We're officially in the stretch drive of this season folks, with about a month to go until the playoffs hit.
It's been an unusual and, at times, difficult season, but one full of intriguing storylines and surprise developments as well. Who would have guessed both Carolina and Florida might finish ahead of Tampa in the Central Division? Or that the Philadelphia Flyers would turn into a bit of a disaster after a strong start that followed a good showing in last summer's bubble?
The whole past year has been different of course, and last year's playoffs were able to conclude after a four-plus month break and two bubbles. There were some surprises in those bubbles as well and in some cases, it made us make certain conclusions about what it might mean for certain teams or players.
Not all of those conclusions came to fruition.
With playoff races heating up, we look back at last year's post-season and address some of the things we thought we learned coming out of it, but in the end played out differently.
The Flyers emerging as a contending powerhouse
The Flyers' relentless playoff history pattern perhaps should have made what's happened this season predictable. But the yo-yoing they've done in and then out of the playoffs since 2012 would seem to be more about chance than a measurable, predictive outcome.
Coming out of last summer's bubble, it sure seemed like the Flyers may not just break that pattern, but launch themselves as a sustainable Cup contender.
When last season was paused in March, the Flyers were fourth in the East but on a 9-1-0 tear. When they returned four months later, Philadelphia beat Washington, Boston and Tampa Bay in their pre-playoff round robin to determine seeding, and did it by outscoring those four teams 11-3.
In that round robin, the Flyers were dominant at 5-on-5 and went into their Round 1 series against Montreal as heavy favourites. That series didn't play out quite as expected — the Habs controlled 5-on-5 shot advantage and it was stretched out to six games — but the Flyers were able to overcome a red-hot Carey Price with their own young franchise goalie and a clutch start to the decisive Game 6.
Carter Hart was the central figure in that series. He had two soft games in there (both losses in which he allowed four goals against), but recovered both times. Hart shut out the Habs twice, left the series with a .936 save percentage and knocked out his idol when both were at the top of their games. It felt a lot like Hart's official "arrival" and the start of a Price-like ascension.
Philadelphia ran into the defensive buzzsaw that are the NY Islanders in the next round and though Hart wasn't as good this time and the power play dried up, the Flyers used some timely offence to find a way to win three games in overtime and stretch the series to seven games. The Isles won Game 7 decisively, and Philadelphia's special teams struggled, but it seemed to set the table moving forward.
New York and the Flyers were the last two teams standing from the Metropolitan Division and the last two from this year's one-off East Division. The 2020 playoffs really were the last time anyone should have underestimated the Islanders, while the Flyers had been trending up for a while. What reason did you have to believe these two couldn't be the top teams in this division in 2021 and beyond? The Bruins are facing age-related questions and have even had to deal with key injuries this season following important off-season losses on the roster (Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug). The Capitals had a lot of uncertainty in net. And the Penguins, who started slow, appeared to have their window slammed shut. That left the Isles and Flyers looking rather rosy.
(Stats via Natural Stat Trick)
The Islanders held up their end of the bargain, but the Flyers have been an utter disaster after a hot start due to inflated save and shooting percentages. Hart, as solid a goalie prospect as you could have, has struggled and was made a healthy scratch for a few days to regain his composure. Brian Elliott, sturdy at the start, has been shaky for a while now. Both special teams units have performed worse than they did a year ago, they are 26th in points percentage for the past two months, and have the seventh-worst season-long goal differential. Against the East's non-playoff teams the Flyers are 9-5-1, leaving them 11-13-6 against the top four in the division — a .367 winning percentage.
The pattern will continue and the Flyers will have the off-season to reassess how much they have to change after a quiet deadline, where re-signing Scott Laughton was their most notable transaction. And maybe they'll just return as a dangerous team next season — some of their underlying numbers have actually been good as they've struggled. But they weren't able to follow last season's playoffs as expected.
The Canucks arriving ahead of schedule, ready to challenge as Canada's best team
Vancouver was the most impressive Canadian team in last summer's bubble. They were the last one standing and even knocked off the defending champion St. Louis Blues. Against Vegas, the Canucks forced a Game 7, mostly because of 'Bubble Demko' when Thatcher had to step in for an injured Jacob Markstrom. They were outclassed by the Golden Knights, sure, but the experience of the run was a good thing for the young roster. Demko was the promising franchise goalie to move on with when Markstrom left in the summer, so his unscheduled performance just fuelled optimism to what would follow.
The Canucks' underlying numbers weren't all that fantastic after they knocked the Wild out in Round 1. Against St. Louis and Vegas, the Canucks were outshot heavily at 5-on-5 and by expected goal measure, neither of those series looked all that close. But they have game breakers — young game breakers — and the core all showed up and produced. Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller and Quinn Hughes led in points. Bo Horvat scored a team-leading 10 goals in 17 playoff games. They hung around and found ways to win, just as a veteran team does in the playoffs.
So, take that, add another year of development, Nate Schmidt to the blue line (while removing Chris Tanev) and Nils Hoglander to the forward unit (removing Tyler Toffoli) and it painted the picture of a team on the rise, ahead of schedule. In the one-off North Division experiment, the Canucks had a chance to challenge directly to be Canada's top team, or at least show they could get there soon.
It didn't quite play out that way, though. A tough schedule off the start of the season with 16 games in 27 days left little practice time and it was one contributing factor to their 6-10 start, as was the fact Demko began bumpy as he and Braden Holtby jockeyed for starts. The top scorers were cold, too, and nothing was going right for the Canucks from the get-go. By the time they settled in and started turning it around with an 8-4-1 record in March, they were in a severe hole with barely any shot at the playoffs. And now they're facing another incredibly compressed schedule following a COVID outbreak.
That Vancouver has come back from that break with a couple of wins is certainly inspiring and it has re-opened their playoff hopes a crack. In a normal 82-game schedule, perhaps they'd have enough time to fight back and change our perception of them again. But that is still the more unlikely outcome here. Roster construction questions have followed them for a while, and the long-held opinions of those who believe too much money has been spent at the bottom of the lineup have been bolstered and will only make it harder to upgrade the current roster.
Make no mistake: the Canucks are still a team on the rise. They seemed to be turning a corner before their pause and have gotten back from it with a couple wins. It just hasn't been as smooth and as natural a progression as we thought it might be following last year's playoffs. This is one lesson from the bubble that still might come true with a little more runway.
If we return to normal divisional alignment next season, we'd caution you against viewing the Canucks through the lens of the 2021 season.
The Florida Panthers mirage
If you were looking to pick a qualifying round upset last summer, the Panthers over Islanders may have been appealing if you were still underestimating the latter. Sure, Sergei Bobrovsky was having a terrible season, but a goalie like that could get hot after a few months break, right?
The Panthers had been piecing together a decent season last year despite having the league's third-worst 5-on-5 save percentage. In 13 fewer regular season games, Florida finished one win shy of their 2018-19 season total and ranked third, tied with Toronto, in 5-on-5 goals scored. If you squinted, you could see reason for a post-season breakout. But they scored just seven times in four games against the Islanders and left the bubble with a whimper.
Defence is such an important factor in the post-season that Florida's inability to shut down high quality chances, combined with Bobrovsky's struggles, was every indication it was a flawed unit. No matter their season-over-season improvement in the points percentage column, they looked in the bubble just like so many other Panthers teams that showed promise, but haven't won a playoff series since 1996.
But give them another season under Joel Quenneville and...
(Stats via Natural Stat Trick)
They're still not perfect, but Florida is one of the most improved defensive units in the whole NHL and that's helped both compensate for the loss of their two top goal scorers to free agency and improve the situation in net. Bobrovsky has been marginally better and Chris Driedger is giving him a run for playoff start consideration. "Goalie of the future" Spencer Knight arrived and won in his debut.
Carter Verhaeghe, who came to Florida last summer with good scoring rate numbers in Tampa but little ice time to produce in, has exploded as an important offensive contributor. Another off-season addition, Patric Hornqvist, is pacing towards one of his best offensive seasons ever and makes them a harder team to play against. Sam Bennett was acquired with that in mind, too. The Panthers have a strong core and a couple players who could be in the running for awards most seasons with Aleksander Barkov (Selke) and Aaron Ekblad (was in the Norris running this season before getting hurt).
Having success in the regular season is one thing. Now they're designed to be a harder playoff out with a few "sandpaper" adds, and have been coached to achieve significant improvement on the back end. A question still remains in goal — mostly about who should get the playoff starts — but this time they have options. And they're not a team just squeaking in here — Florida is fourth in the NHL by points percentage.
The Panthers feel real this time. The only problem is that Tampa and Carolina are contenders, too, and they may have to face one of them in Round 1. The silver lining they could take into a series like that is, this time, the Panthers shouldn't be an easy out (knock on wood).
Lehner becomes Vegas' clear No. 1 goalie
You remember 'The Tweet' of course, when Marc-Andre Fleury's agent Allan Walsh shared this image:
Head coach Pete DeBoer had chosen to ride Robin Lehner as his starting playoff netminder after the team traded for him at the deadline. Lehner was a rental at the time, on the last season of his contract, where Fleury had been the face of the franchise since its inception. It was quite the turn of events and seemed to indicate a changing of the guard.
Walsh later removed the tweet, but the message had been sent and conclusions were drawn.
Marc-Andre Fleury said he asked agent Allan Walsh to take down the tweet with art of him being stabbed with a sword.
"He's just trying to protect me a bit," Fleury said. pic.twitter.com/r08xN7Eh1u
— David Schoen (@DavidSchoenLVRJ) August 23, 2020
With Lehner, the Golden Knights got back to the Western Conference final and so when he signed a five-year, $25 million extension to stay with the team in October, it seemed to cement the shift to a new No. 1. Fleury, 35 at the time of Lehner's signing, was coming off a down season and since Vegas was looking at ways to shed salary, it made some sense to try and trade Fleury, even if it meant retaining part of the $7 million cap hit he'd have for another two seasons.
Not only did both Fleury and Lehner return, but they're splitting starts when healthy and make up the NHL's best tandem. Fleury is even in the running for the Vezina Trophy again. That was not a conclusion anyone was making following last year's playoffs.
(Stats reflect 5-on-5 situations, via Natural Stat Trick)
Now, unexpectedly, we have a goalie battle again. Fleury is making a strong case to be the Game 1 guy, but that could be decided in the final weeks here. If he doesn't get it, could we get another sword-related incident?
Price is back with a little help from rest
Team Canada's goalie choice for the 2022 Olympics will certainly be interesting. It's been a few years since Price was confidently atop the "world's best goalie" list and he'd sort of been floating around league average save rates for a few years. His workload was always heavy and so now, in his mid-30s, the Habs faced the question if more rest is what he needed.
That seemed to be confirmed in the bubble last summer. Price had posted a .909 save percentage last regular season and actually had a minus-1.31 goals save above average rate, ranking 36th in the league. But he then had four months off to rest up and prepare for a playoff return — and when they hit the ice again, Price was back to the game-saving goalie he had been through much of his earlier career. He led them to an upset win over Pittsburgh and nearly got them through Philadelphia, too. Price wound up with a .936 post-season save percentage.
So maybe that was the key here. GM Marc Bergevin went out and acquired Jake Allen, so now they had a reliable backup to keep Price rested and, theoretically, able to find that fountain of youth.
But Price has actually been the No. 2-ranked netminder in Montreal's crease and even still played through an injury at one point. Allen has given Price more of a break than he usually gets, but there's been no real payoff in performance as we expected.
In the previous two seasons, Price played in 80.4 per cent and 81.7 per cent of Montreal's games, but has only been in the net 58.1 per cent of the time this season. That was the plan all along. It just hasn't played out as expected.
(Stats cover all situations)
More support has been given to Price, it seems, and he has the better record. But by overall save percentage, Allen is at .914 to Price's .901. Losing Price to a concussion is concerning and, as Sportsnet's Eric Engels wrote, it tightens roster flexibility for other moves to reinvigorate a struggling offence (such as bringing up Cole Caufield). But Allen will now have a brief run to see if he, in fact, can be an X-Factor in helping Montreal pull away in the race. He's no guarantee and has only a .905 save rate this month, but he has been the better of the two this season.
The playoff takeaway that Price could be elite again with more rest just hasn't played out.