The official puck drop for the NHL restart in Canada is slated for Saturday, with a quintet of opening games that will grab the interest of hockey-starved — and even casual — sports fans.
While other major leagues to make their restarts have a snippet or most of the regular season to get through, that won't be the case with the NHL. It's an immediate start to the Stanley Cup playoffs this weekend.
Continue reading for a clearer illustration of the postseason and overall championship pictures, in-depth analysis on Stanley Cup futures odds and the top storylines to monitor for the NHL's return.
Similar to the NBA, the NHL is adopting a bubble system North of the Border. Toronto's Scotiabank Arena and Rogers Place in Edmonton are serving as hub venues. It's fitting for hockey's elite to go back to where the game was invented for this unique postseason.
COVID-19 is under much better control in Canada than in the U.S., as the nation has just under 115,000 total cases as of Google's last count. Therefore, the bubble's efficacy should be exceptional.
Teams have participated in brief training camps and exhibition matchups to knock the rust off. Among the 31 NHL teams, 24 qualified for the Big Dance on the ice. The Snow Ball, with all participants pursuing Lord Stanley's Cup, and several potential afterthought franchises given new life. Click here for the full official schedule.
As mentioned before, the NHL is diving headfirst into the playoffs with a modified tournament. The top four teams in the East and West will face off round-robin style to decide their final order. Those other 16 clubs are playing elimination series for the right to move to the next round. Follow this link to check out our game odds and lines.
We could shoot the breeze about almost any of the NHL's top 10 or so teams and have plenty of fodder, because the reality is, the Cup feels like anyone's to win. The futures odds reflect that.
But to begin, let's hone in on the +650 favorites: the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins. After earning the 2018-19 Presidents' Trophy with a whopping 128 points, the Lightning suffered a catastrophic collapse.
Hyped to strike down any playoff opponent in its path, Tampa Bay instead went out with a whimper, getting swept in the first round by Columbus. This season, the Lightning suffered a hangover from that disappointing exit, but after a 17-13-4 start, they rebounded with 10 straight victories — and even had another 11-game winning streak not long thereafter.
The Bruins had some demons to exorcise of their own after losing the Stanley Cup Final to St. Louis. Nevertheless, it's been smooth sailing for Boston, who wound up eight points ahead of Atlantic Division rival Tampa Bay for the East lead.
We just covered the league's past two best-record owners, yet and we still haven't arrived at who was playing arguably the best hockey of anyone before COVID-19 struck. That honor goes to the Philadelphia Flyers.
Despite falling in a highly anticipated showdown to Boston in the regular-season finale, an eight-game winning streak preceded that 2-0 home loss. Along with Washington, bettors can pick the Flyers to win it all with odds as good as +1100 as of this writing. Also figuring prominently ahead of Philly are the Vegas Golden Knights (+800) and Colorado Avalanche (+900).
Vegas was an expansion franchise in 2017. All the organization has done is clinch three consecutive postseason berths, with an inspired Stanley Cup runner-up push to start. Few teams benefited from the lengthy layoff as much as Colorado did. Injuries were a constant threat to derail the Avs, but they're healthy and dangerous as ever now.
Coming back to the Flyers for a bit: the reason their stock may be down is the fact that they'll traveling to the bubble sites. Philly had an NHL-high 25 wins at home this season, so neutral arenas could hinder their chances as much as any of the prominent contenders.
That other team with the same odds as the Flyers, Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, were the biggest road warriors during the 2019-20 campaign, posting 23-13-3 away record.
It doesn't hurt to check in on the Oilers and Maple Leafs, considering they'll have the most convenient commutes. Beyond those benefits, they have two of the most explosive attacks in the sport, headlined by prodigious forward talent. You could do worse at +3000.
Former No. 1 overall pick Auston Matthews spearheads the Leafs offense and was just one goal off the NHL lead with 47 this season. Fellow young-20s forwards Mitch Marner and William Nylander, along with volume scorer John Tavares, give Toronto plenty of weapons.
But you'd be hard-pressed to find a better 1-2 punch than Edmonton's Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. The former is a current Hart Trophy finalist for MVP honors and led all players with 110 points. McDavid was second league-wide only to Draisaitl (67) with 63 assists, and tallied 97 points of his own.
One more dark horse for the road, because why not? It's a juicy one, too: the New York Rangers (+4000). After signing a splashy seven-year, $81.5 million contract last summer, Rangers forward Artemi Panarin has delivered on the hype, joining Draisaitl in the Hart Trophy race. Panarin is the key to New York's Broadway-caliber, entertaining front line.
Where the Blueshirts have been most vulnerable is defensively, but get this: they have a secret weapon between the pipes. First-year phenom Igor Shesterkin went 10-2 as starting netminder to get the Rangers back into the playoff mix. If he had enough reps to qualify, Shesterkin's .932 save percentage would be an NHL-best.
To this point, we've only briefly alluded to St. Louis in passing. The Blues had one of the biggest bounce-back stories in sports history last year, rising from the basement of the league on Jan. 3, 2019, to Stanley Cup champions. A scintillating 30-10-5 finish triggered the most improbable title run.
How's that for an "anything is possible" sports narrative? Instead of resting on laurels and suffering a letdown, these Blues picked up right where they left off en route to edging the Avs by two points to win the West.
Dealing with a much more full-strength Colorado outfit is going to be a challenge for St. Louis, not to mention the lack of reward regarding home ice throughout the playoffs. If anyone can overcome that adversity, it'd probably be these Blues.
Reinforcing the parity theme at pro hockey's highest level, it's telling that St. Louis is still only +1100 to lift the ultimate prize at the conclusion of this captivating tournament. Just like the Blues spun that to their advantage en route to a championship, they're more liable to see the other side of that coin this time around.
Suppose we'll get a good sense of where things are right off the bat, when St. Louis squares off with the Avs to begin its seeding tournament slate on Sunday. Get your bets and popcorn ready for a wild ride.
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