The National Hockey League is ready to make its long overdue return to action and fans are looking forward to the resumption with heightened anticipation. The Stanley Cup remains the ultimate prize but the unscheduled break means that the NHL is about to enter new ground.
The extended playoff format is a first for the league and it will certainly compensate for the abrupt and unplanned end to the regular season. But will that format aid certain teams or will the likely favorites remain on course to claim that Stanley Cup glory?
Names in the Hat
As the 2019/20 playoffs began, 24 teams remained in contention to claim the Stanley Cup at the conclusion of the campaign. 12 sides from both the Eastern and the Western Conferences are still in the draw so only a small minority of the weakest teams have dropped out at this stage.
Including the final series itself, five more rounds remain so there is scope for sides to have improved during the layoff and to upset the pattern of form that had been emerging. Will we see an upset in these late stages or, will the Stanley Cup reach a more predictable conclusion at the climax of this extended campaign?
The Pundits’ Verdict
The sportsbooks are usually good judges when it comes to identifying a likely winner but, heading into those playoffs, they were unable to split two teams at the top of the outright markets. The Boston Bruins and the Tampa Bay Lightning have both been placed at the head of the outright betting for some time and, as hockey returns to the rink, they are some way clear of a chasing pack led by the Colorado Avalanche, the St Louis Blues and the Vegas Golden Knights.
Over the next few weeks, we will discover if the odds setters have got their predictions right. The verdict looks a solid one but could there be a surprise waiting among the outsiders for those who are betting online?
After 70 regular season games in the Eastern Conference, the Bruins and the Lightning occupied the top two places. Their records were almost identical at that stage; Boston had recorded 44 victories to Tampa Bay’s 43 and the only real point to note was that a significantly higher percentage of the Bruins’ defeats had come in overtime.
To counter that particular stat, regular season head to head results show a 3-1 outcome in favor of Tampa Bay. The seeding would keep these teams apart until the Stanley Cup Finals and, based on those numbers, a Bruins vs Lightning match up would be too close to call.
A number of sides in the Western Conference would dispute the theory that the Stanley Cup trophy is heading east at the end of the season. The regular campaign showed that St Louis Blues were just ahead of the Colorado Avalanche when the break came into effect. Both sides had won 42 games at that stage although the Blues had played a match less than their closest rivals.
St Louis and Colorado would seem to be the sides most likely to upset the predictions as we head into the playoffs but is there a possibility of a real upset? Can any team from mid-table downwards come through to cause a shock in the latter stages?
We would suggest avoiding teams that have to play in the qualifying playoff rounds. They include some of the weaker sides in the competition who would have been unlikely to progress had the league adopted its usual post season format. Otherwise, the nature of sport at the moment may make this a more open competition than many are predicting.
While the pundits have had their say, the enforced break in the 2019/20 NHL season may play the biggest part in the advanced stages of this competition. The form guide was in place at the premature conclusion of the regular season but teams have to start all over again. Any momentum that had been built up over those 70 initial games is lost and that’s a key factor to watch out for.
What we can expect, if we take a parallel from other sports that are returning to the field, is that some sides will be tentative on their return while others will hit the ground running and pick up from where the regular campaign came to its conclusion.
This would suggest that the 2020 Stanley Cup Series is by no means a two horse race between the Boston Bruins and the Tampa Bay Lightning. Yes, they were the best performing sides in the regular season but now they have to start on a level playing field in a series of straight knockout matches. The absence of fans should also mean that home rink advantage is negated and, a subdued atmosphere inside the arenas is unlikely to have a clear benefit for either team in question.
We should also remember that the St Louis Blues are the defending Stanley Cup Champions after beating the Tampa Bay Lightning at the back end of 2018/19. We should be certain that the 2020 trophy is not necessarily destined to end up in the east and that the Western Conference sides can be equally competitive when it comes to the knockout rounds.
Nobody can be certain as to the destiny of the 2019/20 Stanley Cup but we can be sure of some thrilling action on the ice in the weeks ahead. It will seem strange to witness hockey without spectators but it’s just great to see the sport return to complete what should be a thrilling campaign.