Monday, August 17, 2020

Weekend rankings: Sorting through the early contenders and pretenders

Yeah, we’re doing another postseason power ranking, even though this is a feature that was built for the regular season. Being a hockey writer when the playoffs are in August is like being a referee in overtime: The rules go out the window.

The last time we tried this was two weeks ago when each team had all of one whole game of qualifying action to go on. Somewhat amazingly, those one-game-old rankings hold up kind of well – all five teams we had ranked at the bottom lost their qualifying round, all five teams at the top are still alive, and our decision to rank the Maple Leafs as being in more trouble than the Canucks turned out to be prescient. Is it… is it possible that I’m only good at this during the playoffs? That doesn’t sound likely. Quick, let’s do another set of rankings and put that thought to rest.

It was an interesting weekend in the bubble, as we saw our first high-profile departure from a star who decided he’d had enough. Tuukka Rask’s exit came as a shock, especially with the announcement coming just hours before the Bruins took the ice for Game 3. He’d made some waves earlier in the week with his comments about a lack of playoff atmosphere, but not many of us saw this coming. Don Sweeney maybe did, at least based on his comments in the aftermath, and it should go without saying that Rask has the right to put his family first.

The Rask story came a few days after we saw a very different kind of surprise exit, this one from Canadiens’ coach Claude Julien, who was hospitalized with chest pains and will miss at least the rest of this round. Both the Bruins and the Canadiens responded to adversity with impressive wins, but the long-term impact remains to be seen.

Under normal circumstances, this is where I’d insert the standard boilerplate about how some things are more important than sports, and that health and family are always the priority. But it’s 2020, and I’m guessing you don’t need a reminder of that. The NHL has done an admirable job of putting this tournament together, maybe the best of all the major sports leagues. But this week was a reminder that it won’t be easy, and that despite having been at this for weeks, we’re somehow still only halfway through Round 1.

Is that too early to be picking favorites? Of course it is. But it’s August and it’s the playoffs and we’re doing this anyway.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed toward a summer November of socially distanced keg stands and fountain pool parties.

One worry I had going into the first round was that we’d see a big disconnect between the teams that had just fought through a qualifying series and those that been playing in the round robin for seeding. Those latter games had featured a noticeable lack of intensity compared to the do-or-die variety, and I wondered if we’d get a week into this round and find all of the so-called favorites trailing because they just couldn’t keep up.

Nope. Or at least, not really. A few of the favorites did get off to slow starts, most noticeably the Blues and Capitals. But even those series didn’t look like anyone was going at half-speed, so at least one pre-tournament worry seems to have been unfounded.

5. Philadelphia Flyers – Whatever happened in Sunday’s game, there was no question about what would stand as the highlight of the weekend:

Hell yeah, Oskar Lindblom.

The Flyers may have been inspired heading into Game 3. Or maybe they’re just the better team. That’s what the regular season records say, as well as the seeding. It’s not what most of the action in the first two games had suggested, as these two teams went back and forth. The Flyers needed Sunday’s win after Friday’s no-show, and they got it, but this series still feels like it has a few twists and turns left in it, and the Flyers had better find some offense.

4. Boston Bruins – So what do we do with the Bruins? Despite what many of their loudest fans seem to think, Rask is a very good goaltender with a history of postseason success. (He has a better career postseason save percentage than Henrik Lundqvist, Jonathan Quick, Patrick Roy or Dominik Hasek, so the narrative that he doesn’t come through in the clutch is a mystery.) They’re going to miss him.

How much? That’s the critical question, and the answer is we’re not really sure. Jaroslav Halak is one of the stronger backups in the league, so the Bruins are in better shape than a lot of teams would be. But being a great backup isn’t quite the same as being a great starter, and as good as he is, Halak isn’t Rask.

You could make the argument that Rask wasn’t Rask either, given where his head was at this month. Maybe under the circumstances, Halak will be an upgrade. Or maybe he’ll be close enough that it won’t really matter. But the Bruins are in tough against a really good Hurricanes team, and they’re still missing David Pastrnak.

Can they overcome all of it to make it out of the round, and beyond? I’ve got them in the top five, so that tells you that I still believe. But it’s a tougher call than it would have been a week ago.

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