As the NHL gears up for a return to play following an extended pause from COVID-19, we have an unusual playoff format. A total of 24 teams will participate when play resumes, with 16 of them participating in the play-in round. As teams that were previously out of the playoffs play for a chance at the Cup, they will need big-time plays from key players. As the playoffs approach, we identify a player on each team in the play-in round who needs to make an impact. Today we look at the Eastern Conference Play-in round.
Important Figures in the Eastern Conference Play-In Round
#5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs #12 Montreal Canadiens
This could wind up being one of the most interesting playoff matchups as two storied franchises go head-to-head. The Pittsburgh Penguins could have a healthy Jake Guentzel back in the lineup to add to an already potent offence. The Montreal Canadiens should rely on a stout defence to keep them in this matchup.
Pittsburgh already has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as well established superstars. The reputation they have built means that teams will likely focus on shutting them down. This is Guentzel’s time to shine. If he can take advantage of the extra space, he can be the driving force of the offence. While his injury appeared to be a death sentence early in the season, it appears it will also pay off now. He will be far more fresh and ready to go compared to the rest of the league. Guentzel has not played since December after suffering a shoulder injury and undergoing what was thought to be season-ending surgery.
It has been well established that a hot goaltender can carry a team to a championship. Jordan Binnington pulled it off for the St. Louis Blues last season. Carey Price is one of the most elite goalies the NHL has seen in years. He could be the factor that allows a bottom-ranked Canadiens team to make a deep playoff push. There will still be a lot of pressure on a weak forward group to produce offence against Matt Murray. If Price and a Shea Weber led defence can keep games low-scoring, Montreal could move on.
#6 Carolina Hurricanes vs #11 New York Rangers
The Carolina Hurricanes are looking to repeat some of last season’s success with another deep playoff run. The defence is solid but who can boost their offensive production? The New York Rangers are looking to fight their way to postseason play. Can Jacob Trouba help solidify the defence in front of a young goaltender?
Depth at the blue line has been the key to success for the Hurricanes in recent history. An overwhelming supply of highly talented defencemen took them to the Eastern Conference Final last year. While they were swept by the Boston Bruins, more scoring could have helped them avoid the sweep at the very least. They never got more than two goals on the board against Tuukka Rask. Vincent Trocheck could help solve those problems. As the second line centre behind Sebastian Aho, Trocheck has an opportunity to do some real damage. The trade deadline acquisition should see significant ice time and needs to take advantage.
The Rangers appear to be moving past the Henrik Lundqvist era. They are looking towards either Igor Shesterkin or Alexandar Georgiev as the future in net. If the Rangers decision-makers decide to play one of the young studs during the play-in round, he will need support from the defence. New York needs Jacob Trouba to step up. Adam Fox stole the show during the regular season as the best defender on the roster. That was supposed to be Trouba’s role and why they traded for him. This is his time to step up and prove he can be more than just the second fiddle to Fox.
#7 New York Islanders vs #10 Florida Panthers
The New York Islanders have become famous for their strong team play in the defensive zone under Barry Trotz. Mathew Barzal hopes to be the answer to their scoring. The Florida Panthers hope that Frank Vatrano can play the top-six role they need from him.
Barzal has been seen as the savior of the franchise since the departure of John Tavares. He is arguably the best player on the roster and is the piece to build around. If the Islanders want to win games, they need to rely on his passing ability. His remarkable vision has resulted in plenty of scoring opportunities for his teammates. Barry Trotz’s defensive system can prevent scoring chances from the other team. But they need production from Barzal if they want to win games and advance in the Eastern Conference play-in round.
Vatrano seemingly came out of nowhere. After playing parts of three seasons in Boston, he became more prominently featured in Florida. He set his career-high in points during his first full season with the Panthers. Vatrano has frequently played a top-six role. Although he is more of a secondary scoring option for Florida, his play will be key to their success. The opposing defence will be more focused on established threats like Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. Vatrano needs to take advantage of the extra space he will find and put pucks in the net.
#8 Toronto Maple Leafs vs #9 Columbus Blue Jackets
As one of the best teams on paper, the Toronto Maple Leafs are hoping to avoid yet another first-round elimination. Tyson Barrie could be the piece that pushes them forward. The Columbus Blue Jackets have a very talented defence and stellar goaltending. But who will provide the scoring touch they need?
Nearly every recent postseason run has played out the same for Toronto. Make a hard push for the playoffs in the regular season, qualify for the postseason, and exit after a tragic Game 7 loss against Boston. This year could be different. Toronto has not had a defence in the past like they do this year. Although injuries have plagued them this year, players could recover by the time play begins. Tyson Barrie is one such defenceman. He has brought stability to the blue line that Frederik Andersen desperately needs. Andersen has had to stand on his head on plays the defence could not stop. With strong defensive play from Barrie, Toronto could finally break their string of bad luck in the playoffs.
Columbus has one of the best defensive cores in the NHL. Seth Jones, Ryan Murray, and Zach Werenski have proven they can lock down opposing offence. Just look at their sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2019 as an example. The problem is that they do not have the offence they had last year. The departure of Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene hurt badly. In steps Gustav Nyquist. Although he is not a scorer on the level that those two are, he can help lessen the pain. Nyquist has proven that he can be effective. While they do not need to rely on him for all of the offence, the more he can bring, the more likely they advance beyond the Eastern Conference play-in round.