After all the buildup, installments of varying quality, the characters were set, the action incredible, glory within sight…then just like that, Gary Bettman snapped his fingers and the Stanley Cup playoffs were half over…This year’s post season has seen plot twists and underdog stories even the Avengers couldn’t conjure. With upsets a plenty, overtime thrillers and great hockey all around, there’s rarely been a dull moment. So, with the Conference Finals set, we take a moment to remember the fallen…
The First Round
Tampa Bay: The Lighting struck quickly and often, holding a three goal lead after the first period of Game one against Columbus. They seemed every bit the regular season juggernaut cruising towards Stanley Cup glory. Then, they weren’t…The Blue Jackets, simply put, outworked Tampa and were the more committed team. Tampa’s prolific offence scored just 5 more goals over the next three games, as goalie Bob stole the show, culminating in one of the biggest upsets in NHL history. Hard work beats skill when skill doesn’t work hard, and when faced with push back, something in the Lighting just seemed lacking.
Calgary: The top seed in the west, the Flames burned out early against the Avs. Many of us believed if this were the case it’d be on their goaltending. Mike Smith and David Rittich had alternated between the pipes all season with mixed results. The veteran Smith got the nod come playoff time and was arguably Calgary’s best player. He faced a ton of shots and singlehandedly kept the Flames in games. Their vaunted offence was a shadow of itself and Calgary had little to no answer for Colorado’s top line, specifically Nathan MacKinnon who buried them like a one man Avalanche.
Toronto: Once again they faced a hated rival in Boston. Once again, they were among the top teams in the league. Once again it went seven, and once again…There’s no shame in losing to the team with the 3rd best regular season record, (I’m sure they’re cool with the playoff format btw…) but this Leafs team had visions of a deep playoff run, and with the addition of hometown hero John Tavares, felt better prepared to take that next step. It wasn’t to be. As is usual in Toronto there was no shortage of drama. Nazem Kadri got suspended, again, Mike Babcock’s ice time allotment was, we’ll say questioned, and discontent with GM Kyle Dubas was rumoured. At least they’ll have a quiet off season ahead…
Winnipeg: The Jets were amongst the favourites to start the season but came into the playoffs without being all that impressive over the last couple months, which had many wondering if they could flip the switch. They were left in the dark. Patrick Laine, whose struggles were well documented, had a solid series against St. Louis but he was one of few. Connor Helleybuck did his part but ultimately they couldn’t solve Jordan Binnington, and though they played reasonably well, that’ll be of little consolation for a team with far greater expectations. That said, their core is intact and they should be a contender for a while.
Nashville: The Preds vaunted blue line was steady, but ultimately couldn’t hold the fort against Dallas and their offence was more pussy cat than Predator. Nashville averaged just two goals per game over their six game defeat at the hand of the Stars and as is so often the case had to rely on Pekka Rinne and their defence to try and win games. They’ve long been a scoring by committee team (Ryan Johansen lead them with just 64 points) so they’ll only go so far as the sum of those parts takes them.
Washington: Ah! Now that’s more familiar for Caps fans! A top seed, poised for a lengthy playoff run, holding a series lead only to fritter it away. It’s in their DNA. The defending cup champs were knocked off by the scrappy ‘Bunch of Jerks’ from Carolina and looked very much like Capital teams past who just couldn’t bare down when it mattered most. On the plus side they now have more time to swim in fountains
Vegas: The Golden Knights downfall was like a lot of nights in Vegas. You’re winning then all of a sudden the house closes in and you find yourself in a bewildered state, wondering what just happened? Much has been made of the infamous 5 minute major call, and subsequent four goal outburst by San Jose, but they were up 3-1 in the series and let the Sharks off the hook time and time again. Yes it was a terrible call, but you know what they should’ve have called? How about a time out?
Pittsburgh: Until Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are dragged from the ice, kicking and screaming, the Penguins will always be considered a dangerous team. That said, they were summarily dismissed, with relative ease by the Islanders in round one, though much of that had to do with Robin Lehner standing on his head. The Pens boast a champion’s pedigree but they didn’t showcase much of it against NY. The rumours have even begun swirling about Malkin’s future there. Jim Rutherford has never been shy about making trades, but that seems like a panic move.
The Second Round
Islanders: The Islanders swept the Penguins in round one only to see the Hurricanes return the favour in round two. They just couldn’t muster enough offence and Robin Lehner who was incredible all season just seemed to run out of gas against the Canes as he could only carry them so long. Barry Trotz did an incredible job getting them to play a structured, responsible team game, and it payed off, but eventually their lack of scoring caught up with them (they were the lowest scoring team to make the playoffs) and will need to be addressed moving forward.
Pro: GM Jarmo Kekalainen pushed all his chips in, adding at the trade deadline (Duchene, Dzingel, McQuaid) and his team rewarded him with one of the biggest upsets in playoff history, sweeping the powerhouse Lightning: the first series win in franchise history.
Con: They were bounced in the second round by Boston and now face uncertainty with several key pending UFAs this summer.
Pro: They have a roster full of solid young players and will have plenty of cap space to work with.
Con: They traded away all their draft capital and aren’t exactly known as a free agent destination.
Verdict: Check back July 1st…
Dallas: The Stars knocked off the Preds in round one thanks to their high end talent, depth scoring and incredible goaltending from Ben Bishop. They fell short in a thrilling seven game series with the Blues, but President Jim Lites can keep the tirades on hold…for now. They asserted themselves well, have plenty of young talent both upfront and on the blue line, and look to be a force in the west for a number of years moving forward.
Colorado: An upstart young team who put the rest of the league on notice. Nathan MacKinnon was on another level, emerging as a true superstar as he showcased what all the hype was about when they drafted him. They’re loaded with a ton of young talent…and a lottery pick in their back pocket…They knocked off the top seeded Flames in round one and pushed another western power in San Jose to the limit in round two. They couldn’t muster another upset, but with their core should be a contender in the west for years to come.