The NHL's return-to-play is set to finally get underway this weekend with 24 teams jumping straight into a modified, expanded playoff picture to compete for the Stanley Cup. The league will be split up in two hub cities -- the Eastern Conference in Toronto and the Western Conference in Edmonton.
There are plenty of questions surrounding the league's restart and the teams involved in it, so let's take some time to examine one burning question for every team as they prepare to resume action. First, we'll start with the 12 representatives in the East.
Boston Bruins: Will they get enough secondary scoring?
The Bruins' greatest strength is their top line, which often consists of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. That trio comprises one of the league's most dominant and fearsome two-way units in hockey, capable of outproducing and/or shutting down top competition. Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak combined to score 47 percent of Boston's goals this season, but where the Bruins often run into problems is when those three names are held quiet.
Secondary scoring hasn't been great but the issue has been mitigated by the fact that the Bruins have gotten top defense and goaltending all year long. Will they be able to survive relying so heavily on the top line in the playoffs? Or will they see a timely bump in production from the likes of David Krejci, Charlie Coyle, Jake DeBrusk, Ondrej Kase, etc? Depth production could make or break the Bruins' chances, especially if defense/goaltending takes a dip.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Will they find postseason redemption?
We all know what happened to the Lightning last year -- they had a historically great regular season, only to be swept out of the playoffs in the first round in what can only be described as an equally historic collapse. They had their struggles with consistency this year but also have an insanely talented roster and can be dominant when they're at their best. This core group has found postseason success in years past and they'll need to do it again to wash out the bitter taste of last postseason's disappointment.
There was some debate as to who the Caps might start in net once this postseason got underway. Braden Holtby has been their guy in net for a long time (including their 2018 run to a Stanley Cup championship) but his performance has taken a relative dip over the last three years. This season, rookie goaltender (and seemingly the Caps' future in net) Ilya Samsonov made a strong first impression.
But Samsonov suffered a season-ending injury during the coronavirus shutdown and he won't be with the team for its playoff run. That means it's Holtby's net, which may be a bit concerning considering he's coming off a season in which he had a career-worst save percentage of .897 and GSAA of -16.76. However, he's been a rock for them in postseasons past and his impending free agency might provide some extra motivation.
Philadelphia Flyers: Did the shutdown kill their momentum?
The Flyers were one of the more surprising teams during this regular season. They finished just one point off the division lead in an extremely competitive Metro and they had a full head of steam before the season went into shutdown, going 9-1 in their final 10 games before the pause. They looked to be a legitimate contender over the final few months of the year and were poised to take a lot of momentum into the postseason.
The coronavirus shutdown may have helped some teams (whether it stopped a downward skid or provided time for injuries to heal) but the Flyers can certainly be looked at as a team that was hurt by the pause given how well they were playing. Will they be able to pick up where they left off following this reset or will they experience some of the issues they dealt with in the first half of last season?
Pittsburgh Penguins: Can they stay healthy?
That's been a question hanging over the Penguins all year long. Pittsburgh has been hit by significant injuries to key players throughout the season, including extended absences from Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Jake Guentzel and more. The long break has helped in this regard -- Guentzel should be able to return after what was believed to be season-ending surgery earlier in the year -- but that doesn't mean they're in the clear. Nick Bjugstad and Dominik Simon are still out of commission and Crosby is dealing with an undisclosed issue that has left his status up in the air.
It was impressive to see the Penguins find as much success as they did this year despite so many key injuries, but will they be able to stop their string of bad injury luck in the postseason? And if not, do they have the depth and resilience to survive key losses when it matters most?
Carolina Hurricanes: How will the goaltending hold up?
The Hurricanes were one of the unexpected darlings of last year's Stanley Cup Playoffs, making an unlikely run all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals before getting swept by Boston. They'll head into this postseason with more expectations, and for good reason -- they've got an exciting young core with some veteran leadership mixed in, an extremely strong defensive corps and depth.
But goaltending remains an area of uncertainty for the Canes. Petr Mrazek and James Reimer aren't known to be the most reliable or game-changing netminders and Carolina finished tied for 16th in collective save percentage during the regular season. Mrazek is likely to get the nod as playoff starter and he had his share of issues between the pipes last postseason.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Can they finally break through with this current core?
The Leafs have become a league punching bag for their inability to find postseason success, especially of late. They haven't won a playoff series since 2004 and have been bounced in the first round in each of the last three years. They have one of the most explosive and talented core groups in hockey with Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, William Nylander but those guys are collectively making over $40 million on the cap per year and the pressure is on for them to break through in the playoffs.
Despite coming into the season with lofty expectations, the Maple Leafs had a tumultuous and frustrating campaign. They struggled with inconsistency and continue to have trouble in their own end of the ice. But the hiatus gives the Leafs a chance to start fresh with a playoff run, one that could have major implications on how they approach the coming offseason.
Columbus Blue Jackets: How far will grit take them?
The Blue Jackets may not have the most polished or talented roster in the East but they're a team that can present matchup nightmares against certain opponents. They play hard and they play tough and that can help bridge the talent gap -- it's a big reason why they were able to shock the world by beating a superior Tampa Bay Lightning team in last year's playoffs. Granted, this year's Columbus lineup isn't as impressive as last year's, but they may provide a challenging matchup for Toronto in the play-in round.
Will they be able to grit and grind their way past the Leafs into the Round of 16 and, if so, how far will that hard-nosed mentality and style of play carry them? Will that style be more sustainable after months of rest?
New York Islanders: Will they score enough?
The Islanders were sliding hard before the NHL went into shutdown and the break may have saved their playoff hopes. Despite their late struggles, we've learned not to take the Isles lightly under Barry Trotz's direction. They're a strong defensive team that's structured and tough to play against but their offense isn't going to scare many (ranked 22nd in offense this year). They're opportunistic and usually score just enough to win, but will that approach be better or worse off following this break? Will the Islanders' top offensive talent be able to contribute enough to pick up the defense/goaltending if it's not at its best?
New York Rangers: How will the goaltending situation play out?
The Rangers will have an interesting decision to make in net when it comes time for them to take the ice for their play-in series against the Carolina Hurricanes. They have three goalies on the roster that all have a decent case for the starting job: The aging vet in Henrik Lundqvist, the young emerging stud in Igor Shesterkin or the steady Alexandar Georgiev. It remains a mystery who will man the crease for New York.
Maybe they show some loyalty and give Lundqvist one more crack at carrying a playoff run. Maybe Georgiev's larger body of work inspires more faith. Maybe they decide that they're ready to make a strong commitment to Shesterkin and hand him the keys as the goalie of the future. Or maybe there's some sort of committee approach.
The Panthers committed $70 million to Bobrovsky last offseason in hopes that the two-time Vezina winner would provide some long-term stability in net. That hasn't exactly worked out thus far, as Bob had one of the worst years of his career in his first season in Florida -- posting a .900 save percentage and a GSAA of -14.91.
He's capable of much better and the Panthers will likely only go as far as Bobrovsky can take them, but he seems to be rather unpredictable at this point. He can go stretches where he looks terrible, then follow it up with stretches where he reminds us of his elite pedigree. Can he be great for Florida and, if so, for how long?
Montreal Canadiens: Is it even worth trying to make a run?
Listen, it's very hard to imagine any team purposely throwing in the towel and giving up on a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup, and I certainly don't think the Canadiens are going to do that. But if there were ever a team that it might make sense for, it's probably Montreal. Simply put, they don't deserve to be in the playoffs to begin with. In 71 games this year, they only had 19 wins in regulation and are the 24th of 24 seeds in this expanded playoff.
Anything can happen once you get in the dance, but the chances of Montreal making a serious run aren't great. And when you consider there's a potential franchise-changing talent -- one who happens to be a Quebec product at a position of need for the Habs -- waiting for one of the eight teams that are eliminated in the play-in round, coming up empty in qualifying round might actually be the best-case scenario for Montreal.