuyck’s numbers weren’t outstanding either. His .896 Sv% and 3.08 GAA and both well below average, but they were still good enough to make a difference in the most important category – the win column. The scoring for Winnipeg was led by the players you would expect, with Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor both tied with 10 points, while Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers and Josh Morrissey rounded out the top five. The Jets also had the third-best powerplay percentage throughout the first round at 22.6%, scoring seven times on 31 attempts, including two goals from Patrik Laine.

Result: Winnipeg wins series 4-3

Edmonton Oilers (P2) vs. Calgary Flames (P3)

The Battle of Alberta was back in full force this season, and that same energy is sure to be intensified throughout a playoff series, even though it unfortunately comes in the first round. This series actually makes me really wish that the season was still going on because this would be an absolute treat to watch in real life. 

In our video game world, this gives us another chance to evaluate the trade that saw James Neal traded to Edmonton while Milan Lucic was sent to Calgary, and boy did that trade continue to be lopsided in this series. James Neal was the leading scorer on the Oilers with eight points, while Lucic finished with a total of zero points and only five shots throughout the series. The Oilers were also helped by the play of Mikko Koskinen throughout the series, although it meant that Mike Smith wouldn’t see any playing time against his former team. Koskinen posted a .931 Sv% and 2.10 GAA along with one shutout in the series.

The Flames struggled offensively throughout the series. Johnny Gaudreau led the team with six points, but other important players for Calgary such as Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk combined for six points and just one goal in the series. In net, David Rittich logged the majority of minutes for the Flames, but his .889 Sv% and 3.34 GAA were a problem. Cam Talbot played one game in relief for Rittich and turned away all 18 shots he faced in 25 minutes of action. In the end, the Oilers proved to be too much for the Flames to handle in this postseason edition of the Battle of Alberta.

Result: Edmonton wins series 4-1

Eastern Conference

Boston Bruins (A1) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (W2)

What’s up Ben? I hope you’re ready for a rematch of last season’s second round matchup. The Boston Bruins have been the best team in the NHL this season and were the first and only team to reach 100 points before the regular season was postponed. After losing in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final last season, the Bruins have been on a bit of a revenge tour throughout the regular season, but obviously, playoff success is what matters the most.

After leading the league in playoff scoring last season, Brad Marchand picked up right where he left off with 11 points in this first round series. David Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron rounded out the top three with nine and eight points respectively, which isn’t surprising at all considering how much the Bruins rely on that line to generate their scoring opportunities. Similar to last season, Rask benefitted from a reduced workload throughout the regular season and excelled in the playoffs, posting .921 Sv% along with a 2.01 GAA and one shutout.

The same couldn’t be said for Joonas Korpisalo in his first playoff series since taking over the starting role from Sergei Bobrovsky. His .842 Sv% was the worst out of every goalie to play in the first round, while his 5.09 GAA was the second-worst in the league – ahead of only his backup, Elvis Merzlikins with a 5.85 GAA in 51 minutes of action. Columbus struggled offensively throughout the series as well. Oliver Bjorkstrand and Pierre-Luc Dubois led the way with four points each, and the Blue Jackets were only able to score three powerplay goals in the series.

Result: Boston wins series 4-1

Tampa Bay Lightning (A2) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (A3)

Leafs fans looking at this matchup could be excited that they finally avoid having to play the Bruins in the first round of the playoffs because we all know that ends with Boston winning a Game 7. Unfortunately for those same fans, Tampa Bay has been on a roll throughout the second half of the season after getting off to a slow start.

For two teams that typically play a high-scoring style of game, this series turned into a defensive showdown – specifically a goaltending duel. Andrei Vasilevskiy was back to his Vezina-calibre form, with a .926 Sv% and 1.91 GAA. At the other end of the ice, Frederik Andersen was also on his game. His .926 Sv% matched that of Vasilevskiy, but he had a slightly higher 2.50 GAA.

When it came to scoring, it was the usual suspects at it for Tampa Bay. Nikita Kucherov led the team with four goals, three of which turned out to be the game winners, and a total of five points. Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos also had five points for the Lightning. For Toronto, it was captain John Tavares leading the way with four points in the series, while Zach Hyman led the team with two goals. However, the biggest storyline to come out of this was the disappearing act of Auston Matthews. He was limited to just one assist in the series, failing to score a goal on any of his 11 shots. With this series being so close throughout, it’s safe to say that Matthews would have been the difference-maker if he had been able to find the back of the net. Instead, Toronto is once again bounced from the playoffs in the first round.

Result: Tampa Bay wins series 4-1

Washington Capitals (M1) vs. Carolina Hurricanes (W1)

For the second year in a row, the Capitals and Hurricanes meet in the first round of the playoffs. Last year, it took double overtime in Game 7 for Carolina to win the series and go on a run that would carry them to the Eastern Conference Finals. It was a shocking way for the defending Stanley Cup Champions in Washington to be knocked out, but that’s what playoff hockey is all about. It’s safe to say that the Capitals will be looking to avoid that outcome this time around.

With rumours that Braden Holtby could be playing in his final season with the Capitals, he put on a show for any teams who might be looking for a starting goalie next season, or to prove his worth in Washington. A .937 Sv% in the first round ranked third among starting goalies, and his 2.09 GAA is the fifth-best. Up front, Lars Eller led the Capitals in scoring, although all six of his points were assists. Recently acquired Ilya Kovalchuk has turned out to be a valuable trade deadline move with five points in the series including two game winning goals. And of course, Alex Ovechkin chipped in with four points, all of which were goals.

After a stretch that had hockey fans jumping on the Bunch of Jerks bandwagon, the magic ran out for the Hurricanes this round. Justin Williams, Vincent Trocheck and Jordan Staal tied for the team lead with just three points each in the series, while Sebastian Aho was held to just two assists. The news wasn’t much better in net for Carolina. Peter Mrazek was well below average, with a .884 Sv% and 3.73 GAA. Despite that, the Hurricanes kept the series somewhat competitive. Although it was a sweep, two games went into overtime. Just another sign that the clock had struck midnight for Carolina.

Result: Washington wins series 4-0

Philadelphia Flyers (M2) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (M3)

We had the Battle of Alberta in the West, and now we have the Battle of Pennsylvania in the East. We’ve been treated to this matchup a few times in recent years, and it doesn’t take long for the tempers to boil over. Claude Giroux is a player who seems to have no issue getting under the skin of Sidney Crosby, and the rivalry only gets bigger from there. The 2017-18 series between these teams saw basically a complete lack of goaltending, including a Game 7 that was decided by a final score of 8-5 in favour of the Penguins.

That wouldn’t be the case this time around, mainly because the Flyers seem to have finally found their goalie of the future in Carter Hart. A .939 Sv% and 1.78 GAA has the young goalie right near the top of the list in both categories, but more importantly, has given Philadelphia the type of goaltending that they’ve been searching for since as far back as I can remember. It was another young player taking charge of the scoring for the Flyers, as Travis Konecny would lead the team in scoring with eight points, while Jakub Voracek had six, and Matt Niskanen and Claude Giroux had five points each.

While the Penguins are just a few seasons removed from their back-to-back Stanley Cups, they’ve definitely shown some signs of slowing down. Matt Murray had an up and down series in net and that inconsistency hurt Pittsburgh. In their two wins in the series, Murray logged two shutouts, but as a whole, he finished the series with a .906 Sv% and 2.73 GAA. However, he didn’t get much help from the players in front of him either. The Penguins had four players tied for the team lead in scoring with four points, including both Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. With their top players struggling to generate much, the Penguins didn’t have the depth to make up for the lack of scoring.

Result: Philadelphia wins series 4-2

Stats Leaders

EA Sports NHL 20 - Stanley Cup Playoffs

Playoff scoring race after the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs

EA Sports NHL 20 - Stanley Cup Playoffs

Goaltending stats from the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs

Check back on Thursday for the results from the second round matchups.

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