This past week, the NHL released a finalized schedule for qualifying and round-robin play. This ultimately has created a buzz around the hockey community unlike ever before.
The Eastern Conference
But, seeing as we have time before the play begins. I wanted to draw attention to the round-robin tournament that features the league’s eight best teams. Beginning where the sun rises, we have Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington, and Philadelphia. An interesting mix of teams by any account: one recent Stanley Cup finalist, one whose long been denied in the playoffs, one recent cup winner, and one team of destiny in Philadelphia.
Now, consider the fact that none of these teams will have home-ice for the duration of the playoffs. Therefore, the only advantage the top-four teams have is controlling were they are going to be seeded. Because, at least one of these top-four teams will run into the wrong qualifier team and get knocked out early. It’s inevitable, and you might say the round-robin is already decided. But, if the season series between these teams tells us anything, then we’re in for chaos.
First, do not go saying Boston’s a lock for the one seed. The President’s Trophy winning Bruins have a losing record against all three teams in the round-robin. Second, Tampa Bay may be out for vengeance, but the team is 0-3-0 head-to-head against the Washington Capitals this year. And Washington may be strong, but do not count the Flyers out. Philadelphia has beaten them three out of four times this season.
So, who can we count on? Well, since a third of the eighteen games played between these teams went to overtime or a shootout, we will have to take a deeper dive to find out.
Boston vs. Philadelphia
Season Series: 2-1 Philadelphia
In three matchups this season, the Flyers managed to best the Bruins twice, both of which happened to be shootout victories. In the last matchup, on March 10th (two days before the season paused), Boston shut them out in Philadelphia 2-0.
The harder you look the more even they get. While Boston shut the Flyers out in their last game, Philadelphia actually has better possession statistics against Boston than any other team in the round robin.
Not to mention, both teams are tied at nine in head-to-head scoring. So, this matchup will undoubtedly be one to keep your eye on.
Tampa Bay vs. Washington
Season Series: 3-0 Washington
As mentioned, the Capitals took care of Tampa Bay in a clean season sweep. But, if we look into how they got those three wins, we can gain some insight into how another faceoff might pan out.
To begin, Washington out-shot Tampa Bay in all three games, and held a greater CF% in two of them. Plus, they outscored the Lightning by a ratio of two-to-one in the season series, They did so while taking no less than 10 penalty minutes each game. That being said, it may be a different story if Steven Stamkos returns.
Boston vs. Washington
Season Series: 2-1 Washington
In potentially the most interesting matchup of the round-robin, the Bruins will take on the Capitals for the fourth-time this season. It’s been six months since these teams have seen each other. The last time being a 7-3 rout by the Bruins on home ice. It is worth mentioning, that the last two goals in that game were empty netters, and that Washington did win the first two matchups, even if they did it narrowly.
Further, looking at shot statistics, Washington pretty much dominated. The team outshot Boston by more than 20 in the first and third games, and controlled CF% in all three contests. Lastly, we can expect a chippy matchup, as the two teams combined for 30 penalty minutes in their second game and 40 in their third. So buckle up, because this game could be a wild one.
Tampa Bay vs. Philadelphia
Season Series: 2-0 Tampa Bay
The less celebrated two of the four immune teams, will face off for a third time in the round-robin. They last played February 15th. The first game, played in January, was a close 1-0 win for the Lightning, where they controlled CF% at 58.20. In the second matchup, the Lightning won 5-3, collecting the tenth win on an 11-game streak.
Yet, luck definitely helped Tampa get the win, as they were outshot 33-24, and took 24 penalty minutes to Philadelphia’s 14. In the ten games following that loss to Tampa Bay, Philadelphia won nine in a row. The team’s nine-game win streak was snapped by none other than the Boston Bruins.
Boston vs. Tampa Bay
Season Series: 3-1 Tampa Bay
The heavyweights. If there’s a prop-bet for Doc Emrick to say, “no love lost between these teams,” hammer it. In the four times they have played this season, the winning team’s margin of victory has not exceed a goal. This excluding one empty netter the last time they played on March 7th.
Tampa Bay won that game on the road, but both teams combined for 94 penalty minutes. Chris Wagner fought Barclay Goodrow, Pat Maroon tackled Zdeno Chara, Sean Kuraly wrestled Alex Killorn, and Anthony Cirelli got into it with Charlie Coyle and so on.
Moving onto shot statistics, Tampa Bay controlled CF% in the first two games, which means they possessed the puck better as well. However, in the last two games, Boston had the higher percentage of total shots taken.
So, I would not count on shot statistics alone to predict the winner of this series. It may very well come down to which of the two Vezina candidates performs better. The past winner in Tampa’s Andrei Vaslievsky, or past runner-up in Boston’s Tuuka Rask.
Washington vs. Philadelphia
Season Series: 3-1 Philadelphia
Finally, The Capitals and Flyers have played four times this season. Though Washington won the first contest in a shootout, Philadelphia stole the next three. Plus, it seems the Flyers have been able to get the best of Braden Holtby, posting 12 goals in the last two matchups despite average shot totals.
Other Things To Consider
- In February, Boston traded for Ondrej Kase and Nick Ritchie, letting go of Danton Heinen and David Backes. It is yet to be seen whether this is the winning formula for the Bruins, but it can’t hurt to add size, toughness, and scoring to their middle-six forward group.
- For Tampa Bay, you still have to be concerned over how Andrei Vasilvesky might perform in the playoffs. Though he led the league in wins this past year, Vasilevsky carries the weight of a faulty postseason track record. In 2019, as we all know, Tampa Bay fell to Columbus in a series sweep. But the brunt of that loss fell heavily on Vasilevsky, as he posted a .856 save percentage and 3.82 goals against average.
- Another goalie who will be seeking redemption is Braden Holtby. He posted a career-low save percentage this year at .897. In fact, in 11 of his 47 starts, he posted a save percentage lower than .850. In addition to Holtby’s struggles, he also had a career high goals against average of 3.11 this past year.
- Finally, Philadelphia may have an advantage in this game format. Per NHL.com, “the round-robin games will be played with regular-season overtime and shootout rules with ties in the standings broken by regular-season points percentage.” This is significant, because the Flyers finished with the second-most shootout wins in the league this year with five.
- Also, in what has the potential to be the most heartening sports story you’ll ever hear, the Flyers are hopeful that winger Oscar Lindblom will return to play with the team after suffering from a rare form of cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma. Lindblom has been an inspiration for Philadelphia all season long, which is one of the many reasons the Flyers inked him to a three year deal yesterday.
The Western Conference
Moving out west. The handful of teams making the round-robin are St. Louis, Colorado, Las Vegas, and Dallas. It is a familiar group in playoff competition over the past couple years, but here’s why this year might be different.
St. Louis v.s. Colorado
Season series: Tied
It is no surprise these teams finished first and second, as they are the most well-rounded teams out west. Both teams have great defenses and goaltending, as each finished top ten in the league in goals against.
Though they split the season series, St. Louis pretty much rolled Colorado both in shots and CF% in all but one game this season. While the Avalanche won the latter two matchups, this young Colorado team could be vulnerable to a tougher, more experienced Blues’ group.
Las Vegas vs. Dallas
Season Series: Tied
Be mindful of the fact that Las Vegas is going through a coaching change this year in switching from Gerard Gallant to former Devils’ head coach Peter DeBoer. With DeBoer at the helm, the team is 15-5-2, after going 24-19-6 with Gerard Gallant. So, that tells you this Vegas group has refocused under the new coach. Since these teams played two close games this season, with pretty much identical shot statistics, you can probably expect this to be a razor close matchup.
Colorado vs. Dallas
Season Series: 4-0 Dallas
The Avalanche and Stars have faced-off four times this year, with Dallas winning all four. Yet, two of the games went to overtime or shootout, and all four of the games featured less than six goals. Not only that, Colorado dominated CF%, and outshot the Stars in all four games. So, it might be smart to hold your judgement of this matchup.
St. Louis v.s Las Vegas
Season Series: 2-1 Vegas
The Knights won two of three games in overtime against the Blues this year, controlling shots in those two and CF% in all three. Not to mention, they’re averaging 38 shots and 4.3 goals per game in St. Louis. But, if the Blues can limit high quality shots, star goaltender Jordan Binnington can likely take care of the rest.
Colorado v.s. Las Vegas
Season Series: 2-0 Colorado
Colorado defeated Las Vegas handily in both of their matchups this year. They won by scores of 6-1 and 7-3, controlling shots and CF% in both games. If Vegas wants to win this one, the team will need better from goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury only averaged an abysmal .831 save percentage against Colorado this season.
St. Louis vs. Dallas
Season Series: 4-1 St. Louis
In a rematch of last year’s Western Conference semi-finals, the Stanley Cup defending Blues will look to the team’s tough defense and solid goaltender to get the edge over Dallas once again. This season, the Blues played the Stars five times, and won four of them. They outscored them 17-10 and controlled shots in three of five games. Yet, the CF% never swung more than five percent in either team’s favor.
Other Things To Consider
- The Blues have much of the same team, and have exceeded expectations again despite injuries this season. Both Robert Thomas and Zach Sanford have upped their contributions, with increased point totals over less games this season. Plus, the team will also regain star Valdimir Tarasenko who recovered from a shoulder injury during lockdown.
- Unfortunately, Jay Bouwmeester won’t return this season for the Blues. This after suffering from a cardiac episode during a game on February 11th in Anaheim. A far more welcomed change on the back end occurred when the Blues traded Joel Edmundson for Justin Faulk last summer. Though it hasn’t been as fruitful of an exchange as they would have liked, it was a need-based trade of size for speed.
- The Avalanche have Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi Ryan Graves, and Cal Makar (again), plus two competitive goaltenders in Philip Grubauer and Pavel Francouz.
- The Dallas Stars have now have a grizzled playoff veteran in Joe Pavelski. Plus Roope Hintz and Denis Guraniov began to come along as a left wingers this year, combining for 62 points in 62 games played. Ben Bishop also had a career-year.
- Las Vegas may not be the most daunting team in the playoffs, but perhaps they should be. At the deadline, they added defenseman Alec Martinez in a trade with the LA Kings. Martinez is currently averaging the third most minutes on the team, and has recorded eight points in his first 10 games with Las Vegas. The Golden Knights will be ready to make a run again after being snubbed in Game 7 of the first round against San Jose last year.
If you’re like me you’re probably itching for playoff hockey after watching that. Well, the good news is that you can get a little taste of the action at the end of this month. As the NHL released an exhibition schedule to gear up for the playoff action. You can see this schedule below: