Stanley Cup round robin games: What’s at stake this weekend

Boston Bruins right wing David Pastrnak (88) beats Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77) to the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

Sunday night is set up to be an exciting one, with a Toronto-Columbus Game 5 to follow up an unbelievable Friday night comeback. But Saturday brings us a couple of round-robin games to determine who the top seed will be, and Sunday will add two more games from the round robin that will help set first-round matchups.

While the intensity of the round robins have not been the same as the elimination games, there is something obvious to play for now: a preferred first-round opponent.

Here is some of what’s at stake in the round-robin games this weekend:

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WHAT’S ON THE LINE

Each of the round-robin teams have played two of their three games, so we have a clearer picture as to what this weekend’s games mean. This is what we know:

• The top regular-season teams in both conferences, St. Louis and Boston, will not enter Round 1 as either the first or second seeds. St. Louis plays Dallas on Sunday, which will determine who finishes third and fourth in the West; Boston plays Washington on Sunday to determine who finishes third and fourth in the East.

• There are two 2-0-0 teams in each conference: Colorado and Vegas in the West, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia in the East. They will play each other and both of those games will take place on Saturday. The winners will end up first place with home-ice advantage through at least the conference final, while the losers will wind up in second.

• Teams will be re-seeded in the next round, so the top team will play whoever is ranked the lowest coming out of the qualifying series. A couple of No. 12 seeds pulled off an upset, so the first-place teams in each conference will play a team in Round 1 that had no hope of tasting playoff hockey back in March.

• Since the Bruins and Blues have yet to win, the highest seeds out of the qualifying round will have to face one of last year’s finalists in the next round if either lose their Sunday game.

SERIES POSSIBILITIES

• As the No. 12 seed in the East, Montreal will play whoever wins Saturday’s game between Tampa Bay and Philadelphia. No. 12 in the West, Chicago, will play the winner between Colorado and Vegas. The round robin has been comparatively tame to the best-of-fives, but this is something worth playing for. The loser between Tampa and Philadelphia will play either Toronto or Columbus; the loser between Colorado and Vegas will play Arizona.

• And there’s also a beneficial series to play for in Sunday’s round robin games for the third and fourth seeds. The loser between Washington and Boston will have to face Carolina, red-hot off a series sweep, while the winner of that game will take on the NY Islanders. In the West, the loser between St. Louis and Dallas will play Vancouver, while the winner of that game will meet Calgary.

BEST PLAYERS OF THE ROUND ROBIN

Mark Stone: Only three players from the round-robin teams have four points through two games. Stone is one, and he’s joined by Flyers Scott Laughton and Kevin Hayes. But by the numbers, no line has been more dominant than the Stone-William Karlsson-Chandler Stephenson line, a new look for the Golden Knights. Stone himself has a CF% of 71.43 so far, fifth among all forwards,

Brayden Point: Tampa’s top line centre scored the first goal of the game against Boston and assisted on the first of the game against Washington. The Lightning’s whole top line was rolling really, with an expected goals for percentage up over 64 per cent.

Ryan O’Reilly: Although his team hasn’t won a game yet, O’Reilly is picking up from where he left off as last year’s Conn Smythe Trophy winner. He has three assists in the two games, but more than that the Blues controlled scoring chances with him on the ice. O’Reilly’s xGF% of 56.45 leads all Blues forwards and St. Louis took 75 per cent of the high-danger chances with O’Reilly. The defensive specialist also averaged the third-most shorthanded minutes of all forwards in the league.

Pavel Francouz/Philipp Grubauer: Colorado’s two goalies each got a start so far and both were terrific. Grubauer, the presumed Game 1 starter next round, stopped 31 of 32 shots against St. Louis, while Francouz shut out the Dallas Stars. The Avalanche have big star power elsewhere, but that just allows their goalie duo to remain underrated.

TOP QUESTIONS

Will Vegas start Robin Lehner or Marc-Andre Fleury?
When the Golden Knights acquired Lehner at the trade deadline, coach Pete DeBoer played both of them, swapping back and forth in the few remaining games. He did the same in the first two round-robin games — Lehner against Dallas for a 5-3 win, and Fleury against St. Louis for a 6-4 win. The swapping likely won’t continue in the next round, so who will be the go-to? Fleury has the history with the franchise and played extraordinarily well through three rounds when Vegas reached the Cup final two years ago. But Lehner was a Vezina finalist last year and was the better of the two this season, even though he spent much of it behind Chicago’s leaky defence.

Can Dallas score enough?
The Stars are one of, if not the best, defensive teams in the league when they’re going but despite some of the name players they have, offence has been hard to come by. In two games they’ve scored three goals — and all of them came in a span of less than five minutes against Vegas. Colorado shut them out. They averaged only 27 shots a game while uncharacteristically allowing 36.5 against — and no team had a lower share of scoring chances at five-on-five than Dallas’ 41.11 per cent. The stakes are about to change, sure, but that brings us to the next question…

Will round robin teams be able to turn up the intensity on demand?
The round-robin games have felt much closer to mid-February regular season action than playoff intensity, and now each of them will face a team coming out of a high stakes best-of-three. Boston, St. Louis, Washington — teams you may have picked to go a long ways in a normal year have all started slow and without a win. Can they flip that switch? All round-robin teams will be faced with that question.

“The play-in series are very intense. They’re very, very physical. They’re in each other’s faces and it’s every shift,” Stars coach Rick Bowness said. “And that’s what we’re going to see when we enter the playoffs. We’re trying to prepare our players that this is coming. We have to prepare now. We can’t just flip a switch when the first game of the playoffs comes along and say ‘OK now we’re intense.’ ”

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