To be more specific, Cooper explains that Killorn & Co. are worried that the qualifying round winners will end up more “battle-tested.” Can you really blame the Lightning for fearing being caught flat-footed? Such thoughts must give the Lightning flashbacks of that Blue Jackets sweep.
For more details, check out Killorn’s explanation in this post.
“ … I don’t know how competitive the games will be going forward where the teams at the bottom will be playing playoff games right away and [would be] potentially more prepared for the real playoffs,” Killorn said.
Different times, but maybe exciting ones?
If you want insight on how the Lightning and others may handle the return to play, Cooper provided interesting thoughts:
For one thing, Cooper wonders if the experience might be a little like the world championships. Players from different teams likely would be staying in the same hotels, possibly eating in similar areas. If you’re like me, you’re picturing awkward breakfast buffet run-ins between Matthew Tkachuk and Zack Kassian.
Another interesting remark is that this feels like a reset for Cooper and the Lightning. Take the rest of an offseason and then factor in how, after most summers, you have to adjust to new players. Instead, the Lightning and other teams have a chance to play at close to full-strength.
Finally, Cooper didn’t seem too worried about a lack of fans.
Looking back at typical circumstances, the Lightning would practice without fans. Even without thousands of roaring fans, Cooper explains that Lightning practices could get intense. Now just imagine the intensity against “foes.”
If the Lightning get their chance to make that playoff run, Cooper might just back up Tirico’s quip regarding smoothing out the “parade route” for Tom Brady and the Buccaneers.
Of course, the Bolts have a long way to go to make that happen — even if outside forces don’t shut this whole thing down altogether.
(Note: no, as far as we know, John Tortorella isn’t an outside force.)
More on Lightning, Cooper, and the NHL’s return to play
While a lot can change between now and actual, meaningful hockey happening, the NHL announced its return-to-play plans on Tuesday. That means we learned the 24 teams who will be potentially playing hockey later this summer, with 12 from the Western Conference and 12 from the East. We also learned about the seven teams who will have a long wait until next season, and how the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery will be handled.
Most directly enticingly, we found out about 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 in round robin tournaments to determine seeding for the First Round.
For the Western Conference, the winners of each Qualifying Round will go on to face one of the Blues, Avalanche, Golden Knights, and Stars.
Now that we know the teams, let’s take an overview of the four Western Conference qualifying round matchups.
The Oilers surged to the Pacific Division’s second spot on the strength of “The Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid Show.” A lot had to go right for that to happen, even beyond Draisaitl and McDavid dominating compared to their usual, lofty standards.
When it comes to judging the Blackhawks, it’s all about your expectations. If you were expecting the return of dynasty days, then sure, you’d be disappointed. Most have tempered such expectations, and with that in mind, the team at least found ways to scrap toward reasonable competitiveness. Sure, they can be a mess, but sometimes they snatched victory from the jaws of defensive defeat.
On paper, Chicago probably hopes to break even regarding special teams. Yes, both teams featured top-10 penalty kill units this season, but the Oilers boasted the most efficient power play in the NHL, while Chicago’s PP was almost the worst.
Even with Robin Lehner shipped away in a trade, the Blackhawks may hold a goaltending advantage. Corey Crawford finished 2019-20 on fire, while Edmonton’s options were merely average.
Considering the gap between McDavid and Draisaitl vs. Kane and Toews, cynics might groan when things are framed as the battle between a dwindling dynamic duo and a rising one.
But … c’mon. It is fun to picture how those rising stars will try to learn new tricks from those old dogs. The truth is that Kane and especially Toews already “passed the torch,” yet this could be a lot of fun. Really, the (mostly) flawed rosters around both duos could make the battles more fun to watch.
After stumbling for much of the season, the Predators were starting to get their wits about them entering the pandemic pause. On the other hand, the Coyotes seemed to be running out of gas, and rank among the teams lucky to still be in the dance.
Even before COVID-19 disrupted life and sports, the Predators experienced plenty of drama. It says a lot about the ups and downs of the Predators’ season that they a) fired Peter Laviolette during the season, b) hired John Hynes, who was also fired during 2019-20, and c) managed to finish in the old wild-card setup entering the pause. Phew.
That goes for Laviolette to Hynes, and also improving on issues from 2018-19. Despite adding Matt Duchene and removing P.K. Subban, the power play remains a drag. New issues surfaced, too, with Pekka Rinne‘s play sagging to a worrisome degree.
Personally, the feeling with the Predators is “they made all of those changes to end up, basically, in the same spot?” You could say similar things about the Coyotes. Despite bringing in Phil Kessel and then Taylor Hall, the Coyotes continue to live off of goaltending (and to a lesser extent, defense).
At least Arizona’s goalies have delivered enough to make that living survivable, if not easy. Darcy Kuemper continued to quietly rank among the league’s best, while Antti Raanta came through when Kuemper got hurt.
The Coyotes and Predators split their season series 1-1. Nashville won the last meeting 3-2 on Dec. 23.
Predators: The 2019-20 season presented the Predators with injury issues, but they were healing up nicely around the time of the pause. Dan Hamhuis should probably be healed up, though.
Storylines to Watch
When you look at the way these teams are put together, both the Predators and Coyotes made bold moves to step forward. Instead, they’ve basically stood in place.
Will either team be able to argue that the gambles eventually paid off once play resumes? Can Duchene justify his price tag? Can Phil Kessel regain his scoring touch? How much money will Taylor Hall lose or gain in free agency?
The Predators and Coyotes have a lot to prove, and a lot to lose.
Also, “Coach vs. Player” doesn’t really do much for me when the two say glowing things about each other, but Hynes did coach Hall during Hall’s Hart season so …
(7) Canucks vs. (10) Wild
Regular season recap
As different as their paths and outlooks have been, it’s fascinating how little space there ended up being between the Canucks (78 points, 69 games played) and Wild (77 in 69 GP).
The Canucks already boast some of the premium pieces the sort-of-rebuilding Wild should clamor for. Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes look like stars now, let alone later. Their development buoyed Jim Benning’s gambles, from ones that were brilliant (J.T. Miller, costly or not) to not-so-much (Tyler Myers, mainly costly). Pettersson, a few other skaters, and an on-point Jacob Markstrom have made things work just enough.
By most underlying measures, the Wild were actually a pretty competent team in 2019-20. They played well enough, collectively, that Bruce Boudreau probably didn’t deserve to be fired. That’s just how it goes for coaches in the NHL, though, especially since Bill Guerin didn’t hire Boudreau. (Frankly, Jason Zucker wasn’t the problem either, but at least trading him seemed like a gesture toward rebuilding.)
Really, you could argue that Devan Dubnyk was as responsible as anyone for Boudreau getting fired. If the Wild played at about the level they did — including Kevin Fiala rising to something approaching a star level — Minnesota could be a fairly tough out.
They’ll need better goaltending, though, whether they hope Dubnyk can rebound, or they stick with Alex Stalock, who was increasingly grabbing starts.
Wild won two of the three games, although one of those victories came via a shootout. That aforementioned (Wild won 4-3 [SO]) happened during their most recent meeting on Feb. 19.
Vancouver missed the playoffs for four straight seasons, and five of their last six. The Canucks also haven’t won a series since losing Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final to the Bruins. As much as it sometimes feels like these youngsters are skipping to the front of line for Vancouver, Canucks fans must be getting antsy.
While it only seemed like the Wild were headed toward two consecutive seasons without postseason appearances, their larger decline extends further. Minnesota won two first-round series in 2013-14 and 2014-15, but otherwise haven’t seen much from the Zach Parise – Ryan Suter era. (Who, for all the negative talk around them, remain top contributors for the Wild.)
A Parise trade didn’t work out. Mikko Koivu did not get traded, whether the Wild wanted to or not. As badly as the Wild need a rebuild, this unexpected opportunity opens the door for a last hurrah.
So, will it be one more ride for the Wild, or a chance for the Canucks to take big steps toward an even bigger future?
(8) Flames vs. (9) Jets
Regular season recap
When considering the Flames’ 2019-20 season, don’t compare their work to 2018-19 alone. Unless you want to be sorely underwhelmed.
That’s because, frankly, multiple Flames put together career seasons they weren’t likely to replicate. You could argue that all of Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Giordano, Elias Lindholm, and Sean Monahan might have played over their heads last season. Those players cooled off considerably — maybe extremely — and the Flames suffered as a result.
In a twist, that drop-off didn’t explain why Bill Peters got fired.
Even so, that group remains pretty good, especially with Matthew Tkachuk steadily improving (and thus becoming that much more annoying). Cam Talbot‘s also been a nice addition for the Flames, who are seemingly always looking for that goalie.
That goalie in Winnipeg ranks as far and away the main reason the Jets didn’t totally crash. Connor Hellebuyck absolutely saved Winnipeg’s season, as the Jets were absolutely dreadful on defense. As in: even worse than you’d expect after subtracting Dustin Byfuglien (voluntarily or not), Jacob Trouba, and Tyler Myers.
Jets: How serious were Bryan Little‘s issues? If they were season-threatening, maybe he could come back? If they are closer to career-threatening, then who knows? Perhaps we’ll learn more in the next few weeks.
Storylines to Watch
Last season, the Flames ranked first in the Western Conference, while the Jets managed 99 points. For all the disappointments in 2019-20, and even with some key omissions in mind, it’s not that difficult to imagine both teams putting something special together.
Two star-packed teams hoping to make the most of what is pretty close to a clean slate? That could be fun. Really, it could actually be the most exciting series for the Western Conference side if everything clicks.
Besides, Patrik Laine might say funny things, and Matthew Tkachuk has all that pent-up pandemic pest energy to release. (OK, that last part has me worried.)
With the NHL just announcing how Phase 2 will work — but not even exactly when it will start — the NHL has a long way to go before a 24-team playoff format might actually happen. That “long way to go” part gives us a lot of time to mull over different possibilities, though. So let’s mull, then.
A lot must still be determined, but if everything holds, there will be eight “play-in” series (four per conference, featuring the 5th through 12th seeds). Each series would include a best-of-five format.
So which of those current, play-in series would be the best? Which would brim with drama, even with fans relegated to watch at home? Let’s rank them. You can also see the proposed 24-team NHL playoff format at the bottom of this post.
1. Penguins vs. Canadiens
Look, it’s true that there’s a lot of evidence that the Carey Price players imagine has not been the Carey Price players actually face most nights over the past, say, three years.
The actual, not just imagined, hockey would really sell it. Even with a more defensive bent at times in 2019-20, the Penguins remain one of the league’s most electric teams. Sometimes that electricity stems from the static energy of making mistakes. For all of the Canadiens’ flaws, they are the sort of smaller, speedy, skilled team that might carry upset potential during these uncertain times. Montreal boasts the possession numbers of a viable team, too.
Maybe Shea Weber can shoot a puck through a net and make us forget about the state of the world for at least a few moments?
Bonus points if this would set the stage for the Penguins facing the Flyers, who currently stand as the East’s fourth seed.
In a macro sense, there are some parallels between the way the teams are built, too. McDavid and Draisaitl often feel the burden of carrying not-so-balanced Oilers teams. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks are a very top-heavy, deeply flawed team. But their top players are dangerous.
Corey Crawford‘s quietly strong finish to 2019-20 sprinkles in some extra intrigue as well.
If nothing else, this could be messy-but-fun.
3. Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets
Sometimes you stick to star power. Other times, you subsist on the potential for soap opera drama.
On one side, you have the explosive Maple Leafs, whose explosiveness can backfire. The media will seize on any of their stumbles, and this talented team nonetheless gives critics plenty to chew on.
On the other, you have John Tortorella, who basically has a quota for dramatic press conferences. The NHL basically owes us some controversial calls to leave Torts fuming. It’s basically an unwritten right for us hockey fans. Don’t let us down during this play-in series, then, NHL.
The contrast between a defensive-minded team and an explosive offense can let us olds rattle off “irresistible force vs. immovable object” references if we really feel saucy.
Speaking of saucy, it’s possible the Maple Leafs would go on to face the (gulp) Bruins.
4. Flames vs. Jets
If this happened a year earlier, it might take the top spot. Both teams have fallen quite a bit, though, making this a series where you wonder if they can reclaim past magic.
From an actual hockey standpoint, this series might deserve a better spot on the list.
5. Hurricanes vs. Rangers
You have to assume that the Hurricanes will come up with some sort of viral sensation, right? They’ll stumble upon something.
Luckily, the Hurricanes can back up that sizzle with the steak of good hockey. Andrei Svechnikov and Sebastian Aho also give Carolina more star power than most might realize.
All of that aside, it will be tough to resist this becoming “The Artemi Panarin Show.” He generated justified Hart Trophy hype, and the Rangers were finishing pretty strong this season.
(I’m admittedly artificially boosting this on the hope that we’ll get one last Rangers playoff run from Henrik Lundqvist, by the way.)
6. Canucks vs. Wild
I’m not sure the hockey world has totally clued in to how great Elias Pettersson is. The play-in for the NHL’s 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs seem like a great opportunity to see the light.
7. Predators vs. Coyotes
There’s no way we can sneak P.K. Subban back onto the Predators for entertaining purposes, is there? (*Puts hand to imaginary earpiece*) It appears there is no way.
These two teams can play some high-quality hockey when they’re on. For all of Nashville’s headaches, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis were incredible this season. Maybe Pekka Rinne can get back on track, and create a memorable goalie duel with Darcy Kuemper? (Kuemper deserves more credit for his elite work from the past two seasons.)
Even with no Subban, there are players to watch. How might Taylor Hall perform with a lot to prove, and his next contract hovering? Will Phil Kessel rebound, or at least amuse us?
8. Islanders vs. Panthers
As much as people might want to replay John Tavares‘ series-clinching goal (it ruled), that clip might honestly bother both Panthers and Islanders fans at this point.
*cough* And yet I must …
There’s not really much of a rivalry here, yet even as the eighth-ranked NHL play-in series, it’s not that hard to find reasons to get excited.
Can the Islanders contain an explosive Panthers offense starring Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov? Maybe Sergei Bobrovsky can get his mojo back after a wildly disappointing first Florida foray? Joel Quenneville vs. Barry Trotz is kind of fun. And, really, take any excuse you can to witness the splendor of Mathew Barzal.
However you rank the NHL’s potential play-in series, the odds are strong that you’ll get some fun hockey. Will it be strange to watch it without fans? Sure, but the talent and intrigue might just make it all work.
Brushing up on the NHL’s proposed 24-team playoff format, including play-in series
As a reminder, here’s how it might look, and what we’re basing the play-in series upon.
ROUND 1 BYES
vs. — Winner plays No. 4 seed
vs. — Winner plays No. 3 seed
vs. — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(8) Maple Leafs
vs. — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Blue Jackets
ROUND 1 BYES
vs. — Winner plays No. 4 seed
vs. — Winner plays No. 3 seed
vs. — Winner plays No. 2 seed
Every Tuesday, PHT will remember a hockey video game (or games). Since we don’t have every console or cartridge, some posts will be recollections, not reviews. This week, we look back at hockey video games on the Nintendo 64.
I’d wager that there aren’t many people who immediately think of hockey video games for that console. Heck, I’d assume that most hockey fans who also play games probably think of SNES/Genesis titles, go back to “Ice Hockey” and “Blades of Steel,” or merely lean toward EA’s modern NHL series.
Even so, there were quite a few Nintendo 64 hockey video games, including ones so obscure they might not make it in this post. (If so, share away.) Let’s look back at the 64-bit console’s most noteworthy hockey video games, then.
Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey (and ’98)
Arcade-style sports games tend to age the best because they’re less ambitious about looking like the real thing, and also about simulating it. So, it’s no surprise that “Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey” seems like it would be pretty fun to play, even today.
Midway churned this one out, which helps to explain the “NBA Jam”-y ness of it all. Goalies could turn into brick walls. Nets caught on fire. You know, the good stuff.
You could see a lot of the DNA of “NHL Hitz” here, which is a series we’ll delve into down the line.
Here are some fun tidbits about the series (which included a sequel):
The title’s Wikipedia page alleges that it was the first-ever four-player Nintendo 64 game. As you may recall, the console shipped with four ports for controllers, making it thesleepover machine for nerds cool kids.
The series of three Gretzky-helmed titles began on the SNES.
Could there have been “Mortal Kombat”-style fatalies during fights? Allegedly.
Critics weren’t exactly enthused about the ’98 version getting repackaged as “Olympic Hockey ’98.” IGN even gave it a “zero.” Honestly, I do admire the lazy brashness of just changing trades to “defections,” though.
EA sports eventually brings a hockey title to Nintendo 64 with NHL ’99
As far as I can tell, the Nintendo 64 began a stretch where EA Sports titles were by no means guaranteed to appear on Nintendo consoles. (Or, in some cases, Nintendo fans would get warmed-over rehashes, or only one or two titles in a given series. The Nintendo Switch hasn’t received a modern title in the NHL series, for instance.)
While the Nintendo 64 ranked as a success by some measures, it also didn’t receive the same waves of titles as Sony’s Playstation. While Sony went with CDs, Nintendo stuck with cartridges. Such a decision made it tougher to pirate games for the Nintendo 64, yet it also made it far more expensive to manufacture games.
“Wayne Gretzky 3D Hockey” released in 1996, while EA Sports’ first foray into hockey games for the Nintendo 64 didn’t happen until “NHL ’99” dropped in 1998.
“NHL ’99” featured Eric Lindros on the cover, and was generally well-received. That said, IGN’s Craig Harris noted that the game was farmed out to MBL Research, and was mostly based off of “NHL ’98” for the Playstation and PC.
So it seems like it was better than nothing, but Nintendo fans still got the short end of the (hockey) stick.
Other hockey video games on Nintendo 64
When it comes to two other series on the N64, I’d argue their greatest impacts came in entertaining covers.
The “Breakaway” series seemed … fine. Really, any hockey game that included icon passing gets bumped up a half-letter grade. But it’s not shocking that the series eventually fizzled out.
While plenty of people at least vaguely recall one of the “Breakaway” titles (the second one featured Steve Yzerman), I’d guess few knew that “Blades of Steel” made a comeback. Jaromir Jagr served as the cover star for both the ’99 and 2000 versions:
Overall, it’s pretty easy to see why the Nintendo 64 isn’t remembered for hockey video games. Even so, I can’t deny an urge to refresh my memories about “Wayne Gretzky 3D Hockey,” — defections optional.
This week’s Hockey Happy Hour on NBCSN will again feature memorable “on this date” games in NHL playoff history.
On the way to a Stanley Cup victory, the Bruins defeated the rival Canadiens in overtime by a score of 4-3. On this day nine years ago, the win marked the first time that a team won a seven game playoff series despite being held scoreless on the power play.
Mike Emrick and Darren Pang had the call from TD Garden in Boston, Mass.
As part of the week-long NBC Sports From the Vault presentation on NBCSN, Tuesday’s coverage will feature classic NHL matchups beginning at 7 p.m. ET. Throughout the evening, all-time greats such as Bobby Orr, Bobby Clarke, Bernie Parent, Wayne Gretzky, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, and Steve Yzerman will be showcased in historic NHL regular-season, All-Star and Stanley Cup Final matchups.
Monday, April 27 on NBCSN
• NHL Hat Trick Trivia hosted by P.K. Subban (Episode 3) – 5 p.m. ET (Live stream)
• Canadiens vs. Bruins (2011 Round 1, Game 7) – 5:30 p.m. ET (Live stream)
Tuesday, April 28 on NBCSN
• The Great One vs. The Great Eight Showcase – 5 p.m. ET (Live stream)
• Penguins vs. Capitals (2016 Round 2, Game 1) – 6 p.m ET (Live stream)
• Bruins vs. Flyers (1974 Stanley Cup Final, Game 6) – 7 p.m. ET (Live stream)
• Penguins vs. Capitals (Dec. 11, 2006) – 9:30 p.m. ET (Live stream)
• 1991 NHL All-Star Game – 12 a.m. ET (Live stream)
Wednesday, April 29 on NBCSN
• #HockeyAtHome: NHL Fathers and Sons – 5 p.m. ET (Live stream)
• Rangers vs. Senators (2017 Round 2, Game 2) – 5:30 p.m. ET (Live stream)
Thursday, April 30 on NBCSN
• NHL Player Gaming Challenge – 5 p.m. ET (Live stream)
• Wild vs. Avalanche (2014 Round 1, Game 7) – 6 p.m. ET (Live stream)
Sunday, May 3 on NBC
• USA vs. Canada (2010 Olympics Men’s Gold Medal game) – 3 p.m. ET
NHL HAT TRICK TRIVIA HOSTED BY P.K. SUBBAN – MONDAY, 5 P.M. ET ON NBCSN Two-time Olympic gold medalist Roberto Luongo will join the third episode of NHL Hat Trick Trivia Hosted by P.K. Subban. Hosted by the New Jersey Devils defenseman, the show features fans answering a trio of hockey trivia questions from their homes, along with appearances from NHL players and celebrities, for the chance to win NHL prizes. Additional guests on the episode include Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog, actors Michael Keaton and Jay Baruchel as well as NHL referee Wes McCauley.
THE GREAT ONE VS. THE GREAT EIGHT SHOWCASE – TUESDAY, 5 P.M. ET ON NBCSN Wayne Gretzky faces off against Alex Ovechkin in an EA Sports NHL 20 series featuring themselves playing with the Edmonton Oilers and Washington Capitals, respectively. The virtual matchup raised over $40,000 for COVID-19 relief.
1991 NHL ALL-STAR GAME – TUESDAY, MIDNIGHT ET ON NBCSN The 1991 edition of the NHL All-Star Game featured hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, former Red Wings center Steve Yzerman and Vincent Damphousse of the Maple Leafs, who recorded four goals in the contest. The matchup was held two days following the beginning of Operation Desert Storm during the Gulf War, and the patriotic presentation of the national anthem at Chicago Stadium is still remembered to this day.
#HOCKEYATHOME: NHL FATHERS AND SONS – WEDNESDAY, 5 P.M. ET ON NBCSN NBCSN will present a 30-minute program about NHL fathers and sons at 5 p.m. ET. The three father and son relationships featured in the program are:
NHL PLAYER GAMING CHALLENGE – THURSDAY, 5 P.M. ET ON NBCSN NBCSN will present the opening night of the NHL Player Gaming Challenge at 5 p.m. ET, featuring Calgary vs. Ottawa. The month-long initiative will pit NHL players from all 31 clubs facing off against each other in EA Sports NHL 20. The competition kicks off on Thursday with Matthew Tkachuk and Noah Hanifin representing the Flames against Brady Tkachuk of the Senators.
Programming will also stream on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.