Roundtable: NHL playoff surprises; vulnerable top seeds

Now that we’re done with the Qualifying Round, what aspect (not team) surprised you the most?

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Yes, the ice sometimes seemed like a melted candle/swimming pool, and there was certainly some sloppiness. But overall, the quality of the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers (not: NOT THOSE ROUND-ROBIN GAMES) was fantastic. Maybe credit that nasty first Brady Skjei hit in Game 1 of Rangers – Hurricanes, but it was shockingly easy to watch this as actual playoff hockey, rather than some pale imitation.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: I was most surprised how the round-robin tournament turned out. I thought it was quite unfair to the top seeds and too fair to the bottom seeds. I would have given the top teams heading in (Boston and St. Louis) three points, Tampa Bay and Colorado two points apiece, while Washington and Vegas would have received one point and Philadelphia and Dallas as the fourth seeds, no points heading into the round-robin.

Based on this formula (and if teams tied in points after the round-robin, the higher seed heading in would receive the higher ranking), it would have been Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, Washington and Boston as the top-four seeds in the East (Tampa Bay and Philadelphia switch spots), and Colorado, Vegas, St. Louis and Dallas in the West, rather than Vegas, Colorado, Dallas and St. Louis.

While the home ice advantage and fan support is negated in the bubble, the final change for the home team means a lot, especially in a Game 7.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: I really enjoyed how the NHL leaned into the uniqueness of the situation and tried to have fun. You had the hats on the ice following Connor McDavid‘s hat trick, “attendance” numbers posted on the scoreboard, making sure fans left their couches safely, and thanking their fans:

We would have never expected any of those dad jokes to come from the NHL a year ago. Good to see they’ve embraced the circumstances and let’s hope there’s some more fun down the road.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: I think the aspect that surprised me the most was just how smoothly everything went, and how after the first game with no fans in the stands everything just seemed so … normal. I thought the lack of fan atmosphere would be noticeable in these high stakes games — the crowds are a huge part of the playoffs — but I cannot say that I ever really missed it. Aside from that, I am surprised at how much I liked the play-in portion. The upsets were a huge part of that, as was the fact there was NHL hockey on literally all day long. It is still not something that I want to see in a normal season (16 playoff teams are enough and I do not like the idea of making the regular season less important) but given the circumstances for this season everything worked.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: I thought the television product, despite the empty arenas, was fantastic. The in-arena presentation came across well on TV, the audio experience was better than expected, and I loved the league’s clever, self-deprecating stunts throughout the week. The Qualifiers were a hockey fan’s dream, and nothing about the unique circumstances took away from the at-home experience.

My one wish: that we got more mic’d up content.

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Which top-four seed from either conference do you feel is most vulnerable?

James O’Brien, NHL writer: The Stars. I was tempted to say “the Stars, easily,” but the Hurricanes are a fairly scary opponent for the Bruins. The gap between the Stars (82 standings points) and the teams that finished outside of the top four in the West was tiny; in fact, the Oilers (83) actually had more standings points, but Dallas played two fewer games. The point is that the Stars didn’t stand far above their peers, and those peers include the Flames. While the Stars play the sort of strong defense that can take them far in the playoffs, I picked Calgary to win that series, as they strike a better overall balance of depth, scoring, and may still have the best blueliner in the series in Mark Giordano. (For now, at least.)

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: : The top-four team that is most vulnerable in my opinion is Washington. I have been impressed with the Islanders and think that they will beat Barry Trotz’s former team. I’m not a big fan of Braden Holtby and without Ilya Samsonov to back him up, I think the Capitals will have a tough time with New York.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Let’s get wild. I know the Lightning have a lot to prove after last year’s sweep… but 2020 has been a crazy year and we’ve seen some wild things already. The Blue Jackets may not have the star power compared to Tampa, but they buy into John Tortorella’s system and approach and it shows on the ice. Look how much trouble they gave the Maple Leafs in shutting down their big names. For as much as the Lightning want to get revenge, Columbus has entered this postseason — really, this entire season — without fear and full of confidence.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: The easy answer here for me is Dallas because they did not look great in the Round-Robin phase and I still question if they can score enough goals to make an impact. But they have a great goalie situation and an outstanding defense and that gives them a chance. So I am going to go bold here and say the Boston Bruins are the most vulnerable. Not necessarily because they struggled in the Round-Robin phase, but because they have the toughest Round 1 matchup of any of the top-four teams are are getting an opponent in the Carolina Hurricanes that is absolutely good enough to beat them. They have an exciting young roster and just steamrolled the New York Rangers in the play-in round, and did so without the services of Dougie Hamilton, their best defenseman. Very difficult opening matchup for a team that ran away with the best record in the league during the 2019-20 regular season.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: The Bruins. Partly due to their performance in the three Round Robin games (notably: 1 point combined from Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak), and partly because their First Round opponent, the Hurricanes, steamrolled the Rangers last week. We know Boston can beat Carolina (see: 2019 Eastern Conference Final), but this is a dangerous (and improved) Canes squad that will be eager to avenge last year’s loss. Boston better find its game quickly if it wants to hang around in the 2020 playoffs.

MORE STANLEY CUP COVERAGE:
NHL Power Rankings: Best First Round matchups
Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

Doc Emrick looks back at one-of-a-kind 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

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How did they pull this off?

During most playoff years, we ask this of the players. And, no doubt about it, the Tampa Bay Lightning showed a lot of perseverance fighting through bubble life to win the Stanley Cup. Doing so while Steven Stamkos played three minutes qualifies as “How did they pull this off?” material.

But, in the case of the 2020 Stanley Cup being handed out following the playoffs, this time we’re talking about the NHL, and everyone involved in keeping the playoff bubble from bursting.

It’s still surreal that we got this far.

NBC’s own Doc Emrick narrated the unlikely journey that was the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, which you can watch in the video above.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

This unlikely journey took us from second training camps, play resuming on Aug. 1, and a field of 24 teams narrowing down to the Stanley Cup champion Lightning. As Emrick says, it felt like a dream, but it came true for the NHL, even if it happened amid a nightmarish time.

Time will tell when the 2020-21 season may begin, but either way, it will be tough to forget the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, even if you’re not a Lightning fan.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB wins series 4-2)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Lighting 5, Stars 4 [OT] (recap)
Stars 3, Lightning 2 [2OT] (recap)
Lightning 2, Stars 0 (recap)

More on the Lightning winning the Stanley Cup

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Lightning had big Stanley Cup heroes beyond Conn Smythe winner Hedman

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If you’re like me, you’re prone to debate just about every Conn Smythe winner. That tradition continued with Victor Hedman winning the Conn Smythe as the Lightning won the 2020 Stanley Cup. And, as usual, you have to be a real nitpicker to actually get mad about Hedman winning it.

Because, again, Hedman ended up playing a huge role in the Lightning’s success, as the stupendous Swede has done for most of his already-impressive career.

Victor Hedman topped all Lighting players in ice time during their 2020 Stanley Cup run, and logged 25:01 time on ice (with an assist) in that clinching Game 6. Hedman flirted with a point-per-game (10 goals, 22 points in 25 games), a rare run for any skater, let alone a defenseman.

So you’re really splitting hairs by arguing against Hedman. With that, (powers up hair-slitting machine).

Other Lightning Conn Smythe possibilities after Hedman wins it

Brayden Point

TSN’s Frank Seravalli revealed that the Conn Smythe voting ended up being very close between Hedman and Brayden Point.

That’s like, “Two bad NFL wild-card teams who both probably shouldn’t make the playoffs, but one has to,” close.

Point scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal on the power play in Game 6, yet another example of the small forwards oversized clutchness.

Point finished with a whopping 14 goals and 33 points in 23 playoff games. If his injury(injuries?) carried over from the Islanders series, it was tough to tell.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Interestingly, Point was killer on the power play against the Stars, but otherwise roasted opponents most at even-strength. He generated 26 out of his 33 points when everything was even. In other words, Point often scored points in the toughest situations.

If I were voting, it would have come down to Point and his partner in crime …

Nikita Kucherov

After leading the NHL regular season in scoring during the 2018-19 season, Kucherov topped all point producers during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Kucherov grabbed an assist on that Point Cup-clincher, giving him 34 points in 25 games.

Much like Point, it was fair to wonder how healthy Kucherov was during this run. And it was unhealthy for opponents to wonder how much more damage a full-strength Kucherov might have managed.

(Splitting-hairs machine chimes in: that said, if you’re choosing between Point and Kucherov, Kucherov was more assist-heavy [7 G, 27 A]. He also leaned more on the power play than Point.)

( … Speaking of splitting, maybe Kucherov and Point split some votes?)

Andrei Vasilevskiy

Normally, when a goalie manages a .927 save percentage during a Stanley Cup run, that goalie is the talk of the town. Frankly, Vasilevskiy was on the tips of fewer tongues than Stars goalie Anton Khudobin for most (if not all) of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

Granted, Khudobin presented a more entertaining underdog story.

Vasilevskiy is as close to “established” as a goalie can get in the modern NHL. He’s the rare contemporary first-rounder. Vasilevskiy boasts prototypical size, and carries the $9.5M cap hit that makes you merely expect great things.

Yet, if you followed goalies, you realize such performances are far from foregone conclusions.

Beyond winning a Stanley Cup, Vasilevskiy pulled off one of the only things he hadn’t done during this run in Game 6: he earned a shutout. Otherwise, his run was almost completely spotless. During a postseason when teams leaned on both of their goalies to an unusual degree, Vasilevskiy played every minute for the Lightning. And they never stared into the brink of elimination during this entire run.

Conn Smythe voters couldn’t have been blamed for choosing Point, Kucherov, or Vasilevskiy, but Hedman was a fantastic choice, too. This rich list of potential winners underscores the Lightning’s daunting power, and is a quick reference as to how they won the Stanley Cup despite Steven Stamkos being limited to about three minutes of playing time.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB wins series 4-2)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Lighting 5, Stars 4 [OT] (recap)
Stars 3, Lightning 2 [2OT] (recap)
Lightning 2, Stars 0 (recap)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Stamkos joins Lightning for Stanley Cup celebration

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After controlling Game 6 against the Dallas Stars, the Tampa Bay Lightning won their second Stanley Cup in franchise history. Beyond repeat Stanley Cup champion Patrick Maroon, winning the Stanley Cup was a first for every Lightning player. Considering the road the Lightning traveled to this Stanley Cup victory, should it be surprising that they decided to mix up the celebration, and create a great moment with Steven Stamkos in the process?

As Gary Bettman noted, the Lightning chose to take that group Stanley Cup celebration photo before the trophy was raised.

In an emotional moment, Lightning captain Stamkos ended up on the ice, becoming the first Lightning player to raise the Stanley Cup, prompting a jubilant celebration from teammates. It all makes that lone goal from Game 3 even sweeter for Stamkos.

Great stuff.

Following Stamkos, Conn Smythe Trophy winner Victor Hedman got his chance to raise the Stanley Cup. Some veterans took their laps, while eventually Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and others celebrated with the Stanley Cup.

Along with the players, Jon Cooper and GM Julien BriseBois received a chance to bask in the glory. Both played big roles in the Lightning getting this far (as did former GM Steve Yzerman, now with the Red Wings).

Watch highlights of the Lightning’s 2-0 win against the Stars in Game 6 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final in the video below:

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB wins series 4-2)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Lighting 5, Stars 4 [OT] (recap)
Stars 3, Lightning 2 [2OT] (recap)
Lightning 2, Stars 0 (recap)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL successfully completes bubble Stanley Cup Playoffs

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It began 63 days ago and ended Monday night with a new NHL Stanley Cup champion.

When NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the league’s Return to Play plan in May, there was lots of skepticism that we would see a conclusion to the 2019-20 season. The plan was to start August 1 and finish the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs in late September with bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton. It was a big challenge, but worth the effort.

“I don’t want to sound Pollyanna, but canceling is too easy a solution,” Bettman said in May.

When puck dropped on the Penguins-Flyers exhibition game July 28 from Scotiabank Arena, it was different. No crowd, piped in atmosphere, and plenty of uncertainty about how the following two months would go. But round after round confidence grew that this postseason would be completed without issue. Week after week the NHL announced their latest round of COVID-19 test results, and in total, 33,174 tests were given with not one returning positive.

Yet, Bettman held off on celebrating until it was his time to award the Cup to the winning team’s captain. He was able to do just that, posing for the annual photo at center ice inside Rogers Place — this year with Steven Stamkos of the Lightning. 

“To be in this place, at this time under these circumstances is remarkable and frankly, overwhelming,” Bettman said before awarding Victor Hedman with the Conn Smythe Trophy and presenting the Cup. “It’s a testament to everybody that participated in our Return to Play and it’s a testament to a great Stanley Cup Final from the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars.”

[Lightning needed to ‘feel failure’ before earning Cup success]

The on-ice celebration, like everything else in life since March, was different. There was no raucous crowd celebrating with the players; no media on the ice grabbing postgame soundbites. It was like it had been for the last two months: the Lightning, altogether, taking part in a post-Cup tradition under unique circumstances.

What hadn’t changed were the emotions of winning. This postseason was a grind on everyone involved. The Stars and Lightning have been away from their families and inside bubbles since July. Hotel rooms became their home away from home. Video games, FaceTime calls, and the occasional time outside were highlights of off days. The road to the Cup Final was different, but when the players gave their thumbs up to the Return to Play plan they knew it wouldn’t be easy.

“I missed an anniversary, birthday, another one’s coming up, first day of school, hockey tournaments, my daughter making the swimming team, my other daughter going to her first dance class,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper last week. “Where do you want the list to go?”

“There won’t be one thing about bubble life I’m going to miss,” said Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness.

It’s over now. Six and a half months after the league and world paused, we finally have a 2019-20 NHL champion. The Lightning and Stars won’t ever forget this experience.

“It takes a lot to be in a bubble for 80 days or whatever long it was,” said Hedman afterward. “But it’s all worth it now. We’re coming home with the Cup.”

MORE:
Bubble won’t be back for full 2020-21 NHL season
Doc Emrick looks back at one-of-a-kind 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.