By Scott Lowe – MyHockeyRankings.com
NBC Sports Photo
Well, we knew it was going to be different. And unpredictable. And probably pretty crazy.
Day 1 of the revamped 2020 Stanley Cup postseason is in the books, and it was all of that and more.
From a fight between Justin Williams and Ryan Strome just a few minutes after puck drop in Game 1 between Carolina and the New York Rangers to upset wins by 12th-seeds Chicago and Montreal, make no mistake that playoff hockey is upon us.
After nearly a five-month absence, there was more than 12 hours of hockey on TV yesterday, starting with the Canes and Rangers at noon Eastern and finishing well past midnight with Calgary disposing of Winnipeg in workmanlike fashion.
And the madness continues today as we dip into the uncharted waters known as round-robin play, while three other Qualifying Round opening games are contested. Five more games, and 12-plus more hours of hockey to watch. Talk about drinking out of the fire hydrant.
It all gets underway today at 2 p.m. Eastern when Arizona and Nashville face off in Game 1 of their best-of-five Qualifying Round series and concludes at 10:30 p.m. with the opener between Minnesota and Vancouver. The other Game 1 pits Columbus against Toronto at 8 p.m., with Boston meeting Philadelphia at 3 p.m. and defending-champion St. Louis taking on Colorado at 6:30 p.m. in the round-robin tilts.
Let’s start there, with the round-robin games.
While the teams that finished fifth through 12th in each conference according to points percentage meet in a best-of-five format to determine who advances to the final 16, the top-four finishers in the East and West will play each other once in a mini-tournament to determine the top-four seeds on both sides of the bracket.
The top-four Eastern Conference teams, in order of finish, are Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia. In the Western Conference it’s St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas.
Those teams will face the other top-four finishers from their conference once with regular-season overtime rules in effect. Standings ties will be broken by using the deadlocked teams’ regular-season finishes.
There’s no telling what to expect in these one-off games. Will teams only play their projected playoff lineups in hopes of developing chemistry and being on top of their game when the best-of-seven first round begins or will they use the games as an extension of training camp to tinker with different lineups and figure out the final pieces to the puzzle?
Will the round robin be more like a win-at-all cost Game 7 or a preseason game? Will stars be rested or allowed to play and get more comfortable after the long layoff? Will backup goalies see game action just to make sure they are ready in case of an emergency down the road?
Realistically, these games are more likely to take the feel of preseason games on steroids than playoff games. Maybe a better analogy is a Tuesda- night game during the dog days of February.
Expect the pace and skill level to be high and the hitting to be minimal. Since the teams that advance from the Qualifying Round will be reseeded for the playoffs, no one has any idea who they might play, and the main goal for most teams is to be as fit and healthy as possible when best-of-seven play gets underway.
Washington Capitals head coach Todd Reirden made it clear his team’s priorities when discussing a minor injury that Norris Trophy-finalist John Carlson suffered in his team’s 3-2 exhibition win against Carolina July 29.
“We’re not going to put him in a situation where he can further risk injury and it could hinder his performance going forward,” Reirden told reporters in the postgame media session. “Our most important games are going to be the first round, so we’ll make a decision based on where he’s at health-wise and recovery-wise.”
Play hard. Play fast. Play smart.
That figures to be the mantra of most teams competing in the round robin. But you have to wonder if a team like the Flyers that was on fire when the NHL halted play in March might want to mix it up a little and play for the top seed. In theory, that could be a huge advantage for a team that actually placed fourth in the conference standings during the regular season.
So it’s conceivable that Philly or Dallas – or even a Tampa Bay team looking to make up for past playoff disappointments – could push the envelope a bit and make a run at the top seeds, but then what if your reward is getting to play an upstart, fired-up No. 12 seed brimming with confidence after a stunning Qualifying Round upset?
It all adds to the intrigue.
Here is a preview of round-robin play and the three Qualifying Round series that get underway today.
Eastern Conference Round Robin
Boston – 44-14-12, 100 points
Tampa Bay – 43-21-6, 92 points
Washington – 41-20-8, 90 points
Philadelphia – 41-21-7 89 points
Boston, the Stanley Cup runner-up in 2019, was the league’s most consistent team all season, cruising to the top spot in the East. The Bruins have a top line as good as anyone’s, with David Pastrnak, who will share the Rocket Richard Trophy with perennial-winner Alex Ovechkin, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand having the ability to dominate most games offensively. In goal they have playoff-tested Vezina-finalist Tuukka Rask, and any defensive unit that lists Zdeno Chara as a depth player can’t be underestimated. Head coach Bruce Cassidy has been cautious with Rask, who suffered a broken finger at some point during training camp, and Marchand also has been battling an undisclosed injury and seems likely to take it slow as well with the goal of being 100 percent for the first round. Will those situations cost the Bruins the top seed?
The Tampa Bay Lighting were being written off as underachievers again after a slow start following their disappointing showing in last year’s playoffs in which they were swept in the opening round by Columbus after a record-breaking season. But the Lighting caught fire and were one of the hottest teams in the league when play was halted. They’ve got a world-class goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy, last year’s Hart Trophy winner in Nikita Kucherov, a future Hall of Famer in Steven Stamkos and a Vezina finalist in Victor Hedman. But, Tampa also has been dealing with some bumps and bruises. Stamkos sat out most of training camp, but has been a full participant in the team’s last three practices. Hedman missed all of camp, but flew to Toronto to join the team late last week. The Bolts, specifically water-bug forward Brayden Point looked spectacular in their exhibition win against Florida and figure not to rush Stamkos or Hedman into action, which could play a factor in the round-robin results.
Washington got a scare in its exhibition win over Carolina when Norris Trophy-finalist John Carlson fell awkwardly into the boards going back to retrieve a puck in his own end. The injury is said to be minor, and he returned to practice Saturday. Carlson is expected to play in Monday’s round-robin opener vs. Tampa, but with veteran Radko Gudas along for the trip as the No. 7 defenseman, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Carlson miss a game for maintenance. Other than that and an undisclosed injury to rookie goaltender Ilya Samsonov, who was left behind to rehab, the Caps are healthy and should stack up with anyone offensively. A struggling, but talented, defensive unit was solidified by the addition of the hulking Brenden Dillon at the trade deadline, and former Vezina-winner Braden Holtby was named the starter in net back in June. Holtby, probably the key to how far Washington goes coming off an up-and-down season, is a creature of habit and a details freak, so it appears likely that he will get all of the work in the round-robin. That may bode well for the Caps if he is on top of his game.
Philadelphia was the hottest team in the NHL when play was shut down, but the question is whether the Flyers can recapture that momentum and if young goalie Carter Hart is finally the answer for a team that has gotten inconsistent play at that position for years. The Flyers are strong and deep up front with veterans like Sean Couturier, Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek leading the way and youngster Travis Konecny coming into his own. The offseason additions of James Van Riemsdyk and Kevin Hayes added depth and character and give Philly a strong top six. Defensively, the offseason acquisition of Matt Niskanen has added veteran leadership and helped settle down a young, but at times enigmatic defensive corps. The expectation is that the Flyers will come to play during the round robin in an effort to rekindle their momentum and show that the regular season was not a fluke.
MHR Followers’ Eastern Conference Round Robin Picks:
We have a feeling that the Flyers and Lightning are coming into the tournament with something to prove, so we’ll go Tampa, Philly, Washington, Boston in that order. The Bruins are just going to worry about staying healthy and getting their game in order. They fear no one, and rightly so.
Western Conference Round Robin
St. Louis – 42-19-10, 94 points
Colorado – 42-20-8, 92 points
Vegas – 39-24-8, 86 points
Dallas – 37-24-8, 82 points
St. Louis is the defending Stanley Cup champion, and the experience gained from last year’s journey is still fresh in the Blues’ minds as they embark on the 2020 postseason. They also have a luxury most defending champs do not get – nearly five months of rest heading into the playoffs. The Blues were extremely consistent throughout the season – although not dominant – but keep in mind that sniper Vladimir Tarasenko only played 10 games and returns to the lineup at full strength. St. Louis still has a defense that is as deep as any team’s led by Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko, Vince Dunn and Jay Boumeester, unflappable goaltender Jordan Binnington between the pipes and last year’s playoff MVP Ryan O’Reilly along with David Perron and Jaden Schwartz up front. This is a solid team that feeds of its physicality, goaltending and defense and is built for playoff hockey. St. Louis is still the team to beat until someone proves otherwise, but the Blues did appear to be looking ahead to the playoffs in an exhibition shutout lost against Chicago. It will be interesting to see if they can raise their level for round-robin play.
The Colorado Avalanche may be the most exciting team to watch in the league with speed and skill up and down the lineup among both their forwards and D. Up front, Hart Trophy-finalist Nathan MacKinnon teams up with Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen to provide as potent a top three as any in the league, but Colorado often splits them up with skilled players such as Andre Burakovsky and Joonas Donskoi lurking among the top-six forwards. Centers Tyson Jost and J.T. Compher can play up and down the lineup, while Nazem Kadri is a great fit on the second line and power play and Matt Calvert can do just about anything he’s asked. Defensively there is Calder Trophy-favorite Cale Makar, a smooth-skating and skilled player who is strong in both ends, steady veterans Ian Cole and Erik Johnson and the versatile two-way trio of Samuel Girard, Ryan Graves and Nikita Zadorov. The team added center Vladimir Namestikov at the trade deadline for good measure. This team is built for success now and in the years to come with the only real question mark being the goaltending tandem of Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz, each of whom should see round-robin action.
Vegas was one of the teams making a second-half surge after a coaching change and sluggish start when play was halted in March. Former rival-coach Peter DeBoer was brought in to replace fan-favorite Gerard Gallant, much to the chagrin of many, but the results were impressive as the Golden Knights captured the Pacific Division regular-season title. Vegas improved offensively and defensively by about half a goal per game under DeBoer and went 15-5-2 after he was hired to move from outside the playoff picture into the Western Conference’s top four. The team is solid and deep offensively, with four players eclipsing the 20-goal plateau this season, and the Golden Knights added veteran Stanley Cup-winning defenseman Alec Martinez at the trade deadline to a defensive unit that floundered a bit early in the season but now goes seven deep. All-star forward Max Pacioretty stayed behind when the team traveled to Edmonton with an undisclosed injury, and the team hopes he will be ready to play in time for the first round. The Golden Knights still have the talented Mark Stone, William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault up front, with historically clutch goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and 2019 Vezina-finalist Robin Lehner, a deadline pickup, manning the cage. This is a dangerous team.
Much like Vegas and a few other teams, the Dallas Stars are hoping to follow in the footsteps of last year’s Blues by turning an in-season coaching change into a deep postseason run. Rick Bowness, who has been behind the bench as a head and assistant coach for more games than anyone else in NHL history (Scotty Bowman is second), leads a resurgent Dallas team into this year’s unusual postseason. The Stars opened the season by going 1-7-1, but responded by posting a 36-13-5 mark and the highest points percentage in the league from Oct. 19 to Feb. 25. Dallas is very strong in goal with the tandem of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin. Bishop is considered the No. 1 netminder, but Khudobin’s 2.22 goals-against average ranked second in the league. Bolstering that solid duo is a deep defensive unit that includes Miro Heiskanen, Esa Lindell, Stepen Johns and John Klingberg among its top four. And Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Corey Perry, Joe Pavelski, Alexander Radulov and Roope Hintz are no slouches up front.
MHR Followers’ Eastern Conference Round Robin Picks:
This seems to be a pretty good predicted order of finish, although without Max Pacioretty, Vegas could easily drop below St. Louis when all is said and done.
Below is a short preview at the series that get underway today:
Sunday, Aug. 2
Western Conference Game 1 in Edmonton
#6 Nashville vs. #11 Arizona – 2 p.m.
Season Series: Tied 1-1
USA Network, Sportsnet 360
MHR Followers Pick: Predators Sweep
A couple of underachievers look to make up for a lackluster season in this Qualifying Round series. Nashville is an under-the-radar team in terms of its offensive capabilities thanks to a talented group of top-six forwards that always seems to under-produce, which ultimately led to head coach John Hynes being brought in to replace Peter Laviolette. Filip Forsberg is elite when on his game, while Viktor Arvidsson, Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen provide skilled depth. Nashville’s strength is defense, with Norris-finalist Roman Josi and the under-appreciated Ryan Ellis leading that group. The hope in Nashville is that a strong defensive apporach can help whichever goalie is in the net lead the Preds deep into the playoffs. Arizona was expected to be a playoff contender this season, but fell out of the mix until COVID gave the Coyotes another chance. All-star Darcy Kuemper bolsters a solid defensive unit that includes Oliver Ekman-Larsson, young and emerging star Jacob Chychrun and veterans Jason Demers, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Alex Gologoski. The Yotes need to find a way to score goals and are hoping that Taylor Hall, added via trade, will help get a declining Phil Kessel going in the postseason. Our followers think Nashville will win in a sweep, but we see a low-scoring series going the Preds’ way in five.
Eastern Conference Game 1 in Toronto
#8 Toronto vs. #9 Columbus – 8 p.m.
Season Series: Tied 1-1
NBCSN, NHL TV, Sportsnet, TVAS
MHR Followers Pick: Toronto in 4
Here we go again. John Tortorella, the master of getting defensive buy-in from his players, faces another potential offensive juggernaut in the postseason. Last year Torts and his shot-blocking, lane-clogging Blue Jackets frustrated and stymied the high-flying, record-setting Tampa Bay Lightning in a shocking first-round playoff sweep. For the sky-is-falling, always nervous Maple Leaf faithful, drawing Columbus in the first round was not good news. The bottom line is, however, that if the Leafs’ star-studded lineup performs up to its capabilities, this one should go in Toronto’s favor. Unfortunately, history is not on their side. Columbus was thought to be a non-contender this year after goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky departed via free agency for Florida and star forward Artemi Panarin did the same in leaving for New York. But Torts found two emerging No. 1 netminders in Elvis Merzjikins and Joonas Korpisalo, who combined with a formidable defense featuring Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, to provide just the type of defensive brick wall Tortorella loves to work with. On the other side, the pressure is on Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen and offensive stars Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander to find a way to get past the Jackets and make a deep playoff run. The chess match and contrasting styles will make this must-see TV. Our followers like Toronto in four, but we say this one goes the distance and that Torts pulls off another April, no make that August, miracle.
Western Conference Game 1 in Edmonton
#7 Vancouver vs. #10 Minnesota – 10:30 p.m.
Season Series: Minnesota 2-1
MHR Followers Pick: Canucks in 4
The Wild were left for dead. Head coach Bruce Boudreau was fired, top-six forward Jason Zucker was dealt to Pittsburgh and the team was left in the hands of Dean Evason. The team also reportedly talked about trading veteran first-liner Zach Parise, but as seems to be the case all over the NHL these days, the new coach found a way to get his team to buy-in, play well and get close enough to the top eight to be rewarded with a spot in the Qualifying Round of this year’s reformatted NHL postseason. Minnesota definitely lacks star power up front and an elite goalie, but they do have some savvy, battle-tested vets in Parise, Eric Staal and Mats Zuccarello, which combined with the emergence of Kevin Fiala, should make them a tough out. The Wild have veteran Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon patrolling the blue line as well to assist netminders Alex Stalock and Devan Dubnyk. Stalock took over the starting job down the stretch, but has limited playoff experience. Vancouver quite simply is young, fast, skilled and potentially explosive. The Canucks also have an emerging star goaltender in Jacob Markstrom, who was stellar before suffering an injury in February. The team was fifth in the West before falling after he was sidelined. Led by a forward contingent that includes the ultra-smooth Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, J.T. Miller, Tanner Pearson and deadline-pickup Tyler Toffoli, the Canucks should be able to score as much as anyone for the foreseeable future. Add Calder Trophy-finalist Quinn Hughes, who led all rookies in scoring as a defenseman, and Vancouver clearly is a team on the rise. Our followers say the Canucks will win in four, and for once we agree.