By Scott Lowe - MyHockeyRankings.com
No one really knew what to expect when 24 National Hockey League teams entered their respective bubbles back in late July. So, it’s no surprise that these new-look Stanley Cup Playoffs have been predictably unpredictable.
Almost right from the jump, with 12th seeded Montreal and Chicago pulling off huge Qualifying Round upsets over Pittsburgh and Edmonton, respectively, this year’s postseason has taken on a different feel – and that’s not solely because of the strange atmosphere and empty arenas.
Now, as we prepare for three second-round Game 7s in a span of slightly more than 24 hours, one thing has become abundantly clear: The future is now for the NHL.
While some craziness was expected early on in this year’s unprecedented playoffs, the general expectation was that veteran teams with postseason experience such as Vegas, Boston and Tampa Bay would be the overwhelming favorites to make deep runs, with the fun-to-watch Colorado Avalanche being the new kids on the block who might be able to make some noise.
There were some who thought that Dallas, another veteran-laden team with an experienced coach and two top-flight goalies, might be able to play the type of conservative and defensively responsible style that can carry a team a long way. But the Stars couldn’t score goals – or so we thought.
That perception changed when Dallas caught fire after falling behind two games to one in the opening round against Calgary and roared back to win that series. The Stars’ offensive onslaught continued in the second around against the Avalanche as they scored five goals or more six times in a nine-game span.
But after dropping three of the first four games, Colorado steamrolled Dallas by a combined 10-4 in Games 5 and 6 to force Friday’s 4 p.m. Game 7 inside the Edmonton bubble. That game will be televised on USA Network in the United States. In Canada, the game can be seen Sportsnet and TVA Sports. The other deciding-game matchups include Vancouver against Vegas Friday at 9 p.m. on NBC Sports Network, CBC and TVA Sports, and Philadelphia vs. the New York Islanders Saturday at 7:30 p.m. on NBC, CBC and TVA Sports.
There will be no rest for the victorious teams, with the Western Conference Finals set to begin Sunday at 8 p.m.
Normally this time of year we are longing for the return of professional hockey and gearing up for training camp. But as 2020 keeps throwing us curveballs, one of the unexpected results has been the opportunity to watch the best hockey players in the world compete in professional sports’ most exciting postseason tournament during the dog days of Summer – and without one person inside either bubble testing positive for COVID-19 after 24,000 tests.
“I think the league has done a terrific job,” Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella told ESPN. “And the people here doing it have been terrific. We're so fortunate to be looked after the way we've been looked after here. It has turned into a routine, on when to go do it. I think it's been handled very well. Very safe. And very fortunate, compared to what's happening with some other people in the world."
Just a few days ago it looked like we might not get to enjoy a single Game 7 in this year’s second round, and now we get Game 7 overload heading into a holiday weekend while the Lightning, five-game winners over the Cup-favorite Bruins, relax at the pool and prepare for the Eastern Conference finals.
Thus far Tampa Bay, one of the biggest playoff disappointments in NHL playoff history after a historic regular season last year, has been the only veteran squad to live up to expectations. Meanwhile, it’s the young guns – Vancouver, Philadelphia and Colorado – who have all the momentum going into our Game 7 smorgasbord after each of them has rallied from a 3-1 series deficit.
“There’s really no place for frustration right now,” Vegas coach Pete DeBoer said to the media following the Knights’ Game 6 loss to the Canucks. “We have to win one game to move on. We’ll reset and come back tomorrow and put ourselves in a position to win one game and move on. That’s what we’ve got to concentrate on.”
The public favorite to win the Stanley Cup – and probably because of the franchise’s unique location, an overwhelming favorite in each game of Round 2 – Vegas looked like the team to beat after going undefeated in round-robin play, rolling past the Blackhawks in five games and sprinting to a 3-1 series advantage against Vancouver.
The Knights are fast, skilled and tenacious up front; deep on the blue line; and have two proven No. 1 netminders – one of whom has won multiple Stanley Cups. While this was expected to be a fun series to watch, most observers felt that the youthful and skilled Canucks were a year away from being serious contenders, and that once they got to that perch they would stay there for some time. The experience of having advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals two seasons ago also figured to be an advantage for Vegas.
Goaltending definitely has proven to be the big story of the series, but not in the way we expected.
DeBoer has continued to play 2019 Vezina-finalist Robin Lehner despite strong public sentiment in Las Vegas that fan-favorite Marc-Andre Fleury should be between the pipes. Lehner has not been blamed for the Knights’ recent struggles, but with Game 7 being played the day after Game 6 and Vegas having dropped Thursday’s contest 4-0 despite holding a 48-26 shots advantage, DeBoer now finds himself in the midst of a real goaltending controversy.
On the other side, the Canucks were left for dead when goalie Jacob Markstrom, who was outstanding all year for a team that is not always great in its own end, was ruled out of Game 5. Enter rookie Thatcher Demko, who seems to surprisingly have swung the goaltending advantage in Vancouver’s favor by allowing just one goal on 91 shots (.989 save percentage) in winning his first two playoff starts.
Demko appeared exhausted late in his 48-save Game 6 shutout victory, taking long pauses to rehydrate and several times stretching during stoppages apparently to keep from cramping. If Markstrom is deemed fit to play in Game 7, does Vancouver head coach Travis Green consider a change given the unusual circumstances of having to play two elimination games on consecutive days and the barrage of shots Demko has faced? Working in Demko’s favor is his age and the fact that before his Game 5 start he hadn’t played since March 10.
"Thatcher's been our MVP both nights," Canucks’ forward Jake Virtanen said after Demko became the third rookie in NHL history to record a shutout while facing elimination in a Game 6. "He's standing on his head back there, and he's making some amazing saves, keeping us in games. And you can see the confidence he has back there. He's just calm and collected, playing his game.”
There will be high drama in Edmonton before the puck even drops for the Vegas-Vancouver finale.
Adding to the Western Conference drama Friday will be the 4 p.m. tilt between surging Colorado and Dallas. In another goaltending twist, journeyman third-string netminder Michael Hutchinson has stepped in following injuries to Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz to lead the Avalanche to two straight wins and force a Game 7. Prior to replacing Francouz in Game 4, Hutchinson’s only playoff experience had come in the American Hockey League.
Hutchinson’s team rallied around him in Game 5, providing a lightning-quick, five-goal lead to help calm the nerves in what turned out to be a 6-3 victory. He then stopped 27 of 28 shots to become the seventh goalie in NHL history to earn his first two playoff wins with his team facing elimination.
“I’ve been able to play quite a few NHL games and practice with teams for quite a few years,” Hutchinson told NBC Sports. “I’ve always felt like my game was in a place where, if I got an opportunity, I could be successful. Now, the guys in front of me winning these last two games is on them. As a goalie, when you have a team that works that hard in front of you, it makes my job a lot easier.”
With a supremely talented group that ranked among the league’s leaders in goals scored and fewest goals allowed this year turning the intensity up a notch, Colorado is as formidable as any team in the league despite its youth and playoff inexperience. The Avs entered the playoffs as a favorite to at least reach the Western Conference finals and to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender for the foreseeable future. If they manage to complete the comeback and advance it would be much less of a surprise than if the Canucks and Flyers can do the same.
Speaking of the Flyers, Philadelphia appeared to be just as confounded and confused by Barry Trotz’s lockdown system as the Washington Capitals club his Islanders eliminated in five games to advance to the second round. The Islanders used a stifling forecheck, tremendous puck possession, solid goaltending and a clog-all-lanes mentality to jump to a 3-1 series lead, leaving many observers to view New York a lock to advance and pronounce that that the Flyers’ best days were ahead.
Not so fast.
Following the lead of inspirational veteran Kevin Hayes, Philadelphia somehow has managed to earn three overtime victories and rally to force Saturday’s Game 7. The Flyers, playing without top two-way forward Sean Couturier, were outshot 53-31 and watched an early 2-0 lead turn into a 3-2 deficit in Game 6 before clawing their way to a 5-4 double-overtime victory on defenseman Ivan Provorov’s goal.
That was Philadelphia’s third extra-time win in the series, and at one point during the contest New York held at 50-20 shots advantage. Flyers future superstar-goalie Carter Hart continued his clutch play, facing more than 40 shots for just the second time all season and finishing with a career-best 49 stops.
''Carter kept us in this game,'' team captain Claude Giroux told the media after the win. ''He made some huge saves for us, and I was pretty glad to see Provy's shot go in there.''
Although New York carried the play for most of the evening and maintained possession in Philadelphia’s end for long stretches throughout, the Flyers clearly were inspired by the return of forward Oskar Lindblom, who was making his first appearance since Dec. 7 after fighting bone cancer.
''All season he's been (an inspiration), not just tonight,'' Hart said. “Him coming in the lineup and playing definitely gives our team a huge boost of energy. It's pretty amazing what he's gone through and how much he's overcome and persevered.''
Now Lindblom and his teammates have overcome and persevered together to force a deciding Game 7.
The Flyers were the hottest team in hockey when the league shut down March 12 and maintained that momentum in going 3-0 during round-robin play to earn the top Eastern Conference seed. They appeared to be as likely as anyone to make a deep playoff run until the upstart Canadiens uncovered some weaknesses in pushing them to six games in the first round.
Many close to the game thought that Trotz and his less-talented, more-experienced band of grinders would be able to take advantage of those weaknesses against their younger foes in a playoff setting.
After four games, that line of thinking appeared to be accurate, and it seemed like the Flyers might be a year away from truly rising to the top in the East. But just like Colorado, the youngest team in the NHL, and Vancouver (average age 27.5), the youngsters from Philadelphia (average age 26.5) have played their best hockey under the most daunting of circumstances.
Is it possible that all three will advance to the conference finals?
In the year of COVID, murder hornets, double-barreled hurricanes, celebrity deaths, fires, floods and volcanic eruptions, anything seems possible. No matter what, though, it should be a pretty incredible two days of playoff hockey.
Enjoy. We all deserve it.