Hockey is back and the chase is on for the Stanley Cup. After being on ice 4 1/2 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHL is back in action for real starting on Saturday in hub cities Edmonton and Toronto.
While 16 teams battle in the qualifying round and another eight squads clash for seeding position in the opening round of the playoffs, fans will be treated to full days of contests - so much for any yardwork being accomplished - with no shortage of storylines to follow.
Here are five predictions regarding the next couple of months, assuming the league's plan to execute a playoff tournament in a couple of bubbles doesn't fall apart amidst another outbreak.
1. This will be a playoffs like no other.
Usually the Stanley Cup chase follows a lengthy regular season, so players are worn down before the action even heats up. Sure, the lengthy break will undoubtedly lead to some untimely injuries (we'll delve deeper on that later) but the charges will be as rested as possible and champing at the bit while loaded with pent-up energy.
As the season evolves, the pace of play will not drop off as much as years past, aided further by the lack of travel. Teams which rely on a speed game -- such as the Tampa Bay Lightning and Colorado Avalanche -- will keep an advantage as they move along. Those of us who are happy to see the clutch-and-grab days as a distant memory can rejoice even more.
2. Goalies loom even larger than usual.
A big drawback to the long layoff from games and truncated exhibition schedule is the risk of injury, especially the goalies. Undoubtedly, one squad will be sunk because their No. 1 netminder sustained a groin or hamstring pull - a real danger as players try to hit highway speed without much of an onramp.
Picture the Winnipeg Jets' chances if Connor Hellebuyck is injured ... or Tampa Bay's without Andrei Vasilevskiy ... or Toronto's without Frederik Andersen.
The Washington Capitals have already lost backup Ilya Samsonov before even suiting up due to an injury sustained during the break. Then again, teams boasting two very good goalies, such as the defending champion St. Louis Blues with Jordan Binnington and Jake Allen, are sitting pretty.
3. Brace for the upsets.
Don't expect any David-slaying-Goliath scenarios in the qualifying round in part because the separation between clubs based on the regular season isn't very large. However, the opening round that follows will be primed for upset specials.
Sure, the top-four clubs in each conference (Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia in the East and St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas in the West) will have their own round-robin tourney to tune up, but their battle level won't be at the same as the 16 teams clashing in the qualifying round. The Flyers and Stars especially appear to be ripe for the picking, but all eight teams with berths into the playoffs will be susceptible, and that will make life even more exciting.
4. There won't be a great swan song story.
Don't expect any Ray Bourque or Lanny McDonald moments when the Cup is presented. While there are a handful of great players who are very likely looking at their last opportunity to win their first Cup -- such as Patrick Marleau (Pittsburgh), Jason Spezza (Toronto), Brian Boyle (Florida) and Henrik Lundqvist (New York Rangers) -- their chances of being able to announce their retirement after sipping from Lord Stanley's mug for the first time are almost nil.
5. Who will be the biggest loser?
OK, it's not a prediction, but as much fun as it will be watching the action on the ice, one big off-ice transaction will loom large. After the qualifying round is complete, the eight clubs eliminated will partake in a lottery for the first overall pick, expected to be Alexis Lafreniere. Talk about a whale of a consolation prize. Just imagine the Penguins or Edmonton Oilers bowing out in the qualifying round but adding a sure-fire prospect to the fold in the aftermath.
--By Randy Sportak, Field Level Media