How Will the NHL's COVID-Year Realignment and Shortened Season Affect the Playoffs?

(AP Photo/John Locher, File)

Although all three California teams are lamentably absent, the NHL playoffs start this Saturday with sixteen teams holding two things in common: a desire to win the Stanley Cup, and living out the truism that familiarity breeds contempt.

In order to get in as close to a normal season as possible in the era of COVID, long before the season started the NHL changed things up quite a bit, splitting all teams into four divisions. Three divisions contained all the American teams, while the fourth had all the Canadian teams. Next, the season was shortened from 82 games to 56. Finally, all games were played within each division.

This saved the Canadian teams from having to quarantine themselves every time they crossed the border into the U.S. as they never had to do so. It also meant in the three divisions based here, each team played every other team in their division eight times. By the time the season wound down, all arena scoreboards, instead of displaying the visiting team’s city and name, simply read, “You AGAIN?!!”

Now, in a game as physical and aggressive as hockey, when you play the same team more than once it is the norm for assorted animosities to arise. Someone takes a cheap shot, someone mouths off once too often, someone says something about someone’s sister, and so on. Or, someone gets upset because some guy on the other team drafted the player they wanted in the Pick-Which-Player-Tom-Wilson-Will-Deliberately-Injure-In-Each-Round-The-Capitals-Are-In fantasy league.

In a normal season, the most times two teams play each other is five. Otherwise, it’s four or two. As noted, this year it’s been eight. And now that it’s playoffs time, the first and second rounds will be within each division. In short, if a series goes the full seven games, it will be the fifteenth time the two teams have lined up against one another. It’ll no longer be a question of bad blood between them but whether either team has any blood left.

Perhaps more so than any other sport, when it comes to predicting outcomes the postseason in hockey is best summarized by saying “your guess is as good as mine.” A prime illustration of this was the 2019 postseason, in which the first round saw every single division’s regular-season champion lose.

Playoff hockey differs from regular season hockey. The play tends to be even more physical than the norm, every puck possession and foray into the offensive zone met with maximum resistance at all stages of the play. Although the standard belief that in the playoffs penalties are far less likely to be called isn’t always the case, let a series go to a Game Seven and there will be nary a referee’s whistle to be heard. Should the game be tied at the end of regulation, unlike the regular season which first sees a five-minute period with each team putting three skaters on the ice, should neither team score within the extra period a shootout taking place, after the usual break in-between periods the teams hit the ice and play the normal way (20-minute period) until someone scores.

If no one scores during the first overtime period, there will be a second overtime period. If no one scores in the second overtime period, there will be a third. And so on until somebody nets a goal. There is no more gloriously nerve-wracking experience in sports than overtime playoff hockey.

My best guess is that the Stanley Cup finals this year will be the Original Six member Toronto Maple Leafs, trying to win their first Cup since 1967, going up against the Original Thirty-One member Vegas Golden Knights, trying to win their first Cup in their fourth year of existence.

Will it work out that way? Who knows. Regardless, it’s going to be great fun to watch.