With round one of the NHL playoffs coming to a rapid close, the annual upsets don’t appear to be part of the mix this season. Thanks to desperation road wins by the Philadelphia Flyers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Colorado Avalanche, the opening round had added juice, but so far it has gone as seeded. So what are the top seven story lines so far?
Number seven – Number ones are looking like number ones. The top Eastern seed, Tampa Bay Lightning, disposed of the eighth seed NJ Devils the way a top seed is supposed to (in five games). There was never a doubt who the better team was and never a doubt who would win. Out west, the Nashville Predators answered a game five uprising by the young Colorado Avalanche (more on them later) with a 5-0 beatdown in Denver to win their series in six. Neither top seed looks like a one and done team at this point.
Number six – Until it happens, the team to beat is still the Pittsburgh Penguins. No shock that fighting Philly didn’t go down easy, but nobody can match the Penguins firepower up front. They outscored Philly 25-6 in their four wins. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are too much for most teams and when you add the emergence of 23 year old Jake Guentzel (34 points in 31 career playoff games, including a four goal game in the first round clincher) to a long list of other productive champions, then you have a group that will not beat themselves. It will take a consistent round of excellence and world class goaltending to take them out.
Number five – Martin Jones is compiling a postseason resume that has him moving towards elite status. He carried the San Jose Sharks to the Cup finals two years ago and was even better in their six game exit from last year’s postseason. The Sharks sweep over Anaheim in round one moves Marty’s career post season record to 20-14 with a .931 save percentage and 1.90 goals against average (.970 and 1.00 vs Ducks). Clearly he is no fluke and someone to pay close attention to.
Number four – Welcome back Winnipeg. After the 1995-96 season, the Jets broke the hearts of an entire city when they relocated to sunny Arizona to become Coyotes. Fifteen years later the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg and the Jets were restored. Not all was well on the ice, however, as the new Jets’ franchise made the playoffs only twice in seventeen years. They got swept as the Thrashers and then as the Jets, entering this postseason with an 0-8 franchise record. Their four games to one dismantling of the Minnesota Wild was a huge step forward but their sights are set much higher. They boast an explosive young forward brigade, but under the radar is goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. He was a preseason question mark who is now a Vezina Trophy finalist for the league’s top goalie. His first round numbers in his first five career playoff games are an impressive .924 and 1.94 with two shutouts. He doesn’t have the track record to be considered a sure thing, but with their offense, he may not be asked to be anything more than what he’s been all season.
Number three – Despite succumbing to Nashville in six games, the Colorado Avalanche revival has been over shadowed by the expansion Vegas Golden Knights (understandably so), but is no less remarkable. Head coach Jared Bednar who is a virtual unknown, led this team to a 47-point regular season turnaround. They traded disgruntled star Matt Duchene and this team took off, proving it is harmony and chemistry that win in the NHL, not individuality. Nathan MacKinnon finally made that leap to stardom and his leadership has been immeasurable for this young and rising team. To add intrigue to this feel-good story, third string goalie Andrew Hammond, former “Hamburgler” for the Ottawa Senators (a throw-in in the Duchene trade), helped stave off elimination in Nashville by kicking away 44 of 45 shots for his first win of the season. You can’t make this stuff up.
Number two – Is this finally the year the Great 8, Alex Ovechkin gets the monkey off his back? As if team history wasn’t enough, Ovechkin added weight to his shoulders when he used the G-word, guaranteeing the Caps would return home even after losing the first two. Though not quite the Mark Messier guarantee of 1994, if the Caps win the cup, it will become part of NHL folklore. His play and his leadership has gotten his team past the Columbus Blue Jackets and round one. Interestingly, it seemed as though the goaltending carousel between Braden Holtby (the incumbent) and Philipp Grubauer (the challenger) could have unraveled the Caps. Holtby has been trying to prove the critics wrong and has certainly silenced them (for now) after his impressive performance in the first round. That is a powerful source of motivation and maybe exactly what this team needs to finally become champions. Next step, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Number one – The Knights of Vegas have been the story all season and a first round sweep over the LA Kings should do nothing to change that. They scored only seven goals in their four wins, but held LA to only three. They won with relentless defense and spectacular goaltending by Marc-Andre Fleury (.977, 0.75). Vegas played like they have been doing this forever. Who would have thought they would sweep a team with all that playoff pedigree (especially if you read my series preview). I won’t jump on the bandwagon now but they showed they are indeed equipped to handle the transition from regular season to playoff hockey, and at the very least have become must-see TV.