Pucks in Deep: A Wild Start to the NHL Playoffs

by Sam Stockton | 4/22/19 2:00am

Pucks in Deep: A Wild Start to the NHL Playoffs 

There are a few things we have come to expect every year out of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs: inconsistent officiating and supplemental discipline, upsets and long series with lots of overtime. This year has been no exception to those norms, and yet, it has also provided something altogether out of the ordinary for springtime hockey — a pair of shocking sweeps that knocked out the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning and the Pittsburgh Penguins, winners of two of the last three Stanley Cups. As if that weren’t enough, the Western Conference’s No. 1 Calgary Flames lost in just five games to the Colorado Avalanche. For the first time in National Hockey League history, both conferences’ top seeds could not make it past the first round and, between the two of them, they won just one game.

To see the Penguins lose was not entirely shocking. All season, their porous defense, particularly on the rush, made the usually unflappable Penguins appear vulnerable, but it seemed inevitable that a team led by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel would be able to turn it on come the postseason. Instead, Barry Trotz’s upstart New York Islanders flummoxed the Penguins and held Crosby to no goals and a single assist in the four-game sweep. 

Tampa’s elimination in the first round came as an even greater surprise. As I wrote just last week in this column, the 2018-19 Lightning authored perhaps the greatest season of the salary cap era. Dominant in all phases of the game, the Bolts cruised to a share of the league’s all-time wins record. In the NHL’s annual playoff bracket challenge, nearly 50 percent of entrants selected the Lightning to win the Cup. They began the postseason looking every bit the team that won 62 games, jumping out to a 3-0 lead in game one. From that point on, Columbus denied the Lightning any room to operate off the rush, and the Bolts seemed not to have back-up plan.

In essence, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh fell victim to the same phenomenon: a pugnacious underdog that successfully congested the neutral zone with steady defensive structure, forcing the favorites to dump the puck into the offensive zone rather than create offense off the rush.

When a top team falls to an inferior opponent, the most likely culprit is a stellar goaltending performance on the underdog. In 2010, the No. 8 Montreal Canadiens knocked off that season’s Presidents’ Trophy winner, the Washington Capitals. The Caps took a commanding 3-1 series lead but couldn’t close out the Habs. In games five through seven, the Caps tallied nearly 45 shots per game, completely dominating play, but Montreal netminder Jaroslav Halak stood on his head, allowing just three goals total in those games. However, the two first-round sweeps this year were not a result of goalie domination. Instead, both underdogs suffocated their opponents and capitalized on their own opportunities.

Meanwhile, out west, the top-seeded Flames also ran into a buzz saw in the form of the Avalanche. Going into the series, the Flames’ suspect goaltending had some pundits wondering if Calgary might face disaster in the postseason. A game one shutout from Mike Smith seemed to quell those fears. Even as the Avs won four straight to close out the series, goaltending was hardly the problem.

Instead, Colorado dominated the series by correcting the issues that plagued them throughout the regular year, sapping away the Flames’ strength along the way. During the regular season, Calgary led the league in creating odd-man rushes and ranked second in controlled zone entries. Colorado, on the other hand, struggled all season in their neutral zone defense and showed a propensity for turning the puck over in transition.

Then, Nathan MacKinnon happened. MacKinnon — selected first overall in 2013 out of the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League — is hardly an unknown commodity around the league, but by virtue of playing out west for a team with a relatively low national profile, he does not always receive the attention he deserves. In the last two seasons, MacKinnon’s play has carried an Avs team without any depth to speak of to the postseason.

In his first round match-up with Calgary, MacKinnon made a compelling case for being the league’s best player. Watching MacKinnon charge through the neutral zone feels akin to seeing Adrian Peterson in his prime, a player whose combination of speed and strength renders him nearly unstoppable. All series long, when MacKinnon took control of the puck and proceeded to charge through the middle of the ice, there seemed only three possible outcomes. MacKinnon would blaze through the defense himself and score; create a wide-open lane for a teammate due to the attention he garnered from the Calgary defense; or utilize his speed and strength to leave the defenseman attacked with no choice but to take a penalty.

It would be unfair to say MacKinnon is the Avs’ sole impact player. Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog join him as star players, creating perhaps the most dangerous trio in hockey. Rantanen boasts blazing speed to complement MacKinnon and brings excellent vision and playmaking. Landeskog is among the league’s best players at the netfront, adept at redirecting point shots and cleaning up messes at the net mouth.

In game three, the Avs received a shot of energy from defenseman Cale Makar. Makar led the University of Massachussetts Amherst to the Frozen Four final game, won the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s finest player and reported to the NHL immediately after his collegiate season wrapped up. Makar provides top-end speed and can lead the rush with the best offensive defensemen in the league today. He scored in his NHL debut, immediately signaling that he is ready for hockey’s biggest stage.

These three upsets have already made this one of the most memorable postseasons in recent years. More than that, they give this playoffs the kind of wonky feel that suggests an unheralded team might not just make a deep run but win the whole d— thing. By all accounts, Colorado lacks the depth of a Stanley Cup champion, but something about MacKinnon’s sheer dominance and Makar’s spark against the West’s top seed hints that Stan might just be heading back to the Rockies by early June.