For the first time in National Hockey League history, official hockey games will be played in August, beginning today. The circumstances of such an occurrence must be well known to everyone by now: a pandemic which has led to the hospitalization of millions and the death of thousands, and has forced the postponement or cancellation of many major events, including the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Under normal circumstances by now, the Stanley Cup would have been awarded, the champions would have held their parade, the Entry Draft would have been held, and most NHL-caliber free agents would have been signed. Regular season hockey would be another two months away. We would be enjoying our summers without fear of contracting a terrible virus and unknowingly spreading it to our family, friends, neighbors, or even strangers.
With all of this in the background, the League and the Player’s Association found a compromise solution to resolving the 2019-20 season: the top twelve teams in both conferences will play a minimum of three games to determine their playoff seed. The top four teams in each conference will play a round-robin tournament, one game against each other, but they will definitely play in the Conference Quarterfinals. They will play against the winners of the best-of-five series in the play-in round, which will feature the next eight teams in each conference. These games will be held exclusively in downtown Toronto for the Eastern Conference and downtown Edmonton for the Western Conference.
It’s a risky decision to resume play while the pandemic continues to infect thousands a day, but the League believes it can mitigate most of the risk by holding the games in Canada, where COVID-19 has been kept under control. Judging by the rocky start Major League Baseball has had, having to postpone an entire week’s worth of Miami Marlins games, making Canada the League’s home base for the playoffs may turn out to have been a smart move. We’ve yet to see a week’s worth of games between opposing teams in the NHL having left their respective cities to the bubbles in Canada, so let’s hold our breath on that front. If the virus does find its way inside the bubble, there could be big problems.
With all due respect to those who have been affected by the coronavirus, the months-long pause in the NHL season likely benefitted few teams more than the Pittsburgh Penguins. Back in March, if you had asked me the Penguins’ chances of winning the Cup, I would have been highly skeptical, and rightfully so. The team was running on fumes as injuries continued to chip away at the roster. From the beginning of February, the team went 8-9-1, including a season-worst six-game losing streak, including losses against the three California teams which had the worst records in the Pacific Division. There was no sign that Jake Guentzel would be returning from his shoulder surgery in the last week of December. Dominik Simon went down with a shoulder injury himself in March. Things were looking grim. Then, on March 12, as the Penguins were preparing for a match against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the League hit the pause button on the regular season, not knowing if or when they would unpause it any time soon.
Given everything that’s occurred since mid-March, it is remarkable that the Penguins now have a much better chance for postseason success at the end of the 2019-20 season. While every team is now rested and largely recovered from whatever ailments might have been affecting them, I can think of few players whose returns will make a bigger impact to their team than that of Guentzel. Although his shooting percentage dipped a little bit from the previous season, Guentzel was still well on his way to eclipsing the career mark of forty goals he set in the 2018-19 season. His impact on the power-play was perhaps the toughest loss in his absence, as he was one goal and one assist shy of tying his career highs, and this all came in just thirty-nine games played.
Having Guentzel back for the playoffs was the one thing Penguins fans pinned their postseason hopes on, and in this strange twist of fate, it’s going to happen. He’s been a huge playoff performer already in just three seasons in Pittsburgh, leading the team in goals in their playoff runs in 2017 and 2018, and he’s second only to Sidney Crosby in points since Jake’s been with the team. That’s kind of amazing, and that’s exactly why having Guentzel back in the line-up is such a big deal for Pittsburgh. Without Guentzel, there’s one less dangerous player on the ice for the Penguins, and they need all the offense they can get.
Tuesday’s exhibition between the Penguins and their rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, was as much a tune-up as it was a wake-up call. The biggest concern was that the power-play struggled again, although that may have been to be expected against a Flyers penalty-kill that was eleventh in the League during the regular season, versus the Penguins’ sixteenth-ranked power-play. In an exhibition game, or in any given regular season game, going 0-for-3 on the power-play could be forgiven if not tolerated, but the Penguins went scoreless on the power-play in thirty-seven games and went on to win only seventeen times, while they scored at least once on the power-play in thirty-one games and won twenty-four of those games. They have to be able to score with the man advantage, especially on the playoffs.
The other issue I have is the same issue I have been concerned about since it became clear that the League was planning on having hockey games in the middle of summer, and that is the quality of the ice. More to the point, I get the impression that the Penguins have gotten too used to winning games on skill alone. Fast skating and smooth passing will be at a premium if the ice condition is sub-par, and the Penguins haven’t been a team to perform satisfactorily in those circumstances. They may need to score goals and win games in an ugly fashion, and while that may suit the bottom six forwards of the roster fine, that’s not what we would expect from guys like Crosby or especially Evgeni Malkin. The top six will need to get into the dirty areas in front of goal, get deflections, get rebounds, and fight for the win.
The Montreal Canadiens come into the playoffs with the worst record of any team in the playoffs. If you were worried about their power-play for any reason, it was twice as bad (0-for-6) as Pittsburgh’s in their exhibition game against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Montreal’s 4-2 loss on Tuesday. Carey Price allowed the four goals on twenty-three shots, which is not the kind of production Montreal needs against anyone, let alone dangerous offensive teams like Toronto or Pittsburgh. All four of Toronto’s goals came from between the circles and below the dots, which is the kind of high-danger real estate the Penguins need to focus on.
Not to beat the dead horse too much, but tonight’s game will be the third and last one played tonight in Scotiabank Arena, so ice conditions will be interesting to say the least. In some ways, as with puck-handling, passing, and skating, poor ice conditions are an equalizer, so Montreal may look better than they actually are. A fast start will be very important; for whatever it’s worth, every team that has scored first in the exhibition games this week has gone on to win, except one. The one team to lose? The Penguins.
It may not look or sound like playoff hockey tonight. There will be no fans in attendance. Home-ice advantage only means getting the line matchups for the “home” team. But, so long as everything goes smoothly health-wise, the Stanley Cup will be up for grabs. The Penguins are as healthy as they’re going to be, and certainly more so than they were in March. They are heavily favored against the Montreal Canadiens. Let’s pretend it’s an early playoff round in April, shake off the rust and forget the sting of last postseason, and let’s cheer our Penguins on to a sweep!
Ps. Hockey porn is back. Post hockey porn worthy quotes, who said them, and tag your comment with #HP. Thanks. -Finn