Down Goes Brown Weekend Wrap: Ranking remaining NHL playoff teams

NHL insider Doug MacLean joins Sportsnet's Starting Lineup to try and make sense out of two more controversial calls over the weekend, saying we just hope they get it as right as possible.

Every Monday, Sean McIndoe looks back at weekend play in the NHL and the league’s biggest storylines. You can follow him on Twitter.

Opening faceoff: All tied up

Well, you knew it wouldn’t be easy.

As good as the Winnipeg Jets are, they’re facing the Presidents’ Trophy winners. Coming home up 2–0 in the series was always going to be a tough ask.

Still, they nearly pulled it off. After a strong performance in Game 1 led to a 4–1 win, the Jets went into last night’s second game in Nashville with at least some hope that they wouldn’t need to come back. Those chances took an early hit when Ryan Johansen opened the scoring less than a minute in, but a pair of quick goals put the Jets back in front.

The Predators pushed back in the second, scoring twice to retake the lead. Brandon Tanev and Johansen traded goals within seconds of each other early in the third, and the Predators looked like they might escape with the regulation win. But Mark Scheifele tied the game with a minute left, briefly silencing the Nashville crowd and sending us to overtime.

Sudden death provided the kind of hockey that’s all sorts of fun to watch if you’re neutral and agonizing if you’re not, with the two teams going up and down the ice and trading chances. The first extra period didn’t solve anything, and it took five minutes of a second frame before Kevin Fiala finally ended it.

The result means we make it out of the first weekend of the second round without any teams collecting a second win. The Sharks had tied their series with the Golden Knights with an overtime win of their own on Saturday. And the Capitals evened things with the Penguins on Sunday afternoon, although the win didn’t come without some controversy. Meanwhile the Bruins and Lightning will play their second game tonight, with Boston looking to head home as the only team in the second round to go up 2–0.

That all makes it tough to pick out any favourites, but let’s see what we can do.

Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a Stanley Cup.

5. Vegas Golden KnightsWe’ll nudge them back into the top five partly on the strength of that impressive Game 1 blowout win, and partly because we’re still not sure which direction that Penguins/Capitals series is headed.

4. Tampa Bay LightningYou never want to get too silly with the “must win” label early in a series. But with the way the Bruins looked in Game 1, tonight feels pretty close for the Lightning.

3. Nashville PredatorsModern philosophical ethicists agree: It’s OK if you found yourself secretly rooting for the Predators last night just because you want this series to go the full seven.

2. Winnipeg Jets: Last night’s loss was disappointing, but they still came out of Nashville with home ice and the sense that they’re at least as good as the Predators right now, and maybe better. We’ll keep them as the slight series favourites for now.

1. Boston BruinsThey went into Tampa and blitzed to a 6–2 win. It’s one game, sure, but that one was a statement. Their first line was already rolling and Jake DeBrusk is having a breakout post-season; if Rick Nash is finally waking up, too, look out.

Hey, remember the trade deadline? It was admittedly a bit of a letdown, with big names like Erik Karlsson, Max Pacioretty and Mike Green staying put, and no out-of-left-field shockers to chew on. There were a few big deals, but nothing that felt earth-shattering.

But one fascinating theme did emerge in the days and hours leading up to the deadline: Trades involving first-round picks. For years, GMs had guarded their top picks like gold, chanting the mantra that the NHL is a draft-and-develop league now. When we set our deadline odds, we figured two or three firsts might end up moving, and history suggested that might be high.

Instead, we saw a stunning seven trades February involving teams giving up a first-round pick (or, in one case, a conditional first). That included four trades on deadline-day alone, the first time since 2008 that we’d had more than one. In a league where the value of high picks had seemed well-established, seeing nearly a quarter of the league move a future first felt like a shift.

So which seven teams traded away first-round picks in February? Let’s refresh your memory. It was Pittsburgh, San Jose, Boston, Nashville, Tampa Bay, Winnipeg and Vegas.

Notice anything interesting about that group of teams?

Yes, all seven teams that moved first-round picks are currently still alive. In fact, the NHL’s final eight is made up exclusively of teams that dealt away a first, with the exception of the Washing Capitals (who were reportedly working on a blockbuster of their own that didn’t get done). Put differently, the first round of this year’s playoffs featured seven matchups between a team that had traded a first and a team that hadn’t, and the team that made an aggressive deadline move won each and every one.

That’s not to say that all of the trades have paid off. Teams like Winnipeg (who moved a pick for Paul Stastny) and Tampa (Ryan McDonagh) are probably happy with their moves, while Pittsburgh is still waiting on a Derick Brassard payoff. Nashville (Ryan Hartman) and San Jose (Evander Kane) have both seen their acquisitions contribute, but also serve suspensions. Meanwhile, Nash was having yet another disappointing post-season until Saturday’s two-goal performance for the Bruins, while Tomas Tatar has been a healthy scratch in Vegas. So results have been mixed. And it’s also not like trading a first is some sort of guaranteed path to success, since the three teams who dealt them earlier in the year — Ottawa, Calgary and St. Louis — all missed the playoffs.

Still, it’s hard to look at the remaining field and wonder if there’s a lesson here for NHL GMs. All seven teams were already good, and all seven were willing to roll the dice in an effort to get better. Meanwhile, teams like the Ducks, Wild and Maple Leafs that took a more conservative deadline approach saw their seasons end early.

Ultimately, only one team will win the Stanley Cup, and some of those traded firsts might turn into stars, so the jury’s still out on the 2018 deadline. But so far, the pattern is clear: The teams that were willing to pay a price to load up have been rewarded. That will be worth remembering when next year’s deadline rolls around, and your favourite team’s GM hems and haws about the value of playing it safe.

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The bottom five
Five stories from around the league that aren’t going so well.

5. Fin the Whale: For you east-coast bias types, Fin is the Canucks mascot. And according to Jim Benning, he was apparently the team’s choice to represent them at Saturday’s draft lottery. Yes, the Canucks were actually going to send a mascot to sit in a room full of dour GMs wearing suits, and presumably have him sit there stone-faced when the camera panned over to him for a reaction shot once the Canucks inevitably lost the lottery. And the league said no. Because the league hates us all.

Hey, speaking of the draft lottery…

4. The lottery losers: For once, this category doesn’t include the Sabres, who picked up the first lottery win in franchise history to hold onto the top pick. After seeing other teams slip past them for the top pick in 2014 and 2015, the Sabres’ luck finally held, and they’ll get to rebuild their blue line around Rasmus Dahlin.

The other big winner was Carolina. Picking second in a draft with one franchise player isn’t ideal, but jumping up from No. 11 made them by far the lottery’s biggest movers. Meanwhile, Montreal climbed up one spot and will pick third.

That added up to bad news for the Senators, who fell from second to fourth, and the Coyotes, who went from third to fifth. Six other teams fell one spot, including the Canucks. That continues a brutal streak of lottery luck for Vancouver, one that’s making it difficult for the team to dig out from an extended run of failure on the ice.

3. The case of the disappearing goal: The puck was probably across the line. And the officials were probably right to call it no-goal anyway.

That’s the paradox of yesterday’s crucial third-period play in the game between the Penguins and Capitals. With Washington defending a lead and desperate to avoid heading back to Pittsburgh down 2–0 in the series, the Penguins sure seemed to score to close to within a goal.

Was that in? It sure looked in. It’s one of those plays where seeing it from various angles leads you to believe that the puck has to be across the line, because there doesn’t seem to be anywhere else for it to go.

But that’s not how the rule works in the NHL. If the call on the ice is no-goal, then we need to see clear evidence that the puck crossed the goal line. A hunch isn’t good enough — we need clear footage of white ice between the puck and the line. Some fans were sure that they saw it, but their screen caps left room for doubt. There just wasn’t enough there to overturn the original call of no goal.

(Assuming, of course, that actually was the call on the ice. As usually, the NHL didn’t bother to tell us until after the review. Why the league refuses to follow the NFL’s example and clearly announce the current call before starting the review process is anyone’s guess.)

For their part, the Penguins were furious, with Mike Sullivan calling it “100 percent a goal.” He may be right. But sometimes, that’s not enough, and yesterday it may have cost Pittsburgh a chance at a comeback.

2. Goaltender interference: For the most part, we made it through the first round without any major interference-review controversies, or at least any that determined a game. No such luck on Saturday, as a pair of reviews went against the Golden Knights. The first saw a Sharks second-period goal allowed to stand despite some contact in the crease; officials ruled that the San Jose player had been pushed in. The second call was the big one, wiping out the apparent Knights’ winner in overtime.

Martin Jones appears to still be in his crease, although it’s close, and there’s clear contact that prevents him from getting set. At the same time, the bar for overturning a call on the ice is supposed to be high. Was that an obvious-enough case of interference to warrant calling back an overtime winner?

Most fans seemed to think so, although I’m guessing that anyone rooting for Vegas would disagree. Between the locals and the team’s growing bandwagon, that’s a pretty large group these days. Whether it will stay that way for much longer is another question altogether, and leads us into our next section….

1. The coming Golden Knights backlash: You can already feel it, can’t you? Even in the middle of what’s for the most part still seen as a feel-good story, there’s an undercurrent starting to form. An expansion team that everyone expects to come in last instead wins its division? That’s great. They sweep the first round, too? Wow. Now they’re threatening to roll through the second round? OK, maybe that’s just about enough.

Not for everyone, of course — there are plenty of fans around the sports world who are firmly on the Knights’ bandwagon and plan on staying there. Seeing an expansion team win a championship in year one would be a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle, so bring it on.

But you can sense some hesitance creeping in for fans of other NHL teams, especially the ones that have been trying to build a winner for years, if not decades. It was cute when the new guys were hanging tough in November, but now they’re going to cut in line ahead of everyone and head straight for the parade? Slow down, kids.

Some of that bitterness has led to a bizarre theory that’s popping up with more and more frequency: That this was all preordained, and of course the Knights were going to be great from day one because the league handed them a sweetheart expansion-draft setup that made it a sure thing. It’s certainly true that the Knights were given a much better starting point than any other expansion team in league history — $500 million has to buy you something. But the whole idea skips over the part where we all thought the Knights would struggle even after we saw their draft results. Not one person looked at the expansion-draft rules and complained that they were designed to inevitably produce a juggernaut, and nobody looked at that initial roster and thought “Well, there’s your Stanley Cup winner.” The Knights were always supposed to be bad, and it’s revisionist history to suggest otherwise.

But even then, there’s something that just feels off about seeing the Knights go deep, and everyone will have their own tipping point. For some, it would be an appearance in the third round or Stanley Cup final. For others, a championship.

But the backlash is coming. In some form, it’s probably already here. But it’s going to build up the longer the Knights stick around, especially up here in Canada if we end up with a Knights/Jets conference final. So maybe the best advice for everyone watching this Vegas underdog story unfold is to enjoy it while you can still can.

A weekly deep dive into the biggest hockey news in the world with hosts Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek. New episodes every Thursday.

Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league

• I think they might be enjoying the playoffs in Nashville.

• If you missed it, here was Logan Couture‘s overtime winner to hand the Golden Knights their first-ever playoff loss and send the series back to San Jose at 1–1.

• Brian Burke had a busy weekend, stepping away from his role as president of hockey ops with the Calgary Flames and then immediately making his debut as a TV analyst.

• Speaking of former Maple Leafs’ GMs, the ongoing Hurricanes’ GM search will reportedly include at least four candidates, one of whom is John Ferguson Jr. He’s currently the director of player personnel with the Bruins.

• Scariest moment of the weekend: Ryan Ellis taking a skate to the face on Friday night. He needed 18 stitches but avoided serious injury.

• Evander Kane missed Saturday’s win over the Golden Knights after earning a one-game suspension for his cross-check on Pierre-Edouard Bellemare.

• Next up for the Department of Player Safety: A look at yet another Tom Wilson hit, as the Caps forward knocked Brian Dumoulin out of yesterday’s game with a check to the head:

• The NHL finished unveiling this year’s award finalists on Friday, announcing that Nathan MacKinnon, Taylor Hall and Anze Kopitar are up for the Hart Trophy.

• The undisputed highlight of the weekend: Tuukka Rask losing a skate blade, giving up a goal, and having a meltdown over it:

• Finally, if you’ve ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at the draft lottery, here’s a look at how it all goes down.

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