The morning after Phillip Danault‘s first career three-penalty game, agitating Montreal teammate Brendan Gallagher turned to him and joked, ”I’m rubbing off on you.”
Judging from the first few days of the NHL’s restart, it looks as if Gallagher is rubbing off on a lot of players. Referees’ arms must be tired after calling 116 minor penalties through 12 games – an average of almost 10 that’s a 52% increase from the regular season.
Perhaps officials are seeing more in empty arenas without the distraction and noise of fans, though players and coaches in the midst of the parades to the penalty box have other theories.
They chalk it up to a combination of rust from months off and players’ natural adjustment to the standard of officiating that’s being set in the chase for the Stanley Cup.
”We’ve been off as long as any offseason or longer, and (referees are) just re-establishing their game,” Boston Bruins agitator extraordinaire Brad Marchand said.
”I also think that guys are excited to get back on the ice and they’re running around and guys aren’t in the same control of their sticks and their bodies than maybe they are a month out from now. So, we’re all a little sloppy and more penalties come from that.”
Most are not penalties of aggression, aside from the majors handed out for the fights that have broken out. The most common in the first 11 are hooking, tripping and slashing with the odd holding or spearing thrown in.
”There’s been too many stick penalties,” Colorado coach Jared Bednar said. ”There’s been too many penalties with guys just reaching in and just poor habits with their sticks and defending details and they’re getting called for it.”
Arizona coach Rick Tocchet said there haven’t necessarily been complaints about inconsistent officiating because it’s pretty tight across the board.
Maybe some grumbling here or there about too many calls for the playoffs, but the obstruction and interference is what the NHL wanted to get out of the game years ago to create more offense.
”If the referees are calling it, they must be penalties,” Philadelphia coach Alain Vigneault said. ”The refereeing has been fine. The guys, it’s not an easy job and they’re calling what they’re seeing.”
Several teams got a chance to witness the tight officiating on Day One of the playoffs, including 16 minor penalties being called in the first game back between the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers. That helped some teams such as the Minnesota Wild and New York Islanders limit their disciplinary issues.
”I think everyone was watching those games, especially the early time games,” Minnesota forward Ryan Hartman said. ”A lot, a lot of penalties were being called and there wasn’t much getting by. I don’t know if it was more us keeping out of it or of them trying to send a message in the early games.”
The Hurricanes learned their lesson the hard way with 14 minor penalties through two games. They’re up 2-0 on the New York Rangers in the best-of-five qualifying round series anyway but understand this isn’t sustainable.
”Just can’t be careless with stick penalties,” Carolina forward Vincent Trocheck said. ”We can understand if you’re being physical or making plays and playing hard and you get a penalty, those are penalties that we’re willing to kill. The stick penalties are the ones that we really need to stay away from.”
By the second period of their Game 2 against the Calgary Flames, the Winnipeg Jets were cognizant of what captain Blake Wheeler said was a ”sensitivity” to games being called pretty tight. But the teams still combined for 14 penalties Tuesday afternoon.
It figures to think those numbers will come down as the playoffs move on and players get used to what a penalty is and isn’t.
”In a game or two, I think you’re going to see less penalties,” Tocchet said. ”I think you’re going to see guys adjust to it, plus the coaches are probably barking at players to be disciplined anyways.”
Trade-deadline players aim to provide boost in NHL’s restart
Vincent Trocheck was part of a wave of NHL players moved at the February trade deadline, jumping right into the lineup a day later for a learn-on-the-fly introduction to his new Carolina Hurricanes team.
Hardly an easy task.
”Obviously coming from a different team, you’re going to have a little bit of confusion,” he said. ”Different systems, different styles of play.”
Those new additions are in a different position as the NHL returns from its pandemic shutdown. They’ve had months to study film. They’ve had two-plus weeks of camp-style workouts to build chemistry with teammates. And that could provide a big boost for the teams that added them five months ago for a (delayed) run at the Stanley Cup.
”Anybody who got traded at the deadline for any team in this tournament, I think they’re going to benefit from it,” said New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz, whose team acquired center Jean-Gabriel Pageau from Ottawa.
That wasn’t the plan, of course, when teams made deals ahead of the Feb. 24 deadline, which saw a record 32 trades and a record-tying 55 players dealt that final day. The expectation for playoff-contending teams was for new arrivals to spend the final six weeks of the regular season carving out roles ahead of the postseason.
Instead, the coronavirus halted everything in March.
The league allowed teams to reopen facilities for voluntary workouts in June. Then came two weeks of training camp in July, leading to this weekend’s start of the playoffs featuring 24 teams divided between Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta.
Amid the shutdown, some injured players had time to heal. Coaches who took over during the season got their own fresh start. And trade-deadline acquisitions have had a chance to catch up, too, from Washington winger Ilya Kovalchuk to Vegas goaltender Robin Lehner.
Fittingly, it was one of those players – Conor Sheary, back with the Pittsburgh Penguins – who scored the first goal of the NHL’s restart in Tuesday’s exhibition loss to Philadelphia.
”Players come in, it’s at the end of the season, there’s probably a little bit of pressure to perform,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. ”You don’t know anybody. You’re unfamiliar with the coaches, with the system, your teammates – and then all of a sudden, you get four months kind of off.
”But that didn’t mean you were four months away from your coaches or your teammates. Now you’re in the group chats, you’re communicating with everybody. You know everybody personally a lot better. And then when you come back, it’s almost like: wow, it’s your second year with the team.”
Cooper’s Lightning – part of the Eastern Conference’s round robin for top seeds – acquired forwards Blake Coleman (from New Jersey) and Barclay Goodrow (from San Jose) in February.
Coleman said they were ”kind of thrown the kitchen sink as far as systems and trying to pick things up on the fly.”
”Obviously having a camp here has been great because I’m able to focus on the systems and really not have to worry about it in-game,” Coleman said. ”You kind of want that stuff to be just second nature and not have to think about it. I think it’s been good. It feels like I’m part of the team now and not just the new guy, and it’s exciting that we have this chance.”
Trocheck, who had 31 goals two seasons ago with Florida, said the time off helped him more than his seven games with Carolina by providing time to study more film. Then came camp workouts with teammates to become ”100% acclimated.”
”I think they’re the ones that need the time the most,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. ”You put a system in place and you kind of expect all the guys to grasp it, but you realize quickly that you watch it 100 hours a day, four months, you know it inside-out.
”Players, that’s not how they get it. They get it from practicing the reps.”
In all, 29 players acquired on deadline day are on NHL playoff rosters, spread across 17 of 24 teams. Other teams, like reigning Cup champion St. Louis and Winnipeg, made moves earlier in February.
”It was almost like I forgot we traded for them because they just fit so well, fit in so nicely,” Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said of Cody Eakin and Dylan DeMelo. ”It feels like they’ve been part of the group from the beginning. And maybe it’s because you pause and you have the restart that we do here right now, that everybody’s on that even footing.”
But it’s a good first step and allows us to talk hockey for the first time in a few months. The Qualifying Round will kick things off with eight series with lengths that are currently undetermined.
In this week’s Power Rankings we take a look at the top storylines a round with some interesting matchups.
1. Non-playoff teams given second life
Thanks to the RTP format, the Canadiens and Blackhawks, two teams more than six points out of a wild card spot were given a second life. Could they have made a run in the final month of the regular season? Sure, so could the other teams that were out of a playoff spot at the time of the March 12 pause.
“That was a huge issue in putting the format together, trying to figure out numbers, who deserves to be in, who deserves maybe a handicap and whatnot, but ultimately there’s just no way,” said Oilers forward and Return to Play Committee member Connor McDavid. “I mean, we’ve beaten this thing to death, there’s just no way to handicap those teams. This maybe isn’t the most fair way but I think the integrity of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is still going to be intact.”
But now? Everything is reset and a hot goaltender plus a possible short series could mean an upset.
Say what you will about teams like Montreal and Chicago getting in — if they somehow become champions, they will definitely have earned it.
“Let’s say a team like Montreal beats Pittsburgh and does go on to win the Stanley Cup,” McDavid added, “I think they’re a very deserving team. If they’re going to win five rounds and go through some really good teams, then maybe they do deserve it. There’s never going to be a perfect scenario.”
2. Who is most vulnerable in a potential short series?
As we noted, while the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final will be best-of-seven, it’s yet to be determined whether the Qualifying Round, First Round, and Second Round will be best-of-five or the usual best-of-seven.
With the amount of time off and the possibility that only three wins could be needed to advance, which higher seeds might be most at-risk?
The Blue Jackets, after a season of filling their trainers’ room every week, should be close to full-health. They’ve been playing with a chip on their shoulders all season and have succeeded after losing Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. The Maple Leafs will enter the series with the pressure of winning given their star-studded lineup and dangerous offense. As if John Tortorella needs anything more to add to the “underdog” mantra.
Every playoff team dreads facing the “hot goalie.” All it takes is one 2010 Jaroslav Halak and Cup dreams can come to an end. Is it a stretch to see Carey Price providing issues for the Penguins or Corey Crawford shutting down McDavid and Leon Draisaitl or Igor Shesterkin further cementing his place as New York’s No. 1 by ending the Hurricanes’ season?
At least each team’s pro scouting department will have more than enough time to pick apart the opposition.
Any goalie decision is an important, and the wrong one could swing a series, especially in a possible best-of-five.
A goaltender’s success or struggles before the pause may be erased given the amount of time off. History against a specific team (Henrik Lundqvist dominance over Carolina, for example) or experience can play in a coach’s decision on who to start. That will make training camp performance vital for those who don’t necessarily have the No. 1 job locked down.
4. Stars getting healthy
Seth Jones, Dougie Hamilton, Conor Garland, Jacob Markstrom and Jake Guentzel are a few names in the Qualifying Round who should be back on the ice when play resumes. With nearly four months between games, this round will allow teams to be healthier than usual. It will also put a further importance on training camp leading up to puck drop.
Hamilton, for example, hasn’t played since mid-January, and Jones’ ankle took him out of the lineup in February. Camp will be valuable time not only for those them to get back into hockey mode but also ensure no setbacks when it’s time for contact.
Those players will be among the names in the Qualifying Round who switched teams this season, but didn’t get a ton of time to settle into their new digs. Toffoli (6-4-10–10 GP), Zucker (6-6-12–15 GP) and Galchenyuk (3-4-7–14 GP) have had strong starts and will be needed in their individual series.
Meanwhile, Taylor Hall had a longer run with the Coyotes and in 35 games put up 27 points.
In a number of cases — Zucker, Skjei, Pageau, Trocheck, etc — the players have term remaining on their contracts. But then you have the pending unrestricted free agents. The Canucks gave up a good package to add Toffoli; Arizona is hoping to entice Hall to stay; Toronto is relying on Kyle Clifford to bolster their bottom six in what’s going to be a grind-it-out series vs. Columbus.
These players will get time during July training camps to get acclimated with their new teammates and further educate themselves on their new systems. Disappointing outputs could have a big effect on their next contracts.
Wild captain Mikko Koivu has an expiring contract and has hinted his days in Minnesota could be coming to an end. Could GM Bill Guerin value his leadership enough for a one-year deal or will the forward choose to end his playing career at home in Finland?
Is there a spot somewhere in the NHL for Jason Spezza next season? “I’m just enjoying coming to the rink every day, trying to get better day to day,” he said in February. “I can’t say I’ve been too nostalgic at all, kind of going in and out of places. I hope to have a good year and keep going.”
A tighter salary cap could squeeze out a number of veterans as teams look for cheaper, younger alternative already in their systems. Will any get to have their Ray Bourque moment?
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.
(5) Penguins vs. (12) Canadiens
Saturday, Aug. 1: Canadiens vs. Penguins Monday, Aug. 3: Canadiens vs. Penguins Wednesday, Aug. 5: Penguins vs. Canadiens Friday, Aug. 7: Penguins vs. Canadiens* Saturday, Aug. 8: Penguins vs. Canadiens*
Regular season recap
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
Saturday, Aug. 1: Rangers vs. Hurricanes
Monday, Aug. 3: Rangers vs. Hurricanes
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Hurricanes vs. Rangers
Thursday, Aug. 6: Hurricanes vs. Rangers*
Saturday, Aug. 8: Rangers vs. Hurricanes*
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?
Saturday, Aug. 1: Panthers vs. Islanders
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Panthers vs. Islanders
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Islanders vs. Panthers
Friday, Aug. 7: Islanders vs. Panthers*
Sunday, Aug. 9: Panthers vs. Islanders*
Regular season recap
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
Sunday, Aug. 2: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs
Thursday, Aug. 6: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets
Friday, Aug. 7: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets*
Sunday, Aug. 9: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs*
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.
They are two of the best and most productive players in the league, while Barkov has developed into one of the NHL’s most complete two-way centers. Barkov is signed for two more seasons after this one, while Huberdeau is locked in for another three. They have matching salary cap hits of $5.9 million per season.
Beyond them, the core gets a little cloudier because all of their long-term investments come with some pretty significant risks.
Starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is signed for another six seasons at a salary cap hit of $10 million per season. They are going to need him to be significantly better than he has been so far if there is any chance of him playing out the remainder of that deal in Florida.
In front of him they have invested heavily in their defense with Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle, Anton Stralman, and Mike Matheson all signed for at least the next two seasons, while Ekblad, Yandle, and Matheson go for at least the next three years. Ekblad and Matheson are both signed for the next five. They have a ton of money invested in that quartet, but they haven’t really received a great return on that investment at this point.
Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov, two of their best forwards, are unsigned beyond this season and eligible for unrestricted free agency. If they can not re-sign one — or both — that would be a significant amount of offense going out the door.
Even though the Panthers have made a huge long-term financial investment in their defense and goaltending, they are still one of the worst defensive teams in the league right now.
Ekblad and Yandle are a solid duo at the top, and maybe even a little underrated. Ekblad’s status as a former No. 1 overall pick definitely raises the expectations around him, but he has been an extremely productive player offensively and shown improvement in his all-around game. He may not win the Norris Trophy, but he’s a good player.
But once you get beyond that top duo there are a lot of flaws and question marks with the defense as a whole, and not a lot of immediate help on the horizon to help fix it. That is one of the things that made the in-season trade of Vincent Trocheck so confusing. It was a deal that did not need to be made, and they did not even use it to address their biggest flaw.
They could also be looking at a depth issue at forward if they can not get Hoffman and Dadonov re-signed.
The biggest strength for the Panthers is probably the simple fact they not only have two elite players in Barkov and Huberdeau, but that they have them both signed for multiple seasons at a combined salary cap hit of less than $11 million per season. They are exceptional bargains against the cap, they are both elite players, and they are both in the middle of their prime years in the NHL. Having that sort of situation at the top of the lineup should be a massive advantage for a front office to work with. Those are the hardest players to find (the elite, game-changers on offense) and they tend to cost the most money. The Panthers not only already have them in place, they have them for far less than they should ordinarily cost. That is a gift and a bonus you do not want to waste.
It also might seem weird saying this given how much Bobrovsky struggled in his debut season with the team, but they do seem to have a lot of goaltending options in the short-and long-term.
Even if Bobrovsky’s contract turns into a problem in a few years, he should be better than he was this season and at least give them a few seasons of high level play. Chris Driedger has also been a pleasant surprise in net this season and could settle in as a nice back-up option, while they also have one of the top goaltending prospects in the league in Spencer Knight after using a top-15 pick on him in the draft a year ago.
They also have one of the NHL’s best coaches in Joel Quenneville.