On the same day he was announced as one of three Norris Trophy finalists as the league’s best rearguard, Colorado Avalanche star Cale Makar showed us all why.
As if we needed any reminders.
After tallying career-highs across the board in goals (28), assists (58) and points (86) in the regular season, Makar has been off to an incredible start in these playoffs, with 10 points already to his name after he put on a dazzling three-point performance in Game 4 against the Nashville Predators to complete the first-round sweep of their Central Division foes.
He’s off to a historic pace, tallying more points than any other d-man in NHL history within the first four games of a post-season. And he’s earning some pretty high praise from his teammates.
Said Nathan MacKinnon, “He might be the best player in the league right now.”
No arguments here.
Makar now has three three-point games so far in this post-season, bringing his career playoff total up to 41 points in 39 games.
He’s clearly in Beastmode. Hmm… perhaps that explains the Skittles raining down from the crowd?
WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE PREDATORS?
For the first time in franchise history, the Nashville Predators find themselves on the losing end of a series sweep. It felt like this spring, against this opponent, they were kind of doomed from the start — even before they lost Juuse Saros to injury last month. Making the playoffs at all felt like the victory here, despite the club not being all that far removed from a real run at the Cup.
So, where to now?
Nashville saw some incredible performances from the players they needed most this season — Matt Duchene, for one, finally put up the kinds of numbers expected of him after he arrived a few years ago. Filip Forsberg posted career-highs across the board just in time to face a barrage of questions about his future and whether the pending UFA might hit the open market. Head coach John Hynes, too, faces an uncertain future as he’s due a new deal.
The list of questions is long. And so, too, is the off-season ahead.
SHESTERKIN’S STRUGGLES THRUST HIM INTO SPOTLIGHT
The chants started early and rained down often in Pittsburgh Monday night:
The thunderous jeers rolled through PPG Paints Arena, a relentless reminder for New York Rangers netminder Igor Shesterkin that the post-season spotlight can be a very cruel and uncomfortable place to be.
Shesterkin was pulled after letting in five goals in the second, the fans once again serenading him on his way out of what was a 6-2 game at the time before changing their tune (slightly) in the third to welcome Alexander Georgiev into the game.
This was the second straight game that saw Shesterkin pulled after he was replaced just 20 minutes into Game 3 after allowing four goals on 15 shots.
Shesterkin’s struggles against his first-round foes have been one of the most striking developments of this post-season so far. Of course, the blame for Monday’s 7-2 Game 4 loss cannot, and should not, be placed entirely on Shesterkin’s shoulders. In his defence, New York played with very little defence, after all, as the Penguins dominated offensive zone play and fired 34 shots on net (including 10 against backup Georgiev in the third, scoring once).
The Shesterkin we’ve seen in these past two playoff games has been very different from the one we watched over the course of the regular season — the one whose name will headline Tuesday’s Vezina finalists announcement and whose .935 save percentage through 52 starts was best in the league and makes him the likely runaway winner for the award. He was incredible in Game 1, stopping a historic 79 shots in the triple-overtime marathon loss, and stopped 39 of 41 as the Rangers rebounded in Game 2.
Heading into the playoffs, perhaps no team was as well-versed in Shesterkin’s excellence as Pittsburgh. After all, in four regular-season meetings in 2021-22, Pittsburgh managed to put just four pucks past him. Now, four games into a series that sits at 3-1 for the Penguins, they’ve quadrupled that total with 16. They appear to have cracked the code, going five-hole on seven of their 16 goals this series so far and putting on a masterclass of net-front traffic and crafty redirections.
After the game, Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant wasted no time giving his No. 1 goalie a vote of confidence, telling reporters that he’ll be starting Shesterkin once again in Game 5 with the series on the line.
CROSBY HITS 200-POINT MILESTONE
Monday’s Penguins win to take a 3-1 series lead saw 13 different skaters land on the score sheet — none more impactful than the captain, of course.
Crosby went into Game 4 with 198 career post-season points and by game’s end had 201 and a pretty cool slice of NHL history. With his goal and pair of assists, he became just the sixth player in NHL history to hit the 200-point milestone in the playoffs alongside Wayne Gretzky (382), Mark Messier (295), Jari Kurri (233), Glenn Anderson (214), and Jaromir Jagr (201). Only Gretzky (95), Kurri (143) and Messier (148) needed fewer games than Crosby's 178 to reach 200 points.
He's put up multiple points in all four games in Round 1 so far, bringing his four-game tally to nine and counting.
“It’s the best time of year to be a hockey player,” Crosby told Sportsnet’s Caroline Cameron following the game. “Competing like this, obviously, it means a lot. This is what you play for.”
GUENTZEL’S GOT GAME
Joining Crosby in the Penguins’ history books is Jake Guentzel, who has been incredible in these playoffs so far with five goals in four games against New York. According to the team, he’s the first Penguin in franchise post-season history to score in each of the club’s first four games to open the playoffs.
Stepping up his game in the playoffs is nothing new for Guentzel — he had 21 points in 25 post-season games as a rookie to help the Penguins claim the Cup in 2016-17, and matched that total in half the games the following spring. In three early exits from three trips to the playoffs between then and now, he managed just three goals and six points. He’s on pace for greatness once again.
Crosby and Guentzel aren’t the only ones who made some history in Pittsburgh Monday night — head coach Mike Sullivan became the winningest coach in Penguins playoff history with No. 44.
THE COMEBACK CATS SHOW THERE’S FIGHT IN FLORIDA YET
They’re still not exactly cruising on all cylinders — that power play is still flat, now 0-for-13 in the playoffs and the only club without a PP goal this spring — but the Florida Panthers looked a lot more like themselves as they clawed back late in regulation Monday night to tie things up and force overtime with a 3-2 Game 4 win.
Carter Verhaeghe had two goals, opening the scoring in the first and closing it in overtime, with Sam Reinhart tying things up with less than three minutes left in the third. Head coach Andrew Brunette earned some praise in the victory for his bold decision to call Sergei Bobrovsky to the bench with more than three minutes left in regulation to get an extra skater for a late (and a successful) push.
The Capitals took the lead midway through the third period on a play that could be examined by the player safety department. As Panthers forward Sam Bennett attempted to enter Washington’s zone, Capitals forward T.J. Oshie levelled him with a hard hit that appeared to make contact with Bennett’s head. Oshie did not leave his feet or get his elbow up, and the two players’ paths clearly crossed making it a tricky play to assess. No penalty was called by the on-ice officials, and in fact the play sparked a rush the other way as Evgeni Kuznetsov scored just seconds later to take a 2-1 lead.
Following the game, Brunette voiced his displeasure at the incident.
“I didn’t like the hit,” he said. “I thought it was targeted to the head.” He said he hopes the league will look at it.
FLAMES FINALLY SOLVE OETTINGER… FOR NOW
Through 82 regular-season games, the Calgary Flames had one of the league’s most powerful offences, ranking sixth in goals per game with 3.55.
And then they ran into a 23-year-old kid named Jake Oettinger. The Dallas Stars sophomore has been nearly unsolvable so far in Round 1, limiting the Flames to just three goals through the series’ first three games including a Game 3 shutout Saturday night.
He was putting together another strong case for another shutout in the first half of the game, until Calgary finally put one past him and added two more in the third period before sealing the 4-1 win with an empty-netter to tie up the series at 2-2. All told, it took a whopping 53 shots in order to score three goals on Oettinger, including a successful penalty shot for Johnny Gaudreau.
It’s been a grind-it-out, goalie-driven, defence-heavy battle thus far between these Western clubs, and on Monday the advantage went to Jakob Markstrom and his 34-save game.