ST. PAUL – Who would have thought, but the NHL Stanley Cup qualifying round is set to commence on Saturday. Aug. 1, and friends, that’s not too far away!

I am really looking forward to this tournament as I have thoroughly tired of watching sports reruns and the like on the myriad of TV channels offering such.

Just this weekend though I did see a PBA live tournament, the 2020 Tour Finals, of course, with no fans in attendance.

And since I literally grew up across the street from a bowling alley as an enterprising youngster on West 7th in my beloved St. Paul, I still have a deep affinity for the sport. It gets maligned often, but for those that place it into a negative light, I’d like to see you go out and do what the great men and women bowling professionals do out on tour. Yeah, not that easy is it!

As I write I have on today’s card at Saratoga Springs albeit with no sound at the moment. They have resumed the equine race season there, (w/o fans) and as many who know me can attest, I love horse racing.

My daughter Chelsey is actually the equestrian in the family but she doesn’t care for racing. She says it is too abusive on the horses. I can’t say she is totally incorrect, but I know those in the business go to great lengths to care for these beautiful athletes.
My summer vacation for the year was wiped out when the pandemic came about, but

I was going to travel to New York to spend a few days at Saratoga Park, and then was going to drop down to Pennsylvania to take in the championship weekend of the Little League World Series. Perhaps I’ll be able to do so next summer if life here ever regains some semblance of normalcy.

So, the NHL Phase 3 of preparation for the tourney is in full swing and it hasn’t been without some missteps. Some players have tested positive for the COVID virus, but none have developed full blown cases, that I know of.

On the other hand, the league does have a gag order on that and any other physical maladies that have arisen while training. A little bit of info tends to leak out here and there, but not very much.

And as I mentioned recently, there are some clubs that will be returning some very important players to their rosters who were on the IR at the time play was suspended, so in accounting for their return, it will be of interest to see which of those can have what type of impact on their teams chances in the tourney.

To remind fans who don’t know as of yet or who haven’t studied how this tourney will be held, there will be 12 teams from each conference involved.

Teams determined to be in the 5-12th positions enter into the qualifying round, which will be Best of 5 series with the winners advancing to the “first round.”

The top 4 teams from each conference will compete in a three-game “round robin” format that will determine the seeding for each of them when the qualifying round winners are determined.

All games in the qualifying round will be held under SC tournament rules and all tilts in the round robin portion will be conducted under regular season rules. That is a reflection that the regular season didn’t have a natural conclusion and to make a fair accommodation for playoff seeding purposes for all teams as a result.

With this format in place, when the first round does begin, it will start with 16 clubs, as an SC tourney normally would begin with.

In considering the qualifying round portion of the Eastern Conference, those four series will feature – the New York Rangers versus the Carolina Hurricanes; the Florida Panthers will take on the New York Islanders; the Montreal Canadiens (Les Habitants) will mix it up with the Pittsburgh Penguins; and then, finally, the Columbus Bluejackets will lock horns with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

To be considered, at the time this tourney begins, the teams will have been off of “live” games for 4½ months. I can see some benefits but also see some potential setbacks.

The players will be fresh and relaxed, injured players return, and full rosters will be mostly available.

Are the “younger” teams more prepared to go right off the bat?
Are the older teams going to need time to pull their game back together, thus making them vulnerable in the QR?

These are valid questions and it will be interesting to see what the answers are.
For the NYR and the Canes matchup, at the time of the suspension of play both the Canes #1 and #2 netminders were injured. They’ll be back.

As far as everyday lineup players go, the Rangers will have all hands on deck. The Canes are consistent at home or on the road while the Rangers were slightly better on the road. That won’t matter in a tourney with no “home” games or fans.

The NYR played with some signif-icant juice at times in the season; the Canes were more “steady eddy” in their game.

When it gets down to brass tacks, I like the NYR in goal a bit more, with a slight edge in star power at forward. I’m leaning NYR here.

For FLA and the Isles?

The Panthers score more, the Isles team defense is better. Coach Q versus Coach Trotz? A virtual tossup in my book.

The X factor in this series is going to be residing between the pipes for the Panthers. If Sergei Bobrovsky has his A+ game going, FLA will advance from this series. If he doesn’t, and the Isles can check the FLA scoring, they’ll take this series. It’s FLA’s star power against the Isles grinders. I’m going FLA.

Yikes! The Habs and the Pens. Pitt is obviously the better “team.” However, the Habs have one of the best tenders’ to put the pads on the past 13 seasons in Carey Price. He has had his challenges in the recent past, but I’d say that has to do with who is playing in front of him as well as some wear and tear issues. The Pens don’t need me to pump their tires and the Habs will need a bit of good fortune to advance. But if Price is hot and they steal Game One, don’t be surprised if the Pens don’t get untracked. Pens win this series.

And, finally, we have the CBJ and the Leafs. A hardcore veteran coach against an up-and-coming NHL rookie. Torts and Keefe.

On the ice I’d say the CBJ have more grit and playoff moxy going for them. The young Leafs haven’t fully found a team defensive game yet. Their stars may still be too young to know what it takes to win a playoff round in this league. CBJ advance.

More next week! PEACE

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