By Kevin Durso, Sports Talk Philly editor
As the NHL continues to form a plan to return to play and wait out the possibilities of actually taking the ice in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are certainly many questions and possibilities surrounding the 24 teams left in the playoffs.
Over at ESPN.com, Greg Wyshynski posed the biggest question for each of the 24 teams in the playoffs. The Flyers one is quite intriguing. Are these games following the pause, to be played in neutral hub cities, away games for Carter Hart?
It’s no secret that a lot of the Flyers success will run through Hart. On home ice, he has been a constant, posting a 20-3-2 record with a 1.63 GAA and .943 save percentage at Wells Fargo Center. But away from home, the young netminder is just 4-10-1 with a 3.81 GAA and .857 save percentage.
There is certainly cause for concern in those splits.
Now, there are also a few things to debunk this. Hart’s home splits actually include a game played on neutral ice. The season opener on Oct. 4 in Prague, Czech Republic was a game Hart started and won, making 28 saves on 31 shots in a 4-3 Flyers win.
Additionally, Hart’s numbers can be skewed by some downright terrible starts. Hart was pulled early in three of his first seven road starts. Hart was also a starter three times on the six-game road trip where the rest of the Flyers played arguably their worst hockey of the season.
Of course, the playoffs are also a different animal, and this will be Hart’s first exposure to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Could that play a factor as well, especially when you are not in the comfort of your own building? Sure, there may not be any fans in the building to provide the noise and try to get into your head, but there is something about using your own facilities that makes things much more routine.
Here is a look at the rest of the questions for Eastern Conference teams in the 24-team playoff and quick responses to each:
Boston Bruins – How badly were they jobbed by the playoff format?
In short: pretty badly. The Bruins were smooth sailing down the stretch, the first team to break 100 points and sitting on a 94.4 percent chance of winning the Atlantic Division. They fall in line as the President’s Trophy winners. What do they get for all of this? They have to play in a Round Robin where they have nothing to gain. They are the first seed, and now need to come back from a break ready to play and needing to win to maintain that spot. Three losses in the Round Robin could drop them three spots in the standings when they were running away with the race.
In addition, the Bruins would have faced the Islanders in the first round and have a 2-0-1 record against them this season. Against the three teams they will face in the Round Robin — the Lightning, Capitals and Flyers — they have a 3-3-4 record.
Tampa Bay Lightning – Will this be the warm-up the Lightning wanted?
Tampa Bay holds the distinction as one of the two teams that voted against the 24-team platform. Their concern: teams that had a bye would not be as prepared for the playoff following the play-in round.
It’s a valid concern, given the wildly successful regular season the Lightning had last year only to be swept in four games in the playoffs by an upstart Columbus team. In the 24-team format, the Lightning are to get a three-game Round Robin warm-up, but is it what they want? The team they will face in the first round gets a play-in series. They get a Round Robin.
That’s not to say that the Round Robin doesn’t hold significance. It certainly does for seeding. But three games by regular season rules and tiebreakers is a lot different than a five-game playoff series, especially when you’ve been off for over three months.
Washington Capitals – What impact will Ilya Kovalchuk have?
At the time of the stoppage, the Flyers were going toe to toe with the Capitals for the division lead and both teams were starting to boast of serious depth. While the Flyers added more moderate pieces like Derek Grant and Nate Thompson to the fold, the Capitals went out and acquired Ilya Kovalchuk, a prolific goal scorer now in the twilight of his career. He had some immediate success too, picking up four points in seven games while skating on the Capitals third line with Lars Eller and Carl Hagelin.
In addition to a solid season in Montreal and a good start to his time in Washington, add in that Kovalchuk is simply a playoff performer. He has 25 points in his last 28 playoff games. If he can get hot and be an asset, in addition to Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and John Carlson, look out.
Pittsburgh Penguins – Will the Carey Price prophecy come true?
The Penguins are another team that are benefitting from the time off. They are going have star players who have endured some small nagging injuries get healthy and get Jake Guentzel — another star who was supposed to be out for the season — back for the playoff push. But perhaps the area where they should be most afraid is the x-factor of playoff series: goaltending.
There are two sides to this. One is the internal decision that will likely be made over the offseason, with Tristan Jarry starting to become the primary starter over two-time Stanley Cup winner Matt Murray. Murray could be on his way out of Pittsburgh this offseason, and this would really be Jarry’s first exposure to playoff hockey in the NHL. That said, on the other side of their play-in matchup is a veteran goalie who could seize control of a series just like that.
The Carey Price effect is very real to the Penguins, especially in a five-game series. Imagine losing the first two games of that series and knowing you have no room for error? It feels hopeless. And with all players starting in the same place, with such a long layoff between games, it could be a struggle.
While the overall numbers suggest that Price doesn’t have a stranglehold on the Penguins, he’s an all-World goalie who can easily get on a roll for three to five games.
Carolina Hurricanes – What does the defense look like?
The Carolina Hurricanes lost All-Star blueliner Dougie Hamilton on Jan. 16 to a fractured fibula that was to sideline him for the rest of the season. To account for the injury, the Hurricanes made deadline deals to acquire Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen. Vatanen was hurt at the time and never played a game with Carolina before the pause.
So now that everyone is coming back and healthy, the Hurricanes will have Hamilton, Skjei and Vatanen to join the group of Jaccob Slavin, Joel Edmundson, Jake Gardiner and Trevor van Riemsdyk. That’s seven defensemen, all with solid NHL credentials, trying to fill six spots in the lineup. There’s a lot of tools in place for Rod Brind’Amour to use, and he has to decide which grouping makes the most sense for his team.
New York Islanders – Is Adam Pelech the secret weapon in the East?
The Islanders were another team that was banged up down the stretch, but never so much as when Adam Pelech was out of the lineup.
The Islanders rely on defensive system, and it’s how they have become one of the best teams in the league in goals allowed. With Pelech in the lineup, the Islanders were 25-10-3. He suffered what was to be a season-ending lower-body injury and missed 30 games, during which the Islanders had a 10-13-7 record. But season-ending injuries today aren’t what they were three months ago. Typically, by this point, only two teams are left playing. Instead, 24 are waiting for the go ahead to start, only allowing for more time to heal up for the playoff run, meaning the Islanders could get a huge boost from having Pelech back.
Toronto Maple Leafs – Playoff reseeding or playoff bracketing?
The biggest question for Toronto is one that won’t be answered for some time. It has to do with the potential reseeding or the use of a playoff bracket, a decision that still has to pass through the NHL and NHLPA.
For Toronto, there is an obvious answer to the question though. It’s reseeding. If the NHL and NHLPA chooses to use the playoff bracket, the Leafs would face the Blue Jackets in the play-in round and then get the top seed after the Round Robin, which at the moment would mean yet another first-round series with the Boston Bruins, a team that has ended Toronto’s playoff hopes in three of the last four seasons. A reseed doesn’t mean the Leafs are free of the Bruins, but the possibility of facing them in the first round becomes much less based on the potential shuffling of the Top 4 and the potential for play-in upsets.
Columbus Blue Jackets – How far can a healthy Jackets team go?
Technically, the Blue Jackets missed the playoffs in the traditional form. But this isn’t traditional. At the time of the pause, Columbus was a battered and beaten team. They were missing several key players, notably defenseman Seth Jones, forwards Oliver Bjorkstrand, Cam Atkinson and Josh Anderson and were without goalies Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins for a time. Somehow, they managed to stay right on the bubble to the end.
Now, they get a playoff berth and get time to heal up. After losing their star goalie, star scorer and another top forward — Sergei Bobrosvky, Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene — this offseason, the Blue Jackets took a team with a lot of poise and managed to stay in the race, all while dealing with key injuries throughout the season. For that alone, John Tortorella is going to be hard to beat for the Jack Adams Award. With the team fully healthy, perhaps expectations have changed. This team is certainly a threat in the play-in. They could even be a tough out in the first round, as they were a season ago.
Florida Panthers – Will last postseason’s Sergei Bobrovsky make an appearance?
It’s been the narrative for Bobrovsky throughout his career. He would have a strong regular season, then fizzle out in the playoffs and struggle. But then last season against the Lightning, Bobrovsky allowed eight goals in a four-game sweep and in the first three games against Boston in the second round allowed six goals.
But this offseason and regular season were different for Bobrovsky. He signed a megadeal with the Florida Panthers, then turned in a 23-19-6 record and .900 save percentage. If the season were to end on the day of the pause, the Panthers would have missed the playoffs by three points. There is new life for the Panthers, and therefore new life for Bobrovsky, but can he bounce back? He has the ability to do so, and the Panthers will only go as far as he wills them.
New York Rangers – Will the King rule the crease?
For the better part of the last two decades, Henrik Lundqvist has been the King of New York. He wants to be in the crease for the biggest moments. But this season was especially trying for Lundqvist. The Rangers have two young goalies in Alexandar Georgiev and Igor Shesterkin that are waiting in the wings and have both fared better than Lundqvist this season. Lundqvist is still capable of being successful, but it feels like the King’s time is up.
While he does have great numbers historically against the team the Rangers would be facing, the Carolina Hurricanes, the question becomes whether he is the goalie the Rangers start the playoff with and just how long of a leash he is given. If recent games before the pause are any indication though, expect one of the young goalies to be in net when the playoffs start.
Montreal Canadiens – Are the playoffs really what the Canadiens need?
Look, here’s the thing from Montreal’s perspective. When the pause hit on March 12, there were approximately 11-14 games remaining for each team. The Canadiens had a .03 percent chance of making the playoffs according to SportsClubStats.com. You know what that means? It’s time to start planning for the lottery in the hopes that you have a shot at a top pick.
And that’s why the playoffs could be bad for the Canadiens. Sure, you get a chance to compete for the Cup. But you will face a far superior and now healthy Pittsburgh Penguins in the play-in round and if you were to somehow win the five-game series, then you are out of the lottery and potentially looking at facing a No. 1 seed in the next round. Good luck with that. While it is entirely possible that Carey Price could steal a series, it might just be better for the Habs to pack it in and focus on the future.
Listen to my interview on 97.3 ESPN from Tuesday afternoon for more on the Flyers question and other things regarding the return below.