X-Factors for the NHL Qualifying Round Teams
By: Joe Borek (@jjborek26)
As the NHL Playoffs quickly approach us, here are my X-Factors for each team playing in the qualifying round. Each team has players and factors we all know need to step up, so we will look at some of them but also, players/factors who some may not be thinking of as much to step up for their clubs as well. There will be two X-Factors or key players listed for each team for the sake of this list. Of course, there need to be more key factors than two to win. However, these will be two factors/ players I believe, are key for the team to have continued success in the playoffs. Of course, stranger things happen, though. Let’s get into it.
Penguins– Goaltending and Defense- Now for Pittsburg, they have arguable one of the easiest first-round matchups. Montreal has a struggling defense in front of Price with a team other than Domi, Gallagher, and a select few that don’t play the best playoff style of hockey. However, for Pittsburg advancing as some’s sleeper pick to the Cup, they will need their goaltending to continue to be a key factor, and their defense improves some. On defense, they need Justin Schultz to step up who struggled in 46 games for them this season. They also need Brian Dumoulin, who plays a very playoff brand of hockey, blocking shots and isn’t afraid to throw his body around, to step up for them as an anchor on defense. He only played 28 games this season but did look very good when he came back and looked good in the Pens exhibition game against the Flyers as well. Probably one of their better-looking D-Men in that game.
As for goaltending, Sullivan has a tough decision. Matt Murray has all the experience with two Stanley Cups, but Tristan Jarry has the numbers big time this season. If its Jarry, they need him to continue to be money and step up for them this season time and time again as he did. Where if they go with Murray, they need his experience to take over and make him a mighty confident goalie in the playoffs. Either way, defense with Schultz, Dumoulin, and others need to step up or continue to play well, and their goaltending whoever is picked needs to step up and make some key big saves as they did all season. Highlights of the Penguins can be seen below.
Canadiens– Well, this one is easy Price, and Depth Play- Obviously for the Canadiens, the only small chance they have of advancing past Pittsburg is if Price stands on his head. He is capable of doing so, but the problem then is their inconsistent defense in front of him. That’s part of their depth problem. The only top-four pairing experienced defenders they have are Petry and Weber. They have young good D-Men Mete and Kulak, who is solid but still inconsistent, so their questions will be if the defense can play well enough in front of Price even to give him a chance. That’s not where their depth questions end; however, unfortunately for Montreal. They need some of their key forwards like Drouin to mainly stay healthy cause the kid has skill as well as others to step up. A guy like Brendan Gallagher who had an excellent year for Montreal with, 22G 21A 43PTS in 59 games, is a key player to look too. Gallagher plays a very playoff style of hockey. He is a smaller player at 5’9, but that is not the way he plays the game. Gallagher is not afraid to get pesky or into it with anybody to help energize his team. He is a key player in the postseason as not only a continued scorer but key energizer of the Canadiens if they have any chance of beating Pittsburg. Highlights from the Canadiens can be seen below.
Hurricanes– James Reimer and Depth Scoring- The Reason I say James Reimer is because the team just played a more compact, simple, and calm game in front of him compared to Petr Mrazek, who also had a down year overall after an excellent year last year for Carolina. This season, the step-up games have belonged to Reimer, who also looked more comfortable and confident in the Canes exhibition against the Capitals, a top team in the East. Mrazek did not look bad overall, just a bit more of which is expected after a layoff, but there is no time to stall in a five-game series, so I Believe Reimer could be the goalie to carry them if they can advance past the Rangers. As for depth scoring and scoring in general, the Canes need Vincent Trocheck, who they got from the Panthers, to step up big time. He did not look too good in his first seven games with the team but did look like one of their best players in the exhibition. If Trocheck can carry that play into the qualifying round against the Rangers, that will immensely help the Canes. He will then add to the already good play of Teravainen, vets Stall and Williams, and young Phenom Svechnikov and others now giving the Canes the added scoring potential depth they have wanted all season. Highlights of the Hurricanes can be seen below.
Rangers– Continued strong play and Good Goaltending- The Rangers, of course, have one of the Hart Trophy candidates in Artemi Panarin on their team plus fellow star player Mika Zibanejad by his side. They also have the heart and soul of their team Chris Kreider now back for the playoffs due to the delay. This is big for them because Kreider was having a great season of 24G and 21A for 45PTS before he went down and is now back in the lineup on top of guys like Strome and Fast, who continued to step up in his absence among others. If those key players continue to play well, the Rangers are poised with more depth and better goaltending going in to upset Carolina. Now let us get onto that goaltending. The Rangers, of course, have future hall of Famer, Henrik Lundqvist who per reports looked stellar in camp, plus young budding star Igor Shestyorkin. Both looked rather ready and confident in an exhibition against their New York counterpart Islanders. So it will be up to coach Dave Quinn, to see if he wants to go with the stellar numbers of Shestyorkin or the wise experience of Lundqvist. Either way, they go. Their netminder will have to continue to step up as well as the players mentioned above to give them a good chance of an upset against the Hurricanes. Below you can see highlights of the Rangers from this past season.
Islanders– Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Gabriel Pageau- For the Islanders, they need Pageau to be the guy they knew they were acquiring when they traded for him just before the seasons halt. Pageau, just like Trocheck for the Canes, only had seven games under his belt before the pause. So clearly, as they said in yesterday’s exhibition broadcast, he is going to have to adjust and learn the system. He did, however, along with Trocheck and others acquired at the deadline like Grant for the Flyers, earn the biggest advantage from a whole new camp, and then exhibition game to be able to learn his new team’s ways. If Pageau can step up, that adds scoring to a team who needed just that one more consistent scorer rather than a great presence overall on the Ice in Bailey who can also score. If they get the play from Pageau that is expected of him, then the Islanders are also a quality sleeper team to choose from. Another reason they are a quality sleeper team to go far this playoff is because of goalie Semyon Varlamov. Did Varlamov have the flashiest stats? No, but he got the job done with a 2.63GAA and a .914SV% in 45 games played. He also looked good in camp per reports and looked poised and ready to go in the exhibition game against the Rangers, setting himself up to earn the nod in my eyes for a game one playoff start. This will be Varlamov’s first playoffs since 2013-14, where he played okay with the Avalanche in seven games. His best playoffs where he played solid overall was at only 20 years old in 2008-09 for the Washington Capitals. Varlamov is, of course, now more experienced and established in the league, and due to the long layoff from the playoffs, you better believe he is going to be ready to pounce. Varlamov may impress some this postseason to the level of a surprise if he does, I for one will not be one that’s too surprised. Highlights of Varlamov and the rest of the Islanders can be seen below.
Panthers– Sergei Bobrovsky and Defense- For the Panthers, they need their defense in front of their goalie Bobrovsky(Bob) to play well, as well as Bob himself coming off of an offseason. Veteran defensemen, Anton Stralman, have not looked as good as they hoped, and Mike Matheson has now had back to back down seasons. So the Panthers will need those two among others to step up for their defense. They also need Keith Yandle and especially young star Aaron Ekblad to continue to be the staples on their defense that set the tone for others. As for who they are protecting, the man himself Sergei Bobrovsky needs to step up big time for this Florida Panthers team to have any chance of advancing. If Bob continues to struggle in the Play-in round, unless inexperienced Chris Driedger steps up as he did in season, Florida will have no chance of advancing in the playoffs. After all, yes, you need a good offense for winning series, but first and foremost, you need to stop the opposing teams attack with solid goaltending and defense. Those two facets of the game have been the biggest question for Florida all season. If the question marks are answered then, sure they have a chance to be something. However, if they are not, this has a chance to, unfortunately, for Florida fans to be a short playoff. Highlights of the Panthers can be seen below.
Maple Leafs– Frederik Anderson and Aggressive Defense- Too many times this season, when watching the Leafs did their defense, not being aggressive or physical enough cost them. That, of course, cannot happen in the postseason. Their defense is going to need to step up in front of Anderson to help protect their netminder. Something the Leafs, of course, have struggled at doing too many times this season. They do, however, have names on their defense, and those players looked a lot better in their exhibition against the Canadiens. Sandin continues to improve, and Rielly, Barrie, Muzzin looked good in the exhibition, so if they can build on that, then the Leafs certainly have a chance of advancing. The question is, will they look that good against stiffer competition than the Canadiens? That remains to be seen. Now with goaltending Anderson’s numbers are deceiving. Yes, he did not have his best season numbers-wise, but that’s because of the inconsistent defensive play mentioned above. So the question for Toronto is, can their defense protect their man in Anderson? If so, then this team on paper has a chance to make some noise. Highlights of Toronto can be seen below.
Blue Jackets– Continued Impressive Goaltending, Great Coaching- This team might be one of the easiest to pick what is going to continue to carry them if they can advance. Its clearly one of the best coaches of our time in John Tortorella, who seems to always get the most out of each of his players possible, including goalies. Torts just look always to know which move to make and how to adjust on the fly with the best of them. It’s going to be a heck of a matchup for young coach Sheldon Keefe, going up against one of the games best in his first playoff series with Toronto. The Blue Jackets have had a heck of defensive play from their forwards and defense, as I said, pulling the most out of each player leading to them being in this spot even though they had key injuries this season. That speaks volumes on their player’s mentalities as well as just how good a coach has had control of the room in all facets. Now for goaltending Merzlikins, just like Shestyorkin came into the league hot as a firecracker and was a massive reason for the Jackets’ success. After Joonas Korpisalo, who was having a great year himself, went down Merzlikins came in like a bat out of hell and put the league on notice. He had a remarkable .923SV% with a 2.35GAA in 33 games played earmarking him to be the starter for the playoffs one would think. So the only question that remains is, will the kid be able to carry his stellar play into his first playoffs, or will he be someone who needs that first playoff as a learning experience to then hit it big next time around? Only time will tell, but I believe this series has a chance to be a heck of goaltending bout. Below you can see highlights from the Blue Jackets from this past season.
Oilers– Continued Stellar Play from Kailer Yamamoto plus Mikko Koskinen- Koskinen looked good in the Oilers exhibition game against the Flames and will look to build on that in the playoffs. He had a season full of ups and downs, just like his backup Mike Smith. The issue is the later in Smith is still a very fun goalie to watch cause of his compete for level but is at the tail end of his career and is more of an excellent backup at this point. Where Koskinen came on too the scene last season in 2018-19, playing solid hockey earning him his current contract extension. This season he finally started to look more composed and confident in net towards the final stretch of the season. The Oilers need Koskinen to continue his current play from seasons end and the scrimmage to go far in these playoffs. They also, of course, need their defense to continue to play solid in front of their goalies. Coach Dave Tippett has done wonders with this team just like Torts pulling the most he can out of his defense as well as developing players very well, placing them in the perfect spot for them. Now on to Yamamoto, who had an electric season after his call up. The kid went off. He had 26 points in 27 games adding another top-notch contributor to a lineup already consisting of the leagues’ best duo. If Yamamoto can continue his stellar play now in the leagues hardest moment the Stanley Cup Playoffs, then Oilers are poised to go far this playoff potentially. That’s, of course, if Koskinen can play up to snuff as well. Since if those questions are answered with a positive, they don’t have a heck lot else to worry about as long as their duo of Draisaitl and McDavid continues to stay healthy and dominate. The highlight of the Oilers can be seen below.
Blackhawks– Corey Crawford and the Savvy Vets- This one can be kept short and simple. Crawford, after coming back from being unavailable, looked bad in a scrimmage in camp. He did then, though, answer any questions on his play by having an excellent exhibition against the currently top-seeded Blues. Suppose Crawford can play as he did in that exhibition, and really for parts of the season, the Hawks have a chance of upsetting the Oilers. In terms of how much they can do after that, it depends just on how good they looked like a whole in the play-in round rather than only a select few carrying them to victory. They already need lots to go perfect to beat Edmonton with the other Stanley Cup Winning veterans other than Crawford needing to step up big time as well. Those vets are, of course, Kane, Toews, Keith, and Sadd, who all played vital roles in their three cup wins from 2010-2020. This team is a club that, as I said in the open, stranger things can happen. Not many have picked Chicago to go anywhere, and I’m not so sure they will either. Although, with the veteran leadership and some good quality young players, plus a top young coach in Jeremy Colliton, you never know. Dueto all that experience and youngsters like Kubalik and DeBrincat, among others, they are hard to count out entirely. Highlights of the Hawks can be seen below from this past season.
Predators– Continued improved play and Goaltending- For the Preds, they have a similar situation as others mentioned above. What goalie do they choose? It seems they will continue to roll with the hot hand of Juuse Saros over the experience of Pekka Rinne after a down year. However, just like the Rangers, they have a tough decision. They have a top goalie of the last decade in Rinne, who has had a stellar career capturing a Vezina just a few years ago at the age of 35. So he still has it in him. He just had a down season. However, Saros had made a name for himself stepping up bigtime during Pekka’s struggles earning him the chance to start in the playoffs. Of course, though, if Saros struggles early, they have a wonderful fallback option in Rinne. So like others and their opponent, even the Preds are one of the teams with two good options in net that they can potentially rely on going into the playoffs. Now on the continued improved play department that simple. After John Hynes took over, the Predators game seemed to come back around. They played better overall team defense leading to more offensive chances creating a more confident bunch of players going into the pause and now since returning. Nashville and Arizona are going to be a heck of a series so if the Preds want to advance past Arizona and subsequently further in the playoffs beyond the playing they will need big-time play from their goalies no matter who is called upon, plus confident game from their team as a whole which has been the case since Hynes took over. Below highlights of the Preds from this past season can be seen.
Coyotes– Kuemper and Hall- The Coyotes got some big-time play from Anti Raanta in net, and this is not saying he cannot carry them in the playoffs. It’s more likely in my eyes to go back to their Vezina caliber starter. So that’s why Kuemper gets the nod over Raanta in key factors. Of course, if Kuemper struggles while ramping up play since he only played 29 games this season, then well heck, the Coyotes also have a money netminder to turn to try to get a big win for them. This team has a lot going on right now with their GM leaving right before the playoffs, but if Kuemper can step up as he did in those 29 regular-season games, this team has a chance to make some noise for at least a round or two if not more this season. After all, Kuemper was a brick wall just like Hellebuyck for the Jets this season, so if that’s the case and Hall takes off watch out. Now onto Taylor Hall. Hall, who got lowballed in his contract offer, needs to have a big postseason for the Coyotes for them to have any chance to go far. The Yotes, of course, have Phil Kessel, who is a very good veteran player, but he’s not Taylor Hall, who, at his best, is one of the games most dynamic players. Hall, of course, can take over a game and even a series along with his goaltender. So if those two can play big, then the Coyotes are potentially the most interesting lower seed to watch right there with the Rangers. Below the Coyotes can be seen doing their thing in their 2020 highlight video.
Canucks– Markstrom and Young Studs- For the Canucks they need their soon to be free agent goaltender, Markstrom, to step up big time in these playoffs as he has done for them time and time again this season. He has earned their first star honors nine times this season and was a significant contributor to the Canucks being where they are right now. Markstrom did, however, struggle right before getting injured last season. So he will need to step up and play as he did at the start of the season for the Canucks to have a good chance of advancing far in these playoffs and even past the 10th seeded pesky hard fighting Wild team. As for the young studs, it is pretty obvious who we are talking about. The young killer trio of Pettersson, Boeser, and Hughes. These three continue to look wise beyond their years and continue just to get better and better. If that continues and their other key players in Miller, Edler, Horvat, and others step up, then the Canucks definitely can surprise some people this postseason. Highlights from them can be seen below.
Wild– Continued Improved Play and Depth- The Wild, just like the Predators, are a compelling case. They did not look steady even into February this season, costing Bruce Boudreau his job. They have since though looked significantly better under a new head voice in Dean Evason, who has done a fantastic job since taking over. Before the pause, the Wild was one of the better teams in the league who finishes 7-3 in the final games before the pause. They now of course had a full camp to get some struggling guys going and confident so now we will see if that transitions on the ice. The Wild of course got Victor Rask for depth at center and he so far has struggled along with fellow acquisition Mats Zuccarello. If those two plus guys step up plus players like Spurgeon, Dumba, Parise, and others continue the good leading play then the Wild certainty can be a sleeper team this postseason. They have a good youngsters mixed in with some great experienced vets. Also of course a big thing for them is goaltending as well. Stalock one of the best puck moving goalies, played very solid stepping up for the Wild to even put them in this spot. Where Dubnyk who has of course carried the work load for the Wild since 2015-16, has struggled this season. If Stalock can even step up his play a tad further, then the Wild have a chance to advance and make noise further on in the playoffs. Now if Dubnyk gets his full confidence back and plays like he did only a few years ago then this team has a chance to be one of the biggest surprises of the postseason. As of right now though, that would probably be labeled a big if. Then of course there is youngster Kaapo Kahkonen who played well in a small sample size of five games as a ultimate secrete weapon. Below Highlights of the Wild can be seen.
Flames– Johnny Hockey and Additional Scoring- Unless you live under a rock or maybe are just a casual follower of the game, you know Johnny Gaudreau (Johnny Hockey) has been in trade rumors. Well now of course since his team is in the playoffs, he needs to fully focus in and be ready to take flight in order for the Flames to make noise. That shouldn’t be a problem as the reports from camp were he looked amazing. Gaudreau was one of the Flames players who looked solid in a down exhibition game for the Flames against their Alberta counterpart Oilers. He picked up an assist in the game. If Johnny Hockey can really step up for the Flames and take his game to a top levelthen this team certainly has a chance to make some inroads. They also however will need more guys around him rather than the select few to put the puck in the net as well. The Flames were 20th in goals per game with under three goals a game. So they will for sure need to improve upon that for any chance of being a sleeper team this postseason. It all starts with Gaudreau because if he is able to form a trio with Matthew Tkachuck and Elias Lindholm on offense then the Flames certainly can be a sleeper team as long as they can keep getting solid and timely goaltending from Talbot or Rittich. Below highlights of the Flames can be seen from this past season.
Jets– Connor Hellebuyck and better defense- Of course the MVP for the Jets this season was goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. He is one of the three goalies to be nominated for this years Vezina Trophy. An award he clearly will earn if he gets the nod. Hellebuyck is literally the only reason his team placed top 10 in goals allowed at under three a game. If it wasn’t for him because of their sloppy inconsistent defensive play, who knows where the Jets would have been this season. Fixing that inconsistent defensive play is the other key to success. The Jets allowed 32.6SOG this season. Placing them 26th in that category. In the playoffs that just cannot happen because all the talent your playing against is top notch, compared to the regular season where you can get away with some lackluster performances and still win. The Jets will need to hone in their defense which was still let’s be honest decent after all their losses in the offseason due to the work of coach Paul Maurice to even have them play to the level their at now. If Maurice cannot pull even more out of his top heavy group, then the Jets are likely to struggle this postseason. The way they battled to be where they were though had me surprised Maurice was not up for the Jack Adams all things considered. All in all the Jets need Hellebuyck well to continue to be hell for the other team and their defense to step up to have any chance to go anywhere past the play in this playoffs. Highlights of the Jets can be seen below.
So that concludes our Play in Round Teams X-Factors article. Let me know what you think and who your X-Factors are. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are here everybody get Loud!!!!!!