The COVID-19 pandemic that caused all major sports to grind to a halt for close to two months is unprecedented in the world of athletics. That doesn’t mean that we haven’t seen games wiped off the schedule en masse in the past, however. It just usually came about as a result of labor strife.
In an ongoing series, we’ve looked back at the major work stoppages in the NFL, NBA and MLB and tried to see what would have happened if they’d played a full season. Since we don’t have real games to look forward to, the least we can do is try to uncancel as many old ones as we can.
So far, we’ve reconstructed the 1981 and 1994 MLB seasons, as well as the 1982 and 1987 NFL sea-sons and the 1998-99 and 2011-12 NBA campaigns.
Now we move on to the NHL.
The first major stoppage in pro hockey (there was a brief strike in 1992 that caused about 30 games to be postponed and replayed later), was in the 1994-95 season. A lockout-shortened that season to 48 games.
As we’ve seen in other sports, a shortened regular season seems to lend itself to playoff upsets. In the 1995 Stanley Cup playoffs, we saw top-seeded Quebec lose to the eighth-seeded Rangers in the first round of the Eastern Conference and both the No. 2 (Calgary, to San Jose) and No. 3 (St. Louis, to Vancouver) seeds go down in the first round out West.
The fifth-seeded New Jersey Devils advanced to the Stanley Cup Final and swept the top seed in the West, Detroit, to take the Stanley Cup.
Can they hold onto it in a full 84-game season?
Let’s start uncanceling games and find out.
As a reminder, we’re not using computer or video game simulations or statistical tricks. Instead, we’re using actual action that took place on the ice. Basically, for each canceled game, we’ll use the next time those two teams played (at the same venue) as a “makeup game.” For example, we would use games from the 2020-21 NBA and NHL seasons to fill in any holes left by the coronavirus in this year’s schedule.
The Devils made their road even tougher, going 14-16-6 in the makeup games to drop from the fifth seed to the No. 8 seed. Philadelphia, which took the Atlantic Division by eight points in the 48-game season, expanded its margin to 15 points. Quebec, up by four in the Northeast, was caught by Pittsburgh but won the head-to-head tiebreaker to take the top overall seed in the East. Buffalo went 14-19-3 in the makeups to drop out of the playoffs. Florida went 18-12-6 to snatch the Sa-bres’ spot.
Detroit seemed determined to wash away the sting of getting swept in the Final. The Red Wings dominated the makeup games, going 25-9-2 and winning the Central by 26 points. Meanwhile, Cal-gary more than doubled its margin in the Pacific, winning the division by 15 points. Toronto went .500 in the makeup games to drop from the No. 5 seed to No. 7. Dallas went 8-19-7 to go from the eighth seed to last place in the Central.
The Pacific had even more churn. Edmonton won 19 makeup games to leapfrog five teams and earn a playoff berth. The Ducks won 16 to go from last place in the Western Conference to the eighth seed. The Sharks helped open the door by going a woeful 8-25-3 in the makeup games to drop from a seventh seed to dead last.
Eighth place in the East? No problem for New Jersey, which upset top seed Quebec, four games to one, in the first round. The other top seeds in the Eastern Conference — Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Boston — all advanced. Jersey then took out No. 4 Boston in five games to advance to the Eastern Conference Final against the Flyers, which beat the in-state rival Penguins in seven. The Devils topped the second-seeded Flyers in six games to advance to the Stanley Cup Final as a No. 8 seed.
Out West, top-seeded Detroit had an early scare, nearly blowing a three-games-to-none lead over eighth-seeded Anaheim before winning in seven to advance. Second-seeded Calgary wasn’t as lucky, losing to No. 7 Toronto in six games. The third-seeded Blues beat Edmonton in six, and the No. 4 Blackhawks swept Vancouver.
In the second round, Detroit dispatched Chicago in five, while underdog Toronto continued its magical postseason run with a four-to-one series win over the Blues. Detroit ended the Leafs’ Cin-derella season with a four-game sweep in the Western Conference Final.
That led to the same Stanley Cup Final, Detroit against New Jersey, and the Devils again swept away the Red Wings to hoist the Cup.