And now it’s time for the Stanley Cup Playoffs to begin.
“Taking a look at what we’ve seen so far, I still believe that’s it’s probably going to be the hardest Stanley Cup to win,” Calgary Flames coach Geoff Ward said. “You’ve got to win five rounds, everybody’s healthy and there’s been extreme parity, but all the teams are playing extremely, extremely hard and that makes for whoever you play a very tough out. I think as these playoffs go on you’re just going to see more of the same.”
The first round gets underway at Rogers Place in Edmonton and Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, the hub cities for the Western and Eastern Conferences, respectively, on Tuesday.
Here are 10 storylines to watch for in the first round:
Will momentum carry over from Qualifiers?
One of the big questions going into this postseason format was would the top teams that played in the round-robin be at a disadvantage going into the first round because they’d be facing teams that were coming off playing to keep their seasons alive?
For example, are the Columbus Blue Jackets in a better spot now than their opponent, the Tampa Bay Lightning, because they had to duke it out in a five-game Cup Qualifier against the Toronto Maple Leafs, whereas the Lightning played three round-robin games, none with elimination on the line.
“It’s hard to replicate what they just went through,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “We can’t do it. None of the games we played were do or die. They just played a do-or-die game less than 24 hours ago, so in that regard do you say at this moment are they more battle-tested? There’s no question.”
Cooper also noted that the Blue Jackets have to play Game 1 against Tampa Bay (3 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS) less than 48 hours after defeating the Maple Leafs 3-0 in Game 5 on Sunday. It can be a difficult turnaround.
“Everybody is going to cry over spilled milk somewhere, but they’re tested, and aside from the injuries, we’re rested,” Cooper said. “We’ll see which one [makes a difference]. That’s why it’s a question. Just don’t know the answer.”
Top players need to get it going
Several of the best players in the League were quiet in round-robin play. They can’t stay silent for any longer or it could be a quick exit for their teams.
Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, who make up two-thirds of the Boston Bruins top forward line, did not have a point in their three round-robin games. Patrice Bergeron, the center on that line, had one point, an assist.
Alex Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals left wing, was held to zero points and 10 shots on goal in three round-robin games.
Dallas Stars forwards Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn each went without a point, although Seguin was limited to two games because of an injury.
The Philadelphia Flyers won three games, but forward Claude Giroux didn’t have a point.
St. Louis Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko didn’t have a point in two games, his first two since having shoulder surgery Oct. 29.
It’s possible coaches will be forced to rely on two goalies to get through the first round because of the condensed schedule.
Every series features one back-to-back, including all four in the Western Conference that have it inside the first four games. The only teams that could potentially get two off days in a row are the Bruins and Carolina Hurricanes between Games 6 and 7.
The teams most likely to use both goalies include the Vegas Golden Knights (Marc-Andre Fleury, Robin Lehner), Flames (Cam Talbot, David Rittich), Colorado Avalanche (Philipp Grubauer, Pavel Francouz), Stars (Ben Bishop, Anton Khudobin), New York Islanders (Semyon Varlamov, Thomas Greiss), Hurricanes (Petr Mrazek, James Reimer) and Bruins (Tuukka Rask, Jaroslav Halak).
The Blue Jackets would be in that category too, but Elvis Merzlikins is injured and it’s not clear when he will be able to play, so it’s Joonas Korpisalo‘s net for now.
It’s the same with the Arizona Coyotes, who will start Darcy Kuemper but don’t know when, if at all, Antti Raanta will be an option.
Blues begin their title defense
The Blues were not happy with how they played in the round-robin, losing all three games (0-2-1), including on a buzzer-beater to the Avalanche and in the shootout to the Stars.
They started as the No. 1 seed in the West; they go into the playoffs as the No. 4 seed.
It wipes away now because they begin defense of their Stanley Cup championship against the Vancouver Canucks, who defeated the Minnesota Wild in four games in the Qualifiers. Game 1 is Wednesday (10:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).
“We’ve got to play better as a team,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. “That’s what’s on my mind, getting our team prepared to play Vancouver, and we’ve got to play better than we’re playing.”
Trotz vs. Capitals
Two years ago, Barry Trotz brought the Stanley Cup to his hometown of Dauphin, Manitoba. He had already been named the Islanders coach two months before he got there, but his Cup-day celebration was for accomplishing his lifelong dream as the coach of the Capitals.
Now Trotz gets to coach against his former team, including many of his former players and his former top assistant, current Capitals coach Todd Reirden, when the Islanders play Washington. Game 1 is Wednesday (3 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS).
Will familiarity help Trotz, or will it help the Capitals?
Lightning get chance for amends, revenge
The Lightning went into this season knowing they’d have to get to the playoffs, even if it’s months later than expected, to have the chance to make up for what happened last season, when they became the first NHL team to get swept in the first round after winning the Presidents’ Trophy.
Now they get that chance, and even better, they play the very team that swept them.
It’s essentially an opportunity for the Lightning, the No. 2 seed in the East, to kill two birds with one stone; finally get over the disappointment of last season while exacting some revenge on the Blue Jackets.
“What happened last year happened last year, that’s in the history books forever,” Cooper said. “Now it’s time to write your own history and that’s what we intend to do with this team.”
A big chance for Hurricanes too
The Hurricanes reached the Eastern Conference Final last season only to get swept by the Bruins, losing the four games by a combined 17-5.
The Bruins now stand in the Hurricanes way of advancing again, only this time as their first-round opponent. Game 1 is Tuesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).
Like last season, the Hurricanes are coming into this series against Boston fresh off a sweep of a New York team.
They defeated the New York Rangers in three straight games in the Qualifiers. They defeated the Islanders in four straight games in the Eastern Conference Second Round last season.
The Bruins went 0-3-0 in the round-robin.
Flyers’ Hart facing childhood idol
Forgive Carter Hart if he stares down at the opposing net and marvels at where he is and what he’s doing even for only a few fleeting seconds before the Flyers play Game 1 against the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).
Hart, the Flyers goalie, is playing in his first Stanley Cup Playoff series and the goalie on the other end, Montreal’s Carey Price, just happens to be the player that he so admired as a kid growing up in Sherwood Park, Alberta.
“Just had the chance to actually meet him the other week and talk with him for the first time, so that was something really cool,” Hart said. “But, yeah, first playoff series, playing against Carey Price, it’ll definitely be a lot of fun.”
Pacioretty back for Vegas
The Golden Knights rolled through the round-robin undefeated, and now they’re getting a reinforcement with the return of forward Max Pacioretty, their leading scorer in the regular season, for Game 1 against the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday (10:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS).
Pacioretty didn’t travel to Edmonton with the Golden Knights because of an undisclosed injury he sustained in practice July 20. He was on the ice for practice Monday.
As part of the NHL Return to Play Plan, a team is not permitted to disclose player injury or illness information.
Pacioretty led Vegas with 66 points (32 goals, 34 assists) in 71 games in the regular season. The Golden Knights scored 15 goals in three games in the round-robin without him.
Who is healthy?
Steven Stamkos didn’t play in any of the Lightning’s three round-robin games because of a lower-body injury and it’s not clear if he’ll be ready for Game 1 against Columbus. Victor Hedman is in a similar spot after the defenseman was injured Saturday in a 4-1 loss to the Flyers.
The Hurricanes are hoping to have defenseman Dougie Hamilton when they open against the Bruins. Hamilton missed the three games against the Rangers because of an injury he sustained in training camp July 22.
The Stars aren’t sure yet if Seguin or Bishop will be good to go in Game 1 against the Flames on Tuesday (5:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).
Flyers forward Jakub Voracek didn’t play against the Lightning on Saturday and is a game-time decision for Game 1 against the Canadiens on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).
The Capitals are similarly hoping to have defenseman John Carlson for Game 1 against the Islanders. The Norris Trophy finalist didn’t play in the round-robin because of an injury he sustained in the exhibition game against Carolina on July 29 but participated in an optional practice Monday.
The Coyotes are hoping to have forward Nick Schmaltz for Game 1 against the Avalanche on Wednesday (5:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN360, TVAS). He didn’t play in any of the four Cup Qualifiers against the Nashville Predators.