It’s time for some bubble hockey. No, not that bubble hockey. We’re talking about this great, big experiment the NHL has finally begun after months of discussing how to best finish the season.
We've ranked each play-in series, looked at the x-factor that will prove invaluable for every team, heard what life is like for refs inside the bubbles, and even checked in on some of the league's most valuable playoff players: the Superpest.
And now with the marathon that is the Stanley Cup playoffs beginning Saturday as the qualifying rounds get underway, we take a stab at making some picks and predictions as to how this will all turn out.
What new element are you most looking forward to as the NHL embarks on this bubble experiment?
Dan Falkenheim: The NHL is lauded for its intense, unpredictable brand of postseason play. Add in even more chaos with a best-of-five play-in series? No complaints here. The play-in series will be the best part of this two-month experiment and will provide more than enough enjoyment for however long this lasts. The usual playoff format has been decried for generating repetitive matchups. This will draw criticism too, just wait for the reaction when a higher seed gets bounced. But it’s new, different and fun. Let mayhem reign.
Alex Prewitt: Give me content. Content, content, more content. More behind-the-scenes footage from the restaurants, coffee shops, bars, movie theaters and Ping Pong tables that populate the Edmonton and Toronto hubs. More mysterious tweets that can only be explained by either a stolen phone or a lost bet. The NBA Bubble Life account on Twitter already boasts more than 126,000 followers hooked on Boban hooking fish. Meanwhile, the NHL has refused to allow independent media to attend practices, interview players in person, or otherwise live inside the secure zones. It’d be nice to get an original, unfiltered look at the experience from somewhere.
Kristen Nelson: I'm curious to see how a crowdless arena affects the game. So far with the exhibition games, the experience at home has relatively been the same with how the games look and sound on TV (and we should be getting some cool new angles on the national broadcasts). Home-ice advantage doesn't always mean much in this sport, but without a real crowd trying to sway the game, will refs react differently? Last year’s Sharks-Golden Knights Game 7 comes to mind. (And without fans to boo Gary Bettman when he presents the Cup, does it really count?)
Matt Rahemba: I’m curious to see how players react to competing in a bubble and how much intensity we’ll be seeing after the long layoff. The Stanley Cup playoffs are known for insanely fast pace and unpredictable outcomes that keep fans on the edge of their seats. We’re used to hearing the roar of the crowd after a game-changing goal or even after a big save. Say what you want, but the fans going absolutely crazy during the playoffs make these games so much better.
Will players have that same drive we’re used to seeing in the playoffs? How long will it take for these guys to get back in the swing of things? What will happen when players/coaches ultimately test positive? There’s a lot of question marks, but all that we can hope for is that the bubble to be proves effective and we safely make it through.
Glen Stricker: I’m looking forward to seeing the social media content from the players when they’re off the ice. Much like how we have an inside look from NBA players inside their bubble—in a sport like hockey that is desperate to showcase their players’ personalities, this could be a key aspect for the league as the casual fan can see how guys act off the ice in an unprecedented way.
Another key thing to look forward to is how well the NHL bubble protects players from COVID-19. As of today, no NHL or NBA players have tested positive inside their respective bubbles, whereas MLB is dealing with the Marlins coronavirus outbreak after just one weekend of league play. If the bubbles continue to produce zero positive results, it will certainly be the blueprint for major league sports going forward during the pandemic.
Will the bubble pop?
Falkenheim: I want to be optimistic and say no. Unlike the U.S., Canada has flattened the curve and currently has a seven-day average of 496 new cases per day. At least 25 states have a higher average than that. For somewhat comparable analogues, the Premier League, La Liga and Bundesliga all returned in Europe and managed to complete their seasons.
The NHL announced zero positive coronavirus test results, which is a good start heading into the playoffs. But there are opportunities for the bubble to pop. The NHL’s chief medical officer Dr. Willem Meeuwisse said, “We expect with the number of people that we’re going to have some positive tests.” The secure zone is designed to limit the possibility of infection, but on-ice contact, locker rooms, player lounges and restaurants can all become areas where the virus spreads if it does make its way in. Do I think the bubble will pop? I hope not. Could it? Yes.
Prewitt: I better say no, lest I risk being informed by some dillweed on Twitter that I’m somehow rooting for the virus to win. My actual answer depends on how “pop” is defined. One positive test? That seems possible enough, although the NHL has been steadfast in its expectation that such a situation wouldn’t shut the whole thing down. A team-wide outbreak, on the other hand, such as what the Miami Marlins are currently experiencing, would require a much larger breach of protocol. Zero positives in the last round of testing was an encouraging start. It’d be foolish to predict anything close to smooth sailing while the calendar still reads 2020, but the NHL seems to have gotten off to a good start.
Nelson: Well, at least they’re in a bubble. And being in a country that seems to have a better grasp on handling a pandemic doesn’t hurt either. The NHL has seemingly taken all the right steps to make this as successful as possible, but that doesn’t necessarily matter to the virus if it manages to sneak in. The bubble can (and hopefully will) work, but I won’t be convinced until the Cup is raised.
Rahemba: The bubble will not pop. Am I cautiously optimistic about this? Of course. However, I have to read into what the league is doing in regards to the bubble and that their plan to limit positive tests will end up being the right thing to do.
Stricker: I don’t think so, but with that being said, positive tests are bound to happen. The question is how badly will the outbreaks be when a player inevitably tests positive. Unlike the NBA, where players and coaches are kept at a distance in locker rooms and on their benches during games, hockey, unfortunately, doesn’t have that luxury. Players are shoulder to shoulder with one another on the bench, with coaches and trainers standing directly behind them (wearing masks). So if a player does have COVID but hasn’t officially tested positive yet, it will be much easier for the virus to spread during games.
Which play-in series will be the most interesting?
Falkenheim: Looking for early chaos in the play-in round? The Hurricanes and Rangers will provide that. From a pure stylistic standpoint, Carolina has built its team around high-possession hockey and throwing tons of shots on net. New York will oblige, as its defense allowed the league's most shot attempts per 60 minutes (61.56).
A few players to watch: The Rangers dynamic duo of Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad is matched by the Hurricanes’ Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov. Carolina deadline acquisition Brady Skjei lines up against his former team. Kaapo Kakko enters rested after previously playing a grueling international schedule. And…the Rangers might not start Henrik Lundqvist? Even if Dougie Hamilton doesn’t return, this series has more than enough going for it.
Prewitt: Calgary-Winnipeg. Not because it’s the only all-Canadian matchup on the docket. Not because it’ll feature two top-heavy forward corps, between the Mark Scheifele–led Jets and the Johnny Gaudreau Rodeo. Not because Matthew Tkachuk will have five games to gnaw at Patrik Laine’s turtleneck. But because each fan base could reasonably be forgiven for wishing that its team would lose the series and bow out of the bubble altogether, thereby gaining better odds to earn the No. 1 overall pick in this bonkers lottery. The regular season might be officially over, but Laissez-Faire Pour Lafrenière should live on.
Nelson: I’m waiting for madness to ensue from Blackhawks-Oilers. There’s plenty of star power to be excited about with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl going up against Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, but I want to see if the Blackhawks can be agents of chaos here. Chicago barely skated into this extended playoff format and could either be an easy warmup series for Edmonton, or tap into that deep playoff experience and incite some early mayhem in the West. But if the Oilers do win, it’ll be a treat to watch McDavid in some more high-stakes games.
Rahemba: Rangers-Hurricanes. At the time of the season hiatus, the Rangers were playing like a team on a mission. Led by Panarin and Zibanejad, New York appeared to have the building blocks of a team that could sneak into the playoffs. A few roadblocks came around the time things were starting to click as the team was heading into March. Goaltender Igor Shesterkin was involved in a car crash and had to miss six games along with Chris Kreider, who suffered a fractured foot against the Flyers around the same time. With the time off, the Rangers are coming into this series healthy and I’d expect them to fire on all cylinders offensively.
For Carolina, will Hamilton be good to go or will the team have to play without its top defenseman? Hamilton was arguably playing the best hockey of his career before suffering a broken left fibula in January, scoring 14 goals and 26 assists in 47 games. Without him, the Hurricanes will have a tough task defensively against a Rangers offense that ranked fifth in goals per game (3.33) prior to the hiatus.
Stricker: The play-in series that I will be zoned in on the most will be the Penguins-Canadiens. Pittsburgh certainly received the raw end of the play-in format as they were the seventh best team in the NHL when play stopped in March, compared to Montreal who ranked 24th out of the 31 teams. In theory, a top 10 team shouldn’t have to play a best-of-5 series to prove that they belong in the playoffs. In hockey, a goaltender is arguably the team’s best player, especially in the playoffs, and Carey Price could easily be the reason the Penguins end up going home early after a stellar regular season.
If we make it to the end, who's winning the Cup?
Falkenheim: The Avalanche, on the back of future Conn Smythe winner Nathan MacKinnon. Even though Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen both missed time throughout the season, the Avs maintained the Western Conference’s top goal differential (+46). All three will be healthy and united, forming the most dominant line out West. If Nazem Kadri can provide an offensive punch on the second line and one of Philipp Grubauer or Pavel Francouz takes hold of the starting job, then the Avs don’t have many holes. We haven’t seen how good Colorado can be at full strength just yet.
Prewitt: Boston and its unstoppable Perfection Line? The long overdue Tampa Bay Lightning, featuring perhaps the league’s deepest defensive corps? This year has been wild enough, so what about Connor McDavid and Edmonton breaking the Canadian championship drought to cap it all off? Whatever. It’ll be a victory if no one gets sick.
Nelson: In 2020, it feels like anything is possible and virtually every option should be considered (including that after all this we still don’t have a champion). With that in mind, give me the Canucks! This is an exciting team that many thought would need another development year before even seeing the playoffs, but a balanced roster (plus some great goaltending from Jacob Markstrom before his injury) had things clicking. There’s bound to be chaos elsewhere in the bubble that Vancouver can benefit from and a few key vets can guide the young stars to success. Plus, something tells me that it’s going to be a youthful squad that thrives most in this summer camp atmosphere.
Rahemba: Boston will take home the Stanley Cup. The Bruins’ top line—Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak—is one of the most dangerous in the league, combining to score 47% of the team’s goals. On top of that, the power play and penalty kill are among the best in the NHL, converting 25.2% of their power plays (second) and a penalty kill percentage of 84.3% (third). With the man-advantage being so crucial in the playoffs, I expect this to be a difference maker for Boston.
Stricker: If we get to a team hoisting the Cup, I think it’s coming out of the Eastern Conference. Its top four teams are stacked and all have had lengthy playoff runs in the past few years, (Tampa Bay, Boston, Washington) outside of the Philadelphia Flyers. With that being said, the hottest team in the NHL prior to the stoppage was in fact the inexperienced Flyers. They won nine of their last 10 games and went a stellar 19-6-1 from Jan. 8 until the stoppage.
They also boast a roster that is deep on both sides of the puck. The addition of former Cup-winning defenseman Matt Niskanen has provided stability and poise to a young, talented group on the back end. However, if the Flyers are to end their 44-year cup drought, it will be because of their 21-year-old goaltender Carter Hart. Philadelphia seems to finally have an answer in net after decades of mishandling the position. Hart has won 70 games in his first two seasons and will get some much needed playoff experience. Whether he sinks or swims will determine whether or not the Flyers make it 45 straight seasons without hoisting Lord Stanley’s cup.