Detroit — Rarely has there been a more unpredictable NHL playoff season as this one promises to be.
But as the qualifying round begins Saturday in the hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto, NBC analyst Eddie Olczyk believes one certainty is out there.
Teams who win Game 1 of these best-of-five qualifying rounds have a big advantage in a short, quick, rapid-fire series.
“I’m not going to say it’s a must, but I’m ready to cross the T,” said Olczyk, a former player, during a teleconference Monday previewing the qualifying round. “It’s going to be absolutely pivotal.
“We haven’t had competitive hockey in a long time. We understand that everyone is playing from the same deck. But it’s going to be incredible to see how these things develop and how these series develop.”
Olczyk agreed with the belief of many other analysts around the NHL that these playoffs are completely wide open with no real favorite because of the four-month break caused by the pandemic.
“If you get goaltending, you have a shot," Olczyk said. "If you can stay hockey healthy, and obviously the most important thing is to stay away from the virus, you have a shot.
“The teams and managers and organizations that I have spoken with feel, ‘Why not us?’”
As Olczyk mentioned, goaltending, as usual, will be closely watched and extremely important to any team’s success — more so than ever.
But with four months of inactivity, and only limited ice time the last several weeks and one exhibition game this week before Saturday’s tournament start, goaltenders might be the most hard-pressed position.
“The goaltenders will have a tough time at the start,” said Brian Boucher, a former goaltender, and NBC analyst. “The reason I say that is I can think back to when I was getting back on the ice as a player in late July or early August and how much of a struggle it was and how much of an advantage the shooters had over me.
“You get into those practices and those skates with your teammates and it was never about playing defense, it was just about scoring goals, and as a goaltender, it was a frustrating time of year.”
Boucher and Patrick Sharp, a longtime forward and NHL analyst, both felt younger teams might have a slight edge.
“The teams that have the young offensive talent, that’ll be the first thing to come back, more than anything,” Boucher said. “It’ll come back quicker than the goaltenders, which might make for some great drama.”
Said Sharp: “Teams that have youth and have that speed, that play wide-open hockey and put an emphasis on skill and speed, they’ll be tough to keep up with in these early rounds.”
Sharp thought back to last season’s Stanley Cup Final series between Boston and St. Louis, and remembered the physicality, speed and anger in the memorable seven-game encounter.
Teams that can get close to that level of play, said Sharp, will do best in these playoffs.
“I’m excited to see how quick the players can get back to that level of intensity, with all that they are doing through off the ice,” Sharp said.
One team expected to be a factor in these playoffs are the Tampa Bay Lightning, who suffered a disastrous four-game sweep, and elimination, to Columbus in the last year’s first round.
“When I look at them, they have incredible goaltending, a little of everything on the back end (with) size and mobility and experience, and then you look up front, and (they have) a lot of depth,” Olczyk said. “They have some guys who some size and some bite.
“You have to be able to overcome adversity if you’re down in a game or series. They’re certainly good enough to get it done. They need their big guys to step up to the forefront.”
There's never been an NHL playoff season in the heat of summer, with the Stanley Cup being awarded in late September or early October.
With the NBA season's resumption this week, and baseball beginning, and various other sports slated to begin in late summer and early autumn, there is a chance the NHL could be shouldered out of sports fans' attention.
But Mike Emrick, NBC's lead play-by-play announcer, believes hockey fans will flock back, comparing this tournament to a March Madness.
"The competition we are going to see is going to wind up involving people just like the Stanley Cup would in the springtime," Emrick said.