fb-pixel Skip to main content
Sunday hockey notes

NHL playoff season comes with plenty of on-ice questions

Florida's Brian Boyle, who underwent leukemia treatments two years ago, is one of the NHL players and coaches who are at higher risk for being infected with the coronavirus.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Maybe it’s all the time I’ve spent looking at the same walls the last 11 weeks, but I find it hard to gripe about the NHL’s playoff plan.

If the Bruins or Blues are bothered by the thought of slipping from No. 1 to No. 4 with a poor round-robin showing, they have the right. If the Flyers and Capitals are incensed by the thought of the Penguins, No. 7 in the NHL standings, losing a play-in series and getting a shot at Alexis Lafreniere, well, no shame in that. After selling at the deadline, the Blackhawks or Canadiens could win the Stanley Cup? Sure. Let’s get wild.

Advertisement



All this weirdness means we’re inching closer to normalcy, even if I still have my doubts we see hockey until 2021. Just happy to have it back (potentially, if everyone stays smart about it).

What was laid out this past week is as comprehensive as we can expect, given the state of our pandemic-addled world.

This league has never frozen with 85 percent of its season complete, amid a virus that has trampled some cities and affected the personal and financial health of millions, and then tried to thaw again. I recognize that sports are an escape for many people, but entering the weekend, this virus had killed more than 360,000 worldwide, more than 104,000 in the United States, more than 6,800 in Canada. The numbers are chilling, and inescapable.

Without a vaccine in place, they’re going to try this. Let’s hope they are cautious and transparent as they do so.

There was so much to unpack this past week. Everyone has questions. Some of mine, beyond the whens and wheres that won’t be decided for weeks:

Will they re-seed?

They should. Re-seeding by points percentage after the first round would give better teams a stick tap for their work in the regular season, without too great of a boost. It’s not like anyone will have a home-ice advantage at a neutral site with no fans.

Advertisement



At the pause, the Bruins were 8 points ahead of the Lightning, 10 clear of the Capitals, and 11 points up on the Flyers. If they have a few bad games, after not playing hockey for however many months, they could start the playoffs behind all of them.

What will the games look like?

Around this time last year, the NHL was excited about the progress of its TV presentation, and we’ve seen bits and pieces of its player-tracking future. How much of it is ready for prime time? Will they crank up the sports betting dial?

As for the in-house look, speaking on an NHL podcast this past week, head of content Steve Mayer panned the idea of cardboard cutouts in the stands. He hinted game rinks could resemble outdoor Winter Classics, which are dotted with visual candy.

“You’re going to see cameras in places we’ve never put them before,” Mayer said. “All these things we’ve wanted to do, we’re going to give them a try.”

More interesting: I would love to hear unfiltered commentary from players, on the ice and in the stands.

Will anyone opt out entirely?

This was an exciting week for the sport, and many players will be raring to go. Those with families have more to consider. There are numerous executives, staffers, and some coaches in the 65-and-over risk group, including Dallas interim coach Rick Bowness. Some have underlying health conditions. The Canadiens’ Max Domi, the Wild’s Luke Kunin, and the Rangers’ Kaapo Kakko have Type 1 diabetes. Carolina’s Brett Pesce has asthma. Florida’s Brian Boyle had leukemia treatments two years ago. The CDC considers all of those COVID-19 risk factors.

Advertisement



With 12 teams at each hub city, and only so much ice available, how will they space the games?

With multiple teams carving the ice each day, what will the playing surface be like after a few rounds? Tough task for ice master Dan Craig and scheduling guru Steve Hatze Petros. Challenge accepted.

PLAYOFF PREVIEW

Where did we leave off?

The Bruins and Lightning will play for the Eastern Conference top seed in a round robin tournament with the Capitals and Flyers if the NHL postseason plan is put into place.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Quick takes on playoff matchups in which we speculate mostly on how teams looked at the pause and who might return from injury.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Round robin: Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington, and Philadelphia

The Bruins took great care this season to manage workloads, ensuring players were rested for another long postseason. Let’s see if that matters … Past numbers don’t favor them. They were 1-2-1 against the Lightning, 1-1-1 against the Capitals, and 1-0-2 against the Flyers. Some great hockey between these teams this year … This round will be played with regular-season OT rules, meaning the Bruins, 0-7 in shootouts, could be in for more pain. Better hope Ondrej Kase has the goods. He was 4 for 5 this year as a Duck; the Bruins were 4 for 30 as a team, including Brad Marchand’s center-ice whiff in Philly on Jan. 13 … Tampa Bay was one of two teams (Carolina) who voted “no” on the 24-team proposal. According to forward Alex Killorn, the team reasoned it was unfair for a high seed playing a semi-meaningful round-robin tourney to start its Stanley Cup chase by playing a non-playoff team that earned new life in the play-in round. Know who might fit that bill? Columbus … Is this Braden Holtby’s last stand in Washington? Penalty killers should watch out for Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk. Everyone should watch out for Tom Wilson … Empty buildings, microphones everywhere. Shudder to think what Gritty’s got in mind.

Advertisement



Play-in series: Pittsburgh (5) vs. Montreal (12)

Don’t bet on the Habs, who were 10 points out of a playoff position when the pandemic hit. Several players, including Phillip Danault, said last month they’d rather focus on next season. Whether or not that attitude has changed, the last team in will have a tough road, particularly since veteran Carey Price — 32nd among netminders in five-on-five save percentage, 44th in goals saved above average per Natural Stat Trick — hasn’t looked like a series-stealer. The formidable Penguins, meanwhile, get Jake Guentzel back from injury and drop Cup-chasing Patrick Marleau, 40, into their middle six.

Play-in series: Carolina (6) vs. N.Y. Rangers (11)

Fun series. Carolina took a big step last year, and added Sami Vatanen, Brady Skjei, and Vincent Trocheck at the deadline. Top-flight defenseman Dougie Hamilton (a Norris candidate before breaking his leg in January) and netminder Petr Mrazek could return. The Rangers should have Chris Kreider, and do have MVP candidate Artemi Panarin. Who’s the goalie? One of their prospects, Igor Shesterkin or Alexandar Georgiev, or warhorse Henrik Lundqvist?

Advertisement



Play-in series: N.Y. Islanders (7) vs. Florida (10)

A 2016 rematch. Do you remember that playoff series? Probably not (if a Panthers fan tells you Trocheck was tripped, nod politely). Florida’s forwards can go, but can’t stop opponents. If Sergei Bobrovsky doesn’t dominate, the Panthers are in trouble. The Islanders’ offense is sluggish, but they can grind out wins.

Play-in series: Toronto (8) vs. Columbus (9)

It’s the Maple Leafs’ firepower vs. a goalie to be named; Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins should be available. Though this could be Auston Matthews’s playoff moment, the juice could be with the Blue Jackets. Three major pieces returning — Seth Jones, Cam Atkinson, and Oliver Bjorkstrand — could help them rough up a Leafs club that struggles to defend and stand up for itself. Better first-round rematch: Boston-Toronto or Tampa Bay-Columbus?

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Round robin: St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas, and Dallas

St. Louis might get Vladimir Tarasenko back, after going 37-17-7 without him. Solid, balanced, tested. The Blues carry the weight of expectation, but the defending champs should go deep … Colorado, which had a slew of short-term injuries at the pause, is healthier, though questions persist in goal. Plenty of team speed in Denver … Vegas loaded up at the deadline, adding netminder Robin Lehner, and won 11 of its final 13. Max Pacioretty (32 goals) finally found his stride. Will the NHL move them from T-Mobile? … Dallas was struggling at the pause, having lost six in a row. The Stars can’t score. Choppy ice and 2-1 games are their path to a top seed.

Play-in series: Calgary (8) vs. Winnipeg (9)

The Flames had a quiet season after finishing third overall last year. Is this core the answer, or are there changes ahead? Winnipeg won’t have its small building rocking, but will lean on its rugged forward group and presumptive Vezina winner Connor Hellebuyck.

Play-in series: Edmonton (5) vs. Chicago (12)

Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews vs. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Other than that, these rosters are lacking.

Play-in series: Vancouver (7) vs. Minnesota (10)

Elias Pettersson and Co. vs. a Wild team that was playing well under Dean Evason. Minnesota might have closed the skill gap if it pried Kirill Kaprizov from the KHL. Canucks have a bunch of candidates who could earn a playoff rep, most importantly netminder Jacob Markstrom.

Play-in series: Nashville (6) vs. Arizona (11)

Time to see how many games UFA-to-be Taylor Hall can add to his playoff résumé (currently: 5). A win would be the Coyotes’ first since 2012, but this series feels drier than the desert.

STRETCH DRIVE

Trainer’s take: Easy does it

Zdeno Chara stretched out during a practice in September.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Woburn trainer Mike Boyle has a message to players returning to the ice, who will stress skating muscles after weeks of dormancy:

“If you try to fast-track this, you’re going to fast-track injuries," he said. "There’s no way to make this happen fast.”

Though the proposed schedule is fluid, NHLers won’t have months to get in shape for the heat of playoff hockey. The average muscle strain, Boyle said, needs two to three weeks to heal.

“It’s natural that your competitive instinct will kick in,” said Boyle, formerly of the Bruins and Boston University, who trains Sabres captain Jack Eichel and other north-of-Boston pros. “This is completely unprecedented. We’ve never shut down for two months. Take your time.”

Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, in his 22nd season, estimated he hasn’t been off skates for this long in his career.

“If you’re a runner and you haven’t been running for two months, I don’t think you’re going to go for a first run and it’s going to be 20K,” he said. “It’s going to be slowly getting into it. Prevention of possible strains or pulls or injuries is a key. We have to manage the workload we’re going to be doing the first few sessions, and slowly adding to those practices.

“I think even being away for two-plus months, at the same time we’ll come back quickly. We’ve done this so long for so many years. It’s second nature to us. I think it will take a few days or maybe weeks, but eventually, everything will be fine.”

RETURN PATH

German league on brittle ice

Chris Bourque was playing in a German hockey league before play was halted due to the coronavirus pandemic.Sebastian Widmann/Bongarts/Getty Images

Uncertain times, too, for Boxford’s Chris Bourque.

The longtime AHL star, and son of Hall of Famer Ray Bourque, was doing well with Red Bull Munich, which led the DEL with 108 points at the time of the shutdown. Bourque had 47 points in 51 games. He is signed for one more year, but some DEL players aren’t sure what to make of their contracts.

The league is troubled financially, reports the German media, and teams want to cut player salaries. Unlike soccer’s Bundesliga, which has a major TV deal, the DEL cannot survive without fans in the stands.

“They’re trying to get it sorted out now,” Bourque said. “We can’t even talk about opening until the government says we can.”

He, wife Kim, and children Kingston (8) and Harlow (5) hustled back from Germany in March, arriving hours before President Trump issued a travel ban from Europe. Bourque doesn’t know when they will go back.

He plans to skate here once rinks open, and return before the kids start school in September.

He last touched the ice March 7.

“If I was in a position the NHL guys are in, I don’t know if I’d be ready for a July start date, late July, or August,” said Bourque. “It’s so hard. If I’m off the ice for a week, and I get back on, I feel like I haven’t been on skates for two months. No one’s going to be comfortable.”

ETC.

Eichel tired of waiting

Despite all his talent, Jack Eichel still hasn't played in an NHL playoff game.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Jack Eichel is five seasons and 354 games into his NHL career. His Sabres haven’t made the playoffs since 2011, when he was a 14-year-old playing for the Boston Junior Bruins.

"I'm fed up with the losing," he told reporters. "It's been a tough couple of months. It's been a tough five years ... I want to win a Stanley Cup every time I start a season. I'd be lying if I said I'm not getting frustrated with where things are going."

It’s hard to see a reason, other than the pandemic, that Buffalo ownership (Kim and Terry Pegula) retained general manager Jason Botterill. “I realize, maybe it’s not popular with the fans, but we have to do the things that we feel are right,” she said. “We have a little bit more information than maybe a fan does.” OK.

Eichel (36-42—78 in 68 games) didn’t get much help. He finished 28 points ahead of Sam Reinhart, Buffalo’s No. 2 scorer. Marcus Johansson (30 points) didn’t pan out, nor has Jimmy Vesey (20). Would-be second-line center Casey Mittelstadt is in the AHL. The biggest disappointment is, by far, Jeff Skinner. The ex-Hurricane’s contract runs seven more years at the $9 million cap hit. Signing after a 40-goal debut in Buffalo, he delivered 14 goals in 59 games. He has a full no-move clause for the entire deal.

Loose pucks

Rocket Richard co-winner David Pastrnak, who turned 24 on Memorial Day, has 180 career goals. In league history, 21 players have more before their 24th birthday, three since 2005 (Steven Stamkos, 223; Alex Ovechkin, 219; Sidney Crosby, 215) … Eichel, 23, is in the second year of an eight-year, $80 million deal. Good news for him: According to TSN, the seven non-playoff teams can begin making trades with each other, if they so choose … Detroit GM Steve Yzerman plans to keep Jeff Blashill as coach. Surprising that Yzerman’s old linemate, Gerard Gallant, isn’t the answer. Wonder if Gallant, expansion coach extraordinaire, has eyes on Seattle … The Red Wings plan to name a captain this offseason. If you’re buying a Dylan Larkin jersey, better order it with a "C" … Mike Milbury joined Twitter (@realmikemilbury). Never thought we’d see the day. His debut tweet was a menacing selfie of him raising a loafer. For all the heat commentator and executive Milbury has taken, wonder how many younger fans know of his days as a player, when he tried to wrest control of the newly formed NHLPA from later-disgraced Alan Eagleson … Bruins president Cam Neely, asked how social distancing is treating him: “Oh, I’ve been practicing that for years.” Sea Bass would be proud.


Matt Porter can be reached at matthew.porter@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyports.