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In this weird and wonderful hockey summer, sprinkled in between do-or-die clashes featuring fringe teams forced to hit their stride immediately to survive will be a collection of mostly inconsequential matchups.
Eight teams, or four from each conference, will dip their toes in the water of their respective hub cities in a three-game round robin series that will run simultaneous to the play-in competitions beginning Aug. 1.
As a carrot, these games will determine seeding for the best-of-seven series to follow in the traditional opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. But maybe more important than that, it will also allow these front-running franchises to ramp up toward a satisfactory level of form.
With the exception of the tiebreaker advantage, the results from the regular season will be scrapped in favour of these incidental three-game sets. While somewhat questionable on the part of the league and its competition committee, the format would be wildly unfair to teams like the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues — groups that led their respective conferences with tremendous regular seasons — if it weren’t for the obvious fact that home-ice advantage is null and void when each conference competes under a shared roof and fans aren’t allowed to inhabit the seats.
Still, it should be interesting to see how teams approach these games. Will they see a value in chasing a higher seed, even if it doesn’t necessarily mean drawing an inferior opponent? Will they ease into things with peaking at a precise moment in mind? Will they shelter their stars as to not suffer a significant blow before the competition for the Stanley Cup truly begins?
In any case, while still intriguing and still high-level hockey, the round robin will mostly exist as filler while the remaining 16 teams do battle to join them.
Here are a few of the more important storylines leading into the low-stakes beginning to the NHL’s restart for the eight highest seeds in the tournament:
What’s going on in Boston?
Not a single team was positioned better than the Boston Bruins before the NHL was forced to shut its doors. Yeah, some heavy hitters exist down in the division, but this is a team that fell just a single game shy of the Stanley Cup last spring and followed it up with what was basically a wire-to-wire Presidents’ Trophy-winning campaign.
This is a professional outfit — one that knows itself and one that knows how to win. And under normal circumstances the Bruins seemed to be setting themselves up for another lengthy postseason run, and there was really no reason to believe anything different.
Four and a half months later, though, and despite the high jinks that seems to be happening in the Bruins’ quarters in Hotel X, the feeling seems to be that maybe the position they’re in isn’t quite as strong.
There’s the fact the Bruins will likely have to win at least two of their three games in the round robin in order to preserve the No. 1 seed, and could just as easily slip into a matchup with the No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins. There’s also the fact that David Pastrnak, the co-share of the Rocket Richard this season, was absent for a significant portion of the team’s training camp after committing a quarantine infraction with teammate and fellow Czech Ondrej Kase.
Reaching this point hasn’t been as smooth as it seemed all season for the Bruins, who also have some key players up there in age. It might not mean a whole lot, but even the Bruins may not be able to afford a slow start.
A sniper returns
It seemed the Blues built and built and built on their way to the Stanley Cup last season from the moment they found themselves at the bottom of the league standings in early January. It was momentum that seemed to be worth something, and maybe will be something the returning champions wind up without after spending their first significant stretch away from the rink in some time over the last few months.
Momentum, though, can present itself in different forms, and the unexpected return of one of the game’s best snipers just might be able to provide it.
Sidelined since late October with a shoulder injury, Vladimir Tarasenko will be with the defending champions to start the qualification round. And while most teams are receiving boosts with players back from injury, few of them habitually hit 30 goals.
Can they steal the seed?
Without question, the two teams that made out best in the NHL’s return plans were the Dallas Stars and Philadelphia Flyers. Both were the last to clear the line separating the automatic berths from the play-in entrants, and now each will have the opportunity to claim the top seeds in their respective conferences when the field is reduced to 16 teams.
Any team that advances through the best-of-five phase will be a tough out, but the opportunities to chart more favourable paths are for the taking for both the Stars and Flyers, when really they shouldn’t be.
It will be interesting to see if one of them can take advantage.
Host of contenders
Even before the added variable of having to pick up where they left off, choosing between the NHL teams that established themselves as truly elite is a difficult task. However if there is an odds-on favourite, it is, and for another season remains, the Tampa Bay Lightning, despite still having egg on their face from last season’s shocking first-round exit.
One of the hottest teams before the pause and one bolstered by another strong and intelligent investment before the trade deadline, the Lightning lead the host of contenders that will ease their way into the tournament during the first week of competition — even if they wind up being without Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman to start.
If there’s a team that can match the Lightning in terms of talent, it might be the Colorado Avalanche. Nathan MacKinnon will finally have some steady support after a string of injuries necessitated his brilliant individual season — perhaps to the point where Jared Bednar might actually have too many options at his disposal.
Lastly, the Capitals and Golden Knights haven’t taken a step back since meeting in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final, and remain legitimate candidates this summer. How Ilya Kovalchuk fares in Washington is an intriguing storyline, while it’ll be interesting to see how Pete DeBoer deploys his two talented netminders through the round-robin schedule, and against whoever emerges from the play-in.
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