When the first round of the National Hockey League playoffs began earlier this month there appeared to be some givens accepted by insider/experts and bar stool prophets alike. Tampa Bay was going to crush Columbus, Washington was going to compete for a second Stanley Cup after dispatching Carolina and likely there would be at least two Canadian teams remaining in the second round.
Every one of those assumptions came crashing to the ground in what will likely go down as one of the most entertaining and unpredictable first rounds in league history. Very little played out as expected, and Cinderella’s carriage is suddenly very full.
San Jose vs. Las Vegas – San Jose in 7
The Sharks are a team with an unusually high concentration of veteran talent who has realized for the last three to four seasons that their window of opportunity was closing rapidly. Patrick Marleau has been moved to Toronto, Joe Thornton saw his role much reduced and there were questions whether Martin Jones could be “the man” in net for the Sharks moving forward. The Las Vegas Golden Knights in their second season in the league, continued to amaze hockey watchers by playing much better than any expansion team has the right to. This series was a toss up , and most felt whoever got the better goaltending and made the fewest mistakes would win. San Jose won both of those battles by the thinnest of margins, and benefitted from a controversial five minute major penalty call in Game 7 that allowed the Sharks to score four times and climb back into a game they might have just lost. The series provided some wildly entertaining moments and some fabulous overtime action.
Colorado vs. Calgary – Colorado in 5
Very few expected this outcome. Colorado is a good young team that appeared to be building for a more serious run in the 2019-2020 season. The so-called experts predicted an easy Calgary victory. Calgary itself may have been caught looking ahead to Round 2, and they paid for their lack of focus. Two worrying issues were ignored by Calgary fans. First Colorado had played Calgary well in the regular season and clearly weren’t afraid of the first place Flames. Second, the Flames had won the Pacific Division crown with shockingly average goaltending.
Mike Smith was not going to win Calgary a Stanley Cup by stealing games in net. Calgary was going to have to score goals by the boatload to make up for their defensive inadequacies and when that didn’t happen they were eliminated in shockingly easy fashion. Changes are coming to Cowtown, and it will be interesting to see how far the Flames go in making this team over for 2019-2020.
St. Louis vs. Winnipeg – St. Louis in 6
If there was a Canadian based team that looked like it could go all the way it was the Winnipeg Jets. Big, heavy, fast and talented the Jets appeared to have everything they needed for a deep and successful playoff run. Unfortunately they met a St. Louis team that since January 1 had been one of the best teams in the NHL. Since finding a starting goalie in rookie Jordan Binnington, St. Louis has gone on one of the best runs in NHL history that included an eleven game winning streak making the playoffs after being in dead last place not long after Christmas. Momentum was on St. Louis’s side in this series and Winnipeg did not get top notch performances from their best players in this series. Jets fans who are probably some of the best in the NHL deserved better than this fate, and this team will likely have to change if they want to avoid another first round disappointment like this one next season.
Dallas vs. Nashville – Dallas in 6
Many Nashville fans salivated at the possibility of their beloved Predators drawing the underwhelming Stars in this first round match up. The Predators are a veteran laden club powered by perennial All-Stars like Pekka Rinne and P.K. Subban. They have been a model of consistency since entering the league, and a deep playoff run would not have been unexpected. Dallas, on the other hand, has spent the 2018-2019 season as a “riddle wrapped in an enigma” frustrating their own fans with flashes of brilliance mixed with long period of uninspired play. They seemed incapable of stringing together two good weeks of hockey with consistent scoring and NHL caliber defensive play, until this series against Nashville. Ben Bishop, who excelled in the regular season with a Vezina worthy campaign, almost single handedly won the series by outdueling Rinne in the battle of the goaltenders, and Dallas scored just enough to win. Nashville fans will not enjoy their team’s early exit, and likely significant structural changes are on the way in Music City.
Boston vs. Toronto – Boston in 7
Sometimes there are teams in professional sports that have your number. They could be having a great season, or they could be playing poorly but they show up and play you hard every game. For the Toronto Maple Leafs that team is the Boston Bruins. Since 2013, Boston has been the team that has stopped Toronto’s playoff aspirations dead in their tracks. Coaches, ownership groups and players have changed in Toronto but the result has remained the same, Boston beats the Leafs in the playoffs. Credit must be given that the Leafs were neither physically man handled or blown out by these Bruins but in Game Seven Boston appeared to have another level that they switched on, while Leaf players looked to be skating in molasses. Mike Babcock even appeared to be fallible in this series making some coaching decisions that will be questioned all summer. Nazim Khadri, Jake Gardiner and Frederik Andersen could find themselves employed elsewhere next season, and Mitch Marner is up for a monster deal that may handcuff the Leafs long term. Kyle Dubas is going to have a long summer determining what the Leafs will need to do, because John Tavares was clearly not enough.
Carolina vs. Washington – Carolina in 7
Playoff teams are successful because often they have veteran leadership that sets an example for all to see. Last season, Washington Capital Captain Alexander Ovechkin was that player for his team, leading both on and off the ice. This playoff season a very different Ovechkin appeared to battle the Carolina Hurricanes. Most hockey watchers believe that Washington was looking forward an easy series against the upstart Hurricanes, and were already thinking about their second round opponent. Ovechkin almost seemed personally insulted that Carolina was not going to roll over and play dead for the defending Stanley Cup champions. Ovechkin’s brutal assault of Carolina player Andrei Svechnikov which ended in the Carolina player unconscious on the ice in Game 3, and his ejection in Game 6 for an altercation with a referee showed an unhinged side of the Russian superstar that isn’t often on display. Ovechkin set the tone for his team, and unfortunately the Capitals never settled into any kind of calm playoff routine that might have allowed for their abundance of natural talent to brush aside the pesky Hurricanes. Carolina coach Rob Brind’Amour also deserves considerable credit for keeping his team focused on the ultimate goal of the series, which was not trash talking and retaliation, but rather upsetting last year’s best team in the world, the Washington Capitals. Carolina stayed focused and are moving on to the second round because they did just that.
NY Islanders vs. Pittsburg – NYI in 4
All great athletes suddenly get old. The only question in an athlete’s life is when does that happen, and how quickly does it occur. Five years ago hockey fans watched a brilliant Detroit Red Wings team succumbs to Father Time. Detroit is still rebuilding. The Pittsburg Penguins after their four game humiliation at the hands of the New York Islanders are suddenly showing their best before date has arrived and it is a sad thing to watch. Their core of Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Kessel have played some magnificent hockey in the past, but the game has passed them by. Matt Murray is not the answer for Pittsburg in net and needs to go. Coach Barry Trotz has done an awesome job this season with the Islanders convincing them that they were more than John Tavares and a bunch of useful role players, and many are looking forward to their series against the upstart Carolina Hurricanes starting soon.
Columbus vs. Tampa Bay – Columbus in 4
In a playoff upset of Herculean proportions the Tampa Bay Lightning were dominated offensively, defensively, in the net and on special teams by the Columbus Blue Jackets who mortgaged their future at trade deadline time to just make the playoffs. Tampa was the best team in the league all season, scoring seemingly at will. They won 62 games and were a prohibitive favorite to win the Stanley Cup. Somebody forgot to tell Coach John Tortorella and the Blue Jackets.
With the late season additions of Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel and Adam McQuaid the Blue Jackets certainly got better and that new look team made beating Tampa Bay look easy. Very few betters or “poolies” gave Columbus a chance to win more than a game. With Tampa, Calgary, Winnipeg and Washington out of the mix the winner of Lord Stanley’s battered mug could literally be any of the remaining eight teams as there is not clear favorite amongst those who remain.
The real losers………the broadcast rights holders
Hockey will now continue for the next four to six weeks with no Canadian team left in the playoffs. If past history replays itself television ratings will plummet in a frightening manner, and few Canadians will remain in mid-June to see the championship awarded.
With Boston, Columbus, NY Islanders, Carolina, St. Louis, Dallas, St. Jose and Colorado remaining the possibilities for rating success are bleak. Boston is probably the strongest media market left remaining and perhaps for NBC and CBC/TSN a Boston – St. Jose final might be the best they could hope for.
A long and successful run by the Toronto Raptors of the NBA could already complicate a hockey viewer meltdown north of the 49th parallel.
The NHL needs eyes on their product this time of year and with no Canadian team left in competition that will be a hard thing to do.
Oh well, maybe next year!