Tyler's Thoughts on the Qualifying Round
If you were running the National Hockey League, could you be any more pleased by how well things went with the return to play? Although the round robin games involving the top four teams in each conference were… um… rather pedestrian, the qualifying series involving seeds 5-12 in each conference were awesome. Right from the get-go the intensity was high. The first game between the Rangers and Hurricanes even saw a scrap in the first couple of minutes to go with a few big hits! Any doubts about intensity lacking without fans in the rink were quashed fairly quickly… and tell me the staging set up at Scotiabank Arena and Rogers Place isn’t impressive!
Those of us with The Hockey Podcast naturally focused primarily on the Canadian clubs in the Return to Play. Yours truly watched the Canucks-Wild and Oilers-Blackhawks series in their entirety and tried to catch as much of the other action as possible (that pesky day job and the fact there was so much hockey on all at once made things difficult). Here are my thoughts on various topics from the NHL’s return to play so far…
I loved that the league didn’t shy away from regional rivalries in drawing up the schedule of tune-up games. It appeared to me the choice of matchups was designed to drum up fan interest and the idea seemed to do the trick. Sportsnet reported 4.3 million viewers combined for the Maple Leafs-Canadiens and Oilers-Flames games on July 28 – the two most watched NHL exhibition games in network history. (Too bad a bunch of the other exhibition games not involving Canadian teams went unaired, though.)
Canucks vs. Wild series
The series started off as we all probably should have expected for the Canucks: jittery. That would be applicable for goaltender Jacob Markstrom and the entire team. But what an impressive response in game 2 with a goal from Tanner Pearson on the first shift. There was a clear progression with the Canucks from then on. Even as Markstrom struggled in game 4, the team picked him up and found a way to pull out a thrilling 5-4 win in OT with the ever-deserving Chris Tanev recording his first career playoff goal to clinch the series.
The Canucks grew leaps and bounds in those four games against Minnesota and hopefully that provides them with the confidence they need to upset the St. Louis Blues in their western conference quarterfinal matchup. And make no mistake, the Blues will be much stronger opposition for Vancouver than the Wild, despite the Canucks’ 2-0-1 regular season record against St. Louis. The main reason for the Canucks success against Minnesota for me though was that the namers delivered: Brock Boeser, J.T. Miller, Quinn Hughes, Bo Horvat… they got it done. Elias Pettersson may not have posted big numbers but he still impressed the hell out of me the way he fought through the suffocating coverage he received from the Wild. Hughes was unreal in game 4. We must also acknowledge the contributions of the Canucks supporting cast, namely Tyler Motte, Brandon Sutter and Loui Eriksson. Eriksson in particular deserves kudos for stepping in for game 2 after sitting out the exhibition game against Winnipeg and the series opener against the Wild and providing very solid play alongside Horvat and Pearson. Now, if Tyler Myers could just stay out of the penalty box…
Oilers vs. Blackhawks series
It was astounding to me how little respect the Blackhawks were getting from fans and media coming into this series. Sure, professional sports is a “what have you done for me lately” type of business but Stanley Cup pedigree is Stanley Cup pedigree and frankly it was disrespectful to think the likes of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Corey Crawford and Brandon Saad would be pushovers. Those of us who are Canuck supporters know all too well how difficult those guys are to play against. Look, the Oilers should have won this series but it was going to take more than Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl to get it done. (To be clear, I thought McDavid was full value in the series and pretty much singlehandedly won game 2 for Edmonton.) People can dissect lineup decisions or choice of goaltender but there simply wasn’t enough from the rest of the team and a whole lot of Edmontoning happening defensively. As coach Dave Tippett so eloquently stated, the Oilers still have some growing up to do before they are a team that will truly compete for the Stanley Cup. General manager Ken Holland will have his hands full in the offseason trying to make the Oilers a more well-rounded squad.
Okay, let’s discuss the zebras. (Would postseason hockey be what it is without a few officiating controversies?) I was asked on the podcast what I expected in terms of the officiating during the return to play and my feeling was it would be pretty “let ‘em play” given the rust factor involved for everyone and the fact officiating has historically been lenient when it comes to postseason play. Instead what we got was a hodgepodge of different standards, game-to-game and series-to-series. I’m not sure how the league will solve this issue. Once the game starts, it’s mostly gut feel out there for the referees and once they head down the path of a tight standard or a loose standard in any particular game there’s no turning back. It can be perplexing at best to down right infuriating. But let’s try to cut the guys in stripes some slack – it was a long layoff for them too and their task is nearly impossible: allow speed and skill in the game but not call too many penalties to the point where there’s no flow. Hopefully the officiating is more consistent as we move into the real playoffs.
We were promised some creativity and new camera angles for the broadcasts without fans attending the games and overall the pictures have been good but can the folks at NBC and Rogers PLEASE go easy with the use of that jib camera during play?? I think it’s great for replays and it is a nice look for centre ice faceoffs but it’s weird watching the play in the end zones when used during live action and too often the puck is out of frame using that camera. My other gripe has to do with replays. We should be seeing replays of EVERY penalty call without exception yet there are exceptions. I don’t understand why but it does seem to coincide with commercial breaks taking place following stoppages for penalty calls. (When the telecast returns from break, we may or may not get a replay of the infraction.) I understand there can be some limitations for producers with the use of host feeds as is the case for these games, but surely they can figure this out?? Production notwithstanding, how sweet is it to have Chris Cuthbert back on Canadian TV calling games? I’m of the generation that listened to Cuthbert call Canucks playoff games during the West Coast Express era. Great hire by Sportsnet and a huge credibility boost for their coverage.
The creativity by the NHL in this regard has been outstanding. From video messages such as “Tonight’s attendance: 0” and “Please exit your couch safely” to having NHL staff toss hats on the ice for hat tricks, there’s been some great value added to try to make up for the lack of spectators. My one critique though would be having the goal horns and goal songs played for the “road” team in each game. I find that jarring. This should only be happening for the designated “home” team, in my opinion.
Finally, a quick word on the schedule. It is what it is: an attempt to cram a lot of games in a short period of time with only two rinks available… and NBC having a huge say in order to meet their “needs”. But surely the league could have done better in scheduling the conference quarterfinals such that a Canadian team would be in action every Saturday night during the playoffs to honour the tradition that is Hockey Night in Canada. Instead, Rogers is forced to produce its own coverage of Golden Knights-Blackhawks in order to fill air time on the CBC. This is just wrong.
Enjoy the “first round” !