Over the years and years of being an unabashed sports junkie, almost nothing has captured my imagination or my attention as much as the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs usually do on a yearly basis. Playoff hockey is like none other in terms of creating tension and drama, and the pursuit to win one of the most storied trophies in all of sports is only matched by seeing the winning team’s captain lift the Stanley Cup aloft after a grueling two months of hard playoff labor.
Well, just like that, the playoffs are here right now. Which players will go from great to immortal over the next two months? Could it be John Gibson, the Anaheim Ducks goaltender who’s looking to become just the third American-born goalkeeper, alongside Tim Thomas and Jonathan Quick, to be the primary netminder of a Stanley Cup-winning team since 1994? Maybe the star of the playoffs will be someone used to shining bright in this stage, like the Boston Bruins Brad Marchand, who was the Bruins’ best player during their 2011 Stanley Cup run. Or maybe one of the wunderkinds featuring in Toronto will grow up fast and have Maple Leafs fans realistically dreaming of the team’s first Stanley Cup in almost a half century. I’m sure your guess in selecting the next Stanley Cup Playoffs star is as good as mine.
Speaking of selections, we once again fire up our previews of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, as we present to you a breakdown of half of the eight first-round series – two from the Eastern Conference and two from the Western Conference – in Part 1 of our preview, with the breakdown and predictions below by A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief Adesina O. Koiki.
Let’s get Cup Crazy, shall we?
Will ignorance really prove to be blissful for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the postseason?
That has indeed been the case with them for the first six-plus months of 2016-17, as the youth has been responsible in leading Toronto to its first playoff appearance in four years – though the wait seemed like it was four decades as the losses have mounted and mounted since that 2012-13 campaign. Of course, the star of stars for the Leafs has been Auston Matthews, the runaway Calder Trophy favorite who became only the third player in league history to have a 40-goal season before his 20th birthday. (Dale Hawerchuk, Sylvain Turgeon and Mario Lemieux were the others. Not bad company, huh?) You can easily make an argument that, even with the all of the hockey masterminds that were brought in to the front office and the coaching staff over the past couple of years in Toronto, the selection of Matthews as the No. 1 overall selection of last year’s NHL Entry Draft was the seminal moment of the Leafs’ rapid ascension from hockey oblivion.
Matthews dominates so much of the headlines – or at least that’s the perception – because of his goal-scoring prowess that his fellow rookies seem to get overshadowed a bit in Matthews’ greatness. Three of the top four scorers in the league among rookies played for the Leafs, with William Nylander (22-39-61) and Mitchell Marner (19-42-61) also having wonderful starts to their NHL careers this season.
While those stars are all just getting their careers underway, you can’t say that they (as well as the Maple Leafs overall) aren’t battle tested, because a) the trio of rookies mentioned above missed only a combined total of six games this season, with Matthews playing all 82 games, and b) the Maple Leafs have been playing playoff games on a nightly basis for about a month now. Toronto didn’t wrap up a playoff spot until the next-to-last game of the season, scoring two late goals against the Pittsburgh Penguins to sew up a playoff spot and allay any fears that the team would fade right out of the playoff picture at the very end. Actually gearing up and playing playoff hockey shouldn’t leave the Leafs too much in awe, given that this young team has had to grow up very, very quickly this season.
What might leave them in awe is the sheer relentlessness of the Presidents’ Trophy winners, who were once again dominating teams by the time the calendar turned from 2016 to 2017. There’s nothing the Capitals don’t have, especially after the off-season acquisitions of Lars Eller and Brett Connolly helped to make this team four lines deep. Not counting trade deadline acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk, 11 different Caps players scored at least 10 goals this season. Alex Ovechkin scored the fewest goals he has scored in a full season since the 2010-11 campaign, but still was tied for the team lead (33). More importantly, he didn’t have to shoulder that much of the scoring load. T.J. Oshie, last season’s blockbuster addition, tied Ovechkin for the team lead with 33 goals, the first time he has scored 30 in a season.
On the back line, Shattenkirk took a little bit of time to fit in with the squad, but, once he did, the Capitals were lights out on the power play. In the last 12 games of the regular season, Washington went 12-for-34 (35.3 percent) on the man advantage. Washington was able to avoid the injury bug for almost the entire season, but they did lose John Carlson for the last four games of the regular season with a lower body injury and his status for the series opener is in question. Carlson is the team’s ice leader and teamed with NHL ironman Karl Alzner, who has played in 540 consecutive games, to form one of the top defense pairings in the league.
All this, and we haven’t even talked about goalkeeper Braden Holtby, the hands-down favorite to win the Vezina Trophy this season. All you need to know is that Holtby’s 42 wins this season allowed him to join Martin Brodeur and Evgeni Nabokov as the only goalkeepers to win at least 40 games in three consecutive seasons. In short, Holtby is real, real good.
ALOST’s Prediction: Toronto goalkeeper Frederik Andersen, who was knocked out of the next-to-last game of the season after a collision with Penguins forward Tom Sestito, looks to be set to start Game 1, and he needs to steal a couple of games against the high-powered Capitals offense for the Leafs to have any chance to win the series. We actually do think Toronto has a legitimate chance to win this series. But…
Remember when the Bruins, earlier on in this decade, were the gold standard in the Eastern Conference and seemed as if they were on everyone’s short list to make the Stanley Cup Final year after year? It really wasn’t that long ago, but missing out on the playoffs in 2015 and 2016 left the franchise stuck on neutral.
Even worse, Boston was quickly heading towards another year without the postseason this season, and that’s when management decided to pull the plug on longtime head coach Claude Julien, the man who led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup in 2011, on Feb. 7 by firing him and hiring Bruce Cassidy as his replacement. Cassidy did just enough to get the Bruins over the playoff hump, as his team avoided taking on the Washington Capitals in the first round by finishing in the top three of the Atlantic Division.
Despite the up-and-down season for the Bruins, it was a career year for Brad Marchand, who signed an eight-year contract with the B’s before the season started and ended it with career highs in goals (39) and points (85). However, more people are remembering him now for his spear against the Tampa Bay Lightning that got him suspended for the last two games of the season, games that the Bruins lost when they had a chance to move ahead of the Senators and host this first round series. Moreover, Marchand has a lot to prove once more in the postseason. He first made a name for himself during the Stanley Cup championship run of 2011, when he had 11 goals and 19 points in 25 playoff games. In 41 playoff games played since then, Marchand has only five goals and 15 assists combined, and not playing in the playoffs in the past two seasons should give Marchand enough motivation to prove that he, once again, is a player that does perform in the biggest of stages.
Boston’s back line, which has been a concern since the beginning of the season, remains that way as late-season injuries to both Brandon Carlo and Torey Krug will really test the depth of Boston’s defense. Zdeno Chara has carried the unit on his back for a decade, and now, because of the injuries to Krug and Carlo, will most likely be paired with Boston University standout Charlie McAvoy, who signed with the Bruins two days ago and was seen paired with Chara in practice. Seeing how the pairing of the 40-year-old Chara and the 19-year-old McAvoy turns out might be enough of a reason to keep your eyes glued to the series.
You definitely need reasons to keep your eyes glued to this series, as watching the Ottawa Senators is akin to watching the late 1990s New Jersey Devils: a tight-checking, low-scoring team that either is a joy to watch if you’re a fan of theirs or an eyesore if you’re more of a hockey purist. That style of play, ushered in by first-year head coach Guy Boucher, was certainly effective against the Bruins, as Ottawa won all four games against the Bruins this season.
While Ottawa’s style is an acquired taste, one thing that has to be admired is what a number of the players have had to overcome to help lead the Sens to the playoffs after a disappointing 2016. Most notably, goaltender Craig Anderson left the team in December after his wife, Nicholle, underwent treatment for cancer. Since returning to the team in mid February, Anderson went 13-5-3 with a 2.12 goals against average. Team captain and former Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, who hadn’t missed significant ice time since his Achilles tendon tear in 2013, is trying to overcome a foot injury sustained late in the season to start Game 1 of this series. The Senators have had a slew of players miss time due to injuries this season, but appear to be as healthy as they have been since the beginning of the year.
ALOST’s Prediction: Of all of the eight match-ups in the first round, this one is definitely in the running for the most evenly-matched series. Can the Senators bump and check their way to a series victory? If they can subdue Marchand’s production, that definitely can happen. Boston has enough experience from deep playoff runs from the past to serve them well in this series. Even with the uncertainty at the back, we say the Bruins will squeak it out.
There’s no way you would get them to admit this, but maybe the Calgary Flames, who ended the season winning 16 of their last 23 games to make it into the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second time in three years, would have preferred not to have been so hot down the stretch.
Don’t get us wrong: any team with the young talent the likes of Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan can win many a playoff series, like the series the Flames won two seasons ago in dispatching the Vancouver Canucks in six games. It’s just that the team that the Flames are facing might be Calgary’s personal, living, breathing boogeyman.
The Ducks, unquestionably, are the hottest team in the National Hockey League going into the playoffs, sporting a 14-game point streak going into the league’s second season (11-0-3). Furthermore, when the Ducks host the Flames, the question isn’t whether Anaheim will win the game, but by how many goals; In the regular season, Anaheim currently owns a 25-game home winning streak against the Flames, the longest home winning streak by one team over another in NHL history. Throw in playoff games and that home streak overall against Calgary is at 27. Ouch.
Like last season, the Ducks got off to a slow start, only recording one point in their first four games this season. But again, like last season, Anaheim saved its best for when it mattered most, clinching its fifth consecutive division title. Unsurprisingly, however, Anaheim fell short of making the Stanley Cup Final last season, losing a Game 7 at home for a fourth consecutive season, this time in the first round to the Nashville Predators. That latest playoff disappointment led to the dismissal of coach Bruce Boudreau and the reintroduction of Randy Carlyle, the coach that led Anaheim to its only Stanley Cup triumph in 2007.
Almost as important as the return of Carlyle was the return of winger Rickard Rickell to the lineup, who was embroiled in a contract dispute over the summer and then missed the first 11 games of the season due to an appendectomy. Despite the missed time, Rakell led the NHL in game-winning goals with 10. The addition of Patrick Eaves, acquired in February from the Dallas Stars, allowed the Ducks to form a formidable first line, with Rakell and Eaves – who has scored 11 goals since joining Anaheim – flanking center Ryan Getzlaf, who scored only 15 goals but racked up his most assists (58) in a season since the 2008-09 campaign.
Another interesting storyline in this series will be whether there will be any retribution on Flames defenseman Mark Giordano, whose hit on Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler in the team’s last matchup on Apr. 4 knocked Fowler out for 2-6 weeks with a sprained knee. Fowler was having a Norris Trophy-like season, helped by the advice given to him by his dad before the season started. Another defenseman on the injury list is Simon Despres, whose career is in doubt after concussion-related symptoms returned just one game into this season. Despres and Fowler logged heavy minutes last season on the penalty kill, a unit that led the league in penalty kill percentage in 2015-16. (The Ducks were third this season in penalty killing.) Hampus Lindholm, in his first year of a six-year, $31.5 million deal, emerged as a No. 1 defenseman this season, and he will be leaned on more as the playoffs start with both Fowler and Despres on the sidelines.
When the Flames advanced to the conference semifinals in 2015, they were buoyed by one of the highest-scoring defense units in the NHL, and that was the case again in 2016-17. Dougie Hamilton, Giordano’s partner on the No. 1 defense pairing, spearheaded the scoring from the back line, as he was just one of nine defensemen to record 50 points this season (13-37-50). Michael Stone, former champion in the Western Hockey League with the Calgary Hitmen, fit in nicely in his first season back in the city of Calgary after being traded from the Arizona Coyotes to form a formidable No. 2 defense pairing with the steady TJ Brodie.
In a season defined by the impact of rookies, Flames winger Matthew Tkachuk – son of former NHL marksman Keith Tkachuk – more than held his own with some of the league’s top neophytes, finishing sixth in the league in scoring amongst rookies with 48 points and second in plus/minus at plus-14. His emergence on the second line helped to provide some balance to the team, as the top line of Gaudreau, Monahan and Michael Ferland was tasked on many nights to shoulder the scoring load.
ALOST’s Prediction: Can the Flames win a game at the Honda Center? They’ll need to do that at least once to win the series. Flames goaltender Brian Elliott, who came on strong in the last couple of months of the season, will need to stand tall against the Ducks, who play the punishing, in-your-face style of hockey that has given the Flames fits in the teams’ recent games. We say the Flames will win one game at Honda Center, but not four overall to win the series.
Yeo!!!!! What’s up?!
As much as you might think that that first line is me giving you a warm, loud welcome – which I do with most of my friends that I meet personally – I’m actually tried to emphasize that a large part of this series will be about Mike Yeo, the erstwhile Minnesota Wild head coach who was fired midway through last season and caught on with the St. Louis Blues after Ken Hitchcock was dismissed from the team midway through this season. A few of the Wild’s biggest playoff accomplishments have occurred with Yeo behind the bench, and his intimate knowledge of the players currently on the Wild roster could give the Blues an edge psychologically, if not strategically.
The main reason Hitchcock got the ax was because of a defense that was allowing 3.12 goals per game in the 50 contests the Blues had before management pulled the plug on the 1999 Stanley Cup-winning head coach. Enter Yeo, and the Blues went on to go 22-8-2 in the final 32 games to secure a playoff spot. In those 32 games under Yeo, St. Louis’ goals against was a stellar 1.88, with Jake Allen playing out of his mind over the last two months. In March, Allen was especially parsimonious, sporting an 8-1-2 record with a 1.35 GAA and a .953 save percentage.
While the offense didn’t markedly improve under Yeo (2.80 goals for under Hitchcock, 2.91 under Yeo), that unit didn’t need to make that much of a jump, especially with the super-talented Vladimir Tarasenko once again in top form. Tarasenko led the team with 38 goals and, even though he doesn’t have an extensive history in the playoffs, is one of the best performers in the postseason the league has. In the Blues’ run to the conference final last season, Tarasenko had 15 points (9 G, 6 A) in 20 games and now has recorded 19 goals in 33 career playoff games. The Blues’ forward depth isn’t as it was in years past, especially without players like the departed David Backes, but as long as Tarasenko and the first line is producing, the Blues can make up for that lack of depth, especially if the defense and goaltending remain rock solid.
The Blues also made up for the loss of stalwart defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who was traded to the Washington Capitals before the trading deadline. Second-year blue liner Colton Parayko, who had a productive postseason last season, carried that play into 2016-17 and provides solid depth on the blue line behind the top pairing of Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester.
Over the past three seasons, Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk has unquestionably been one of the top five netminders in the league, and his season in 2016-17, collectively, ranked up there with the best in the league. We threw in the word “collectively” because, for a large chunk of the second half of the season, Dubnyk’s play faltered, which was the first domino falling in the Wild’s late-season swoon that let a sure Central Division title slip from their fingers as the Blackhawks zoomed past them in the standings. Dubnyk’s return to form is probably the main key in the Wild making a run to the Stanley Cup Final.
Probably the biggest edge the Wild should have on the Blues is on the experience front, and the addition of Eric Staal in the offseason added another player with Stanley Cup Final experience to the roster. Staal, now 32 and more than a decade removed from his run to a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, scored 28 goals in his first season with the Wild.
After last season, Mikael Granlund sat down with Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher about moving the former from center to the wing. With the 25-year-old at winger for good starting this season, all Granlund did was lead the team in points (69) and assists (43), with Staal the only Wild player outpacing his 26 goals. Right behind Granlund in the goals tally was Nino Neiderreiter, who scored 25 goals and continues to be one of the most improved players in the league. It was just a few seasons back (2014) when Niederreiter was the unlikely hero in the Wild’s upset of the Colorado Avalanche in the first round, as he scored the overtime winner in Game 7.
ALOST’s Prediction: The Wild have legitimate aspirations of winning their first-ever Stanley Cup, and the experience they have – from Staal, Zach Parise, et al. – should be able to tip the scales in this series. For some reason, however, we think Yeo’s intimate knowledge of the Wild, as well as the Blues’ much-improved defense under him, will be enough to cause the (mild) upset.