Before this year, the NHL never had to pause a regular season for more than a few weeks. But there’s nothing normal about 2020 and, after a four-month delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHL is finally on track to resume the 2019-20 campaign.
If you’re a fan of one of the 24 participating franchises, it’s great. More teams than ever have a shot at the Stanley Cup, and everything that happened before the March 12th shutdown has been forgotten. But for a few teams, that’s a bummer, as the break-in action meant saying goodbye to significant momentum gained during one of the most important stretches of the regular season. For others, the pause mercifully interrupted a fall from grace, with the delayed return offering a refreshed opportunity to turn things around.
Here’s a look at five streaks from the end of the regular season worth keeping an eye on as the playoffs are set to kick-off:
If any team got hurt the most by the shutdown, it was the Flyers. After February 1st, only the Colorado Avalanche had more points than the Flyers (30 and 28 respectively). The season shutdown put an end to an incredible 9-1-0 run that made the Flyers look indestructible in spite of long-term absences for Oskar Lindblom, Samuel Morin, and Nolan Patrick (among others).
The biggest reason for Philadelphia’s success was its abundance of depth. Five players had at least 15 points over the final 18 games, with 11 posting at least .50 points-per-game in that span. The Flyers and Rangers tied for the most goals – with 71 apiece – after February 1st, even with the Flyers playing three games fewer than much of the league. Defensively, the Flyers allowed just 42 goals against – the fourth-fewest – while allowing the third-fewest shots per game at 27.6.
The whole operation was running at full speed and, with a few others coming off injured reserve, Philly will have no excuse to not go far this postseason. With a guaranteed spot in the first round, the Flyers can focus on securing a high seed once the playoffs start to get spicy.
New York Rangers
Was there a more exciting young team to watch in the second half than the Rangers? The inexperienced roster went from being a bottom-feeding, underachieving squad – using the team’s seventh defenseman on the middle six – to one of the most feared outfits as the season wore on.
In the final 30 games of the season, Mika Zibanejad (44) and Artemi Panarin (40) ranked third and fourth in the league in scoring, respectively. Those dominant offensive performances helped the Rangers finish fifth in the second half with 18 wins and 37 points, just nine points behind the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning. Having two of the best players in the league helps when accounting for 71 goals in the final month and a half, as the Rangers tied the Philadelphia Flyers in that department to cap off the regular season. Igor Shestyorkin was nearly unbeatable with a 10-2-0 record in 12 games, but a car accident in late February prevented him from finishing the regular season. Shestyorkin will be ready to go in August and the Rangers should be in good shape with him between the pipes, though you can’t help but question whether or not a rookie goaltender can seal the deal, regardless of his previous experience.
The Rangers have one of the most inexperienced (but fun) D-cores in the league, highlighted by rookies Tony DeAngelo and Adam Fox. Both finished in the top 10 in defensive scoring in the final 20 games, but the Rangers finished sixth in goals allowed over that stretch, with 61. That’s still the biggest weakness for the Rangers, but at least the team has no issues putting pucks in the net. As long as you score more than the other team, who cares how many you allow, right? The Rangers will need their beatdown-style offense to show up at full force if the 2020 playoffs are to be a success, which is something the Rangers seem capable of achieving.
If you had little faith in the Wild heading into February, we wouldn’t blame you. They were dead last in the Central Division and seemingly in no position to make a post-season run – until this new format took shape. A coaching change in February provided a major boost and, by March 11th, the Wild found themselves with a whole new identity. Under the direction of new bench boss Dean Everson, the Wild’s 8-4-0 record in 12 games was good for 11th in the league before the season ended – just four points behind the league-leading St. Louis Blues.
Everson found a way to make the team spark despite not having any real stars to rally around. He instead got the most out of Kevin Fiala (16 points), got secondary scoring out of struggling forwards Alex Galchenyuk and Luke Kunin, and showcased what the team was capable of after overcoming major hurdles early in the season.
But the team is still far from being a legitimate Cup contender. Minny’s top six is one of the worst in the NHL and the defense can be shaky at times, relying on its depth to carry the slack. Can the Wild depend on Alex Stalock – a 32-year-old career backup goaltender – to lead the team in the post-season for the first time? Stalock was Minnesota’s best player on many nights, allowing two or fewer goals in four of his final seven games to show how good he can be down the stretch, but is that enough? His post-season resumé is quite short.
The Wild overcame a clear identity crisis to become red hot when the games started to matter more. The long hiatus could be a tough one to overcome, but the team is healthy and ready to go. Everything just needs to unfold perfectly right off the bat.
When the Tampa Bay Lightning fell to the Columbus Blue Jackets in shocking fashion last spring, many pointed to the quiet play of Nikita Kucherov as a major factor. Kucherov’s 128 regular-season points were not only the most by a Russian in NHL history, but good enough to hold a 12-point advantage over Connor McDavid for the league best. Still, when it mattered most, Kucherov was conspicuously absent from the goal column – with just two assists and a one-game suspension to his credit – in that fateful series against Columbus.
Kucherov didn’t repeat his on-ice dominance during the 2019-20 regular season, but he was one of the best players in the league prior to the shutdown. From January 1st until March 11th, Kucherov’s 44 points were good for fourth in the NHL, just four behind Leon Draisaitl in first. Meanwhile, Kucherov’s 28 points in five-a-side action were tops. This is exactly what the Lightning need to continue in the post-season, especially if Steven Stamkos is out for an extended period of time. Prior to last season, Kucherov proved himself as a stout playoff performer with 59 points in 62 games, so that’s the type of player that needs to be rejuvenated to face one of the most unique playoff formats in league history.
What in the world happened to the Capitals? They were one of the worst teams in the final month and a half with a 6-8-3 record tallying just 15 points. For a club considered to be a top Stanley Cup contender out of the gate, how did everything fall apart? Well, just about everything.
The Capitals couldn’t seem to put together a reliable defensive unit each night, scratching various players down the stretch to see if they could pinpoint the issue. The team’s 16.9 power-play percentage was 24th in the NHL in the second half, compared to their mark of 21.3 in the first half (11th). Braden Holtby’s struggles as one of the league’s worst goaltenders continued, highlighted by a goals-saved-above-average of minus-6.68 that placed him 71st out of 75 goalies. Washington’s biggest trade deadline acquisition – Ilya Kovalchuk – had just one goal in the final seven games, while Alex Ovechkin (6) and Garnet Hathaway (3) were the only players with more than two.
That’s not what Capitals fans became accustomed to when the club led the league in the first half with a 27-9-5 record. On paper, Washington has one of the best lineups in the league – arguably better than when the team won the Stanley Cup just two years ago. The Caps are expected to return to action with a full, healthy roster, meaning coach Todd Reirden has no excuses. They have to be a threat heading into the fall. At the very least, their late-season slide made them a strong betting option compared to other top units in the East.
Which of these streaks are most likely to continue?