On Tuesday, March 10th, I found myself at my favorite sports bar in midtown Manhattan. I was with the two biggest hockey fans I know and we were geared up for a great doubleheader. The Leafs were hosting the Lightning and ninety minutes later, your New York Rangers were in Dallas taking on the Stars. The bar was not empty but it was not crowded. The Leafs edged out “Rangers South” 2-1 behind goals from Nylander and Matthews. The Blueshirts set down Dallas 4-2 giving rookie goaltender Igor Shesterkin his tenth win of the season. On the way out, I ran into a talented actor I have worked with twice and we discussed the coronavirus. We wondered how it would affect both the theatre and sports industries going forward.
The next night we all found out, as the National Basketball Association suspended their season. Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer and the National Hockey League did follow suit. When I went to sleep on March 12th, the New York Rangers had picked up a point with an overtime loss to the Colorado Avalanche. This brought them within two points of a playoff spot. No team has played since and it is unclear whether or not the 2019-2020 NHL season will resume. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the five NHL teams who have been impacted most by the season being suspended.
Title Defense Put on Hold
The defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues are right at the top of the list. This team was in terrific shape when the season came to a halt. They were on top of the standings in the Western Conference. And despite only having a two point lead over Colorado in the Central Division, they had a very favorable schedule down the stretch. Their last two games were to be against the aforementioned Avalanche and the Boston Bruins. Those two contests would have been nice playoff primers heading into their Cup defense. Regardless, St. Louis had a legitimate chance to repeat as champions. Captain Alex Pietrangelo is the heart and soul of the team and set to become an unrestricted Free Agent at season’s end. It is uncertain if he’ll be back. This could be a huge opportunity lost for the Blues.
Window Closing in Beantown
How about St. Louis’ opponent in last year’s Cup Final? The Boston Bruins have been a model of consistency over the past decade. Only once since 2008 have they failed to end the season with at least 90 points. And that was due to the lockout that reduced the 2012-2013 season schedule to 48 games. Over that stretch, the Bruins have been involved in some of the most classic regular and postseason contests. This season’s Bruins had 100 points with twelve games to play. Boston’s Perfection Line of Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, and Brad Marchand got off to a fast start and Tuukka Rask had the best goals-against average in the league. Add that this has to be Zdeno Chara’s last season, right? The 43-year-old Captain is the team leader and like Pietrangelo in St. Louis, is unsigned beyond this season. With the rest of the squad another year older, this could be the B’s last legitimate chance at a Cup run for a while.
That Old Familiar Feeling
The Vegas Golden Knights were going for it. They held a 3 point lead over Edmonton and after a first-round exit last season, followed by a slow start last fall, that 2018 vibe was starting to permeate the T-Mobile Arena again. Then they made a 3 team trade in late February and got even better. Vegas effectively shipped goaltender Malcolm Subban, defensive prospect Slava Demin and a 2nd round pick in 2020 to Chicago for Robin Lehner. Great! The Golden Knights now have possibly the best goaltender combo in the game with Lehner and Marc-André Fleury. An issue could arise this summer when Lehner, a very good goaltender, becomes a free agent. He may not want to re-sign with Vegas to be a backup as Fleury still has two years left on his deal. This point would be moot if Vegas made a deep playoff run with their shiny new goalie tandem. But that may or may not be possible depending on how this pandemic plays out. Lehner could become a rental that the Knights don’t ever get to actually rent the services of.
The Curse Continues
The Philadelphia Phillies and Philadelphia Eagles have both broken the curse of Billy Penn. The Philadelphia Flyers still have yet to do so. However, the Flyers were arguably the hottest team in the NHL heading into the shutdown. They were comfortably in the second spot in the Metropolitan and just had a nine game winning streak broken by the Bruins. With a favorable slate of games remaining on their schedule, the Flyers felt like a lock to be taking on the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the playoffs. Pittsburgh has had the upper hand against Philly in the playoffs since 2008. But this year’s version of the Flyers seemed ready to take the next step. They have goal scorers up and down the lineup and netminder Carter Hart is starting to come into his own. This team is just entering their window but it would have been nice to see them get a crack at it this year.
Another Battle Of Alberta
I really wanted to go with the New York Rangers in this last spot. The Blueshirts clawed their way back into playoff contention in 2020 but they weren’t really expected to become a full-blown contender until next season. So, since I can’t slot my favorite team here, I’m going to put in two from my favorite province. When the NHL pressed pause, the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames were both in the playoffs. And it was looking very likely that we were going to get a battle of Alberta in the first round. The Oilers two outstanding centers Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl were scoring at a prodigious rate. Draisaitl had an outside chance of leading the league in goals, assists, and, by default, points. No one has done that since Super Mario in 1996. Calgary’s defense would really have been put to the test. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that whenever these two teams have squared off with Lord Stanley’s Cup on the line, one can expect the unexpected.
Light At The End Of The Tunnel
The League and NHLPA are working on a proposal to resume the 2019-2020 season. Let us hope that they reach an agreement and find some way to start and finish what was sure to be an exciting Stanley Cup playoff. The last time the Cup wasn’t awarded was 2005 when a lockout canceled the entire season. It would be a shame if the teams mentioned above, as well as other teams like Pittsburgh, the Washington Capitals and the New York Islanders, who made deals sacrificing the future with the present in mind weren’t afforded the opportunity to compete in it.