The NHL paused its season amid coronavirus concerns and, even though the league is optimistic that it can restart, there’s no definitive return date in sight. When, and if, hockey returns, we could witness one of the most abnormal conclusions to the season in league history. Veterans rested. Injured stars recovered. An expanded playoff format. And … the Stanley Cup on ice in the middle of summer? It’s all possible.
What will happen when the NHL retakes the ice? Here are a few scenarios (some more realistic than others) for how the rest of the season could play out:
The Penguins March to the Stanley Cup
It seems like a long time ago, but winger Jake Guentzel underwent right shoulder surgery on Dec. 31 with an expected recovery period of four-to-six months. That could fall within the NHL’s potential postseason return and Pittsburgh would reap the benefit of the break and place its premier goal scorer back into the lineup. During Guentzel’s absence, the hamstrung Penguins fell victim to declining goaltending and ceded ground to the Flyers.
For the first time since the beginning of the season, Pittsburgh would be fully healthy. That not only includes Guentzel, but also fellow forwards Nick Bjugstad and Zach Aston-Reese along with defensemen John Marino and Brian Dumoulin. Jason Zucker could slide to Evgeni Malkin’s left or Guentzel could man Crosby’s right—either way, the Penguins begin to look like a team with depth on par with the Lightning and Bruins.
The Kings Keep Winning … and It Won’t Matter
For the NHL’s highlight-reel worthy play of the pause, winger Alex Iafallo airdropped toilet paper via drone to teammate Jeff Carter’s Hermosa Beach rooftop. Before California’s shelter-in-place order took effect, though, Iafallo was busy dishing out nine assists in his last 13 games as the Kings trounced playoff contenders through a 10-2-1 stretch. With wins against the Penguins, Golden Knights, Leafs and Avalanche, L.A. won seven in a row for just the second time since 2015.
If the league returns with a truncated regular season, Calvin Petersen, who has a 4-0-0 record, .947 save percentage and 1.76 goals against average in his last four starts, gets the chance to ride out his short-term heater. Prospects Gabe Vilardi and Alex Turcotte take the ice with veterans Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty in tow. The Kings keep throwing shots on net at one of the highest rates in the league, remain fun and … keep winning. But it won’t matter: The Blackhawks hold an eight-point lead on 12th place in the West and the playoffs are out of reach for L.A. even in an expanded format.
Carey Price Leads Montreal Through a Spoiler-Filled Postseason Run
If the league’s 24-team playoff format materializes, then at least one team that had no business touching the postseason will not only make it in, but also wreak havoc in a potential once-and-only-once expanded postseason format. Enter the Canadiens. Their sub-.500 record might suggest mediocrity, but Montreal ranks first in corsi-for percentage (54.64%), third in scoring chances against (24.26) and sixth in expected goals allowed per 60 minutes (2.27) at even strength.
Balance up front. Shea Weber heading the blue line, Jonathan Drouin fully recovered and a Vezina-quality goaltender in net. What if the Canadiens, undone by pedestrian netminding and a penchant for squandering third period leads, put bad luck behind them and returned with a vintage Carey Price? One of the two most talented goaltenders of his generation, Price is a few seasons removed from his prime but has the ability to spearhead a revitalized Montreal squad through the playoffs. That’s a team with potential to cause chaos and knock off contenders.
The Oilers and Hurricanes Face Off in a 2006 Finals Rematch
Time is slowly becoming an illusion, so let’s drift back to shortly after the NHL returned after a season-long lockout. New rules eliminated predictability. The Oilers squeaked in as an eighth seed then took care of the Red Wings, Sharks and Mighty Ducks—only losing five games—en route to its first Stanley Cup appearance since the dynasty years. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes finished second in the East behind 21-year-old Eric Staal’s 100-point season and a 24-year-old Justin Williams’s first 30-goal season, with Rod Brind’Amour’s veteran leadership trailing not too far behind.
The factors might not be the same, but there are less probable matchups to dream up (see above). Edmonton would return with Connor McDavid, the world’s most talented player, and Leon Draisaitl, the league’s most valuable player, and a high-octane power play. The break could afford time for Dougie Hamilton and Sami Vatanen to recuperate, restaking Carolina’s claim of having the best blue line in the league. While goaltending remains each team’s biggest postseason obstacle, witnessing the Oilers’ pair of superstars squaring off against the Hurricanes’ Bunch of Jerks isn’t a half-bad consolation prize for a paused season.
The Bruins Clean Up the Competition in Ho-hum Fashion
With Mookie Betts out West and Tom Brady packing up for Tampa, where could Boston fans possibly find their championship fix? The answer, of course, is the Bruins. Fortunately, Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak aren’t going anywhere. Neither is Tuukka Rask, who was vying for the Vezina before the league’s hiatus, nor the team’s top-five defense.
More so than maybe any other team in the league, Boston has a team that’s capable of playing title-winning hockey in any situation. The Bruins are the only team with 100 points, own the league’s best goal differential (+53) and have allowed the fewest goals at even-strength over the last two seasons. Exhilarating? Maybe not. Inevitable? Potentially. Unlike other teams coming back from an extended break, all the Bruins would need to do is replicate the hockey they have always played under Bruce Cassidy.
The Flyers Cool Off
Prior to the league’s hiatus, the Flyers emerged from a season-long stretch of inconsistency and turned into the preeminent postseason dark horse candidate and the certified “team nobody wants to face” come April. Claude Giroux started to look like a superstar again, linemate Sean Couturier was on his way to his first Selke trophy, and Philadelphia nearly pushed aside the Capitals for the Metropolitan Division lead following a 9-1-0 run. Philly was out-scoring its opponents by two goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. MoneyPuck even has the Flyers as the team with the best odds to win the Stanley Cup.
But, will a 10-game winning spree translate to on-ice success after a months-long break? Before February, the Flyers had as many streaks of at least four losses (3) as four wins and hadn’t managed steady success. Philadelphia’s power play, a top-five unit in its last 10 games, hadn’t been more than average in the first half of the season. With Carter Hart trending up since the New Year, the Flyers aren’t impostors but this year could be a big “what if?” if the team goes south upon return.