Despite a slew of positive COVID-19 tests and a developing players versus owners escrow dispute, the NHL plans to push full speed ahead toward a return to play. Phase 3 involves the formal opening of training camps on July 10, while the confirmation of hub city venues should be forthcoming soon.
Once the I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed, NHL fans can look forward to a galaxy of stars returning to the ice in a revamped 24-team playoff format. The intrigue of a shortened best-of-five qualifying round and reseeding format adds spice and unpredictability, which begs the question: Which five teams are best positioned to capture the Stanley Cup?
Another factor to consider? Flyers fans are among the most demanding in all of sports. When things go wrong, the mood of the Philly crowd can flip in an instant. The absence of that fishbowl-like pressure could benefit Vigneault and his men.
Then, there’s the whole matter of the DeBoer effect. Pulling the plug on Gerard Gallant in January seemed like a rash decision. Vegas was fueled by fast legs and fancy puck movement while Gallant presided along the bench, but DeBoer reprogrammed the Golden Knights into playing with increased physicality, improved discipline, better structure, and an emphasis on shot-blocking. The DNA of this team isn’t defense-first, and time will tell if DeBoer’s changes will pay off in the long run.
There’s no shortage of offense on this squad, but the biggest question is how well a largely-inexperienced blue line handles playoff pressure. The Rangers surrendered the second most shots per game during the regular season at an even 34.
The biggest question is which goalie gets the nod to start the playoffs, after Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz split time. It will probably be Grubauer, who will hope to build on his .925 save percentage in last year’s postseason.
Tuukka Rask seemingly gets better with every passing year, and there’s an impressive blending of experienced winners in Rask, Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Brad Marchand and under-25 talents in David Pastrnak, Charlie McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk, Brandon Carlo, and Anders Bjork.
I see the Bruins going one step further this year, and getting their mitts on Lord Stanley.