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: The Jets make history
Yeah, I’d say that felt like it was worth waiting three decades or so for.
The Jets took care of business on Friday night, eliminating the Wild in five games to advance to the second round. While the magnitude of the moment made for a dramatic finish, the game itself didn’t provide much in the way of suspense. The Jets rolled over the Wild, scoring 31 seconds in and leading 4–0 before the game was 12 minutes old. That was more than enough, as Connor Hellebuyck recorded his second straight shutout to pad his all-time Jets lead.
It was the first time Winnipeg fans had seen their team win a playoff series since 1987, when the old Jets beat the Flames in the opening round. That iteration of the team didn’t win another series in its remaining nine years before heading to Phoenix, and 15 years without a team and seven more after luring the Thrashers north had added up to a grand total of zero playoff games won until this year. They took care of the first win in Game 1; now they’ve checked off a series to go with it.
Next up, the team takes aim at another first: The two versions of the Winnipeg Jets have never won a game in the second round of the NHL playoffs. Both previous trips to round two ended in four-game sweeps at the hands of the Wayne Gretzky-era Oilers dynasty.
This year’s matchup won’t be quite as foreboding, although it’s not all that far off. The Predators are the Presidents’ Trophy champions, and will have home ice. Their lineup features the likely Vezina winner, a Norris finalist, and a forward in Filip Forsberg who’s doing something ridiculous in just about every game. But while the Jets were dominating the Wild, the Predators looked at least a little bit vulnerable against the underdog Avalanche and took on an extra game’s worth of wear and tear in the process, so this is a series that Winnipeg can win.
Either way, it should be a must-see matchup, quite possibly the very best of the entire post-season. There’s a strong case to be made that these are the two top teams in the league, and their regular-season meetings were fantastic. It might even be tempting to suggest that this series will be for the Stanley Cup, although that implies that the winner will emerge with anything left for the Sharks or Knights in the conference final. As for who we’re picking, well, we’ll get to that in the power rankings.
But first, one other thing a Winnipeg Jets team has never accomplished: Being the last Canadian team standing in the NHL playoffs. They’ll have to wait at least a few more hours to claim that honour, after the Maple Leafs went into Boston and escaped with a Game 5 win to keep their series alive.
That one saw the Leafs build a 4–1 lead midway through the second period, then hang on as a desperate Bruins team dominated the second half. Boston rained 45 shots on Frederik Andersen, including 20 in the third period, and the Leafs spent much of the game in the penalty box. By late in the third, the Bruins had cut the lead to 4–3, and, yes, everyone was thinking it. But this time Toronto held on, if only barely.
Game 6 goes tonight in Toronto, with a potential Game 7 looming back in Boston on Wednesday. It still feels like the Maple Leafs haven’t put a full game together in the series, with inconsistent play from Andersen and the top forwards. But Saturday at least offered some signs of encouragement, with Auston Matthews looking dangerous in the early going and the return of Nazem Kadri giving the top six a boost.
The end result wasn’t pretty, and probably had more than a few Toronto fans suffering through some traumatic memories of 2013. The Leafs still have a long way to go if they’re going to join the Jets in round two. But for now at least, the country still has two teams to root for, and we can save the annual “Canada’s Team” debate for at least one more day.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a Stanley Cup.
5. Boston Bruins: This is a bit risky, as they’re the only team in our top five that hasn’t already punched a ticket to round two. The safer play would be to swap in the Knights here, but we’re sticking with Boston. Gutsy call, or transparent attempt at the reverse-jinx? You decide.
4. Tampa Bay Lightning: You have to figure they’ll be hoping that the Leafs and Bruins go the full seven and inflict as much damage on each other as possible before the winner crawls their way to Tampa.
2. Nashville Predators: It took a game or two longer than we thought it might, but the Predators finally looked like the Presidents’ Trophy winners last night in Colorado. But we’ve only got them ranked second, which must mean…
1. Winnipeg Jets: …Jets in seven is the call. Hey, have we ever been wrong before?
Only one series made it to a Game 5 tied 2–2. That one came in Washington on Saturday, where the Capitals and Blue Jackets continued their battle to determine which franchise is more cursed by the playoff-hockey gods.
The game followed what’s becoming a familiar script between these two teams: The Capitals take the lead, the Blue Jackets rally back in the third period, and we head to overtime. Saturday was the fourth time in the series’ five games that things were settled in sudden death (one short of the NHL record for most overtimes in a series, which the Capitals reached in last year’s opening round against Toronto). This time it was Nicklas Backstrom playing the hero, tipping home his second of the game.
It was the first win by a home team in the series, and it left the Capitals one win away from advancing. That represents a stunning turnaround from where we were a week ago, when the Blue Jackets had taken the first two games in Washington and looked like they could be headed towards a sweep. Three straight wins later, now it’s the Capitals with all the momentum and a chance to close it out tonight. But Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella is already promising a Game 7. And he’s probably right — in a first round where few of the series have been competitive, this one feels like it has to go to a seventh game, and probably an overtime or two beyond that.
The weekend also saw three teams follow the Jets into round two. The first of those came on Saturday, with Tampa finishing off the Devils with a 3-1 win. That got the favoured Lightning through with a relatively quick five-game win against a feisty New Jersey team that hadn’t backed down but just didn’t have the talent to compete.
Two more teams advanced yesterday, starting with the Penguins. They knocked off the Flyers in a wild Game 6 afternoon tilt that featured 13 goals and almost as many head-scratching calls. Jake Guentzel played the hero, scoring four straight goals to flip a 4–3 deficit into a 7–4 lead.
That was barely enough to overshadow a five-point afternoon by Sean Couturier, who we later found out was playing through a torn MCL. Between that performance and Friday’s late winner to stave of elimination in Game 5, Couturier stands as the breakout star of the first round, even if it didn’t translate to a series win.
The weekend’s final elimination saw the Avalanche bow out after giving the Predators a surprisingly tough six-game run. Any series loss is disappointing, but it’s hard not to see the Avalanche season as anything but a massive success. It ended with a thud, to the tune of a 5–0 blowout on home ice. But taking the league’s top team to six games, especially with your third-string goalie, isn’t bad for any team, let alone one that’s a year removed from finishing dead last.
So that’s where we stand — six series down, with two more that could end tonight. Here’s hoping that the Maple Leafs or Blue Jackets can earn a home-ice win to extend their series and deliver at least one Game 7 from a first round that’s been, if we’re being honest, a bit of a dud. History suggests that those aren’t exactly the two teams you want your playoff hopes riding on, but miracles can happen.
The Bottom Five
Five stories from around the league that aren’t going so well.
5. Evgeni Malkin: The Penguins’ star became the latest big name to miss time due to injury in the opening round when he sat out yesterday’s game. His absence wasn’t a total surprise, as he’d missed practice on Saturday, but we didn’t find out that he wasn’t playing until shortly before game time.
The suspicion is that the injury came early in Game 5 when Malkin got tangled up with Jori Lehtera and went into the boards awkwardly, although he returned and finished the game. At this point we don’t know how serious the injury might be, or whether Malkin might be back in time for the start of round two.
4. Matt Calvert’s breakaway move: It worked. You have to give him that. But I don’t think this is quite how he drew it up.
3. Minnesota Wild: The Wild went into their series with the Jets as clear underdogs; it was the sort of tough first-round matchup that you hope a 101-point season helps you avoid. Generally speaking, there’s no shame in losing to a team like Winnipeg.
But the Wild didn’t just lose — they were run off the ice. The scoreboard occasionally suggested a competitive matchup, but the Jets spent almost the entire matchup in the Minnesota zone, and the Wild couldn’t manage so much as a goal in the final two games with the series on the line.
That could have consequences, with reports out of Minnesota suggesting that GM Chuck Fletcher could be in trouble. He’d been on and off the hot seat for years, and seemed reasonably safe heading into the post-season. But seeing the Wild get so thoroughly out-played may have shifted some perceptions of both Fletcher and coach Bruce Boudreau, and there’s a chance we’re in for a tough off-season in Minnesota.
2. Radko Gudas: Talk about a nightmare week. He struggled all series long, capping things off with some comically bad turnovers in yesterday’s clincher. Oh, and he also blew out Couturier’s MCL by being in the wrong place during a practice drill. As you might imagine, the reviews were not kind.
1. Goaltending: They say the playoffs are all about goaltending. But outside of the Pacific Division, that hasn’t really been the case so far.
Yesterday’s 8–5 Penguins win over the Flyers brought back memories of the ridiculous 2012 series between the two teams, and there will be plenty of off-season goaltending questions in Philadelphia, which is admittedly standard. But the Flyers’ struggles masked the fact that Matt Murray has looked shaky at times despite posting a pair of shutouts in the series. Coming off a disappointing season, he’s still at least a minor question mark for the Penguins.
Elsewhere, we’ve already seen the Capitals make a mid-series starter switch, as did the Devils. Tuukka Rask didn’t make it through Saturday night, joining Devan Dubnyk, Frederik Andersen and Pekka Rinne as normally reliable stars who’ve been yanked in the first round. John Gibson disappointed for the Ducks, and injuries had the Avalanche down to Andrew Hammond by the end of things.
Outside of the Pacific trio of Martin Jones, Marc-Andre Fleury and the now-departed Jonathan Quick, the only starters who’ve played up to expectations are Andrei Vasilevskiy, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Connor Hellebuyck (who was also pulled once, but stood on his head after that). And you could even make a case that Bobrovsky hasn’t been up to his usual standards.
Somebody’s going to get hot and steal a few games or even a series, and maybe it ends up being one of the big names that’s struggled – goaltending is voodoo, after all. But for now, at least a few teams will be heading on to the second round in spite of their goalie rather than because of him. And plenty more will be heading home wondering if they need to rethink the position.
Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league
• Despite yesterday’s elimination, the Avalanche delivered the most memorable call of the opening round on Friday night:
• The Jets win produced the weekend’s best hockey photo:
• Winnipeg also gave us the first round’s best media moment:
• OK, one more. Best crowd chant:
• Still confused by the way the Department of Player Safety’s recent handling of hits to the head? Watch this video from Friday night, and you’ll be… well, probably still confused, but with a better understanding of the rule and how it’s applied.
• Here’s this week’s team-based stat that probably doesn’t matter but is still sort of neat:
• And a bit more history, this time featuring a player stat that you’d think we would have seen during the high-flying ’70s or ’80s:
• You know it’s the playoffs when superstars are throwing big hits, and even Phil Kessel wants to fight.
• This is confusing and a little frightening, but I’m pretty sure it means that Canucks prospect Elias Pettersson is still very good.
Elias Pettersson is literally a golden boy right now after winning the SHL Championship and being named playoff MVP. #Canucks
— Grady Sas (@GradySas) April 22, 2018
• Finally, if you missed it on Friday, Bill Peters opted out of his contract with Carolina. He has already been snapped up by the Flames.