Well, here we are...sports are back and, as of Saturday afternoon, that includes the NHL. The Stanley Cup Playoffs will kick off with our first meaningful hockey games in nearly five months, and there's a good chance you might have some questions -- even if you happened to watch most of the regular season -- thanks to the COVID-19 shutdown and the ongoing pandemic.
But if you don't consistently watch hockey, you've probably got A LOT of inquiries considering this year's format is quite different than what we've typically come to expect. I'm here to help.
Is there a bubble?
There are two! The NHL is playing its games in two hub cities -- Toronto (for Eastern Conference teams) and Edmonton (for Western Conference teams). And before you ask, yes, both cities are in Canada because the United States has screwed up this pandemic response so badly.
Eventually, the league will consolidate and play the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final in one hub city (Edmonton).
What's different about this year's playoffs?
Well, aside from the hub cities, the format itself. The playoff field has been expanded from the usual 16 teams to 24 teams. Eight teams (the four top teams in each conference) have been given a bye through to the Round of 16, while the others will need to compete for the final spots in each conference via a best-of-five play-in stage.
Once we get to the Round of 16, it'll essentially be structured like a normal postseason -- best-of-seven series the rest of the way through. The only major difference is that each round will re-seed rather than have set brackets.
Will there be fans?
No. But there will be fake crowd noise! (It doesn't sound that bad, I promise.)
Is there any real advantage to being the higher-seeded team in a series then?
Sort of. Higher-seeded teams will still get the extra home game. Though there may not be a true "home ice" advantage in the hub city, the NHL still gives last change to the home team. In simple terms, last change allows the home team to have more control over player-vs-player matchups on the ice.
Will the pandemic effect play or cause any weird alterations?
Play will largely look the same, though it's fair to expect some initial rust after a five-month break. It's also fair to expect that play might be a little sloppy thanks to hockey -- a sport played on frozen water -- being played in the middle of summer. The playing surfaces may not be at their best, especially when several games are played on them per day.
Is fighting still allowed?
Yes, there were fights in the exhibition games. But I should warn you that the frequency of fighting isn't what it used to be, and there tend to be even fewer fights during the playoffs.
So, who's involved? Give me a one-sentence elevator pitch for each team.
Okay, let's go by seeding then, 1-24.
- Boston Bruins: They've got the best first line in the league and won the East last year but there's a good chance you hate them if you're not from Boston.
- St. Louis Blues: They shocked everyone by winning it all last year and then finished first in the conference this year despite losing their best player -- Vladimir Tarasenko -- for almost the entire season, but Tarasenko is back after the COVID break.
- Tampa Bay Lightning: They're as talented and exciting as any team in the league but absolutely cannot be trusted in the playoffs after a historic choke last year.
- Colorado Avalanche: They were terrible a few years ago but now have a really fun, exciting team that has been steadily building towards success.
- Washington Capitals: They were known as playoff chokers for a long time but finally won it all a few years ago and now have to be taken seriously.
- Philadelphia Flyers: You like guys with orange hair? These are your guys. They were one of the most surprising teams in the league this season and went on a pretty outstanding run just before the league got shut down.
- Pittsburgh Penguins: Almost every key player on their team (including Sidney Crosby) got hurt this year and they still managed to have a pretty good season.
- Vegas Golden Knights: They're the NHL's newest team (only three seasons old) but have already had a bunch of success and looked like the best team in the West by the end of the regular season.
- Edmonton Oilers: Somehow still an underdog despite having two of the best players in the world (Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl).
- Dallas Stars: A defensive team that has doesn't score much.
- Carolina Hurricanes: They weren't taken seriously for a long time but then made a great run to the Eastern Conference Finals last year and have a lot of fun.
- Toronto Maple Leafs: They're stacked with offensive talent and can be a lot of fun to watch but they will ALWAYS find a way to punish their fans in the most painful way possible.
- Columbus Blue Jackets: A blue-collar team that prides itself in outworking everyone else.
- New York Islanders: See: Dallas Stars.
- Winnipeg Jets: They have a lot of fun offensive players and the best goalie in the league but, man, their defense STINKS.
- New York Rangers: An exciting young team that is rebuilding and probably still a few years away, but they've got one of the most exciting players in the league (Artemi Panarin).
- Calgary Flames: It seemed like last year was maybe their year and then they got eliminated in the first round, so...
- Vancouver Canucks: They've got a very talented young core and are always entertaining, for better or for worse.
- Florida Panthers: They're a punching bag franchise with a lot of talent (they were one of the best offensive teams in the league this year) but can never seem to achieve relevance. Also, they just spent $70 million on a goalie who stinks.
- Nashville Predators: They had a mess of a season but should have been better and seemed to be figuring it out (kind of) before the shutdown.
- Minnesota Wild: A painfully boring franchise that is rebuilding on the fly.
- Arizona Coyotes: Another punching bag franchise that is desperately hoping to do something this year, but their GM just quit on the team like a week ago so that's probably not a great sign.
- Chicago Blackhawks: You probably remember them for being really good, but times have changed.
- Montreal Canadiens: They shouldn't be here.
What players should I watch?
If I can only watch one series, which should it be?
I'll give you one from each conference. If you're looking for a lot of action, my guess is that Hurricanes-Rangers and Flames-Jets will be the two most exciting and entertaining.
What should I complain about to fit in?
The officiating is always a safe bet, especially when there's an offside review or goalie interference review. Don't worry about not knowing the right call...the NHL usually doesn't either.
Who should I blame when things go wrong for my team?
If you have no idea what you're talking about, always blame the goalie -- especially his name is Tuukka Rask. He sucks and everything bad that has ever happened to you is always his fault.