The NHL could go in any number of directions when the 2019-20 season reconvenes — if it does — following the coronavirus outbreak.
With the news that it’s going to be a couple of months before the NHL starts playing games again based on the CDC’s recommendation of an eight-week ban on events of 50 people or more, it doesn’t feel like there’s much time to finish the regular season. There could be play-in games ahead of a regular playoff field, of course.
Or there could be the NHL simply taking the top eight teams from each conference based on points percentage when the 2019-20 regular season was suspended. Let’s take a look at what the first round matchups would be if that’s the way it does indeed go down with teams getting slotted by points percentage.
Quite honestly, the NHL should push for this based on some of the matchups we would see right out of the gate:
Boston Bruins vs. New York Islanders
A first-round series against the Isles with the road games played at Nassau Coliseum actually sounds pretty amazing. It’s been an annual pilgrimage spot for Bruins fans based on the ease of getting there and the ability to get tickets to the games, and it would be a loud, hostile place in the postseason.
It wouldn’t be an easy series based on the way the Islanders approach the game under Barry Trotz. But we’re also talking about an Islanders team that can’t really match up with the Bruins in terms of talent.
Semyon Varlamov is an excellent goaltender who would have to be accounted for and the Mat Barzal storylines in a first-round playoff series practically write themselves. It wouldn’t be a bad change of pace from the usual Bruins/Maple Leafs first-round series, even if it isn’t quite the Boston/New York rivalry that we’re used to.
Washington Capitals vs. Carolina Hurricanes
A rematch of last spring’s nasty first-round playoff series that saw the Canes totally upset a Capitals team running out of gas after their Stanley Cup the prior season. The Hurricanes would likely have a healthy Dougie Hamilton back in their lineup in addition to their acquisitions at the trade deadline, but they’d be facing a Capitals team looking for revenge after last season’s embarrassing ouster.
This would be a highlight first-round series if this is indeed how it plays out with the playoff bracketing.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
While the Bruins get an Islanders team they could presumably ouster in five or six games, one would expect the Bolts and the Leafs to get embroiled in a seven-game series. Toronto has a lot on the line if it doesn’t show something after too many recent first-round disappointments and the Lightning genuinely sound pissed off after last year’s embarrassing sweep in the first round.
Steven Stamkos would have ample time to heal up, leaving the Lightning with a thoroughly loaded team, but whoever won this series would be significantly weakened headed into a potential second-round series against a Bruins team that will be bolstered by the hiatus ahead of the playoffs.
Philadelphia Flyers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
These two hockey clubs have teamed up for some of the nastier playoff series in recent memory and would be primed to introduce a whole new case of young Flyers players into the nastiness.
The question will be whether the Flyers can re-ignite whatever mojo they had when the regular season was suspended, or whether the rest will be exactly what the Penguins needed after a season where they played banged up pretty much all season.
St. Louis Blues vs. Nashville Predators
The reigning champion Blues would get back Vladimir Tarasenko and boast a loaded team that will get the benefit of rest. The two-month break would be massive for a defending Stanley Cup champ and could make it a much different situation than most other Cup champs in their playoff run defending the title.
It wouldn’t be easy with a talented Nashville group headlined by Roman Josi and Pekka Rinne on the other side, but we’re also talking about a Predators team that has underachieved pretty much all season.
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Winnipeg Jets
The Golden Knights have dangerous, well-rounded players like Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone, and their goaltending duo of Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner would be formidable.
But it feels like the Jets are built for the playoffs with a deep, varied group of young forwards (Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor) and a potentially dominant goaltender in Connor Hellebuyck. This would not be an easy series for the Pacific Division winner and would slot Winnipeg into the Pacific Division bracket as a potential spoiler.
Colorado Avalanche vs. Dallas Stars
The best forward line in the Western Conference (Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen) against a suddenly stingy Dallas group that boasts one of the best goaltending tandems in the league in Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin.
As much as I respect the transformation of Dallas’ game and adding a playoff-type performer in Joe Pavelski, I think the Avalanche are going to be a handful in the postseason. They have tons of talent and played a hard, playoff-style game this season. Goaltending might be their downfall, but rookie Pavel Francouz has been very good.
Edmonton Oilers vs. Calgary Flames
The Battle of Alberta has been as nasty as it’s ever been all season. It finally bubbled over when Zack Kassian and Matthew Tkachuk finally dropped the gloves in the rematch and saw an amazing goalie fight with Mike Smith and Cam Talbot.
Clearly it wouldn’t turn into fight night in every game during a seven-game playoff series, but this would be the first-round matchup that everybody around the hockey world would want to watch. This is something that hockey fans really want this spring — if there is playoff hockey.