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:
— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) August 9, 2020
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.
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.