Stanley Cup Playoffs: Rating the success of the qualifying round

Conor Sheary #43 of the Pittsburgh Penguins (Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images)
Conor Sheary #43 of the Pittsburgh Penguins (Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images) /

There is no other way to rate the first-ever Stanley Cup Playoffs Qualifying Round other than as a complete success for the NHL.

Whether you were in favor or against this new Stanley Cup Playoffs format from its rumored arrangement all the way through to its official announcements and finalized plans, the qualifying round has been nothing short of spectacular.

In every series, the playoff intensity we all know and love has been there. Even if it looked a little different without fans in the arena, the product on the ice made it unnoticeable through long stretches, if at all.

This round has seen your typical postseason upsets with both 12th seeds advancing to the round of 16 with the Chicago Blackhawks and Montreal Canadiens beating the fifth seed Edmonton Oilers and Pittsburgh Penguins, respectively. As an added bonus, the 11th seed Arizona Coyotes upset the sixth seed Nashville Predators out west.

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There was only one sweep in the Qualifying Round, with the Carolina Hurricanes sweeping the New York Rangers. Also, we’ve seen one series go the full five games between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets. There have been a lot of highly contested matchups within all these series that we have all come to expect from NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs in a month we never expected to see it.

Each series had a mix of tight games that went down to the wire, games that got out of hand early, key injuries taking place that changed the series, star performers in the regular season either shine bright or fizzle out, unsung heroes emerge out of nowhere, team strengths become weaknesses and vice versa, fights, and high playoff intensity throughout.

Literally everything we are accustomed to seeing in playoff hockey that would happen in April happening in August, with an added bonus of an NCAA March Madness schedule of five and six games being played staggered throughout the day into the night. Only fitting since all this madness started in March.

Even the round-robin games have had the same playoff feel. An added wrinkle to the brackets because those teams needed to get work in as every team endured a four-month bye. I assumed they would be more of an exhibition-style so the top teams could get loose. They were far from it, as both four seeds have claimed the top seed in each conference.

Every round-robin team played to win even though seeding only really means who your next opponent will be. There is no home-ice advantage for anyone really, not even the host teams of Edmonton and Toronto without the fans and visiting arena hostile environments. No extra traveling to different cities and where the pivotal Game 7 would be held. Only the last line change matchup option off the faceoff that may or may not be important.

If the Stanley Cup Playoffs have proven anything, whether it be this year or previous seasons, is that seeds don’t really matter. It’s all about the matchups. Some lower seeds can beat higher seeds because their team’s makeup is a tough matchup for the higher seed.

The parity that you find in the NHL is greater than any other professional sport, especially in the early rounds. This provides true excitement for all teams and their fan bases even if it only seems like they have a slight chance to dream big. More upsets are an aspect of these playoffs moving forward that we will expect.

Even with all the success so far, the best number to come out of the qualifying round is zero. Exactly zero positive coronavirus cases. Every player, team staff member, NHL official, TV crew member, arena worker, and whoever else is allowed inside the bubble has tested negative.

The containment to two central sites and bubble confinement has been successful to this point and the best-case scenario for all that are involved. The product on the ice has been the main focus as it should be. There have been no players having to sit out or teams having to stop play like in Major League Baseball that can really throw a wrench in all the timing of the playoffs. The success in this line has created all the other great stories and memories to unfold.

Fans have been able to enjoy this game as much as the players and teams playing themselves. Even if your team was eliminated, you still got to see them in action, which is something we all couldn’t say for four months. If your team advanced and is still in it, more fun is in store for you as your mind wanders to all the wonderful possibilities that lie ahead. The fact it was able to happen has been successful for everyone involved to this point.

Some fans think that this year’s “Covid Cup” should have an asterisk or won’t be looked at the same as past Stanley Cup-winning teams. With all the extra wrinkles in plans, this very well might be a harder Stanley Cup to win than traditional seasons.

Every plan hasn’t been perfect. The eight losers of the Qualifying Round having a shot at the first overall pick in the 2020 Draft in a second lottery draft coming on Monday while seven teams who didn’t even have a chance at this year’s Stanley Cup have to watch that slot go to a playoff team.

I still think the NHL didn’t protect the seven teams that didn’t have a chance at the Stanley Cup as much as they protected the bubble teams in expanding the traditional 16 team playoff format to 24,  which I fully explained in this previous article.

Aside from the first overall pick in the draft wrinkle, the best-case scenario has unfolded overall in the early going of this unprecedented Stanley Cup Playoffs. The canvas was completely blank on how to handle this situation.

There will always be second-guessing and hiccups but the NHL did a great job putting this all together with original ideas that have worked. Many months of planning went into the production and execution of this Tournament, and the product has been exceptional to this point. What once looked impossible has become very possible.

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The NHL has gotten it right and should be praised for their overall creativity in bringing some normalcy to these turbulent times. It was impossible to get everything perfect and more things could have gone wrong than gone right. Complete success in the early going with a promising finish to its exciting completion.