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Wild NHL Postseason Ride Continues Today

By Scott Lowe - Photo

How are you doing? Did you survive?

Yesterday, I mean. You know, the day with no hockey games.

 Did you make it through okay?

Having only five National Hockey League postseason games combined to watch over the previous two days was difficult enough, but no games at all? And on a Monday, no less. I just wanted to check on everyone to make sure there were no fevers, chills or dehydration on a day without a Pierre McGuire sighting. I guess you actually hear Pierre more than you see him, but you get the idea.

And hopefully there were no flashbacks to April when we were completely locked down and the daily highlight was the Fauci-Trump COVID-19 press briefing. Remember the days when we were busy studying flattened-curve graphs and positivity rates Instead of Corsi ratings?

Well, your reward for preserving through that dreadful off day comes in a few short hours. That’s right, later today the real playoffs get underway with the puck drops on the first of eight opening-round matchups as the Eastern Conference’s second-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning look to avenge last season’s shocking short playoff stay in a rematch with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Yep, the Bolts get another dose of Torts and his merry band of shot-blockers starting today at 3 p.m. from the bubble in Toronto. The good news for Tampa is that the odds of teh Jackets repearting last year’s miraculous sweep are astronomically low. The bad news is that despite the 4-1/2-month layoff, Columbus head coach John Tortorella has his guys in mid-April form as they advanced with a 3-0 whitewashing of the high-powered Toronto Maple Leafs in a win-or-go home Game 5 Sunday night.

Like his team, it only took Torts a few games to find his own playoff form, rattling off quotes such as, “Toronto played a really good game; we sucked,” after a Game 2 shutout loss and, “Just what you said Dave; I’m not going to explain it,” during a 57-second postgame media session after his team blew a three-goal lead in the final 3-1/2 minutes to lose Game 4.

Oh, and in happier times following the big Game 5 win he said, “He’s got balls. That’s what it is,“ when describing rookie Liam Foudy, who scored his first NHL goal in the third period to give Columbus a 2-0 lead and basically seal the victory.

While it may not be surprising that Tortorella found his media-relations game so quickly, the same cannot be said of a COVID-delayed NHL postseason that was met with a fair amount of skepticism.

With an expanded field of 24 teams, a Qualifying Round for seeds 5 through 12 in each conference to determine which teams actually would advance to the playoffs, 12 teams sequestered in “secure zones” located in two different Canadian cities, round-robin mini-tournaments to determine the top-four seeds in each conference and games played in front of no fans, it was only natural to wonder how the reformatted NHL postseason would stack up to the frenzied level of excitement the playoffs usually produce. And of course there also were questions about the level of play we would see after a long layoff followed by two weeks of training camp and a week of practices inside the bubbles.

Maybe it was because we were all so starved for meaningful competitive sports of any kind or maybe it was because we are just hockey crazy by nature, but either way the Qualifying Round produced all of the drama and excitement that makes the Stanley Cup Playoffs professional sports’ most exciting postseason journey – and then some.

Sure, there was some rust.

Every pass wasn’t tape to tape. Players were noticeably fatigued late in the first few games. We saw more than our fair share of too-many-men penalties. And, to be honest, a couple of the round-robin games were real snoozers (I’m looking at you Boston Bruins).

But we were treated to six elimination games in one day, including one that featured the second three-goal comeback victory of the aforementioned Columbus-Toronto series.

No. 12 seeds Montreal and Chicago upset fifth-seeds Pittsburgh and Edmonton, respectively, in four games. Poof, just like that, Crosby, Malkin, McDavid and Draisaitl gone.

Non-fighters Justin Williams and Ryan Strome squared off just moments after puck drop in Game 1 of Carolina’s three-game sweep of the Rangers. Likewise, T.J. Oshie dropped the mitts for the Capitals in a round-robin game. Nathan Beaulieu of Winnipeg took a sacrificial beating from Calgary’s Milan Lucic to get his team, which eventually fell in four games, fired up. Top skill-guy-turned fourth-liner Jason Spezza went at it with the Blue Jackets’ Dean Kukan.

We worried about how teams would find their usual playoff-level intensity with no fans in attendance, and Williams, the playoff-savvy veteran, showed us quickly with others following that lead. And while the piped-in crowd noise didn’t provide the same atmosphere as 18,000 screaming fans, once the games began, teams and viewers became immersed in the action and things really didn’t seem so different.

There were big hits, great saves, overtimes, a do-or-die game, upsets, heroes and goats – just like always. One thing that seemed a little different was the number of penalty calls, but it remains to be seen if that will continue now that we are down to the final 16. Maybe the league was hoping to send a message early thinking that it might ultimately eliminate much of the interference and obstruction that can muddle postseason games.

But for us, the fans, the biggest difference was the best part of all – the March Madness feel of August playoff hockey. We went from zero to like 180 mph (or 290 kph for our Canadian friends) right off the bat with five and six games, equating to more than 12 consecutive hours of hockey, per day.

And no, that wasn’t too much. In fact, it was just what Dr. Fauci ordered, a reason for many of us to hunker down in front of the television and resist the urge to be out and about as the pandemic continued to spread throughout North America 

For all of that, we should thank the National Hockey League and its players 

We should thank them for putting player and staff safety first and coming up with a plan that to date has resulted in zero positive tests for the three weeks that teams have been inside the bubbles.

For putting personal and professional differences aside and avoiding the drama that has plagued other professional sports leagues by agreeing to a unique and exciting playoff format quickly and relatively quietly.

For relishing the opportunity to compete for a Stanley Cup and giving us their absolute best efforts.

And for being willing to give up the next several months with their families during these uncertain times to provide fans of the game with a necessary and much-appreciated diversion to help escape our troubling reality for just a little while.

One message that has been consistent among players and coaches since team members began assembling for training camp about five weeks ago is how important it is for them to be able to provide us with a product that is entertaining and helps us return to at least some semblance of normalcy. Ever hear other pro athletes talk about that?

Hockey is different, which is why we love it.

So don’t fret. You survived the NHL’s off day and now we move on to the real deal with at least four games per day guaranteed – that’s four real, intense NHL first-round playoff games per day – for at least the next week.

And if you think the last two weeks were exciting, check out some of the matchups we have to look forward to.

In the Eastern Conference, as predicted in this space before postseason play began, Philadelphia swept through round-robin play to earn the top seed and the right to face red-hot Carey Price and Qualifying Round-hero Jeff Petry. The Monntreal defenseman buried a pair of game-winning goals to help knock off the Penguins in four games. The Flyers looked like they had something to prove from the opening puck drop and appear to be as deep in all areas as any team still competing. They should handle the Habs in five or six games.

If Philly is first, what happened to the Bruins, who had the NHL’s best regular-season record? Well, Boston sleepwalked its way to an 0-3 round-robin record to set up the unenviable challenge of facing a Carolina team that was dominant in sweeping the Rangers. The Bruins are as good as anyone on paper – maybe bettr – but they definitely need to turn it up a notch against an impressive Hurricanes team that appears to have no weaknesses except maybe in goal. This one likely will go seven, and we’re going to go with the NHL’s top regular-season club to pull it out.

Tampa Bay, as mentioned earlier, ended up with the second seed and gets to face Columbus a year after getting swept by the Blue Jackets following a record-setting regular season. The Bolts never seemed to kick it into high gear during the round robin, but they definitely got better with each outing. The Jackets will not make it easy on them, but the revenge factor and talent advantage has to favor Tampa here in six or seven games. 

The Washington Capitals beat Boston, 2-1, in their final round-robin game to earn the third seed and showed improved defensive play throughout. The Caps draw their former Stanley Cup-winning head coach Barry Trotz in what should prove to be an intriguing first-round chess match. Braden Holtby has looked like his old self, which paired with New York’s defensive approach, should produce a low-scoring, nip-and-tuck series. Washington was without Norris Trophy-finalist John Carlson in the round robin, and his potential return could be a key to this series. Washington’s star power up front should allow them to find a way to win it in six.

Jumping over to the Western Conference, Vegas outdueled Colorado in overtime, capping a fast-paced, exciting final round-robin contest with an Alex Tuch goal to earn the top seed and a date with the surprising Blackhawks.

Vegas went 3-0 without top-scorer Max Pacioretty, who is expected to return for the first round, and Golden Knights head coach Pete DeBoer appears to be hitching the wagon to former Chicago netminder and Vezina-finalist Robin Lehner. The Blackhawks have a ton of vets with Stanley Cup rings, including returning goalie Corey Crawford, and a talented core of youngsters led by Dominik Kubalik, who recorded five points in his first career playoff game, first-round pick Kirby Dach, Dylan Strome and Alex DeBrincat. This should be an exciting, up-and-down series, but Vegas is a deeper and more well-rounded team than the Oilers’ club Chicgago just knocked off. Knights in six.

Second-seeded Colorado draws defensive-minded Arizona and hot goaltender Darcy Kuemper. The Coyotes surprised many by downing Nashville in four games, and they will hope that head coach Rick Tocchet’s disciplined system can slow down Nathan MacKinnon and the rest of the Avalanche’s fast and skilled forward contingent. Often overlooked is Colorado’s defensive play, led by Calder Trophy-finalist Cale Makar and a deep group of veterans. The Avs ranked among the league’s top defensive teams statistically to go along with their quick-strike offense, and they have two solid goaltenders in Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz. This is a tough matchup for Arizona, which should fall in five.

Dallas got a goal from battle-tested veteran Joe Pavelski in the final minute to force overtime against St. Louis in its final round-robin game before eventually winning in a shootout to earn the third seed and relegate the defending champs to fourth.

For their efforts, the Stars get to play seventh-seeded Calgary, a physical team with offensive skill that literally steamrolled Winnipeg in four games. Dallas has two No. 1 goalies in Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin. The Stars play a disciplined defensive game under head coach Rick Bowness and should have enough firepower to cause problems for the Flames’ weaker netminders. Calgary has plenty of skill up front in Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan to go along with the grit and skill of Matthew Tkachuk. The Flames can play tough and get under your skin. Their ability to do that to Dallas will go a long way to determining who wins the series. This one might go the distance, with Dallas’ goaltending proving to be the difference.

Finally, we have the fourth-seeded Blues against No. 5 Vancouver. The Canucks are a team to reckoned with for years to come in the West, but it still may be a year too early for them to make noise against one of the NHL’s most complete teams. The Blues are coming off a Stanley Cup championship and had the unusual luxury of a long rest heading into the postseason. There is little reason to believe the Blues won’t step up their play after a lackluster round-robin showing. They have unflappable and talented goalie Jordan Binnington backstopping one of the NHL’s deepest defensive units. That should slow down the young and skilled Canucks attack, but the upstarts from Vancouver have nothing to lose and could get St. Louis on its heels early in the series. We want to go with the upset here, but it’s just not Vancouver’s time. Blues in seven, with Binnington making the difference.  

The complete first-round NHL playoff schedule with start times and TV coverage. 

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