Hockey is finally back after months off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Four Eastern Conference teams will battle it out for a chance at the top seed. The Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers will play three games to dish out the top four seeds.
This Eastern Conference round-robin tournament starts this weekend in Toronto at the Scotiabank Arena. There are all kinds of questions surrounding this and the other qualifying-round matchups.
Here’s a preview of what to look for during the Eastern Conference Round Robin.
Eastern Conference Round Robin
Rested or Rusted
One of the first things viewers will look for is to see how fast the teams can get back up to speed. This restart is going to feel just like the early parts of a new NHL season. The players have been working out, but it still takes time to acclimate to mid-season or playoff intensity.
Passes are going to not be on the tape to start off with. Defencemen may blow assignments in the opening games and goalies may not be as sharp as say April or May. These are still the best players in the world, but there will still be some hiccups. Having one exhibition game will help out some, too.
How will coaches delegate workloads among the forward lines and defensive pairings? Will one team try to go “all-in” to get a top seed a more favourable matchup in the first round proper? The teams will be re-seeded like previous playoff formats where the top-seeded team would face the lowest-seeded play-in winner. Coaches could experiment with different lineups to see what combinations could work in the quarterfinals.
The quality of play will likely pick up in the final games of the mini-tournament, but the team that gets back to mid-season form will have the advantage. Plenty is still at stake for these four Eastern teams.
There seems to be a running theme in the days leading up to getting to the bubble. A string of goalie injuries might have a hand in the final round-robin standings. Flyers goalie Carter Hart left July 21’s practice with apparent back spasms. Hart did practice fully with the club at the start of the week. However, there’s always a concern the injury could flare up again. The young goalie played a big hand in Philadelphia’s solid season. Brian Elliott got plenty of work in practice and maybe pressed into service.
Tuukka Rask is also overcoming his own injury woes as he’s overcoming a broken finger in his glove hand. The Finnish netminder hurt himself during off-ice workouts involving box jumps. Rask was sporting a splint between his fractured ring finger and middle finger. He should be fine for the post-season, but catching a puck with a broken finger can sting. Boston does have Jaroslav Halak to step in if needed and the veteran backup had a solid season.
One goalie that won’t be back is Ilya Samsonov for the Capitals. The 23-year-old suffered an undisclosed injury and will not be with Washington in the bubble. Samsonov went 16-6-2 with a 2.55 GAA, .913 save percentage and one shutout. He was pushing starter Braden Holtby for playing time and making a play to be the future franchise No. 1. Pheonix Copley and Vitek Vanecek will vie for the backup role. Washington must hope Holtby finds his Cup-winning form from a couple of seasons ago.
Tampa Bay has the stability of three-time Vezina Trophy nominee Andrei Vasilevskiy in goal. The experienced Curtis McElhinney in net to come in if needed. Vasilevskiy needs to pick up where he left off to give the Lightning at the top seed.
What’s My Motivation?
All four clubs have some big motivating factors spurring them on besides winning the top seed. Philadelphia has taken a big leap forward under new head coach Alain Vigneault. The Flyers took a lot of teams by surprise and turned around a terrible goal differential from last season. Philly was minus-37 last season but turned it into a plus-36 in 2019-20. The Flyers are also playing for the recently cancer-free Oskar Lindblom. It’s great to see him recover and being #OskarStrong could be a big motivator.
Boston was one game away from hoisting the Stanley Cup last season but fell to the St. Louis Blues in seven games. The Bruins were the only team to reach 100 points in the abbreviated regular season. Boston snagged the President’s Trophy and wants to show the rest of the East they deserve to be the top seed. There was a huge concern that co-top scorer David Pastrnak may not be cleared in time for the opening round. However, he was at the team’s Monday practice and with the team in Toronto. Ondrej Kase will likely not be with the team after a four-day hotel quarantine when joins the team.
Tampa Bay wants to erase the taste of that shocking four-game sweep to the Columbus Blue Jackets last post-season. The Lightning have taken their fair share of jokes after that putrid performance. Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman will not play in the exhibition game against the Florida Panthers on Wednesday. However, both players should be ready for the playoffs. Tampa lost its last two games of the regular season but did beat Boston in its final victory. The Lightning want to overturn the colossal failure on the 2019 Stanley Cup first-round exit. Tampa’s offence is tough to compete with as it scored 243 goals, which is 3.47 per game.
Washington picked up a fifth straight Metropolitan Division crown and has winning records against Tampa Bay and Boston. The Caps are 3-0 against the Bolts and 2-1 versus the Bruins. Philadelphia does have a winning record against Washington, but the Capitals experience is a big factor. Alex Ovechkin just missed out on another 50-goal season and tied Pastrnak for the Art Ross Trophy. The Caps have struggled at times in the second half since a tough 7-3 loss on Dec. 23 to the Bruins.
Prediction: Boston wins the top seed.