The NHL made it.
After a truncated regular season littered with COVID outbreaks, the playoffs are here. Competition for the Stanley Cup begins Saturday night as the Boston Bruins visit the Washington Capitals.
Here's one key matchup for each of the eight opening-round playoff series:
McDavid vs. Hellebuyck
No need to overthink it: the only way the Winnipeg Jets defeat the Edmonton Oilers is if they can contain runaway Hart Trophy favorite Connor McDavid.
"Contain" is being used liberally here. McDavid absolutely torched Winnipeg in the regular season, recording 22 points in nine games. Limiting the Oilers captain to "just" a point per game would be a decent starting point for a Jets squad that also has to game plan against Leon Draisaitl and Mike Smith.
Based on the Jets' makeup - strong forward group, mediocre defense corps, strong goaltending duo - the task of minimizing McDavid mostly falls on who's in net. Fortunately for Winnipeg, Connor Hellebuyck is on the very short list of NHL goalies who could conceivably steal a series against McDavid.
Over the past two years, Hellebuyck leads all goalies in Evolving Hockey's goals saved above expected stat. This information suggests he's more than capable of turning aside the kind of high-quality scoring chances McDavid and his linemates so often generate. Hellebuyck can flat-out steal games.
Now, whether Hellebuyck manages to play to his absolute potential versus Edmonton is another story altogether. It's a lot to ask - especially since McDavid (104 points in 55 games) has looked virtually unstoppable all season.
Pelech-Pulock vs. Crosby line
Both the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins are a little misunderstood. Yes, the Islanders can generate enough offense. And yes, the Penguins can lock it down defensively.
That said, since the Pens boast better finishing talent, the outcome of this series will come down to how effective the Isles' defense can be. At a more granular level, the burning question turns into, can New York's top pairing of Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock hang with the top line of Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, and Bryan Rust?
Pelech and Pulock made out OK in the head-to-head matchup during the regular season. The Isles got outplayed and outscored, yet there wasn't a huge gap in performance. Over 44 even-strength minutes, Pittsburgh won 37-31 in shot attempts, 23-20 in shots on goal, 21-15 in scoring chances, and 2-0 in goals, according to data compiled by Natural Stat Trick.
If Pelech and Pulock can replicate those results, and the Crosby line is limited to a mere two even-strength goals over the course of the opening round, that's a victory for the Isles, no?
Of course, the Isles also lost 10 of their final 16 regular-season games, and it's no secret the postseason isn't kind to teams who need time to get back on track. Pelech and Pulock have an opportunity to set the tone early and often against the Crosby line, and the Isles can go from there.