Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 25, 2019

One By One, The NHL’s Elite Are Dismissed

Maybe the secret to success in the Stanley Cup playoffs is to suck during the regular season. Okay, that assessment is a bit harsh. After all, each of the sixteen squads that made the NHL’s postseason tournament finished the regular schedule at least eight games over .500. That’s decidedly better than the NBA, where in the top-heavy Eastern Conference only season-ending winning streaks of from two to four games allowed the bottom three teams in the playoff bracket to limp into the postseason with records at or just barely above break-even. Still, when the number seven seed Carolina Hurricanes rallied from a 3-1 second period deficit to eliminate the defending champion Washington Capitals with a 4-3 double overtime Game 7 victory Wednesday night, the triumph of underdogs over excellence in the first round of this year’s Cup playoffs was complete.

As previously chronicled in this space, the pattern was established early in the opening round when the Eastern Conference’s number eight seed Columbus Blue Jackets shocked the Presidents’ Trophy winners from Tampa four games to none. Skating to the best record in the league during the regular season is no guarantee of playoff success; in fact history would suggest just the opposite. But prior to the Tampa Bay Lightning being outhustled, outplayed, and decisively outscored by Columbus, no number one seed had ever been swept in the first round. It was an especially precipitous fall since Tampa Bay had tied the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings with 62 wins during the regular season, the most in league history.

But as it turned out the upset by the Blue Jackets was not just stunning but also a precursor of first round play. Three nights after the Lightning’s season came to its abrupt end, players for the Calgary Flames found themselves free to trade their skates for golf shoes. The Colorado Avalanche, the number eight seed in the West, completed an upset nearly as big as the one pulled off by Columbus, dispatching regular season conference champion Calgary in five games. After absorbing a 4-0 shutout in Game 1, the Avalanche rebounded with four straight wins while outscoring the Flames 17-7.

Then this week two more Wild Card teams sent the two remaining regular season division winners to early exits. Monday night the Dallas Stars closed out the Nashville Predators four games to two when John Klingberg blew a wrist shot from the left face-off circle past Nashville netminder Pekka Rinne 17:02 into overtime for a 2-1 victory in Game 6. It was the second overtime contest and fourth game decided by just one goal in the series.

Finally came the decisive match of the series between Carolina and Washington. Just last spring Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals vanquished a legacy of playoff disappointment by defeating the upstart expansion franchise from Las Vegas in five games to claim Washington’s first Stanley Cup. The Caps’ title defense started well enough, with a pair of wins at home over the Hurricanes. But back in front of friendly faces at PNC Arena in Raleigh, Carolina struck back, stifling Washington’s offense while throwing forty-five shots on Capitals’ goaltender Braden Holtby in a 5-0 Game 3 shutout. The Hurricanes then evened the series with a taut 2-1 win in Game 4.

Washington reasserted itself in Game 5, crushing Carolina 6-0 and giving D.C. fans reason to think their team would shortly be moving on. But history came back to haunt the Capitals, a team that has so often failed to deliver on its promise during the playoffs. In Game 6, leads of 1-0 and 2-1 gave way to a 5-2 loss, sending the teams back to Washington for the decider. Again in Game 7, the Capitals were up on the scoreboard, this time by 2-0 and then 3-1. But Teuvo Teravainen sliced the lead in half late in the second period, and then Jordan Staal netted the equalizer for the Hurricanes early in the third. For the next forty-eight minutes on the game clock, through the remainder of regulation and more than one and a half periods of overtime, the capacity crowd at Capital One Arena was ready to end the evening with an exultant roar that would shake the building. Instead a much quieter celebration, from the Carolina faithful scattered throughout the stands, greeted Brock McGinn’s winning tip-in of a centering pass from Justin Williams that completed Carolina’s comeback, and the Capitals’ collapse.

With that this season became the first in the six years since the current playoff format was adopted that all four Wild Card teams advanced to the second round. As the flip side of that statistic, it’s the only time since the NHL went to four divisions in 1974 that all of the regular season division winners were bounced out in the first round.

The other four opening round games, between the second and third place finishers in each division, included one more upset based on regular season records and a pair of near misses. The St. Louis Blues, third in the Central Division, beat the second place Winnipeg Jets four games to two for the upset. The Atlantic Division’s runner-up Boston Bruins had to rally from a three games to two hole to hold off the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven, although knowledgeable fans could have predicted Boston’s comeback. Toronto hasn’t won a postseason series since 2004, and the last time a player wearing a Maple Leafs sweater lifted the Stanley Cup, Lyndon Johnson was President and Americans had not yet walked on the moon. And the San Jose Sharks, second in the Pacific Division during the regular season, were forced to overcome an even larger three games to one deficit against the Vegas Golden Knights. The last two of the three straight San Jose wins were in overtime, and the final victory was only made possible by a dubious major penalty call against Vegas that opened the door for four Sharks goals during the five minutes San Jose skated with an extra man. Only the Islanders sweep of the Penguins went comfortably according to the playoff bracket seedings.

Now the survivors of an opening round filled with upsets and close escapes begin the conference semifinals. With all four of the topline teams out, fans of regular season runners-up like the Islanders, Sharks and especially the Bruins, now the betting favorite, can readily envision a path to Stanley Cup glory. But success in the first round has surely imbued the underdogs with both confidence and resolve. The only sure bet is that this year’s battle for the oldest trophy in professional sports is now wide open.

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