The two Hub City hosts are toast. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers are out before the traditional four rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs even begin.
Normally, when it’s April not August, when there’s no COVID-19 pandemic, when there’s been no ‘play-in’ best-of-five qualifying series, when there are fans in the stands and teams are flying back and forth, what’s next is the highlight of the entire season.
But have we already watched that?
Having experienced the past 10 days of exceptionally entertaining, compelling playoff hockey, can the traditional first round best-of-seven series of the playoffs be everything they normally are?
Is this on to the beginning?
Or is it the beginning of the end?
Traditionally, after there’s been a round of playoff action, eight teams have made their exits and people are out of their playoff pools, the interest levels, even in Canada, takes a dramatic dive. And often the hockey simply can’t duplicate the drama we watched earlier.
Obviously, in hub cities Edmonton and Toronto and high-expectation Winnipeg, there will be that depression that always exists with an early exit.
But the fans of the eight teams that collected their departing gifts of $20,000 per player and their Alexis Lafreniere Lottery ticket be quick to re-ignite interests in this unusual circumstance?
So far, it’s been pretty sensational stuff.
Both 12th-seed teams upset the fifth-seed teams. And what other year are you going to see a series with Toronto and Columbus coming back from being behind by three goals in the final minutes to win against insane odds?
Yes, the playoffs lost Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Auston Matthews and John Tavares. But there were plenty of new stars introduced, including Fort Saskatchewan’s Kirby Dach of the Chicago Blackhawks. And Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Carey Price ride again.
And a healthy number of Stanley Cup heroes have already been created, including ex-Oilers member Jeff Petry, who scored two winners for Montreal, one of which came in overtime.
You can dial out if you want to, but I’m hooked. I’m completely captivated by how this is going to play out.
With the success of the play-in round and Seattle about to come in as a 32nd team, there are a whole lot of credible people pushing for the qualifying round play-in format to be permanent. Glen Sather has been calling for something like this since he left Edmonton to go to the Rangers.
Former goalie Corey Hirsch: “The NHL needs to adopt a play-in format moving forward. These elimination series have been incredible. The NHL has done a great job.”
Play-by-play broadcaster Chris Cuthbert: “I’m with you Corey. Best of three — seventh vs. 10th and eighth vs. ninth. Enhances the regular season races down the stretch to be Top 6, and for teams to get the ninth and 10th spots.”
It wouldn’t have had my vote two weeks ago. But it is now. Imagine how many more teams might be motivated to play to avoid a play-in series after the embarrassment and humiliation teams such as the Oilers are currently experiencing for their dismal performance in departing in four games as the host Hub City team?
“I think it’s been really great. I don’t see any cons. I think from the fans perspective, it’s been a home run,” said Vegas coach Peter DeBoer. “There’s been some great hockey. As a fan watching some of the games, I think it’s a great format.”
Before it began, Calgary coach Geoff Ward said the “million-dollar question” would involve the calibre of play.
“What we’ve seen is that it doesn’t matter that there aren’t fans in the seats. These guys are playing purely for the love of the game and you see how much they love it.”
He doesn’t expect a drop off-in interest from here.
“I’m sure it will continue. We always talk about the first round of the playoffs potentially being the hardest one. People have been saying that for years. And I think this round lived up to the billing of exactly that.
“The one thing that stood out for me in terms of watching games was how hard everybody played. All the teams came here healthy, which was a bit of a difference, and every team came out flying.
“Somebody asked me before we began if this year should get an asterisk. Well, having had a look at what we’ve seen so far, I believe this is going to be the hardest Stanley Cup there’s ever been to win. You have to win five rounds, all the teams are healthy, there’s extreme parity and all the teams are playing really, really hard. That makes whomever you play a very tough out and as we go along, I think you’re going to see more of the same.”
No matter which team you cheer for or to what extent you’re currently bummed out, it’ll be hard to dial out.
E-mail: [email protected]
On Twitter: @ByTerryJones
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