Like every other professional sport, the NHL was forced to adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to finish their season and award the Stanley Cup. The NHL used the cities of Edmonton and Toronto, Canada to play an expanded 24-team postseason in two separate bubbles. So far, both bubbles have been successful. No one has tested positive for the virus since entering either bubble. More importantly, the product has also been exciting to watch on the ice.
Here are my three observations from the NHL restart as we near the end of the second round of the playoffs, with seven teams still in the hunt for a championship:
1) There were lots of upsets early in the postseason, but favorites have prevailed in the later rounds.
At the beginning of the playoffs, one of the major questions going in was how teams were going to look on the ice after such a long time away. As it turned out, the time off led to some surprises, at least early on. During the qualifying round of the postseason, the 12th and 11th-seeded teams in the West upset the fifth and sixth seeded teams respectively. The 12th and 9th-seeded teams in the East also pulled upsets, beating the 5th and 8th-seeded teams. As a result, teams such as the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators were eliminated early, while teams that were not expected to advance, like the Arizona Coyotes and Montreal Canadiens, snuck through the qualifying round. However, like last year’s playoffs, the upsets have been few and far between. As the playoffs have gone on, the more talented teams have played up to their potential. There are seven teams left (Flyers, Islanders, Avalanche, Stars, Golden Knights, Canucks, and Lightning), and five of them finished in the top of four of their respective conferences.
2) Backup goalies have been put in an unusual spotlight.
In a normal postseason, with off days in between games in the series, teams usually rely on one goalie to get them through a playoff run (last year’s Islanders–Hurricanes series being a notable exception). However, this year, more games have been played back to back. This, as well as goalie injuries, has placed backup goalies in the spotlight. So far, the 24 teams have used 41 goalies — significantly more than the 22 used by the 16 teams in last year’s postseason. Teams that look like championship contenders have used two goalies at different times. These include the Golden Knights with Marc Andre-Fleury and Robin Lehner, and the Colorado Avalanche, who have remained alive despite having had to play their third string goalie (because of injuries to the other two). The Dallas Stars have also ridden their backup to being one win away from the conference finals. In the case of the Golden Knights, it will be interesting to see if the two goalie tandem can work all the way to a Stanley Cup championship, as usually a team rides the hot hand, or glove, to a title.
3) Return to Play Agreement Brings Something Rare to the NHL: Labor Peace
My biggest observation is that the NHL restart enabled players and owners to come together to tie in a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) to the Return to Play agreement. This is something that has not been seen in the NHL for almost 30 years. Since 1994, there have been three separate labor disputes that have led to seasons being delayed and shortened, as was the case in 1994–95 and in 2012–13. Some seasons have been missed altogether, such as the 2004–2005 season. Needless to say, the CBA marks an important and intriguing development.
David Gottlieb can be reached at email@example.com.