Asterisk debates are the bed bugs of the sports world. No matter how many times you try to kill them, they keep surfacing.
The NHL’s altered playoff format is the latest victim of their attack, with some pundits suggesting that this year’s eventual winner should by default sit in the bottom tier of hockey champions throughout history. It’s a preposterous assertion that should be extinguished immediately.
The Stanley Cup that will be awarded after nearly three months of play in Edmonton and Toronto will not be tainted in any way. Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said it best: “Whoever wins it will have earned it.”
Of course, Golden Knights players won’t admit to looking that far ahead and contextualizing what a title in the coronavirus-interrupted 2019-2020 season might mean, but it has surely crossed their minds. That’s because they’re quietly confident, knowing they have a realistic shot of becoming champions.
Check out the future odds at any sportsbook in the world, and the Golden Knights are a top-three favorite—along with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins—at prices ranging from 5- to 9-to-1. Notably, the betting lines on the top teams lengthened at some sportsbooks when news of the NHL’s expanded playoff plan became public.
That should be telling. It means that if anything, winning this year’s Stanley Cup will be harder than ever before.
Inviting eight additional teams into the bracket inherently increases variance. Laugh all you want about the mediocre Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks (the latter of whom will start former Vegas backup Malcolm Subban in net), but every team skews probability, even if it’s only by a fraction of a percent.
In a way, typically hopeless teams will also be competing on a more level playing field. Those with better regular-season records—like the Golden Knights—fought all season for home-ice advantage in the playoffs, which they’ll no longer have. A strong argument can be made that, behind only goalie Marc-André Fleury, the key factor in Vegas’ 2018 Stanley Cup Final run was T-Mobile Arena emerging as one of the league’s toughest venues. The Golden Knights won’t have that on their side in these playoffs.
With games played minus fans, no team will. Being unable to celebrate with anyone beyond a few dozen teammates and club personnel looks like the biggest downside to winning this year. The champs taking the Cup on its traditional lap around the ice in front of 18,000 empty seats at Rogers Place, likely with generic crowd noise piped in for television audiences, will surely feel bizarre. But maybe it won’t be as weird as we think.
Remarkably, the past five Stanley Cup champions have won the deciding game on the road. Alexander Ovechkin didn’t seem to mind that the majority of the crowd hit the exits after his Capitals beat the Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena.
Of course, the Caps did receive an appropriate celebration when they arrived back in Washington, D.C. It’s a bummer that, with mandatory social distancing likely for the foreseeable future, this year’s champion won’t get their own version of that. Visions of a championship parade down the Strip—Nate Schmidt grinning wildly, Ryan Reaves spraying his 7Five suds around and Fleury pranking distracted teammates—have helped make daydreaming about a Golden Knights’ Stanley Cup victory so exciting.
But such scenes are off the table amid a pandemic. Sure, some fans would whine over the lack of festivities—and some might even try to skirt safety protocols and organize rogue gatherings—but that would be unwise, for obvious public-health reasons.
Whatever happens on the ice, the best way to proceed as fans might be to just embrace the strangeness of the format. As DeBoer says, “People are going to remember who won this Stanley Cup.”
And to those who insist on talking asterisks, how about this one: *Team navigated toughest playoff setup in NHL history.
This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.