Detroit — A month or two ago, it wouldn’t be surprising if the mere thought brought serious doubt.
But the NHL has arrived at this point to the start of the NHL playoffs, with a slate of games beginning Saturday.
When the NHL season was paused March 12, no one knew if the Stanley Cup would be awarded.
But with each passing day, confidence builds that the trophy will be handed out, after what should be a wide-open and potentially exciting playoff season.
A total of 24 teams, 12 apiece in the Eastern and Western conferences, are set up in the hub cities of Edmonton (West) and Toronto (East).
The top four teams in each conference will play a three-game round robin for seeding purposes in the first round.
The teams seeded 5th through 12th will play a best-of-five series, with the winners advancing to the first round — and the losing teams headed to the draft lottery 2.0 with a chance to win the first pick overall.
Not a bad consolation prize.
From the first round on, it’s the usual NHL playoffs, with best-of-seven series, and the only difference being this season teams will be reseeded every round (there’s no playoff bracket, as there usually is in the NHL).
Here are some key questions in this qualifying round of the playoffs:
1. Do younger teams have an advantage?
This will be so interesting to watch. There is a prevailing opinion out there that maybe the younger, fast-skating, speed-oriented teams might be able to recapture what they had going four months ago quicker than older teams.
We shall see.
Teams like Edmonton, Vancouver, Carolina, to name a few, are younger teams that could definitely put a scare in opponents.
But put them in a pressure-packed playoff series, can that youth and athleticism overcome the know-how of a savvy team that’s been through the NHL playoff pressures?
2. Will the statistically better teams win?
The playoffs always are considered a crapshoot, never more so than this summer.
The prevailing belief is you can pretty much throw what happened during the regular season four months ago out of the window. The time off has largely evened things out.
It would not be shocking to see several or more lower seeds come out of this play-in round with series victories. There are a lot of match-ups that look so even, that calling them upsets would be stretching the point.
3. How will Tarasenko's return affect the Blues?
All defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis did without its leading goal-scorer most of the season was put together the Western Conference’s best record.
Now, Vladimir Tarasenko is back and healthy after a shoulder surgery, and provides the deep, tough Blues with one more dynamic weapon.
Having all that time off likely recharged the Blues after last spring's long playoff run and a difficult regular season. Getting Tarasenko back seems like a nice prize for the hard work.
Tarasenko is only one of a number of key players who are back, as rarely teams have entered the NHL playoffs so healthy, thanks again to the time off.
4. How seriously will teams take the tournament seeding games?
While the best-of-five play-in series are taking place, the top four seeds in each conference — Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia in the East, and St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas in the West — will play round-robin games to decide the top four seeds in each conference.
Does it matter what seed those teams are? Especially with no true home-ice advantage available in these playoffs?
It’ll be interesting to see how these coaching staffs handle these games. There’s already talk of maybe sitting out stars for a game, to protect against any sort of injury, while mainly using these games for conditioning and timing purposes.
5. Can Hellebuyck continue to carry the Jets?
The Commerce Township native won 31 games and had a sizzling .922 save percentage, and is a deservedly a finalist for the Vezina Trophy (best goaltender).
Now, can Connor Hellebuyck continue that elite level of goaltending into a short series against rival Calgary?
Hellebuyck covers up so many of the Jets’ defensive issues. He was playing with tons of confidence.
If Hellebuyck continues to excel, the Jets will be a dangerous team in the West.
6. How will Arizona react to its GM leaving?
John Chayka and the Coyotes parted ways last week in a public, messy divorce. It was rather sudden and shocking, and left many eyebrows raised around the NHL.
The Coyotes have had a nice season, taking a step forward in their development, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them win a round or two.
A general manager leaving doesn’t usually impact a team much, but this particular exit, and the harsh words involved, might have the Coyotes’ focus diverted.
7. Can Crosby, Malkin make one more Cup run?
They’ve won three Stanley Cups together in Pittsburgh. Can they win another?
This might be their best chance, with a deep, healthy lineup that is playoff tested.
Sidney Crosby was nursing some sort of undisclosed injury last week, but returned to play Tuesday’s exhibition game. Evgeni Malkin has had an outstanding season all the way through for Pittsburgh.
It’s been said for many years now, and holds true this summer: If those two stars are healthy, the Penguins always have a shot at the Cup.
8. Are the Oilers a true sleeper?
Former Red Wings general manager Ken Holland has the Oilers as the No. 5 seed in the West, playing a scary, veteran, three-time Stanley Cup champion Chicago team.
But the Oilers, with stars Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, are considered the trendy sleeper Stanley Cup winner by many analysts.
Suddenly, the Oilers appear to have the right amount of youth and experience, and Holland acquiring Andreas Athanasiou and Tyler Ennis at the trade deadline has bolstered the Oilers offensive depth.
Goaltending is crucial, as always. So it’s up to Edmonton’s Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen to show they’re capable of 19 victories in this tournament.
9. Who’ll be the N.Y. Rangers’ goaltender?
The Rangers are considered a dangerous team in the East, but a major topic continues to be who’ll be the Rangers’ starting goaltender?
Of course, Henrik Lundqvist has been the Rangers’ elite goalie for many years.
But Lundqvist’s performance slid this season, and young Igor Shesterkin largely took over the starting job and helped lead the Rangers.
The two split time during Wednesday’s exhibition loss to the New York Islanders.
Despite Lundqvist’s pedigree and history, it’s believed coach David Quinn will go with Shesterkin against a Carolina team the Rangers swept in four games during the regular season.
10. What will fans think of these playoffs?
Sports fans have been aching to watch games since the pandemic hit.
Now, they’ll have the NHL and NBA playoffs, along with baseball humming along, and big golf tournaments and NASCAR and various other sports taking place.
And football isn’t far behind (maybe).
Are fans going to return to hockey this late in the summer? There’s going to be a lot of hockey on the plate this weekend, basically through these play-in and first rounds, and the true fans should enjoy it.
But it’s been so long since the hockey season was paused, and let’s face it, the weather isn’t conducive to be thinking about hockey.
There are no fans in the stands, which noticeably took some atmosphere out of the exhibition game broadcast this week.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see hockey fans return in full force deeper into these playoffs, as the autumn nights begin arriving.
Ted Kulfan looks at the qualifying round series.
(5) Pittsburgh vs. (12) Montreal
► Records: Pittsburgh 40-23-6 (.623 winning percentage); Montreal 31-31-9 (.500)
► Prediction: Pittsburgh, with so many more offensive options, in four games.
(6) Carolina vs. (11) New York Rangers
► Records: Carolina 38-25-5 (.596); N.Y. Rangers 37-28-5 (.564)
► Prediction: Carolina in five, in a close, epic battle.
(7) New York Islanders vs. (10) Florida
► Records: N.Y. Islanders 35-23-10 (.588); Florida 35-26-8 (.565)
► Prediction: Florida in five — but it’ll have to look better than it did Wednesday.
(8) Toronto vs. (9) Columbus
► Records: Toronto 36-25-9 (.579); Columbus 33-22-15 (.579)
► Prediction: Toronto gains confidence, advancing in four games.
(1) Boston (44-14-12, .714); (2) Tampa Bay (43-21-6, .657); (3) Washington (41-20-8, .652); (4) Philadelphia (41-21-7, .645)
► Prediction: For what it’s worth, Tampa Bay will win this round robin to be the No. 1 seed.
(5) Edmonton vs. (12) Chicago
► Records: Edmonton 37-25-9 (.585), Chicago 32-30-8 (.514).
► Prediction: Edmonton in five entertaining games.
(6) Nashville vs. (11) Arizona
► Records: Nashville 35-26-8 (.565), Arizona 33-29-8 (.529).
► Prediction: Nashville in five close games.
(7) Vancouver vs. (10) Minnesota
► Records: Vancouver 36-27-6 (.565), Minnesota 35-27-7 (.558)
► Prediction: Vancouver’s young offensive stars advance in 4.
(8) Calgary vs. (9) Winnipeg
► Records: Calgary 36-27-7 (.564), Winnipeg 37-28-6 (.563).
► Prediction: Winnipeg in five physical, hard-fought games.
(1) St. Louis (42-19-10, .662); (2) Colorado (42-20-8, .657); (3) Vegas (39-24-8, .606); (4) Dallas (37-24-8, .594)
► Prediction: St. Louis continues its machine-like mentality and gains the No. 1 seed.