The cornucopia of NHL hockey that’s less than two weeks away from landing on your screen figures to be a viewing experience similar to the early stages of NCAA basketball’s March Madness, with staggered games filling entire days.
And, best of all, we’re actually getting two ‘Sweet 16s.’
As is always the case, the official four-round NHL playoff format will feature eight teams per conference hitting the ice with one championship goal. Before we get there, though, our appetizer is a preliminary round featuring 16 squads all hoping to advance to the main draw.
Six of those teams are based in Canada and Sportsnet correspondents throughout the country have been reporting on their every stop and start during training camp 2.0. But what about the 10 teams coming north from the United States to hub cities Toronto and Edmonton for best-of-five preliminary-round series?
In case you’ve lost track, here’s a quick refresher on what was up with those clubs when the hiatus hit and what’s front of mind as they embark on their series.
We’ll start with the Eastern Conference today and examine the Western clubs Monday.
No. 5 seed: Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins were reeling when play halted, having posted just three wins in their final 11 outings. That allowed in-state rivals Philadelphia to leapfrog them and pushed the Pens down into this pesky preliminary business.
The good news for Pittsburgh is the fact Jake Guentzel — who had shoulder surgery right after Christmas and did not expect to return this season — is back skating on Sidney Crosby’s line. Guentzel was on a 42-goal pace when he went under the knife, so his presence is a huge injection into the lineup. Speaking of which, don’t forget trade-deadline addition Jason Zucker had 12 points in 15 games with Pittsburgh after coming over from Minnesota.
The big Black and Yellow question, though, remains whether playoff-tested Matt Murray or breakout star Tristan Jarry will get the Game 1 start versus Montreal. While Jarry was performing like a Vezina candidate in the 2019 portion of the schedule, his play flattened out in the New Year. Both goalies started 15 games in 2020, with Jarry posting a .901 save percentage and Murray coming in at .905.
No. 6 seed: Carolina Hurricanes
The Canes are another outfit returning a monster player from injury. Star defenceman Dougie Hamilton broke his leg in January, but he’s back on the top pair with all-world partner Jaccob Slavin. Hamilton might not be operating at 100 per cent, but it’s hard to imagine he can’t help this team score some goals.
COVID-19 has a way of making everything that happened before early March disappear from our brains, but who could forget the image of 42-year-old emergency goalie David Ayres stepping in on a Saturday night in Toronto and guiding the Canes to a 3-2 win? That outrageous evening happened on Feb. 22 and came about because both members of teams’ battery — Petr Mrazek and James Reimer — had been sidelined with injuries.
Ayres was one of five goalies the Canes were forced to use in the weeks before the hiatus, but both Mrazek and Reimer are good to go versus the New York Rangers now.
No. 7 seed: New York Islanders
The Islanders are pretty much devoid of any ‘wow’ factor, but underestimate Barry Trotz’s bunch at your peril. For the second straight post-John Tavares year, the Isles — who swept the Penguins in the first round last year — were in the thick of the playoff hunt coming down the home stretch.
The Islanders’ shot metrics aren’t pretty, though they manage to suppress high-danger scoring chances just fine. That effort will get a boost with the return of defenceman Adam Pelech, who sustained an Achilles’ tendon injury in January. New York struggles to find the net, so it really needs its top two centres — leading point-getting Mathew Barzal and top goal-scorer Brock Nelson — to come through versus the Florida Panthers.
No. 9 seed: Columbus Blue Jackets
Anyone out there especially curious about this club?
The Toronto Maple Leafs’ preliminary round opponent was quietly one of the best stories in the NHL this season, competing for a playoff spot all year and defying doomsday predictions after Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky and Matt Duchene all skated away as free agents from Columbus 12 months ago.
On top of that, the Jackets endured serious injury blows in the second half of the season, as defenceman Seth Jones went out with a broken ankle in early February, just weeks before Oliver Bjorkstrand was felled by the same injury. The loss of those players contributed to a 3-6-6 mark in the lead up to the hiatus, but both Jones and Bjorkstrand are ready to go. Bjorkstrand scored at a 35-goal pace this year, so his return is a huge boost to a club that netted fewer goals-per-game (2.57) than every club still playing and all but three in the league.
No. 10 seed: Florida Panthers.
This counts as a real playoff appearance, right?
If Columbus was the sneaky good story of the year, on the sly, Florida had to be one of the worst. After poaching Bobrovsky on the open market, it was the same ol’ stinky stuff in South Florida for most of the year. The Cats went 7-10-3 in February and March, so it’s not like they were pouring it on in pursuit of a playoff spot.
Still, Bobrovsky was a completely different goalie in the second season versus the regular season last year with the Jackets, improving his save percentage by 25 points to .925 in 10 games versus the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins.
Whether it’s with better play from the crease or more attention to detail from the five-man units, the Panthers have to find a way to cut down on goals-against. Florida surrendered 3.25 goals per game this year, worse than all but three teams in the NHL. That completely undermined the work of studs Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau — and a pretty good forward crew top to bottom — up front.
No. 11 seed: New York Rangers
A lot of things went right for the Rangers this year. Panarin turned in an MVP-calibre debut season, Mika Zibanejad led the league in goals per game (I swear, look it up), Adam Fox showed all kinds of promise as a freshman blue-liner and two goalies — Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev — demonstrated long-term promise.
Of course, the Rangers also have a third goalie in the mix named Henrik Lundqvist. Had the season played out under normal circumstances, Lundqvist would have seen his share of the crease, even if he was the third-best goalie on the team. (Shesterkin also sustained a rib fracture stemming from a car accident right before the trade deadline, so there was some crease time up for grabs).
As it stands, there’s a good chance we’ve seen Lundqvist make his last stop for New York. And if Shesterkin — who posted a .932 save percentage in the only 12 games of his NHL career this season — can pick up where he left off, the Blueshirts could be a real wild card.