In some real hockey hilarity, the Bubble NHL Playoffs will start without any of the “hosts” on Tuesday. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers have set a date for their respective faces with the curb, so will have to watch these modified playoffs play out in their hometown without them. You have to really color outside the lines to get kicked out of your own party (although we all have, right?), But since these are the Oilers and Leafs, this is not the big surprise.
Despite the objections of Leafs fans however, the playoffs will continue without them, and likely not even with the 10 minutes of silence to mourn the Leafs exit they are calling for. There are two 12 seeds and one 11 seeds left, which only adds to the weirdness of it all. But weirdness is what hockey does.
The real question for the first four seeds of each conference, which are now entering the real fray, is how they will go from 0 to 60 in such a short time. Round robin matches to determine the rankings mostly resembled glorified preseason games, while the other teams competed in a win-or-win situation. Maybe that’s a downside, maybe it’s an advantage as these teams have had more time to find their rhythm and touch. We will find out quickly.
Anyway, let’s line them up, East first.
Philadelphia Flyers (1) vs Montreal Canadiens (12)
If you were to just look at the seeding, it looks like another mismatch. But the Flyers don’t really have much to do as a seed in the East. They were 11 points behind the Bruins in the regular season and their goal difference was eclipsed by that of Boston and Tampa. But these are the rules, so here we are.
The Canadiens may think they’ve encountered something similar to the Penguins and imagine their chances. And it’s true that the metrics have the Flyers and Penguins roughly identical. What they won’t find is an injured star, as Sidney Crosby clearly wasn’t himself in the play-in round. Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux are doing great, and the Flyers have a lot more depth than the Penguins have come armed, for example Patrick Marleau, 74, and five guys with dashes in their names. Although extremely young, the Flyers receive contributions from just about all 12 forwards, so the Canadiens can’t just focus Phillip Danault on a cross with “sick” instructions! Max Domi and Jonathan Drouin will actually have to do something this series, and they won’t.
And the Canadians won’t have a huge advantage on goal. Matt Murray wasn’t bad for the Pens, but not good enough. Carter Hart has pulled the Flyers’ butt with various slings all year round and has been solid in the round robin regardless of the urgency of those games or not. Hart placed fourth in the regular season for above-expected goals scored, and the Canadiens were already short of snipers. Anyone can be Mike Bossy for a series, it’s just that the Flyers have more candidates. They are not the best team in the East, but they are better than Montreal. Smart Money says there will be chills in the second round.
Tampa Bay Lightning (2) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (9)
Maybe Leafs fans should be thankful that they don’t have to watch their team get run over by the Lightning in the first round. We’ll keep repeating that it’s difficult to gauge exactly which round robin games were, but the Bolts didn’t seem too far away from the team that played 31-12-3 from Dec. 1 at times. Although they looked uneven against the Flyers, their level of attention was hazy.
Narratives will fly with this one, as the Jackets are the team that put the Lightning to sword last year in the most embarrassing outcome for a Presidents’ Trophy winner in history. And seeing how quickly the Lightning panicked in that one, we already wonder about their level of itching. If they fell behind Columbus again, or even saw goalkeeper Andrei Vasilevskiy give up another bad goal, as he is accustomed to this time of year, the gremlins could start setting up the beer pong table in the head of Tampa.
Still, just like last year, the Lightning are better equipped to deal with John Tortorella’s trapping methods than the Leafs. Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev and Kevin Shattenkirk can all be trap hunters, and the Lightning’s firepower isn’t far removed from that of Toronto.
But the Jackets have become experts in the matter, choosing their places and not missing out when they get the chance. They also benefited from keepers who went a bit funny in the head. It basically comes down to how much Vasilevskiy does or does not fill his pants.
Washington Capitals (3) vs. New York Islanders (7)
If the Lightning-Jackets series hasn’t met the hockey media’s resolve for storytelling, this one will be as Islanders coach Barry Trotz takes on the team he led to a Cup there. two years ago. And just like the previous game, this will be one team that will be energy vampires and the other will try to stay awake long enough to cross the Islanders’ defensive lanes. The Panthers certainly weren’t built for this and were badly beaten. The Caps are not cats, however.
Still, facing a team like the Islanders is the most stark turnaround from terse round robin play that the Capitals could have had. Beating the islands means working incredibly hard and being incredibly patient, because no luck or mistake will simply fall on you. Trotz takes care of it. The Caps’ biggest weapon to navigate all of this is John Carlson, and he hasn’t played any of the round-robin games, despite training pretty much all the time. Without him, the Caps would be in deep water. Still, if he does play, it will be his first angry game in five months. It’s hard to imagine he’ll be completely boogie.
This series screams seven nearly unattainable games decided with a few double overtime games that all resemble Aussie Rules football played by people who don’t know the rules of Aussie Rules football.
Boston Bruins (4) vs. Carolina Hurricanes (6)
No one will hope the round robin games were nothing more than glorified batting practices more than the Bruins, who looked genuinely horrible during them. They lost all three in regulation when they scored just four goals, although they were somewhat guarded by Brayden Holtby on their last outing as they made most of the play. was not encouraging.
The Bruins are also hoping there was an element of illusion in the turn of the game, as the Canes completely destroyed the Rangers in three games. It was a Rangers team still in the process of rebuilding that didn’t have their best available goalie, but they weren’t far from Carolina. And the Canes did it without perhaps their best man at Dougie Hamilton, who is expected to return for this series.
It’s yet another rematch from last year, the conference final the Bruins swept aside. Which makes a weird counterbalance to how these teams looked last week, as neither is much different in terms of lineup from last year. James Reimer and Petr Mrazek have both been excellent in their outings against Rangers, but their careers pick up against that of Tuukka Rask always seems to be a lag.
It always felt like the Bruins’ impressive regular season numbers had a lot of air in them, due to the top line in hockey, and then legos on the floor after that. The rods are much deeper, faster and play with a bit of energy. If what we saw last week is any indication of what form these teams are in, and it might not be, then this series could be very different from May 2019.