This post aims to round up some of the perspectives from players who have gotten the chance to get back a bit, though. Please note that this isn’t a comprehensive list of every team back in action for Phase 2 of the NHL’s return-to-play plan.
One curious question is: how long does it take to shake off the rust. Considering that the NHL is still trying to hash out details for training camps (aka Phase 3), the answer appears subjective.
“If I’m off the ice for two days, it feels like I’ve never skated in my life before, so three months was a little bit nerve-wracking …” Oilers defenseman Matt Benning said.
Benning noted that it takes different players different amounts of time to get used to edgework and other skating factors. But it sounds like Benning specifically sits in the “more the merrier” camp. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
If you need a moment of zen, enjoy this footage of the Oilers beginning Phase 2:
Tavares doing Tavares things early in NHL Phase 2
Toronto Maple Leafs center John Tavares is known for being something of a thinking man’s hockey star. Sometimes that drive can manifest itself in ways that are … honestly, kind of nerdy.
“There’s a pretty big-time crunch on being in the arena; you only have about 45 minutes to an hour to complete your workout and you’ve got about 40 minutes on the ice,” Tavares said. “The windows are fairly small, but the actual work we’re able to get in is going to go a long way in helping us prepare and get ready. The intensity is there.”
There’s also no substitute for family. Bailey acknowledged that the “hub city” system will take some getting used to. At least he’d have his Islanders teammates, though.
“It’ll definitely be different,” Bailey said, via Cory Wright of the Islanders’ website. “No matter how it all comes together, when, how, if, whatever the case may be. It won’t be what we are accustomed to. But when you’re with the team it kind of gives you that feeling of normalcy.”
Plenty still needs to be settled before NHL goes from Phase 2 to Phase 3
Overall, the Phase 2 return to ice seems more like a trickle than a stampede.
For every instance such as Marc-Andre Fleury getting geared up with the Golden Knights, there are players who want to avoid taking risks, or teams facing restrictions.
With the NHL’s Return to Play announcement on Tuesday, we learned the eight Qualifying Round matchups if play is to resume in a few months. We also learned that the top four teams in each conference will play to determine seeding for the First Round.
For the Eastern Conference, the winners of each Qualifying Round will go on to face one of Boston, Tampa, Washington, or Philadelphia.
Now that we know the teams, let’s take an overview of the four Eastern Conference matchups.
At the time of the March 12 pause the Penguins were sitting in a playoff spot, four points behind the Capitals for the Metropolitan Division lead. The Canadiens, on the other hand, would be enjoying their off-season if we had the traditional 16-team playoff format.
How rough of a regular season was it for the Habs? Out of their 71 games played, they only won 19 in regulation. They were one of the league’s top possession teams (54% Fenwick, per Natural Stat Trick) but it was their own end of the ice where the issues popped up. Montreal was middle of the pack at 5-on-5 goals against (142) and shots against (1,710), save percentage (.917), and were bottom-10 in shooting percentage (7.49%).
The Canadiens experienced two eight-game losing streaks, a five-game skid, and went into the break losing 10 of their last 14 games. Pittsburgh also would be coming off a big-time slide having lost eight of their last 11 games. A several-month pause could certainly help break such a skid.
It was also a season of injury for the Penguins. Pittsburgh is currently third with 298 man-games lost to injury or illness, per ManGamesLost.com. Only seven players have played at least 60 games. But, in line with their season, one of those players, Dominik Simon, injured his shoulder in February and will be out at least six months following surgery.
Penguins lead season series 2-1-0. Last meeting: Feb., 14; a 4-1 Penguins victory.
Injured players who could return
Jake Guentzel suffered a shoulder injury in late December and was ruled out for 4-6 months. Should play resume in late July/early August that could be enough time to mend for the Penguins forward. Zach Aston-Reese, Brian Dumoulin, and Nick Bjugstad were all injured players who returned just before the pause. Unfortunately for Bjugstad, GM Jim Rutherford said on Wednesday the forward underwent an undisclosed surgery this week and will be out the rest of the season.
This will be a series featuring a team that dealt with major injuries seemingly every week, yet remained in contention for the division lead against one that has dealt with consistency issues. It’s a short series, so we know a hot goalie can steal games, which brings us to…
Carey Price, who became the focal point of a storyline about the Penguins fearing him in a short series, hasn’t been his usual dangerous self. He’s 32nd in even strength save percentage this season among goalies with 1,000 minutes played (.919) and 32nd in goals saved above average (.27). Why would Mike Sullivan’s team be scared of that?
(6) Hurricanes vs. (11) Rangers
Regular season recap
It was a tight race at the bottom of the Metro as well as for one of the East’s two wild card places. The Hurricanes played 68 games and earned 81 points, putting them in the top wild card spot with two games in-hand on the Rangers, who were two points behind Carolina.
New York is in the middle of a franchise transition rather than the tear-it-down approach to rebuilding. They’ve brought in youth to mix in with prime-age veterans and it resulted in a good step forward. There are plenty of decisions to be made in the off-season, but GM Jeff Gorton’s moves have set the team up well. Artemi Panarin is a Hart Trophy candidate, Mika Zibanejad scored a career high 41 goals, as did pending restricted free agent defenseman Tony DeAngelo (15 goals, 53 points). Chris Kreider, who was nearly dealt at the trade deadline before signing a seven-year extension, hit 20 goals for the fifth time in the last six seasons. Rookie Adam Fox, whose signing rights were traded from Carolina to the Rangers last summer, played his way into the Calder Trophy discussion with 42 points.
The Hurricanes were one of two NHL teams to vote against the Return to Play proposal. Player rep Jordan Martinook said the reason was because they felt it was unfair for a team already in a playoff spot to have an extra round to participate in. Carolina headed into the break with a three-game winning streak and were feeling confident about their final 14 games.
Whatever goaltender the Rangers play will be busy. The Hurricanes fired 300 more even strength shots on goal than New York. They’ll also be tasked with facing a tough offense with Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov leading the way. Carolina likes to dominate possession, but like Montreal, their own zone tends to be where the issues develop. Their goaltender has been sub-par, leading to a .912 5-on-5 save percentage despite 1,549 shots allowed at even strength, fewest in the NHL.
Rangers lead series 0-4-0. Last meeting: Feb., 21; a 5-2 Rangers victory.
Chris Kreider fractured his foot on Feb. 28, but he should have enough healing and rehab time for a return to the lineup.
He wasn’t injured, but the Rangers will likely be without Brendan Lemieux for some portion of the series. The forward was suspended after the NHL pause for an undetermined amount of time. There will be clarity on that before games resume.
Storylines to watch
Is this the Adam Fox Bowl? Maybe the Brady Skjei Series? Whatever angle you go with, this is a divisional matchup with two teams believing in their bright futures. Part of the next generation for New York is goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who returned from injuries sustained in a car accident just before the pause. Will head coach David Quinn go with him in goal ahead of Alexandar Georgiev or Henrik Lundqvist, who has made one start since Feb. 3?
Neither team entered the break in a traditional playoff position, but they weren’t far off the pace. The Islanders were one point back of Columbus for the second wild card spot, while Florida sat three points behind the Blue Jackets.
Under new head coach Joel Quenneville, Florida remained on the playoff bubble, but one wonders how much further up the standings they would be if Sergei Bobrovsky, who signed a seven-year, $70 million deal in the summer, played better than his .900 even strength save percentage. Could he steal a short series? Sure, but his .904 career playoff save percentage doesn’t instill much confidence.
If we’re still counting losing streaks, the Islanders would enter a resumption in play on a seven-game losing skid. That slide goes back to mid-February as they won just twice in their last 13 games and have six total victories since Jan. 11. They lost a comfortable playoff position and found themselves fighting for a wild card place in a competitive Metro.
That 17-game point streak earlier in the season seems forever ago.
Veteran Andy Greene was added to help a defense that hasn’t been what you’d expect from a Barry Trotz team in 2019-20. Only Ottawa has allowed more even strength shots on goal and the Islanders have allowed the fifth-most high-danger scoring chances. That’s a big change from the team that swept the Penguins out of Round 1 a year ago.
The Panthers own the possession advantage here (50% Fenwick to 47%, per Natural Stat Trick) and have converted more 5-on-5 chances with an edge in shooting percentage at 9%. A huge factor will be in net with Bobrovsky against Semyon Varlamov. The Islanders netminder has a .921 ESSV% vs. a .903 for Bob. If New York, who has scored the third-fewest 5-on-5 goals among the Return to Play teams, can get their offense going, it could spell trouble for Florida.
(8) Maple Leafs vs. (9) Blue Jackets
Regular season recap
The Maple Leafs offense is potent, as we saw through 70 games. Auston Matthews put home 47 goals, followed by William Nylander‘s 31 and John Tavares‘ 26. Their top two lines are dangerous, but their goaltending will be among their biggest questions.
Frederik Andersen‘s .915 ESSV% puts him near the bottom among goaltenders with at least 1,000 minutes played. He had to play a lot of hockey given Toronto’s backup issues. Maybe the extra time off will allow him to get his game back? Consider his likely counterpart, Elvis Merzlikis, who posted a .931 in 32 games played. Or if John Tortorella could go with Joonas Korpisalo, who put up a .926 in 37 games.
Columbus was among the lowest scoring teams at 5-on-5, with 125 goals compared to that of Toronto’s 158. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, though, as the Blue Jackets were right behind the Maple Leafs with 1,837 EV shots. Converting was the issue, as seen by their 6.8 shooting percentage. Even if Andersen isn’t on his game, Toronto can overcome that with a smothering offense.
The pause could allow the Blue Jackets to get healthy as their 352 man-games lost to injury led the NHL. Already dealing with the loss of Panarin and Bobrovsky in free agency, Columbus didn’t lose faith in their ability and persisted, even as players were being added to the injury list on a regular basis.
Maple Leafs have a regulation victory. Blue Jackets have an overtime win. Last meeting: Oct. 21; a 4-3 Columbus OT win.
On one hand you have a Blue Jackets team that was battered all season long, fighting for a playoff spot despite losing their two biggest stars in the summer. They surprised many and really played with a chip on their shoulders all season long.
On the other hand, there’s a chance that if Toronto win they could face the Bruins for the third-straight season — and we all know how much Maple Leafs fans love seeing Boston in the playoffs.
Again, the list of injuries is starting to climb, especially if you consider the season at large (with Mitch Marner and John Tavares missing substantial time).
Combine Muzzin and Mikheyev with the losses of wingers Trevor Moore (out indefinitely with a concussion) and Andreas Johnsson (leg, on IR) and things escalate. About the only “perk” is that all of those injuries alleviate short-term salary cap concerns.
Deflecting to that really feels like gallows humor, though.
Next Man Up, injury bug hits the Leafs hard, man games lost now pushing into the 80’s , a mark the club didn’t hit until late last March. Adam Brooks will be the 6th Leaf to make his NHL debut this season. Marty Marincin slots in for Jake Muzzin. #LeafsForever
Maple Leafs might need to keep outscoring their problems
OK, maybe there’s one other indirect perk: still-new head coach Sheldon Keefe gets even more incentive just to let this group loose. However you feel about Muzzin’s effectiveness since joining the Maple Leafs, he’s not really there for elite scoring ability. Theoretically, his replacements may bring more to the table and take more away. Personally, I’d be more than OK with additional games like that 8-6 thrillride against the Hurricanes, but others, are … well,grumpier. Some agree with my high-entertainment preference, though.
May this team never try to defend again. Just stop the charade. We will never be good at it. Ever. Cheat on the wrong side of the puck. Circle at centre until your chance comes. Fly my children. Be your irresponsible selves and feel no shame.
1. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins. There is no stopping Bergeron right now. He scored two more goals for the Bruins in their 3-0 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night, giving him three consecutive two goal games. He also has nine goals in his past nine games. With 17 goals in 30 games, he is having one of the best goal-scoring seasons of his already incredible career. He is the just the fifth different Bruins player to ever score multiple goals in at least three consecutive games, and the first to do it since Cam Neely during the 1988-89 season.
2. Mika Zibanejad, New York Rangers. With two goals and an assist in a 6-4 win, Zibanejad continued his outstanding season for the Rangers. He is averaging more than a point-per-game and has once again been one of the bright spots for the Rangers. His first goal came on an absolutely ridiculous no-look, behind-the-back pass from Chris Kreider that you can see in the highlights down below. The Rangers still have their flaws and do not always win pretty, but with Artemi Panarin (who also recorded three points on Friday night) they have some serious impact talent than can keep them in games and give them a chance on most nights.
3. David Perron, St. Louis Blues. With Vladimir Tarasenko sidelined the Blues needed some other forwards to help step up and provide the offense. Perron has been one of those players. He scored another overtime goal on Friday (already his fourth this season) to help lift the Blues to a 4-3 win against the Winnipeg Jets and extend their current winning streak to seven games. Perron has 24 points in his past 22 games.
Andrew Mangiapane scored 11 seconds into the game and finished with three points as the Calgary Flames won the first Battle of Alberta for this season, 5-1, over the Edmonton Oilers.
The Anaheim Ducks scored three goals in 97 seconds then held on to beat the Vegas Golden Knights by a 4-3 margin.
The Los Angeles Kings overcame a 2-0 third period deficit to beat the San Jose Sharks, 3-2, in overtime. Martin Frk scored his first two goals of the season to tie the game, setting the stage for Jeff Carter to win it in overtime.
Highlights of the Night
Check out this behind-the-back pass by Kreider to set up Zibanejad for the Rangers’ first goal of the night.
Alex Ovechkin‘s assist on T.J. Oshie’s game-winning goal was his 36th career regular season point in overtime. Only Patrik Elias has more. He also made the decision tonight to not play in the 2020 NHL All-Star game. Read about his reasoning here. [NHL PR]
Cale Makar played his 30th career regular season game for the Avalanche and joined some exclusive company in the process. [NHL PR]
Jeff Carter scored the game-winning goal for the Kings, giving him 11 career overtime goals. No player in Kings history has more. [NHL PR]
Boston Bruins 3, Buffalo Sabres 0
Toronto Maple Leafs 5, New Jersey Devils 4 (OT)
New York Rangers 5, Carolina Hurricanes 3
Washington Capitals 2, Columbus Blue Jackets 1
Minnesota Wild 6, Colorado Avalanche 4
Pittsburgh Penguins 5, Nashville Predators 2
St. Louis Blues 5, Winnipeg Jets 4
Chicago Blackhawks 5, New York Islanders 2
Calgary Flames 5, Edmonton Oilers 1
Anaheim Ducks 4, Vegas Golden Knights 3
Los Angeles Kings 3, San Jose Sharks 2 (OT)
The Toronto Maple Leafs won again on Friday night, picking up a 5-4 overtime victory in New Jersey to extend their winning streak to six games and improve their overall record to 12-4-0 under new coach Sheldon Keefe.
They have Devils defenseman Damon Severson to thank for the extra point in overtime.
It was there that Severson had the misfortune of accidentally scoring on his own net.
It all happened after he collected a loose puck between the circles and attempted to chip the puck behind the net. None of it went as planned as his chip ended up going on net and beating a stunned Mackenzie Blackwood.
Have a look.
William Nylander, the last Maple Leafs player to touch the puck, gets credit for the winning goal. It is already his 15th goal of the season, putting him on pace for 31 goals this season. He scored just seven goals in 54 games a year ago. His career-high is 22 goals.
Toronto still has its flaws — the play of backup goalie Michael Hutchinson was again an issue on Friday — but they still look like a completely different team under Keefe. They are more aggressive offensively, they are scoring more goals, and they are playing to their strengths.
They have scored at least four goals in all six of their wins on this streak.
The win on Friday keeps them in second place in the Atlantic Division, giving them a four-point lead over Montreal for that spot. They look to extend their winning streak to seven games on Saturday night when they return home to play the New York Rangers.