There were blowouts and sweeps, expected finishes and not a whole lot of drama. Only one series went the distance and only two teams played an overtime game.
The first round of the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs left a lot to be desired. Maybe, with second-round matchups between rivals Washington and Pittsburgh and top Western Conference teams Winnipeg and Nashville, the best is yet to come. So far, the games have had all the drama and intensity of a Wednesday night in February.
Stars are shining
It’s a bit of a surprise to see Austin Watson’s name among the top 15 scorers in the playoffs, considering he only had 19 points in 76 games with the Predators this season. From Sidney Crosby (13 points) and David Pastrnak (11 points) to Nikita Kucherov (10 points) and Alex Ovechkin (eight points), the names at the top of the scoring list are the ones that were there for 82 games during the regular season. But there is Watson, tied for 12th, with four goals and three assists. A player to watch for in the second round is Nashville teammate Filip Forsberg, who had four goals and six points in six games, as well as two goal-of-the-year candidates.
Heading into Game 7 between the Leafs and Bruins, there had been 244 goals scored in 42 games (5.81 goals per game), which maintains the rise in scoring that came during the regular season (5.86). The goaltending was awful for some of the teams that lost in the first round. New Jersey’s Keith Kinkaid, who had stolen the starting job from Cory Schneider during the regular season, lost it after giving up nine goals in 4 1/2 periods. The same thing happened to Washington’s Philipp Grubauer and Colorado’s Jonathan Bernier. Philadelphia tried three goalies in net, with varying degrees of failure.
Early Conn Smyth consideration
Who did you pick first in your playoff pool: Crosby, Malkin or Kessel? When filling out future pools, you might want to add Jake Guentzel to that list. The second-year forward only scored 48 points in the regular season, but Guentzel has once again come up big when it matters the most. He is tied with Crosby for the scoring lead with six goals and 13 points in six games. Guentzel has three more points than Malkin and Kessel combined. Not that it’s unexpected; a year ago, Guentzel led all players with 13 playoff goals as a rookie.
Of the players who were traded during the season, it’s not surprising that the Sharks’ Evander Kane has three goals and one assist in a four-game sweep of the Ducks or that Winnipeg’s Paul Stastny and Tampa Bay’s J.T. Miller each chipped in with a goal and four points. What is surprising is that Tomas Plekanec, who was a no-show in his first 17 games with the Leafs, suddenly stepped up with two goals and two assists in six playoff games. In terms of disappointments, Rick Nash has just one goal in six games with the Bruins, while Tomas Tatar was a healthy scratch for two of Vegas’ four games.
The fact that Vegas not only advanced to the second round but also swept Los Angeles should not have been a shock. The Golden Knights did win the Pacific Division by 11 points over the Kings and had been one of the best teams all season long. At the same time, if there was a series ripe for an upset, it was this one. While Vegas’ roster had little playoff experience, many Kings players had won two Stanley Cups in the past six years. But in the end, it was Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty — not William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault — who looked overwhelmed by the situation.
There’s a new sheriff in town and he isn’t afraid to wield his power. In his first season as the head of the department of player safety, George Parros made it clear that if you broke the rules you would sit out games regardless of star status or importance to the team. He continued that no-nonsense approach in the post-season, with Los Angeles’ Drew Doughty, Nashville’s Ryan Hartman and Winnipeg’s Josh Morrissey each receiving one-game suspensions. But it was the three-game penalty that Toronto’s Nazem Kadri received for boarding Boston’s Tommy Wingels that sent the loudest message.
Forget what you thought you knew about playoff hockey. The days of tight-checking, low-scoring, physical blood fests appear to be over. The games in the first round might as well have taken place in the doldrums of mid-February. The Bruins outscored the Leafs 12-4 in Games 1 and 2. Pittsburgh beat Philadelphia 7-0, 5-1, 5-0 and 8-5. The Jets beat the Wild 5-0 in Game 5, the Predators beat the Avalanche 5-0 in Game 6, and the Sharks pummelled the Ducks 8-1 in Game 3. With Pittsburgh playing Washington and Winnipeg facing off against Nashville, let’s hope the intensity picks up in the second round.
So much for parity
We often like to say that once a team makes the playoffs, anything can happen. The Predators were proof of this a year ago, when they reached the final as the 16th seed. But this year was different. The better team on paper was the better team on ice. The only reversal from the standings was the sixth-place Sharks (100 points) defeating the fifth-place Ducks (101 points) — although San Jose actually had one more win than Anaheim in the regular season. If this pattern holds true, then bet on Nashville, Vegas, Tampa and Washington reaching the conference final.
Say goodnight to all-nighters
It was during the 1936 Stanley Cup final when Detroit and Montreal played nearly three full games one night — an epic six-overtime game that still stands as the longest game in league history. This year, the teams were more considerate of fans’ sleep schedules. Though the Capitals and Blue Jackets needed overtime to decide four of their games, only one other series played an overtime game. The reason for this is pretty simple: the outcomes weren’t very close. Only nine of the 42 games were decided by one goal, while 10 games had a differential of four goals or greater.
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