Every season around this time the elephant shows up in the room, and we all silently agree to not acknowledge its presence. What it represents is that NHL playoff hockey is not sustainable at the pace we get accustomed to seeing over the opening round or two. Not for lack of effort, of course, but it’s a battle out there.
In a normal year you play every other day. Bumps and bruises become nagging injuries and in your third series your 100 per cent isn’t quite as dynamic as it was two, four, or six weeks ago. There’s a kind of a nobility to the way the final round becomes two exhausted, proven fighters summoning every ounce of effort to trade all-or-nothing haymakers in the 12th round, looking a far cry different than they did in the opening round.
And that’s in a normal year.
This season has brought a congested schedule where the NHL has tried to avoid nights without game action, which means teams have had even less in the way of rest. Use the multipliers of isolation and anxiety that the bubbles are offering up alongside golf simulators and ping pong tables, and you gotta believe some of these guys are pretty worn down. Justified though it may be, it certainly appears that way to the viewer’s eye.
The pace at the start of Round 2 was electric and by the end of it the stakes were high enough that the action still moved at a quality clip. Game 1 between Dallas and Vegas was, to use the technical jargon of those in the sports industry, “not good.” Not poorly played or anything, at all; structurally it was damn near perfect, which just highlighted that nobody seemed to have the gas (whether physical or mental) to create something amidst the thickness.
As clear as Dallas-Vegas made this observation, it was all brought to much clearer light in the opening game of the Lightning-Islanders series, where the Bolts were rested and the Islanders had just poured out every ounce of effort in their fight to get past the Philadelphia Flyers. Tampa may be the better team, sure. But this wasn’t entirely that.
Think about what the Islanders were trying to do on Monday night. After putting away the Florida Panthers and the Washington Capitals, the Flyers stretched them to the limit -- to the brink of elimination -- where they mustered a damn-near perfect hockey game to put them away, too. Then the Islanders had to pack up from their hotel, fly to Edmonton, and prepare to play one of the best teams in the league who had time to prepare for them and give their bodies an ever-loving minute to rebuild.
Three of the four Conference Final teams played a Game 7 in round two, and lemme tell ya, it would not take an astute analytical eye to guess which team didn’t.
— Justin Bourne (@jtbourne) September 8, 2020
It was over before it started.
While that was foreseeable, I’m still trying to make sense of what it portends for the remainder of the Conference Final, and the Stanley Cup Final beyond that.
It’s unlikely either series plays out in the spirit of their respective first games. A committed defensive team like the Isles with a coach like Barry Trotz isn’t going to give up too many touchdown-like scores, let alone in playoffs. I don’t care how good the opponent is.
On the other side, Vegas’ offence has gone dry over the past handful of games, but they’re a team that can score. They have four total goals in their past four games, but in the four playoff games prior to that they racked up 15. They’ve gone quiet, but they haven’t died.
So, I expect considerably different performances ahead.
The question I’m stuck on though, is let’s say these four teams are in fact run down (and I say four because a few extra days doesn’t mean Tampa is suddenly coming off summer vacation), a half-step slower, and destined for less busyness and more structure in the days to come. Who does that favour, who does that hurt?
My personal belief is that when you’re exhausted, the hardest thing to do is create offence. The three teams that played a Game 7 last round combined for three goals in their next games. Defences occupy the dangerous areas of the ice, and so if you want that ice you have to get them out of the way. Tired defenders can at least hit the brakes and stand in the right places. If you want to score, the pedal has to get pushed down.
That means skating fast by them, that means physically moving them, that means luring them out with deception. You know in court how the prosecution has to prove their case, and if they can’t, the defence wins? The burden of proof is essentially on the offence in hockey, too. “The defence rests” is a really beautiful overlap.
So for a team like Vegas up against a defensive stalwart like Dallas, I think it’s going to be hard. They’re tired, scoring is hard right now, and again, Dallas can defend like heck. But this is the most important point I’ll make here today: it’s now, when everyone is tired and creating offence is getting hard, where the good offensive teams have the advantage.
Think of it like golf. When Tiger Woods came on Tour, he was hitting the ball miles past the field, shortening courses so he could devour them with short wedges into greens while other players struggled getting longer irons close to tight pins. So what did the PGA Tour do? Well, they didn’t want Tiger making a mockery of their courses, so they lengthened them, with the phrase at the time being “Tiger-proofing.” Tiger then had to hit longer irons into the greens, too. Meanwhile, the guys who already hit the ball 270 yards off the tee instead of 310 were fully in trouble. Tiger may not score as well as he would have on shorter courses, but in terms of generating wins and losses, it played right to his strength.
If you struggled to score like the Dallas Stars, who were 29th in the NHL at the official season end, how’s that gonna go for you when your scorers are exhausted? You’re not going to win 1-0 often, and to get four wins you’re going to need to score some goals.
Along this same vein, the Islanders were a bottom-10 team in scoring in the regular season as well. They’ve scored enough this post-season to get by, which is at least partially due to facing opponents who ranked 25th, 15th and eighth in goals against in the regular season. It’s not often you draw three playoff opponents in statistical positions like that. Tampa Bay allowed the 10th-fewest regular season goals, but as scoring naturally gets harder in their fourth series here, how much will the Islanders be able to create now?
In terms of raw goal scoring, the remaining teams in the playoffs were 10th (Vegas), 24th (Islanders), and 29th (Dallas) in the regular season. Tampa Bay was first overall with 243 goals. As the playoffs drag on and everyone slows down a step, the course gets longer and harder. And with that, being able to hit the long ball like the Lightning only becomes a bigger advantage.
Beyond just the outcome of the first games of the Conference Finals, it’s tough not to feel like everything’s shaping up for the Bolts right now.