Vancouver Canucks players celebrate a goal against the Minnesota Wild during the third period of an NHL hockey qualifying round game, Friday, Aug. 7, 2020, in Edmonton, Alberta. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP)

'Wild' NHL playoffs move into next stage with final 16 teams

August 09, 2020 - 6:41 pm
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Derek Stepan gave some words of advice to his Arizona Coyotes teammates not used to the bright lights of playoff hockey.

“It’s the best time of the year to be playing,” he said.

The time of year is different than usual, but the NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs haven't lost any of their luster or penchant for surprises.

After a qualifying round full of upsets, overtime heroics and comebacks, the traditional first round that starts Tuesday with 16 teams left is primed to feature even more entertainment and unpredictability.

“It’s wild,” said Barry Trotz, whose New York Islanders will next face the Washington Capitals he coached to the title in 2018.

“It’s made for TV, really. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We knew that there was going to be some strange things happen in this strange, unusual time and format. But it’s captivating.”

The Chicago Blackhawks that ranked 23rd out of 31 teams in the regular season are still playing, along with the Montreal Canadiens, who were 24th and not given much hope of moving on.

Chicago has a tough task against the Western Conference No. 1 seed Vegas, and Carey Price's Canadiens face the Philadelphia Flyers that earned top billing in the East by going 3-0 against Boston, Tampa Bay and Washington.

“It was a tall task to get that No. 1 seed and we did it,” Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere said. "We came in here and have been strictly business. I think for us to go out there and get three big wins in a row and get that No. 1 seed is huge for us.”

In a very 2020 turn of events, the Bruins that won the Presidents' Trophy as the top regular-season team went winless since the restart and now must take on the Carolina Hurricanes that swept their way to this point. It's a rematch of the 2019 East final but with Carolina looking more prepared for this showdown.

“They swept us last year, which definitely is going to be good opportunity for us to kind of give back what they gave us last year,” Hurricanes forward Nino Niederreiter said.

The Hurricanes, Islanders and Golden Knights look scary, the Lightning could be without top players Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman for at least the start of their series, and the Bruins and Blues that met in last year's Cup Final haven't recaptured the dominance they showed until the season was halted in March and combined to go 0-6.

"It doesn’t matter what seed you’re in because you’ve got to beat every team anyways if you want to advance," Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask said. “It’s over now and start real hockey.”

Half of the remaining field has been playing real hockey for more than a week now. After knocking off the Nashville Predators, captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson said the Coyotes are “up for the challenge” of taking on the Colorado Avalanche. The Canucks and Flames should also be feeling good after emotional series victories, though Vancouver must face an angry St. Louis bunch that blew leads in all three games.

“We’re not playing aggressive enough in my opinion,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. “Getting the real thing going here will be important, for sure.”

It's all best-of-seven until the Stanley Cup is handed out in late September or early October, though the prospect of playing in quarantined bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton could change the psychological dynamic of the playoffs.

“It’s one of those years it’s easier once you’re down to say, ‘Well, I do miss my kids, it’s not our year,’” Boston coach Bruce Cassidy said. “You can sort of have that in the back of your mind and certainly some players are going to go through it, and that’s why I feel that maybe some series will be closed out quicker than previous years.”

Only one qualifying round series went to a deciding Game 5: Columbus-Toronto, which also featured two shutouts and each team erasing a 3-0 deficit and winning in overtime. Over nine days, 44 games showed why the league and NHL Players' Association worked hard to resume the season, and that was just the start of summer hockey madness.

“I’m sure it’ll continue," Flames coach Geoff Ward said. "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 and a very tough opponent. And I think as these playoffs go on, you’re just going to see more of the same.”

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