The Three Biggest Questions Heading Into the COVID-19 NHL Playoffs

It's a question many of us are asking ourselves as the first round of the COVID-19 style NHL playoffs begins. Are we about to binge drink some NHL Playoff "Lite" beer or take shots of heavy-duty, super distilled NHL playoff 151 rum? Without the atmosphere, the fans and true home-ice advantage whether or not it exists, I think many would be quick to answer NHL Playoff lite. But there are three critical questions to ask before ultimately deciding.

Will the NHL be able to maintain their bubble?

It's a question that has surrounded all four North American major sports. Will a bubble work? Major League Baseball has answered the question, nobody was asking: if a bubble is necessary. To date, 19 Marlins players and staffers have tested positive COVID-19, and two members of the Philadelphia Phillies staff, the team the Marlins most recently played, have also tested positive.

The MLB is the only professional sports league in the U.S., including the NWSL and WNBA, currently playing that is not using a bubble. The NBA, NHL, WNBA, and the NWSL are all playing in one or two cities, with players staying in hotels away from their family with regular testing.

The bottom line is that a bubble is necessary to minimize the risk of players and staff contracting coronavirus. Unfortunately, relies on players' discipline.

Which brings me back to the question, will the NHL be able to maintain their bubble?

Early evidence says yes.

The NHL announced Monday that there were no positive COVID tests in the preceding week and that only two players in the whole league tested positive during training camp. Now that play-in games are underway, and there is contact between players and staff of different teams, the odds go up, but so far so good.

For the teams that are eliminated early, the isolation won't factor in as much. Teams who exit early will be reunited with their families and more of their freedom within just a few weeks of leaving for Toronto or Edmonton.

But how will the teams who go deep into the playoffs respond? When does the closeness to winning the Stanley Cup overcome the loneliness and stir-craziness that is sure to come with life in the bubble?

Teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins, St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators shouldn’t worry as much. They have established veterans and stars like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patrice Bergeron and Alex Pietrangelo.

Imagine costing Sidney Crosby a chance at another Stanley Cup because you snuck out of the NHL's bubble.

Image by Michael Miller

It is reasonable to assume that younger players will worry about answering to such commanding presences if they burst the bubble.

For younger teams, that might be more of a struggle.

As we've seen in the NBA, it's not just young players who could damage the bubble. Los Angeles Clipper Lou Williams took advantage of being excused from the NBA bubble to attend a funeral to go to the Magic City Strip Club. Los Angeles Laker Dwight Howard claims someone reported him to the NBA for not wearing a mask.

It's difficult for young and old to fully adjust to life in a bubble, and it remains to be seen if the NHL can maintain it. If an entire team like the Marlins tests positive and spreads the virus to others, it could jeopardize the tournament and, even worse, kill people.

Will the Long Hiatus Make a Significant Difference When it Comes to Favorites?

For gamblers, handicappers and fans, it's even harder to predict who's the favorite to win the Stanley Cup. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. How will the more than four-months off influence teams? Does the age of the team matter? How about the style of play? There is no home team advantage, even for Edmonton and Toronto, who can't stay in their own homes and soak up energy from their home fans. They can't even use the home locker room if unless they’re the home team.

So, will the layoff make a difference when it comes to the favorite winning? I think the answer is a resounding yes, but not because of age. Though experts often theorize that long layoffs between playoff rounds can be detrimental to the team that is resting, every team experienced the time off on this occasion.

Not only that, but I think the long layoff can help players younger and older. The older players, like Zdeno Chara and even some not-so-old players like Sidney Crosby, who has struggled with injury this season, could benefit from it.

Meanwhile, first-year players like Kaapo Kakko and Kirby Dach benefit from time off to digest their first experience in the NHL and make the necessary mental and physical adjustments. Four-plus months is plenty of time to add muscle to a skinny frame or recalibrate a frustrated or overwhelmed ego.

It's effectively the start of a sophomore season for many rookies.

No, I think the most significant effect will be on skill teams that rely on power play prowess and highly skilled forwards rather than depth, physicality and defensive discipline. I could see a highly skilled team like the Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs struggling early, and in this playoff format, that could be a death sentence.

With the round-robin style seeding tournament that the top teams must play in, if a team suffers a slow start and two losses, they're suddenly facing the prospect of battling, in all likelihood, a formidable Penguins team.

In many ways, skill teams can take longer to get up to speed, especially with a shortened training camp that often lacked the entire roster due to exposures to COVID positive people and the dreaded, "unfit to participate" tag.

The obvious example is the Bruins, who missed nearly half their team for a lot of training camp, including star forward David Pastrnak, who barely escaped the "unfit" tag in time to join his team in Toronto.

David Pastrnak missed the Boston Bruins' training camp after he was exposed to someone with COVID-19. Image by Bostonbruinsfan22

That means, chemistry and timing, which can take a while to develop or rekindle, will take even longer. Power play passes might not be timed right, a split second off in positioning, and the puck ends up outside the sweet spot on a one-timer. That can mean an overtime-winning goal or a game-losing mistake.

I'd argue it will be much harder for a skilled team to hit the ground running.

Meanwhile, the bottom eight teams are playing a real, live or die playoff series. There's more at stake, and the intensity of those five-game series' is likely to give the winner of those series’ an edge.

That's why I expect to see at least one upset when the second round begins. Maybe it's the Bruins the Lightning or the Canucks with their excellent power plays.

A big physical team like the St. Louis Blues stands to benefit from the layoff. It's much easier to remember how to hit someone than to hop back on the ice after almost five months and make pinpoint passes.

The Blues won the cup last year on the back of Jordan Binnington and their pulverizing physicality. Even though they have the league's third-best power play, they can fall back on just grinding teams into dust until they all get back on the same page. The layoff will undoubtedly make a difference when it comes to favorites, don't be surprised to see some contenders fall early, maybe by just a goal.

Does This Year's Stanley Cup Winner Deserve an Asterisk?

No, none whatsoever. If you've heard it once, you've heard it 1000 times. What's going on is unprecedented.

In the bubble, none of the players will have the comforts of home nor the moral support of their own families to help them in what is, under normal circumstances, the most grinding playoffs in sports. On top of that, the winner, whether they come from the bottom tier teams or the top, will have gone through more rounds than during a standard Stanley Cup playoff run.

Furthermore, they will be helping us gain some escape from the anxiety and uncertainty of life during the COVID-19 pandemic, and they'll be doing it away from their own families and at personal risk. No, they aren't going off to fight a war, but what they're doing is risky. So no, the Stanley Cup's eventual winner in no way should have their accomplishment sullied by an asterisk.

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