Upsets galore in first round of NHL playoffs

Finishing as high as they could in the NHL standings this season didn’t help several clubs in the playoffs this season as there were a number of upsets in the first round. For the first time in league history all four division champions were knocked out in the opening round by the four wildcard teams. In addition, four of the last nine Stanley Cup champions have now been sent packing in the first round the following season with each of them bowing out in seven games.

The biggest surprise was seeing the Tampa Bay Lightning swept in four games by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Tampa led the league in points this season as they topped the Eastern Conference and the Atlantic Division. Their 62 season wins also tied a league record. On the other hand, Columbus made the playoffs on the last weekend of the season as the second wildcard team in the East. Columbus came back from a 3-0 deficit in game one in Tampa to win 4-3 and won the second game 5-1. They then took care of business at home by scores of 3-2 and 7-3.

The Calgary Flames, who won the Western Conference and Pacific Division, were eliminated in five games by the Colorado Avalanche, who also made the postseason in the last week of the campaign and finished as the second wildcard club in the West. Calgary shut Colorado out 4-0 at home in game one, but were then beaten 3-2 in overtime in the second game in Calgary. The Avalanche then won 6-2 and 3-2 in overtime at home and 5-1 in Calgary to end the series in just five contests.

The Nashville Predators managed to win a close battle to top the Central Division this year by edging out the Winnipeg Jets and St. Louis Blues. However, they dropped their series in six games to the Dallas Stars who were the first wildcard team in the West. Dallas edged Nashville 3-2  on the road in the first game with the Predators bouncing back for a 2-1 overtime victory in game two. Back in Dallas, Nashville won 3-2, but then lost the next three games by scores of 5-1 in Dallas, 5-3 in Nashville and 2-1 in overtime in game six in Dallas.

The Washington Capitals, who were the reigning Stanley Cup champions and winners of the Metropolitan division, went the full seven games against the Carolina Hurricanes who were the first wildcard team in the East. The first six games were all won by the home team as Washington won the first two games 4-2 and 4-3. Carolina were 5-0 and 2-1 victors in games three and four with Washington winning game five 6-0. They had a chance to win the series but Carolina bounced back with a 5-2 win to force game seven. The Capitals blew leads of 2-0 and 3-1 in the decider and were eventually beaten 4-3 in double overtime.

The St. Louis Blues finished the season in third place in the Central Division with the same points as the second-place Winnipeg Jets and therefore gave up home-ice advantage. There wasn’t much of an advantage in this series though as the first five games were all won by the visiting team. St. Louis then broke the trend by winning game six at home. The Blues won 2-1 and 4-3 in Winnipeg and then dropped a 6-3 and 2-1 decision in overtime at home. St. Louis won 3-2 in Winnipeg and at home in game six to take the series with all three of their wins and one of their losses being by just one goal.

The New York Islanders may have finished above the Pittsburgh Penguins by a few points in the Metropolitan Division, but considering the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017 their four-game sweep was generally considered and upset. The Islanders were making their first postseason in three years and won the first game at home 4-3 in overtime. They followed up with wins of 3-1, 4-1 and 3-1 to knock out Sidney Crosby and company in the minimum games needed and allowed just six goals against.

The other two series also went seven games and almost produced upsets, but the higher seeds ultimately prevailed. The Boston Bruins finished second in the Atlantic Division this year with the Toronto Maple Leafs coming third. They were meeting for the second consecutive season in the playoffs and for the third time since 2012/13. Like their last two clashes, this series also went the full seven games with Boston emerging victorious at home.

Boston lost home ice advantage in the very first game by losing 4-1 but then rebounded with their own 4-1 triumph in game two. The Leafs won 3-2 at home but gave home ice back to Boston by losing  game four 6-4 at home. The teams took turns winning though so Toronto retook home-ice advantage with a 2-1 win in the fifth game. They had two chances to eliminate Boston but couldn’t do it as they were downed 4-2 at home in game six and 5-1 in game seven with the Bruins scoring two empty-net goals.

The San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights finished in second and third place respectively in the Pacific Division and this series proved to be the most dramatic. The teams split the first two games in San Jose with the Sharks winning 5-2 and Vegas 5-3. Vegas then took a stranglehold on the series by winning 6-3 and 5-0 at home for a 3-1 series lead. The Sharks bounced back with a 5-2 home win and a  2-1 double overtime win in Vegas in game six via a shorthanded goal. The Golden Knights held a 3-0 lead in the third period of game seven when they received a controversial five-minute major penalty with just over 10 minutes to play.

The Sharks took advantage of the situation by scoring four power-play goals in the span of 241 seconds to take a 4-3 lead. However, Vegas fought back and forced overtime by scoring with 47 seconds remaining in the third period with their goaltender pulled for an extra attacker. The Sharks then won the game and series late in overtime to become just the second team in NHL history to erase a three-goal deficit in the third period of a game-seven playoff game and win it.

Ten games in the first round went to overtime while only seven contests needed an extra period last season. There are no Canadian-based teams left in the playoffs and three of the eight series went the full seven games. The Bruins, Islanders and Sharks are now the only top-10 teams from the regular-season remaining in the playoffs. The round two matchups will see the Boston take on Columbus and Carolina face the Islanders in the East. Over in the West we have Colorado facing San Jose and Dallas taking on St. Louis.

NHL playoffs not going to plan for some favourites

For some teams, the first round of the NHL playoffs isn’t likely to last very long at all. In fact, this appears to be the case for the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins as they both trail their respective series 3-0.

This is likely to come as a surprise to many since Tampa tied an NHL record with 62 wins this season and finished first in the Atlantic Division, the Eastern Conference and the entire league. Things got off to a pretty healthy start for the team in their series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, who made the playoffs as the second wildcard team in the East.

Tampa stormed out to a 3-0 lead in the first period of game one at home, but were then completely stunned to see the Blue Jackets score four straight goals, including three in a six minute span in the third period to win the game 4-3.

Columbus proved that was no fluke as they completely dominated the Lightning in game two to the tune of 5-1 to take over home ice advantage with their pair of road wins. The two teams then headed to Columbus, but Tampa’s luck didn’t change as they fell short 3-1 in game three. Tampa has managed to score just two goals in the last eight periods of hockey against Blue Jackets’ goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.

To make matters worse, Tampa forward Nikita Kucherov, who led the NHL in scoring this season with 128 points, was suspended for game three for a dirty hit on Markus Nutivaara. Also, goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy who led the league with 39 wins this year has struggled mightily in net. Tampa entered the series after beating Columbus in all three regular-season games this year as well as outscoring them 17-3 in the process.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are facing the same fate as Tampa after they dropped the first three contests against the upstart New York Islanders. The Islanders won game one 4-3 at home in overtime and followed up with a 3-1 win in their second home outing. They then took care of business in game three in Pittsburgh with a convincing 4-1 win.

The big story in the Islanders vs Penguins series has been the lack of production from Pittsburgh centre Sidney Crosby. The team captain was held pointless in the first three games and had a minus-4 rating. He was also charged with committing a total of eight giveaways.

Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh could possibly come back to win their series, but just four teams have ever managed to come back from a 3-0 hole. The combined NHL playoff record for teams losing the first three games of a playoff series is 4-186.

As far as the rest of the series go, there hasn’t really been too much in the way of surprises. The Toronto Maple Leafs managed to wrangle home ice advantage away from the Boston Bruins by winning game one 4-1 in Boston. The Bruins then returned the favour with a 4-1 win in game two. It was a rather nasty contests and Toronto forward Nazem Kadri was suspended for the rest of the series after his vicious crosscheck to Jake DeBrusk. Kadri could possibly miss five games and he was also suspended for three playoff games last season when the two teams met.

Reigning Stanley Cup champions the Washington Capitals won their two home games against the Carolina Hurricanes by scores of 4-2 and 4-3 in overtime.

In the West, the Conference champion Calgary Flames beat the Colorado Avalanche 4-0 in game one, but then lost home ice advantage by dropping game two 3-2 in overtime. The Nashville Predators also failed to keep their home ice advantage after falling 3-2 to the Dallas Stars in game one of their tilt and then rebounding to win game two 2-1 in overtime.

The San Jose Sharks were the third Western Conference team to give up their home ice edge as they beat the Vegas Golden Knights 5-2 at home in game one, but were 5-3 losers in the second game. They were then doubled 6-3 in Vegas in game three to fall behind 2-1 in the series. San Jose veteran centre Joe Thornton has been suspended for game four after an illegal hit on Tomas Nosek.

The Winnipeg Jets followed the lead of the rest of the Western squads by giving up home ice advantage to the St. Louis Blues. The Blues edged Winnipeg 2-1 and 4-3 on the road, but then let the Jets back in the series by losing game three 6-3.

NHL playoff marathon ready to launch

The NHL playoffs are ready to face off this Wednesday, April 10th as 16 teams will be fighting it out for the Stanley Cup. Let’s take a quick look at who’s playing who and each club’s chances of moving on to the second round.

Eastern Conference

Tampa Bay Lightning vs Columbus Blue Jackets

The Lightning locked up their playoff spot long ago as the top team in the NHL and Atlantic Division champions. Their 62 wins tied a league record and forward Nikita Kucherov won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer with 128 points. In addition, goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy led the league in wins with 39. Columbus made the playoffs on the last weekend of the season as the second wildcard team in the East. The club acquired pending free agent forwards Ryan Dzingel and Matt Duchene at the trade deadline and also hung onto their own pending free agent stars in forward Artemi Panarin and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who led the league with nine shutouts. Tampa Bay won all three games in the season series and should be able to take care of Columbus in the first round of the playoffs, but it won’t be a cakewalk.

Boston Bruins vs Toronto Maple Leafs

The Bruins finished second in the Atlantic Division while the Leafs weren’t far behind in third. The teams have met twice in the postseason in recent years with Toronto blowing a lead in the third period of game seven on both occasions. When the teams met last season the Bruins’ line of David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand combined for 30 points in the series as the Leafs simply couldn’t contain them. However, defenceman Jake Muzzin and  forward John Tavares have been added to Toronto’s lineup over the past year and that could make a difference. The Leafs have plenty of offence, but struggle defensively and that’s why Boston won the season series three games to one. The Leafs haven’t played well down the stretch and Boston is favoured to advance in a relatively long series.

Washington Capitals vs Carolina Hurricanes

The Capitals won the Metropolitan Division again this season and are of course the defending Stanley Cup champions. Sniper Alexander Ovechkin led the league in goals for a record-setting eighth time with 51 and the Hurricanes finally ended a nine-year postseason drought this year. Carolina was one of the hottest teams in the league during the second half of the season with a record of 31-12-2 and locked up the conference’s first wildcard spot. Carolina has a good mix of veterans and youth, but they failed to beat Washington in four tries during the regular season. The Stanley Cup champions should advance, but Carolina will keep the games and series close.

New York Islanders vs Pittsburgh Penguins

The Islanders placed second in the Metropolitan Division with the Penguins coming in third. Barry Trotz took over as head coach of the Islanders this season and turned the league’s worst defensive team in 2078/18 into one of the best this year. Goaltender’s Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss each had remarkable campaigns to make up for the team’s lack of offence. The Penguins big guns include Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby and it will be interesting to see if the Islanders can contain them. The Islanders went 2-1-1 against Pittsburgh in the season series and if they can score enough goals may pull off a mild upset here.

Western Conference

Calgary Flames vs Colorado Avalanche

The Flames won the Western Conference for the first time since 1988-89, when they won their only Stanley Cup. Bill Peters took over as head coach and was fortunate enough to have an offensively-loaded squad led by Johnny Gaudreau’s 99 points. Captain Mark Giordano leads the defence and chipped in with 74 points. The big question mark is the team’s goaltending which consists of Mike Smith and David Rittich. Colorado had injuries to deal with late in the season, but clinched the West’s second wildcard spot in the last week. The status of forward Mikko Rantanen is unclear, but Colorado’s chances fade if he can’t play. Colorado also has their fair share of scorers with Nathan MacKinnon tying Gaudreau at 99 points. Colorado didn’t beat Calgary in their three regular-season games and won’t be able to beat them four times to win this series.

San Jose Sharks vs Vegas Golden Knights

The Sharks and Golden Knights finished in second and third place respectively in the Pacific Division. The Sharks have two Norris Trophy-winning blue liners in Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson with Burns leading the league in assists and points for defencemen this season with 67 and 83. However, Karlsson only returned to the lineup from injury in the last game of the season. Vegas added veteran forwards Max Pacioretty, Mark Stone and Paul Stastny over the past year and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury posted eight shutouts. Vegas eliminated San Jose in last year’s playoffs on their way to the Stanley Cup Final and went 2-1-1 in the regular season this year. The Sharks’ goaltending was sub par this season and that may see them knocked out once again by Vegas.

Nashville Predators vs Dallas Stars

Nashville won the Central Division on the last day of the season while Dallas took the first wildcard spot in the West in the last week. Nashville has one of the best blue lines in the league with rearguards Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekhlom and Roman Josi while the offence is led by Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson. However, Dallas netminder Ben Bishop led the league in save percentage this year at 93.4. Dallas also has some offence in Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. Nashville went 3-2 against Dallas in the regular season with just one win coming in regulation time. This should be another close series with Nashville winning it.

Winnipeg Jets vs St. Louis Blues

Winnipeg finished second in the Central Division with the Blues right behind them. The Jets are led offensively by Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele, but Connor Hellebuyck has struggled slightly in net. The Blues have offence in Ryan O’Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko and rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington’s 1.89 goals-against average led the league while posting a record of 24-5-1 and a save percentage of 92.7. The Blues were last in the league on January 1st and then caught fire when Binnington was called up from the AHL. Winnipeg went 3-1 in the regular season against St. Louis with two wins coming in regulation time. The Jets have faltered lately while the Blues remained hot and St. Louis should win a tough series.

NHL enters final week of 2018/19 season

As the NHL enters the final week of the 2018/19 season there are still a few playoff spots open as teams try to punch their tickets to the postseason.

The Tampa Bay Lightning clinched the Atlantic Division a couple of weeks ago and also locked up the top spot in the Eastern Conference and the entire league. This means the President’s Trophy Winners will have the luxury of home ice advantage throughout the entire postseason.

The Boston Bruins have also clinched a playoff spot in the Atlantic Division and they can finish the season in either second or third place. The Toronto Maple Leafs are six points behind them with four games remaining on their schedule and could possibly take second place and home ice advantage in the first round. However, the Maple Leafs still haven’t clinched a postseason berth as of April 1st as they could be passed by the fourth-place team in the Atlantic, the Montreal Canadiens. Montreal sits five  points back of Toronto with three games to play.

In the Metropolitan Division, the first-place Washington Capitals and second-place New York Islanders have clinched playoff spots and are battling for the division title. The Capitals currently have a three-point lead over the Islanders with each club having three games to play. The Pittsburgh Penguins sit in third place, but have yet to clinch a playoff position. This is because the Columbus Blue Jackets are just three points behind them and the Carolina Hurricanes are four points back with each team having three contests remaining.

The Blue Jackets enter April as the first wild-card playoff team in the Eastern Conference with Carolina one point behind in the second wild-card spot. Montreal is one point behind Carolina and two back of Columbus with each team having three games to play. Two of the three teams will make the playoffs while the other will be eliminated.

In the Western Conference, the Calgary Flames have clinched the Pacific Division and the conference crown. It’s the first time they have won their division in 13 years. Calgary is guaranteed home ice advantage in all Western playoff games. The San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights have also sewn up playoff spots in the Pacific Division.

The Central Division is still up for grabs as the Winnipeg Jets enter the final week of the campaign tied with the Nashville Predators for top spot. However, the St. Louis Blues are just two points behind them. All three teams are guaranteed of playoff spots and have three games remaining to fight it out for the division title.

As far as the wild-card race goes in the West, the Dallas Stars own the first position while the Colorado Avalanche sit in the second spot, four points behind them. The Arizona Coyotes and Minnesota Wild are still alive in the race with Arizona just one points behind Colorado and four points behind Colorado. Dallas, Arizona and Minnesota each have three games remaining while Colorado has four. The Chicago Blackhawks and Edmonton Oilers are also mathematically alive as they could each catch Colorado for the second wild-card position if they win all four of their remaining games and Colorado fails to earn another point. Realistically though, the Western race is between Colorado, Arizona and Minnesota.

As for other late-season NHL news, 33-year-old Russian winger Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals reached the 50-goal mark again this season to become the third player in league history to do so at least eight times. Both Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy lead the way with nine 50-goal seasons.

Columbus Blue Jackets’ forward Cam Atkinson has tied Rick Nash at 41 goals for most goals in a season for the franchise. Atkinson now has three games remaining to break the record which was set in 2003/04. Forward Artemi Panarin of Columbus also set new franchise highs as he has 56 assists on the season along with 83 points. He set the club records lat year with 55 assists and 82 points.

Ovechkin tops the goal scoring parade with 51 and should win another Rocket Richard Trophy for leading the league in goals. Forward Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers has 47 on the year and centre John Tavares of the Toronto Maple Leafs has 45 and are the only players with a realistic chance of catching him.

Also, defenceman Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks recently scored his 14th regular-season overtime goal to break the old NHL record for defenceman which was set by Scott Niedermeyer.