Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 1 Recap
Is there any other sport with a consistently more competitive first round of its playoffs than the NHL? Once again, this year’s playoffs highlight that it is far more important for a team to be on a roll as it heads into the playoffs than to actually dominate the regular season. And this year, a handful of teams can look to the deals they made at the trade deadline as critical to their success.
Tampa Bay Lightning v. Columbus Blue Jackets – Columbus defeats Tampa 4-0. This matchup had upset special all over it. The Lightning had one of the best seasons in NHL history, winning 62 games. But they hadn’t played a meaningful game in months. Columbus had a decision to make at the trade deadline. They were out of the playoffs at the time but just close enought to make a run. But they were also just far enough out of the playoffs to think about retooling by dealing their big free agents to be, goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and the disappointing Artemi Panarin. Management decided to go for it, adding Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel at the deadline. Panarin started scoring and the team finally came together and started a great stretch drive. They ended up tied with Montreal at 98 points but won the final playoff spot via tiebreak. In game 1, Tampa jumped out to a three goal lead and it looked like they would roll through the Jackets like they had everyone else this season. But Columbus rallied for three goals in the third period to win the game 4-3. After that, Columbus simply shut the Lightning down holding them to just five goals in the next three games. Columbus kept Tampa to the outside in their defensive zone and capitalized on the defensive errors that had been typical of the Lightning for much of the last part of the season but were often able to overcome with their high-powered offense. The sweep was truly indicative of how the series went.
Boston Bruins v. Toronto Maple Leafs – Boston wins 4-3. These were two evenly matched teams coming into the playoffs and the series bore that out. The Bruins won the last two games of the series to knock Toronto out in the first round for the third year in a row. The Bruins had depth and experience while the Leafs were young and defensively suspect. Nazim Kadri’s suspension for the series in game 2 hurt Toronto and their top line with John Tavares and Mitch Marner were largely held in check throughout out series, leaving all the scoring pressure on Auston Matthews who responded with five goals. Brad Marchand led the Bruins with nine points but the key to the series was the Boston power play which went 7-16 in the series. And in the decisive game 7, Tuukka Rask outplayed Freddie Andersen, allowing the Bruins to move on.
New York Islanders v. Pittsburgh Penguins – New York wins 4-0. This looked to be the most intriguing matchup in the East. The Penguins are really a shell of their former greatness and seemingly limped through the season and into the playoffs. But any team with Crosby, Malkin, and Letang can never be discounted. The Islanders were one of the lowest scoring teams in the league but also the stingiest. After winning game 1 in overtime 4-3, the Islanders only allowed one goal in each of the last three games. They completely stifled the Penguins’ offense while the line of Jordan Eberle, Matt Barzal, and Anders Lee scored in every game. Robin Lehner, the feel good story of the year coming back from serious personal issues, was spectacular in net for the Isles. Like Columbus, the sweep in this series was indicative of the play.
Washington Capitals v. Carolina Hurricanes – Carolina wins 4-3. If the Caps believed they had finally banished the ghosts of their past by winning the Stanley Cup last year, yet another early round game 7 loss this year should put an end to that thought. The Caps are a playoff enigma. Usually, teams lose when their stars don’t play well. But, time and again, Alex Ovechkin is dominant and the rest of the team disappears. This year, Nicklas Backstrom and Ovechkin combined for 17 points, over 2 points a game, but that was still not enough. The Hurricanes made the playoffs by just hanging around in games and then scoring late to win it. The individual games played out much like the series did, with Carolina becoming more and more dominant as the game progressed. Remarkably, the Caps were never behind in all four home games they played until the series-clinching goal. In game 7, the Caps blew leads of 2-0 and 3-1, with goalie Braden Holtby returning to form by giving up a big rebound for one ‘Canes goal when Carolina was shorthanded and down 2-0 and then losing his net on a bad off-angle goal early in the third to tie the game at 3-3. From then on, it was more a matter of when, not if, Carolina would win, as they dominated the latter half of the third period and the first overtime. It was another unlikely hero, Brock McGinn, who had just 10 goals all season long, who tipped a pass from deep along the sideboards past Holtby. Throughout the series, Carolina was the better team, despite far less talent, and deserved to advance.
Calgary Flames v. Colorado Avalanche – Colorado wins 4-1. Like the Tampa Bay series, Colorado looked to be a vast underdog on paper but had been hot coming into the playoffs, winning 7 out of the last 10 games of the regular season. After a 4-0 drubbing where Colorado employed the dubious strategy of letting Flames goalie Mike Smith handle the puck without being challenged after dump-ins, the Avalanche began to play their game and won the next four games, two of them in overtime. The fact of the matter is that Colorado’s top line outplayed Calgary’s top line and Avalanche goalie Philipp Grubauer was simply outstanding. Calgary’s top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Elias Lindholm had just five points in five games. Colorado’s stars, Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog, combined for 21 points in the series. Grubauer’s goaltending and the two clutch OT wins allowed the Avalanche to move on. With Calgary and Tampa both losing, it marks the first time since expansion 50 years ago that the top two teams in the regular season were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round.
Nashville Predators v. Dallas Stars – Dallas wins 4-2. This was a surprising series. Nashville had been solid all year long but just seemed to be missing something. There were many more egregious defensive lapses than you would expect with the defense corps they have. Dallas was much like the Islanders, low scoring on offense but stingier on defense. The series really changed when Dallas coach Jim Montgomery put together the line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alexander Radulov who combined for 18 points in the 6 games. They dominated the Nashville defense when they were on the ice. On the other hand, the Predators top line of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and Viktor Arvidsson had just four points. The other issue for the Preds was one that had plagued them all season long. Their powere play, which was worst in the league during the regular season, went 0-15 during the series. Put that together with Ben Bishop’s brilliant netminding for the Stars and Dallas was able to advance.
Winnipeg Jets v. St. Louis Blues – St. Louis wins 4-2. Both teams ended up with 99 points during the regular season but they got there in entirely different ways. At the start of the calendar year, the Blues were sitting in last place. Then they found their goalie in Jordan Binnington who went 30-10-5 over the rest of the season. It is almost impossible to find the keys to the Blues victory in this series. The clinching game was the only one which the home team won. Binnington was certainly a big part of it. But it seemed that the Blues simply were able to wear the Jets down with their physical play. The Jets lost three games where they entered the third period with a lead, twice, or tied, once. The Blues won all of their four games by just one goal, scoring the winner in game 5 with just 15 seconds left in regulation, and that was enough to get them to the second round.
San Jose Sharks v. Las Vegas Golden Knights – San Jose wins 4-3. One of the most intriguing and most exciting series this round. This was another crazy series. After losing the first game, the Knights won the next three, only to see San Jose win the final three, the last two in overtime. Those momentum swings in the series were reflected in the individual games as well. After a 5-2 San Jose victory in game 1, the Knights scored three goals in the first six minutes of game 2, sending Sharks golie Martin Jones to the bench after facing just seven shots. But the Sharks scored 3 goals in the last three minutes of the period to tie the game at 3 after just the first period. They looked to have gone up 4-3 in the first minute of the second period but the goal was waived off for goalie interference. Eventually the Knights took that game 5-3 and followed that up with a dominate 6-3 win in game 3, scoring in the first 16 seconds to set the tone. Knights’ goalie Marc Andre Fleury posted a shutout in game 4 and Jones was again pulled after giving up two goals on seven shots, giving the Knights in a commanding 3-1 lead. From then on, Jones took over the series. He had 30 saves in a 5-2 win in game 5. In game 6, he was unbeatable, posting 58 saves as the Sharks won 2-1 in double overtime on a shorthanded goal, the first shorthanded overtime winner in NHL history. That just left game 7, which was a microcosm of the entire series and an instant classic. Vegas had a 3-0 lead at around the halfway point of the third period when Cody Eakin took a 5 minute major for cross checking the Sharks Joe Pavelski. San Jose then scored four goals in the next four minutes to give the Sharks a 4-3 lead. Vegas could have easily folded but rallied to tie the game in the last minute on a Jonathan Marchessault goal, sending the deciding game to overtime. The unlikeliest of heroes, Barclay Goodrow, who had just 7 goals all season, won it for the Sharks in the last two minutes of the first overtime period, allowing Joe Thornton to delay his retirement for at least another four games. Vegas was probably the better team in this series, but Jones, despite getting pulled in two games, kept the Sharks in it when it counted and they capitalized on the Knights’ errors to advance.
Round 2 Matchups
After all the upsets in round one, there are some truly fascinating matchups in round two.
Boston Bruins v. Columbus Blue Jackets – Columbus had been on such a roll, they probably wish they hadn’t swept the Lightning and then had to wait around for over a week to play the next game. Boston brings playoff experience which got them through the series with Toronto but they are also that much older and going seven in the prior round won’t help. Columbus in 6.
New York Islanders v. Carolina Hurricanes – Both clubs play great team hockey but the Islanders are the stingiest defense in the league. Goaltending could be the key. Islanders in 7.
Dallas Stars v. St. Louis Blues – I just like the way the Blues physically dominated the Jets in the prior round and Binnington is on a magical run. Blues in 5.
San Jose Sharks v. Colorado Avalanche – San Jose has similar issues to the Bruins, lots of playoff experience but going seven in the prior round won’t help. The status of Joe Pavelski is another question mark for the Sharks as is which Martin Jones is going to show up. Think the Avs might be able to wear San Jose down as the series goes on. Colorado in 6.