The winter sports and their summer bubbles return to us this weekend, because we’re descending into the Upside-Down. The NHL has decamped to Toronto and Edmonton, with a modified playoff system kicking straight off on Saturday. It’s a bit run-before-you-can-walk, with each team only getting one preseason game before playing games that really matter (except for the best four teams in each conference, who will start with three games that only kind of matter before the actual first round starts. We’ll get to that when the first round begins). Hockey is weird and random enough, but after a nearly five-month break and then chucking everyone into the deep-end promises only to heighten that.
So we’ll start with the four play-in series in each conference, starting with the East. They’re kind of playoff games, but not entirely, but the losers definitely go home and the winners keep playing. So that basically makes them playoff games. Except the losers might get the #1 draft pick as consolation. We’ll leave that part out.
Anyway, here are the play-ins that will determine who joins the four top teams in the actual first round you recognize and remember. Except they’ll all be in the same place with no fans. You can’t talk about sports, or anything, in 2020, without feeling like you’re in a Dali painting.
Dec. 10: Montreal 4, PITTSBURGH 1
Jan. 4: Pittsburgh 3, MONTREAL 2 (OT)
Feb. 14: PITTSBURGH 4, Canadiens 1
Why The Penguins Will Win:
Spector: Carey Price was a focal point of discussion in the hockey world as this playoff system was designed, and the way the conversation went was that some people would say that, oh, jeez, you wouldn’t want to have a good team like Pittsburgh run into an elite goalie like Carey Price, followed by other people pointing out that Carey Price hasn’t been an elite goalie for three years, and had a .909 save percentage while leading the NHL in goals allowed before the pandemic. The Pens have Malkin and presumably Crosby, though he’s been hurt of late. They have goalie questions, but the Habs do too. And they got Jake Guenztel back.
Why The Canadiens Will Win:
Fels: Well, even though Price hasn’t been PRICE in a couple years, he can still be PRICE for three to four games. The Habs are an analytic darling, they just can’t get their glittering possession numbers to count due to no front-line finishers and spotty goaltending. But in a four- or five-game stretch, any player can turn into a top scorer. They’re small and fast so they won’t get outskated by the Pens. Perhaps Nick Suzuki or Brendan Gallagher pop off, though in this open-hellmouth of a year it would make perfect sense for MAGA-chud Max Domi to be the player of the series.
Nov. 7: New York 4, CAROLINA 2
Nov. 27: NEW YORK 3, Carolina 2
Dec. 27: New York 5, CAROLINA 3
Feb. 21: New York 5, CAROLINA 2
Why The Canes Will Win:
Fels: The Canes are to nerd-number hockey fans what the A’s were to nerd-number baseball fans 15-20 years ago. They do everything right, in that they find undervalued players who keep the puck and generate chances, and they play fast and exciting hockey. And then they get undone by their goalies. Even with their dodgy goaltending, the Canes get scoring from everywhere in the lineup and their defense is just about the most mobile in the league. Artemi Panarin can’t outshoot four lines. They also have the know-how now after a trip to the conference final last year.
Why The Rangers Will Win:
Spector: It’s weird that the Rangers swept the season series, and weirder still that they traded Brady Skjei to Carolina in February and now wind up facing their former defenseman here. Since this is in Toronto, is David Ayres allowed in the bubble? Because, well, the goalie situation here isn’t so great for the Hurricanes. It seems likely to be Igor Shesterkin in net for the Rangers, and this could be a star turn for the rookie goalie, supported by an offensive attack led by MVP candidate Artemi Panarin. The Canes are really good, but this is a case where the season series broke the way it did for a reason and the matchup is a nightmare for them.
Oct. 12: NEW YORK 3, Florida 2 (SO)
Nov. 9: NEW YORK 2, Florida 1
Dec. 12: New York 3, FLORIDA 1
Why The Islanders Will Win:
Fels: It’s a natural reaction these days to see any bit of news and just curl up in a ball on the couch and turn off the lights, which is the same effect Islanders hockey can have. There might not be a more boring team to watch than the Islanders, as they’re the Barry Trotz fever dream. But considering this is basically October hockey (everyone’s had an offseason), it’s harder to lock in a defensive system from jump street when everyone’s conditioning and timing is off by a beat or two. Still, either Semyon Varlamov or Thomas Griess can get hot for a handful of games, which is what the Isles will count on. The Panthers don’t really have a true “trap-breaker” D-man other than aging Keith Yandle, and that will be their undoing if they can’t get past the Blue and Orange. Keep it tight and hope the neophyte Panthers start squeezing will be the mantra.
Why The Panthers Will Win:
Spector: This is kind of cheap, but “the Islanders haven’t won since February” is a true statement. So is “the Islanders haven’t beaten a playoff team since before Valentine’s Day.” After beating the Flyers on Feb. 11, New York lost 11 of 13 games before the shutdown, and their playoff berth was basically saved by the bell. Not that it really matters almost five months since their last game, but they’re basically getting a new lease on their season here. The same could be said of Sergei Bobrovsky, who was a tire fire in his first season with the Panthers, but now gets to try to reclaim his form as Playoff Bob, the guy who led the Blue Jackets to a sweep of the seemingly invincible Lightning last year. Either way, someone rides a redemption narrative into the next round.
Oct. 4: Toronto 4, COLUMBUS 1
Oct. 21: Columbus 4, TORONTO 3 (OT)
Why Toronto Will Win:
Spector: So, I haven’t been really deep on analysis in picking these series, and the reason should be pretty clear: We have no idea how these teams are going to handle not having played since March, how healthy everyone is, what kind of challenges might come up along the way… it’s an unprecedented situation and these are best-of-5 series in August. Who knows? Any NHL-level goalie can get on a three-game heater and steal one of these series. But, hell, the season is pretty unpredictable, too. The Leafs, on paper, are miles better than the Jackets, yet both teams finished with 81 points. The Leafs losing would be hilarious. The Leafs going on a deep run at an event they’re hosting, but that no fans can attend, would be more grimly hilarious. That’s a 2020 kind of hilarious. Plus, they have to lose to the Bruins later on.
Why Columbus Will Win:
Fels: Mostly due to Toronto first round voodoo. The Jackets have the mobile defense to deal with the Leafs’ galaxy of weapons, but not the forwards. Again, it’s likely these are going to be high-scoring games, just due to rust and silliness, and the more goals that go in the more likely they are to come off Leafs sticks. Still, the Jackets are one of the better defensive teams around, and if they get Game 1 all the gremlins in the Leafs’ heads will start jumping around and getting into the fruit punch. And Freddie Andersen has made a career out of being just good enough to break your heart when it counts. Even with no fans and insulated in a bubble, playing every game in Toronto is going to be pressure-filled, and Leafs fans will storm the Bastille if the Leafs lose a game or two to the Jackets to make it worse. Mike Babcock wasn’t up to the challenge, and this is a lot to ask of Sheldon Keefe. Adding to that pressure is that thanks to a flat salary cap the next year or two, the Leafs might be staring at their best and last chance. I think the gremlins just found the Whip-Its.