The qualifying round is done and the "real" playoffs are about to begin with the first round in the Toronto and Edmonton hubs. After some surprising results in the qualifier, will teams not eligible for the playoffs under normal circumstances be able to continue their run now? It all starts at 3 p.m. ET (NBCSN) with a rematch of last year's first-round matchup that saw the Columbus Blue Jackets sweep the Tampa Bay Lightning. That's just one of the intriguing storylines surrounding the first round; don't forget about Barry Trotz against the Washington Capitals.
How the USA TODAY Sports' NHL desk sees it going down:
Philadelphia Flyers vs. Montreal Canadiens
Jimmy Hascup: Canadiens in 7. It all comes down to goalie Carey Price. Montreal might not seem to have the firepower, but this team had strong underlying metrics all year and a coach who knows how to game plan in the playoffs.
Mike Brehm: Flyers in 6. Flyers goalie Carter Hart should be able to match saves with Price, and the Flyers have a deeper offense. In fact, they went 3-0 in the round robin without a power play goal and without goals from Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Travis Konecny.
Jace Evans: Flyers in 5. Philadelphia was rolling before the break and did not appear to miss a beat in the restart, dominating play in its round-robin games. The Habs getting here has been a nice story, but the Flyers are deeper and simply have higher-quality talent.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Hascup: Blue Jackets in 7. The health of Lightning stars Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman makes this a toss-up.
Brehm: Lightning in 6. They'll have a major chip on their shoulder after last year's shocking upset. They remain dangerous even if Stamkos or Hedman can't play early.
Evans: Lightning in 7. The injury status of Stamkos and Hedman is definitely a major concern, but the Lightning still have plenty of talent, including reigning MVP Nikita Kucherov. They also have something to prove against the team that swept them after a historic regular season last year.
Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals have the edge in star power against the New York Islanders. (Photo: Dennis Schneidler, USA TODAY Sports)
Washington Capitals vs. New York Islanders
Hascup: Capitals in 6. Just think the Capitals' star power will win out here, even if I have expected more from this group this season.
Brehm: Islanders in 7. The Islanders play a stingy, defensive game and Trotz will know how to game plan against his former team. If Capitals defenseman John Carlson can get healthy and back to his regular-season ways, that could turn the balance Washington's way.
Evans: Capitals in 7. It's a master and apprentice situation as Trotz faces off with Capitals coach Todd Reirden, Trotz's former assistant in Washington. New York probably has the edge behind the bench, but even with their inconsistencies, the Capitals' roster has more high-end talent that also has a recent Cup win on their resume.
Boston Bruins vs. Carolina Hurricanes
Hascup: Bruins in 6. The Bruins lost all three round-robin games, but I am banking on their overall strong season (and my East pick) to win out.
Brehm: Hurricanes in 6. I believe the Bruins will figure a way out of their round-robin funk, but I also like the job that Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour has been doing.
Evans: Bruins in 7. Boston was the best team in the NHL this year and has experienced core. The Bruins have struggled so far in the bubble, but Bruce Cassidy has emerged as one of the best coaches in the league. He should get them to find their game against a team they swept in last year's playoffs.
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Chicago Blackhawks
Hascup: Golden Knights in 5. A lot to like with the Blackhawks, which was revealed in their play-in round upset, but Vegas is just too good and has too much depth.
Brehm: Golden Knights in 5. Max Pacioretty looks like he could return, and the Golden Knights put on an offensive show without him.
Evans: Golden Knights in 4. The Golden Knights showed why they're a favorite to win the Stanley Cup with their play (3-0) in the round-robin. The Blackhawks have some talent – just not enough of it.
Colorado Avalanche vs. Arizona Coyotes
Hascup: Avalanche in 6. They were two points away from tops in the West. With Nathan MacKinnon leading the way, their offense is just too explosive.
Brehm: Avalanche in 6. Coyotes goalie Darcy Kuemper will keep it close, but the Avalanche have more firepower than the Predators team the Coyotes team beat in the first round.
Evans: Avalanche in 5. Colorado has emerged as one of the best young teams – built around MVP finalist MacKinnon – following a steady, multi-year build. The Avs have goals to take the next step; the Coyotes seem like a team in transition.
Dallas Stars vs. Calgary Flames
Hascup: Stars in 7. They play a stingy defensive style that tends to thrive in the playoffs. They will muster enough offense to get by in a physical series.
Brehm: Flames in 6. The Stars have great defensive play, but the offense needs to show more. Expect Calgary's Matthew Tkachuk to be a pesky force in the series.
Evans: Flames in 6. This Flames core could be looking at changes if they don't make it out of this round. Expect a low-scoring series as the Stars are 28th in goals for but second in goals against.
St. Louis Blues vs. Vancouver Canucks
Hascup: Canucks in 7. How about a little fun in the first (real) round of the playoffs? This group has game-breakers on offense and a defense that just might be able to surprise.
Brehm: Blues in 6. Defending champions or upstart team? I'll go with the defending champions, but the Blues will have to stay out of the penalty box and remember how to hold a lead.
Evans: Blues in 5. The defending champs didn't look great in the round-robin, but they were in the midst of a good season, have Vladimir Tarasenko back from injury and are going against one of the least-experienced teams in the playoffs.
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