Early thoughts on the NHL return to play

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We were forced to wait nearly five months for meaningful hockey to return to our television sets. The first weekend did not disappoint.

From instant rivalries to underdog winners, we got the playoff chaos we’re accustomed to, but featuring more teams than we’re used to. With the first-ever 24-team format, there were games any time you turned on the TV with a varying level of drama after every puck drop. But this time, more fanbases were involved, bringing everyone back together for the first time in what felt like forever.

Let’s take a look at a few of the biggest storylines from the first weekend of action:

The tournament structure is a big success

Hockey all day? Usually that’s reserved for the post-Christmas Spengler Cup/World Junior Championship/NHL stretch, but we finally have it on a consistent basis – in the summer, nonetheless. We’ve already experienced the current tournament structure and it’s fair to say it’s been a great success.

There was a bit of a lull on Sunday with back-to-back games involving round-robin match-ups instead of the meaningful play-in round, but it’s still hockey. There are worse ways to spend your afternoon in a pandemic than watching the NHL’s top teams battle it out before the qualification round hits full steam. Throughout the return, the days have been littered with games throughout the afternoon, highlighted by around 13 hours of action on Saturday. There was little overlap, a bit of a break in between evening games and even saw a thrilling overtime contest between Montreal and Pittsburgh. It’s still yet to be seen if burnout becomes a thing with so many games crammed in together, but so far, so good. Bring on the hockey.

Connor McDavid is still the best

A rested, healthy Connor McDavid? Yeah, he’s quite good. McDavid lost much of the summer to recover from a serious knee injury, leaving some to wonder just how good he’d be in 2019-20. Despite suffering a further injury in January, McDavid finished second to teammate Leon Draisaitl in league scoring and further proved that he’s one of the greatest of his generation.

Through two playoff games, he’s done anything but disappoint. It started with a three point night in Game 1 and was amplified by a hat-trick in Game 2, making him the most dominant scorer over the first few days of action. Is anyone really surprised? It’s hard to believe it’s just McDavid’s second playoff attempt after a 13-game run as a sophomore in 2017 but he’s already close to tying his nine-point effort after two games.

He’s simply the best player in the NHL, but we didn’t need to tell you that.

The kids are alright

The Calder Trophy voting was dominated by the likes of Quinn Hughes and Cale Makar, but Dominik Kubalik always made sure to keep his name in the conversation. Before the top two candidates hit the ice, Kubalik kicked things off with a five-point effort in a 6-4 win for Chicago over Edmonton on Saturday, the best effort from any player during the opening weekend. That type of offense was exactly what the Blackhawks needed: Kubalik was a 30-goal scorer as a freshman, but the Hawks needed its big guns to react to the high-flying Oilers offense led by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. It’s safe to say that’s exactly what 

For Montreal, the bottom seed in the Eastern Conference, the headlines in the opening contest were dominated by Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki. Kotkaniemi scored the ice breaker early in the first and Suzuki grabbed Montreal’s second marker, showcasing what Montreal’s youth is capable of. It was a big moment in particular for Kotkaniemi, who fell out of favor with the Habs’ coaching staff and was sent down to the AHL. Kotkaniemi returned from the break healthy and ready to impress and despite playing just 13 minutes in the first game, he was one of Montreal’s most noticeable players.

For Kubalik, Suzuki and Kotkaniemi, the first taste of the playoffs didn’t seem to bother them out of the gate. It also helped show that while prior experience of the playoff grind is helpful, having fresh, youthful energy – especially after a big break in the season – is important, too. 

Real Kyper at Noon

Don’t count out the underdogs

All momentum from the regular season was lost due to the break, but not many people had Montreal or Chicago – the bottom seeds from both conferences – nudging Pittsburgh or Edmonton early in the running. In Montreal’s case, the Penguins had better puck control and were, statistically, the better team, but the Canadiens got incredible goaltending from Carey Price and did a splendid job of shutting down Pittsburgh’s heavy hitters late in the battle. The Canadiens entered the post-season as major underdogs but it was easy to admire their ability to hang with one of the most experienced playoff outfits in the NHL.

Speaking of experience, there haven’t been many times where the Blackhawks were underdogs in the playoffs over the past decade. But as the 12th seed in the Western Conference, there weren’t many that felt confident about the Blackhawks. Fortunately, their experience paid off in Game 1 and stars like Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith contributing offensively and Corey Crawford looked stellar until the Oilers found their groove late. The Blackhawks held on for the win and took the early advantage in the series.

This playoff format with 16 teams participating in the qualifying round offers calamity, and the early stage of the tournament didn’t fail to deliver excitement. There’s no momentum, just pure teamwork – and a few lucky bounces along the way. It’ll be interesting to see where the two teams go from here, but what a start.

Goaltending controversies aplenty

What do the New York Rangers, Nashville Predators and Edmonton Oilers have in common? They all elected to sit their best goalie and had first-game losses to show for it.

The Rangers didn’t lose their first two contests because of Henrik Lundqvist, but Igor Shestyorkin was one of the best goalies in the league during the second half of the year. Could a healthy Shestyorkin have stolen victories against Carolina? With the Rangers not getting much of out their offense, it’s hard to tell, but it was still a surprise to see him start the post-season in the stands.

It’s hard to fault the Predators for choosing Juuse Saros in Game 1 against Arizona – he was the better goalie this season, after all – but looking back, would Pekka Rinne and his nearly 90 starts in the playoffs have been a better choice? Saros had never started a playoff game in his career and needed to make a big bang in order to secure the spot for the rest of the playoffs, and after all, he wasn’t entirely at fault for the four goals against. Still, you have to wonder if the Preds go back to a familiar face to save their season.

And Edmonton… oh, Edmonton. The Oilers should have had the edge over Chicago, but coach Dave Tippett elected to choose 38-year-old backup Mike Smith, the man who took Tippett’s Coyotes on an improbable run in 2012. But as we’ve become accustomed to in reason years, Smith was unreliable and was pulled after four goals in favor of Mikko Koskinen – a goaltender with no prior playoff experience. But Koskinen had one thing going for him: the 32-year-old was the much better option in net, statistically. Koskinen battled back and won Game 2, but he should have been the main man from the start.

Which storyline was your favorite to follow from the first weekend back at the rink?

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