Lightning Panthers Hockey

Tampa Bay Lightning center Brayden Point (21) scores past Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (72) during the first period of an exhibition NHL hockey game in Toronto, Wednesday, July 29, 2020. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)

I can’t believe hockey is actually back. I feel like Charlie Brown, just waiting for Lucy to pull the football away any time now.

But hey, with no positive tests for COVID-19 in the NHL’s bubble, I’m finally coming around to playoff hockey in August.

Being a hockey fan in Florida is also weird, but that’s why I’m here. If you’re watching the frozen sport for the first time or have just casually watched the game in the past, you might be wondering how this is all going to work or who to root for. No worries, here’s a quick guide:

What’s on the line?

Ordinarily, the NHL playoffs start in April with 16 teams fighting it out for the Stanley Cup, the greatest trophy in sports. However, COVID-19 stopped the season in mid-March, right in the midst of the playoff push. In order to compensate for the lost games, the league upped the number of teams to 24, 12 from each conference. The NHL set up two bubbles in Canada: one in Toronto for the Eastern Conference and one in Edmonton, Alberta, for the Western Conference.

The Stanley Cup Qualifiers will consist of everyone but the top four teams in each conference playing a best-of-five series to decide who plays the other four teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The top four teams in each conference will play round-robin games against each other to dictate seeding the rest of the way.

From there, it’s back to the usual format for the NHL where every team fights for the right to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup in best-of-seven series until there’s only one team left.

Finally, due to a quirk in the NHL’s lottery system, one of the teams that are eliminated in the qualifying round will be eligible to win the first overall pick in this year’s draft. After the qualifying round, all of the losers will be placed in a lottery where each team will have an equal (12.5 percent) chance of securing Alexis Lafreniere, the consensus No. 1 pick this year.

Who should I root for?

With 24 teams in the field, there are plenty of choices. Here are a few suggestions:

If you want a team close to home: You’ve got a couple of options here. The easy choice is the Tampa Bay Lightning (43-21-6, 92 points), who are one of the favorites to win it all this year. They have plenty of star power in forwards Nikita Kucherov (33 goals, 52 assists), Steven Stamkos (29 goals, 37 assists), Brayden Point (25 goals, 39 assists) and shutdown defenseman Victor Hedman. Combine that with a solid goaltender in Andrei Vasilevskiy, and the Lightning are easily one of the best teams in the league.

Postseason success has eluded them in the past, including an embarrassing sweep in the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets last year after winning 62 games in the regular season. But maybe this is finally the year.

You also have the Florida Panthers, whose track record isn’t as complete as their counterparts on the bay. Florida hasn’t won a playoff series since the Clinton administration and only finished 10th in the Eastern Conference this season. They have a few recognizable faces in forward Aleksander Barkov, defenseman Aaron Ekblad and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, but they’re not a threat for the Cup this year.

If you like superstars: Hockey is the ultimate team sport, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t players who can take over a game completely.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Edmonton Oilers and the Washington Capitals all fit the bill here.

The Penguins, winners of three Stanley Cups since 2009, have two of the best players in the league in centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, one of the best offensive defensemen in the league in Kris Letang and young sniper Jake Guentzel. Goaltending might be an issue, but they’re still a threat to go on a run, and penguins are pretty much one of the best animals on the planet.

The Maple Leafs had a tumultuous season that included firing coach Mike Babcock in November and finished eighth in the East. But what makes them dangerous is their star talent on offense, led by 22-year-old American Auston Matthews, who finished third in the league with 47 goals. He, along with superstar center John Tavares and electric winger Mitch Marner, is a crucial part of a Toronto offense that finished third in the league in goals per game.

The Maple Leafs don’t play a lot of defense, and goaltender Frederik Andersen had a tough year, but if you like goals, Toronto is a good option.

Edmonton, as a team, probably isn’t that good, but it has two of the best forwards in the league with Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, the top two scorers this season with 110 and 97 points, respectively. The rest of the team is painfully average at best, but they do have a pretty winnable matchup in the qualifying round against Chicago.

Washington features arguably one of the greatest goal scorers in league history in Alex Ovechkin, and the Capitals have basically been a perennial contender since he arrived in 2005. You might get some grief for hopping on the bandwagon now, not having endured the incredible amount of heartbreak the team suffered in the postseason before finally winning it all in 2018. But don’t let that prevent you from rooting for one of the most fun teams in the league.

If you just want a contender: Obviously, it’s going to be more fun rooting for a team that has a legitimate shot at winning it all. You might look like a bandwagon fan, but that’s the point of this.

I would count any of the eight teams not in the qualifying round as serious contenders. I already went over Tampa Bay, but here are a few more suggestions.

The Boston Bruins were atop the league (44-14-12, 100 points) when play stopped, making them an attractive choice. They play solid team defense and have one of the league’s best two-way centers (Patrice Bergeron), scorers (David Pastrnak) and agitators (Brad Marchand). Also, goaltender Tuukka Rask is one of the best in the league.

Philadelphia went from missing the playoffs last season to Stanley Cup contender this year, and it’s a pretty likable team if you forget that they’re from Philly. Lethal scorer Claude Giroux and two-way center Sean Couturier are finally getting their due credit, and the Flyers have solid goaltending for the first time in years with young phenom Carter Hart between the pipes. Plus, I figure Gritty, the team’s mascot, will kill us all one day, and he’ll probably only spare Flyers fans.

The Vegas Golden Knights are the bandwagon team to end all bandwagon teams. The Knights are in just their third season, but they made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in their first season and won the Pacific Division for the second time this year. They’re a tough group that doesn’t have a true superstar (though forward Mark Stone is close) but have loads of depth across the board. Maybe this time they won’t blow a 3-1 series lead after being up 3-0 in the third period of Game 7.

Lastly, the Colorado Avalanche are the trendy pick to win the Western Conference and with good reason.

They are no longer underdogs after a surprise trip to the second round last season as a wild-card team. With dynamic center Nathan MacKinnon, Calder Trophy (given to the league’s best rookie) candidate Cale Makar and winger Mikko Rantanen—all of whom are under the age of 25—the Avalanche will be contenders for this year and beyond. Now is the perfect time to jump on the bandwagon.

Follow Brendan on Twitter @Bfarrell727 and contact him at [email protected].