The Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs were chased out of their home rinks and out of the NHL’s playoff bubbles, and with them went many of the league’s top stars. That's not all bad, because it creates a chance for young stars-in-the-making to shine on center stage.
The Philadelphia Flyers’ decades-long search for a franchise goaltender ended with the emergence of 21-year-old Carter Hart, who boosted them to No. 1 in the East by compiling a .966 save percentage and 1.00 goals-against average in round-robin play. His childhood idol was Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price, his next opponent. The Canadiens, who ranked 24th when the NHL paused play in March, protected Price well in their qualifying-round upset of the Pittsburgh Penguins. “We knew we got a second chance here, a little bit of a second life, given where the season was when it was stopped for COVID,” said defenseman Shea Weber, the anchor of the formidable defense against Pittsburgh. Price will have to be that good or better against the Flyers, who have depth and balance.
Columbus defenseman Seth Jones, 25, averaged a postseason-high 29 minutes and 28 seconds’ of ice time in the Blue Jackets’ dismissal of the star-studded Maple Leafs and he will play big minutes against Tampa Bay’s prolific forwards. Columbus upset the Lightning in the first round last year and could prevail again because Tampa Bay must contend with injuries to center Steven Stamkos and franchise defenseman Victor Hedman.
Carolina will rely on skillful 23-year-old Sebastian Aho, who’s tied for second in postseason scoring with eight points, and electrifying 20-year-old Andrei Svechnikov against the stacked but stumbling Boston Bruins. It's a concern for the Bruins that top-liners Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak had no goals while the team went 0-3 in round-robin play and fell from No. 1 to No. 4. Boston swept Carolina in the 2019 East final but these Hurricanes are deeper and are capable of winning.
Anthony Beauvillier, 23, led the New York Islanders past Florida in qualifying play with three goals and five points but the Capitals will be a tougher challenge. Washington winger Alex Ovechkin, 34, had no points in round-robin play but is experienced enough to turn up his energy when it matters. An oddity: Islanders coach Barry Trotz coached Washington to the Cup in 2018.
In the West, Chicago right wing Dominik Kubalik, a former Kings draft pick and now a rookie-of-the-year finalist, continued his excellence by scoring three goals and six points against Edmonton. Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford, who missed much of summer camp while recovering from the novel coronavirus, brings Cup-winning experience. They're an underdog against the Vegas Golden Knights, who earned the No. 1 seed in round-robin play, but Chicago center Jonathan Toews (four goals, seven points) looked like his three-time-Cup-winning self against the Oilers.
Arizona’s qualifying-round elimination of Minnesota was the Coyotes’ first postseason triumph since 2012. Clayton Keller, 22, and Phil Kessel, 32, led a balanced attack with four points each. The Coyotes are trending upward but can’t match Colorado’s game-breakers. Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar, 21, deserved a spot as the third rookie of the year finalist.
Sean Monahan, 25, led Calgary with two goals and six points against Winnipeg and was unusually fiery in a post-series video interview. “We’ve had chances in the playoffs before and we’ve been embarrassed, obviously, and knocked out a few times,” he said after the Flames’ first series win since 2015. “Right now, you look at our team, and everybody has bought in. The character of our team has stepped up.” The Flames should defeat Dallas, which will need 21-year-old defenseman Miro Heiskanen (35 points in 68 regular-season games) to galvanize an offense that was quiet in round-robin games.
Dynamic defenseman Quinn Hughes, also a rookie of the year finalist, will be in the spotlight for Vancouver against the defending champion St. Louis Blues, who fell from the top spot to No. 4 after going 0-2-1 in round-robin play. Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko, who emerged as a star last spring, had no points in two round-robin games but the Blues have enough resources to win this round.
The New York Rangers, though swept by Carolina, won a major consolation prize on Monday: their pingpong ball soared above those of the seven other qualifying-round losers during Phase 2 of the draft lottery, giving them the right to draft consensus No. 1 pick Alexis Lafreniere. No lottery format would have pleased everyone but the qualifying-round losers shouldn't have been eligible for the No. 1 pick. The Kings previously got the second pick and the Ducks got the sixth pick.
Otherwise, the NHL’s return has been entertaining and safely done, with the league reporting no positive COVID-19 tests for a second straight week. The familiar best-of-seven format will prevail from now on, and some previously unknown players should become familiar soon.