Expert Picks for 2020 NHL Playoffs First Round

The 2020 NHL Round Robin Tournaments and Qualifying Rounds provided plenty of surprises with teams advancing to the first round and padding their respective seeds. Now for the remaining 16 teams, it is do-or-die with berths in the second round up for grabs starting on Tuesday.

The Philadelphia Flyers grabbed the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference while the Vegas Golden Knights earned the top spot in the West. Both teams finished with a perfect 3-0-0 record and will be looking to avoid any slip-ups in the first round. 

It was also upsets galore in the qualifying round with both host teams eliminated as well as both bottom seeds (Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks) advancing. Our NHL expert Larry Henry Jr. continues his NHL coverage with a closer look at each playoff series. Larry breaks down the key players to watch for each team and how they reached this point. 

Here's a closer look at LHJ's breakdown for the First Round:

Eastern Conference

Philadelphia Flyers vs. Montreal Canadiens

The Philadelphia Flyers earned the No. 1 seed for the first time in 20 years and will look to make it a deep run in the Playoffs. 

After posting a 3-0-0 record in the round robin, Alain Vigneault's side will look to make it a short-and-sweet series with the Montreal Canadiens. The Flyers dominated in all three wins over Boston, Washington, and Tampa Bay, showing off its depth in every game. Carter Hart picked up two wins in his first two playoff appearances and the 21-year-old will be key for the Orange and Black going forward. In addition to Hart's strong play in goal, the Flyers will also lean on versatile players Travis Konecny, Kevin Hayes, and Sean Couturier. 

The Montreal Canadiens were one of two No. 12 seeds to pull a qualifying round upset and will look to continue that run against the Flyers. Led by the play of Carey Price (1.67 GAA in three games played), Claude Julien's team will need more offense if they want to advance. Shea Weber and Jeff Petry are two key veterans for the Habs while Tomas Tatar is a sniper on offense. With the Flyers deep roster though, the Habs will need to pose a much bigger threat against Philadelphia unlike Pittsburgh.

Flyers all the way. 

Pick: Flyers (-240)

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Columbus Blue Jackets 

For the second-consecutive series, the Columbus Blue Jackets are underdogs coming into Tuesday's opener with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

John Tortorella's side ousted Eastern Conference hosts Toronto after winning Game No. 5 on Sunday night. Unlike Tampa Bay, Columbus isn't a roster filled with star power, but overall a strong collective unit both offensively and defensively. The return of Cam Atkinson from injury has certainly helped the Blue Jackets this postseason with the center recording five points so far. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski headline the backend while Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo alternated against Toronto. 

Tampa Bay was without the star power of Steven Stamkos during the round robin, but the Canadian is expected to return to Jon Cooper's side. The Lightning will look to avoid elimination for the second-straight year to the Blue Jackets after a sweep in 2019. With Stamkos returning, the pressure on Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, and Co. should rise a little, but ultimately pressure will be on TB to advance. Andrei Vasilevskiy made 82 saves in the qualifying round and is one of the top goalies in the NHL. 

Tampa Bay poses more threats offensively and will exact revenge on Columbus. 

Pick: Lightning (-225)

Washington Capitals vs. New York Islanders 

It's the only Metropolitan Division showdown in the Eastern Conference this round with New York looking to oust 2018 winners Washington.

The Islanders bounced the Florida Panthers thanks to eight players registering three points or more in the qualifying round. Led by Anthony Beauvillier, Matthew Barzal, and Jean-Gabriel Pageau, the Islanders have a strong attack and should provide a strong test for the Capitals older defensive unit. Former Capitals goaltender Semyon Varlamov went 3-1 against the Panthers, registering a 1.77 GAA and a .932 save percentage.  

Washington showed worrying signs in the qualifying round with John Carlson missing all three games due to an injury suffered in exhibition play. Radko Gudas brings needed experience to the backend, but the Capitals failed to register an offensive player with more than one point in the qualifying round. Veteran Alex Ovechkin was held pointless in the qualifying round after scoring 48 goals in the regular season. Braden Holtby is an experienced goaltender and will have to be strong with rookie Ilya Samsonov out of postseason play. 

Washington may have Ovechkin, but I like the Islanders momentum after a qualifying round win over Florida. 

Pick: Islanders (+122)

Boston Bruins vs. Carolina Hurricanes

A pair of teams coming on in opposite runs of form meet in the final East matchup.

Presidents Trophy winners Boston failed to win either of its three games in the round robin, with its top offensive line combining for one point. Patrice Bergeron registered one assist for the Bruins, but David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand were held in check. The positive for Bruce Cassidy is that his lower lines impressed in the round robin, which could pose threats for the Carolina Hurricanes. Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy combine for a lethal top defensive pairing while Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak are both capable of starting Game No. 1.

Carolina brushed aside the New York Rangers in the qualifying round, outscoring its Metropolitan Division rivals 11-4. Sebastian Aho remains a key contributor in the Hurricanes offense after registering eight points in the three victories over New York. Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen can also help out in the offense with Sami Vatanen having a fine second-half after coming over in a trade from New Jersey. Both James Reimer and Petr Mrazek won games in the qualifying round and have good reasons to take control of the starting role.

Carolina is on a roll, but I like Boston's experience to break through and advance.

Pick: Bruins (-159)

Western Conference

Vegas Golden Knights vs. Chicago Blackhawks

The Vegas Golden Knights rolled its way to the top spot in the Western Conference, but will face a tough test from the Chicago Blackhawks.

Vegas scored four goals on more in all three of its round robin victories, however allowed three goals or more in all three as well. The good news is seven players registered three points or more in the round robin, showing the depth Vegas poses on both ends of the ice. Mark Stone and Jonathan Marchessault each had two goals and are dynamic attacking players while Shea Theodore and Nate Schmidt are rising stars defensively. Robin Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury are a top 1-2 pairing in goal despite Fleury's 4.00 GAA after one game. 

Chicago provides a nice mixture of youth and experience in attack with Patrick Kane remaining the leader of the bunch. Jonathan Toews is a scrappy captain and can still contribute points if need be. Dominik Kubalik and Alex DeBrincat are two in-form young players who will need strong series if Chicago wants to pull another upset. Olli Maatta and Duncan Keith are veteran defenders who will have busy series against a top attack in Vegas. Corey Crawford continued to be a consistent goaltender for the Hawks and may need to steal a game or two for Chicago to have a real chance. 

Vegas has too much for Chicago. 

Pick: Golden Knights (-315)

Colorado Avalanche vs. Arizona Coyotes

The Colorado Avalanche missed out on the No. 1 seed, but is the most-dangerous team outside of Golden Knights in the West. Five players registered three points or more in the round robin with Nazem Kadri surprisingly leading the way with four points. Nathan MacKinnon is a blossoming star in the league and will have a lot of pressure on his shoulders to advance. Luckily for MacKinnon, he has veteran help in attack (Andre Burakovsky, Gabriel Landeskog) and young defenders (Cale Makar, Mikko Rantanen). Philipp Grubauer is likely to get the nod as the starting goaltender based of NHL experience.

The Arizona Coyotes eliminated the Nashville Predators in the qualifying round and will look to do the same to Colorado. The Coyotes got strong series from numerous players, but veterans Phil Kessel and Taylor Hall will need to be just as impactful in the first round. Kessel and Hall combined for two goals and six assists, but brought a lot of energy besides their traditional leadership. Darcy Kuemper was 3-1 against Nashville, averaging 38 saves per game. Kuemper was in the running for the Vezina Trophy before a midseason injury, but looks back to his old self at the right time. 

Pick: Avalanche (-286)

Dallas Stars vs. Calgary Flames

The Calgary Flames played a physical series against rivals Winnipeg in the qualifying round, but need to remain focused against a streaky Dallas Stars team. 

Calgary is led by young offensive talent with Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, and Elias Lindholm all contributing two goals apiece in the qualifying round. Milan Lucic's veteran experience was also a positive addition to the club and should be on display again vs. Dallas. A question mark for Calgary was whether or not their goaltending would be top notch, but Cam Talbot rose to the occasion. Talbot was 3-1 against Winnipeg with a 1.51 GAA and a .945 save percentage. 

Miro Heiskanen was Dallas' top performer in the round robin registering four points, but the Stars need more attacking success to advance past Calgary. Veterans Tyler Seguin, Corey Perry, and Joe Pavelski all can contribute more to the team and will have to if the Stars want to stay alive. A team known for their attack, Dallas could find trouble against Calgary's gritty and energetic attack especially if Ben Bishop isn't on his game. Bishop let up four goals in his only game played and could lose his starting spot to Anton Khudobin.

Dallas may be the higher seed, but my money is with Calgary to pull the upset.

Pick: Flames (+100)

St. Louis Blues vs. Vancouver Canucks

Just like the Boston Bruins out East, the St. Louis Blues failed to win any of its three round robin games after coming in as the regular season No. 1 seed. The defending champs will face an intriguing matchup against Vancouver, a team who like Calgary has plenty of young talent. Ryan O'Reilly and Brayden Schenn were two of St. Louis' top goalscorers in the regular season, but have failed to score yet. That will need to change if St. Louis wants to keep its hopes of repeating as champions alive.

Quinn Hughes joined Miro Heiskanen as the only other defenseman to lead his team in scoring after one round of these playoffs. The Calder Trophy finalist had six points in Vancouver's series win over Minnesota, leading the way for Travis Green's bunch. Alongside Hughes, Green has plenty of top talent to rely on with Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat, and Brock Boeser all having strong seasons. Jacob Markstrong posted a .926 save percentage against Minnesota and should see a lot of reps against St. Louis.

Vancouver's young talent has been fun to watch, but the fun stops for the Canucks here. Defending champs moving on.

Pick: Blues (-200)

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