Feeling a playoff tournament, Sabres chaos


In a chaotic time that won’t change anytime soon, believe it or not, playoff hockey is inching closer. With Phase 2 finally about to hit in NYC, players will start reporting to training camp.

This all seems very strange. Normally by now, we’re crowning a Stanley Cup winner. Instead, most of us are waiting in anticipation of hockey getting clearance to restart in July. Such is the complex state of the country due to COVID-19. A pandemic that has affected so many people. An unnamed Penguin tested positive for it. So did a Bruin.

Despite all the protests due to racial injustice, we’re not out of the woods yet. That must be kept in mind when it comes to determining if the 2019-20 season will be completed. The NBA will be going through similar protocols with testing for all players front and center. That’s CDC regulation.

I realize this is a very hard time for everyone. But this is a hockey blog. I already gave my synopsis on how bad things are due to the senseless murder of George Floyd in Minnesota. It is what it is. Hopefully, justice will be served. All four cops are in custody. I won’t comment further. That includes the most recent controversial event in Atlanta, which isn’t cut and dry.

Of course, you have plenty of commentary and action from athletes in different sports including the NHL. That’s good. They shouldn’t stay quiet. In regards to the Rangers, they haven’t made a statement due to CEO James Dolan. If that’s how he wants it, then there’s nothing they can do. Their hands are tied. It is kind of sad that this is how both tenants at Madison Square Garden are run. Not that I feel every team has an obligation here. But if you have almost every organization condemning the actions of a few idiotic cops, then it makes the Knicks and Rangers look bad. You know who to blame.

Regardless, there’s a pretty good chance hockey will return. For 24 teams, that means holding camps and getting players up to speed. The skating especially along with the workouts will be intense. We’re going on three months since the NHL paused following the last slate of games on Mar. 11. Just imagine how tough it’ll be on these players to get the rust out by mid to late July. Exactly.

So, for the top four seeds in each Conference, all bets are off. Sure. They’ll play a round robin to determine the top four seeds. I don’t understand that part. It seems a bit unfair to both Boston and St. Louis. However, all eight teams need to play games so they’re not behind when the real playoffs begin. You will have eight preliminary series taking place. All best of five with each winner advancing to the more traditional 16 team tournament.

Here’s the thing. This won’t be like the previous postseasons. It won’t be divisional format. Instead, it’ll be by seed meaning they’ll reseed after each round. That’s the fairest way to do this. Personally, I feel the divisional format has run its course. You have too many heavyweight second round match-ups. That isn’t ideal. Especially when it’s again the Bruins and Lightning looking like the best two teams in the East. Out West, it’s a bit closer even though the Blues and Avalanche have the most points. The Golden Knights are a legit threat despite fewer points.

It certainly will be interesting to see what transpires. Out West, it’s the Blues, Avalanche, Golden Knights and Stars vying for the top seed. In the East, you have the NHL-leading Bruins, Lightning, Capitals and Flyers competing for the number one spot. However it goes, it’ll be the highest seed versus the lowest seed left after the play ins. And so forth.

By now, we’ve learned about Vegas being one hub that will host the Eastern Conference Playoffs. That makes sense. Where the Western Conference winds up remains to be seen. Hopefully, it’s somewhere East. It only seems fair.

I’m not going to delve into anymore on the preliminary best three out of five match-ups. We know what they are. As we draw nearer, I’ll focus more on the Rangers and Hurricanes, who are being underestimated by many despite a good roster that’s more proven under a good coach. I don’t foresee it being a cakewalk for our side despite the season series. Throw that out.

You’ll have compelling series including the Islanders and sleeper Panthers, who could make some noise if the real Sergei Bobrovsky shows up. Plus the pesky Blue Jackets led by Elvis Merzlikins against the star studded Maple Leafs that feature Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, John Tavares and William Nylander. A unique contrast. The heavy underdog Canadiens leaning on Carey Price, Shea Weber and Nick Suzuki against the top heavy Crosby/Malkin Penguins which include Jake Guentzel ‘if’ healthy, Kris Letang, Jason Zucker and Tristan Jarry.

The West has Hart front-runner Leon Draisaitl teamed with wunderkind Connor McDavid and overlooked pivot Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Darnell Nurse leading the Oilers against the Kane/Toews Blackhawks which also feature Dominik Kubalik. You have the pesky Coyotes led by Darcy Kuemper looking to stifle the Predators, who have key guys such as Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen, Roman Josi and Viktor Arvidsson. There’s the Wild leaning on emerging star Kevin Fiala and vets Zach Parise, Eric Staal and Ryan Suter, going up against the younger talented Canucks that boast Elias Pettersson, JT Miller, possibly Brock Boeser and Calder hopeful Quinn Hughes. Plus a cool Canadian rivalry between the Flames and Jets involving Calgary headliners Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Matthew Tkachuk, Mark Giordano and maybe Cam Talbot in net to deal with Winnipeg studs Mark Schiefele, Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler, Neal Pionk and netminder Conor Hellebuyck.

I feel much better about this tournament than I did a month ago when they first revealed it. It’s much better than the NBA and certainly makes the MLB latest desperation proposal to the players look weak. There’s some actual excitement for this.

I’ll be honest. I’m going to be a lot more invested in my team this time around. This is a unique opportunity for David Quinn to get this exciting mix of Blueshirts featuring Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad ready for an experienced group of Canes that made it to the Conference Finals last year. Having Chris Kreider back should help. But it’ll likely be up to key guys like Pavel Buchnevich, Ryan Strome, Jesper Fast, Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytil, Tony DeAngelo, Adam Fox and Jacob Trouba if they’re to advance to the big dance. Ditto for Igor Shesterkin.

Can they handle the pressure of a Canes team being underestimated despite stars Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Andrei Svechnikov and rover Dougie Hamilton, who’ll be back patrolling that blueline? What of added center Vincent Trocheck and proven Jordan Staal along with Nino Niederreiter, Jaccob Slavin and tandem Petr Mrazek and James Reimer? It’s bound to be interesting.

Final thought. What the Buffalo Sabres did in firing 22 people including GM Jason Botterill is absurd. What exactly is the thinking? I can see axing Botterill, whose disappointing track record included giving away Ryan O’Reilly to the 2019 Stanley Cup champion Blues for a weak package centered around Tage Thompson. However, never in my wildest dreams did I think they’d sack 22 total including a successful AHL staff in Rochester. They subtracted many scouts and then strangely elevated the unproven Kevyn Adams to GM. Wowza.

It’s fairly obvious that Jack Eichel speaking out once the season was officially over had a enormous affect. I don’t get why co-owner Kim Pegula is so involved in the decision making. What does she know about running a hockey franchise? It seems her and husband Terry are free to do what they want. They’ve now sacked three general managers including Darcy Regier, Tim Murray and now Botterill. Coaches change a lot with Phil Housley not working out the way Botterill envisioned. Well, at least the current coaching staff survived.

Tell me how any of this makes sense. There’s a reason it’ll be exactly a decade since Buffalo last saw the playoffs. It starts with the ownership. The same one that’s allowed the football outfit the Buffalo Bills to be run by NFL people. This is Knicks level bad. How about hiring a Team President? Not in Western New York.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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