No asterisk needed beside Tampa’s Stanley Cup victory

Although some fans and hockey experts once suggested it, there doesn’t need to be an asterisk beside Tampa Bay’s Stanley Cup triumph over the Dallas Stars in this Covid-19 delayed NHL season. After being swept in four games in the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets a year earlier, Tampa took out the Dallas Stars in six games in this season’s Final, with a decisive 2-0 win on Sept. 28th.

Of course, this season was like no other as the Covid-19 pandemic halted the season in mid-March and it resumed about three-and-a-half-months later. All of the playoff-qualifying and postseason contests were then held in “bubbles” in Toronto and Edmonton with no fans in attendance. This didn’t affect the level of hockey played however as television viewers were treated to a hard-hitting, competitive and exciting postseason, just like usual.

For the Lightning, it was the franchise’s second Stanley Cup conquest with the first coming in 2003-04. They avenged last season’s loss against Columbus and ousted them by beating them if five games with four victories coming by a single goal. This included a 3-2 decision in an epic five-overtime game on Aug. 11 which ended at 10:27 and is currently the fourth-longest game in the history of the NHL.

Tampa then took care of the Boston Bruins as they eliminated this season’s Presidents’ Trophy winners in five outings to reach the Conference Final. Once there, they handled the New York Islanders in six contests before going on to defeat Dallas. Tampa managed to rebound from their playoff losses by going 6-0 this season following a defeat and they also went 6-2 in overtime and 11-3 in one-goal encounters.

Also, captain Steven Stamkos played just 2:47 of the entire playoffs when he scored on the second shift of his comeback in their game three victory against Dallas. He then returned to the infirmary and sat out the rest of the postseason due to injury. With Stamkos in the stands, the team’s top line consisted of Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov.

The high-scoring trio lived up to expectations as  Kucherov led the league in playoff assists with 27 and points with 34. Point was tops in goals with 14 to set a new club record while adding 19 assists and Palat chipped in with 11 goals and seven helpers. In addition, defenceman Victor Hedman, who was named the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs, contributed 10 goals and 12 assists for 22 points and logged an enormous amount of ice time.

Hedman’s 10 goals in a postseason ranks third in NHL history and came after he tallied 11 in 68 outings in the regular season. The only blue liners to notch more goals in a playoff run were Hall of Famer’s Paul Coffey with 12 in 1984/85 and Brian Leetch with 11 in 1993/94. Hedman is the second Tampa player to take the Conn Smythe Trophy home as forward Brad Richards won it in 2003/04.

Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy more than pulled his weight as well as he started every one of the team’s 25 postseason games and won 18 of them. He posted a 1.90 goals-against average with a 92.7 save percentage and one shutout, which came in the Cup-winning contest.

The win was obviously sweet for the entire Tampa Bay Lightning franchise, their families, friends and fans but it was something special for forward Pat Maroon. He won the Stanley Cup last season with his hometown St. Louis Blues and then rolled the dice by signing as a free agent with the Lightning shortly after. Nobody is questioning Maroon’s decision now after winning his second-straight league championship.

Leon Draisaitl adds Hart and Ted Lindsay Awards to this year’s haul

The NHL handed out the rest of its annual awards on Sept. 21St, prior to the second game of the Stanley Cup Final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars. The big winner was centre Leon Draisaitl of the the Edmonton Oilers as he took home both the Hart Memorial Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award.

The Hart Trophy goes to the player deemed the most valuable to his team as voted by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association (PHWA) while the Ted Lindsay Award is basically awarded to the best player in the league as voted on by his peers in the NHL Players’ Association. The 24-year-old also won the Art Ross Trophy earlier as the league’s leading scorer this season with 110 points. He had the fourth-most goals in the league with 43 and led the NHL in assists with 67.

The other Hart and Lindsay finalists were forwards Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche and Artemi Panarin of the New York Rangers. MacKinnon was the fifth-highest scorer in the league this season with 35 goals and 58 assists for 93 points while Panarin was tied with Pastrnak for third overall with 32 goals and 63 assists for 95 points. MacKinnon finished second in the Hart and Lindsay voting followed by Panarin.

Draisaitl becomes the fourth Oiler to win each of the awards  after Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Connor McDavid. Draisaitl also led the league in points-per-game at 1.55 and 44 power-play points. He co-shared the lead for 10 game-winning goals with David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins and placed second for his 66 even-strength points and 16 power-play goals.

Defenceman Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche was honoured with the Calder Trophy as the rookie of the year to become the sixth franchise player to win it. The others were Peter Stastny and Peter Forsberg of the Quebec Nordiques as well as Chris Drury, Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon with the Avalanche.

The 21-year-old Makar led all rookie blue liners in goals with 12 and power-play markers with four. His 38 assists and 50 points were good enough for second place. He tallied 19 power-play points, four game-winning goals, finished with a plus-12 rating and played an average of 21:01 of ice time each contest.

The voting was done by the PHWA with Vancouver Canucks’ rearguard Quinn Hughes placing second and Chicago Blackhawks’ forward Dominik Kubalik coming third. The 20-year-old Hughes led rookies with 45 assists, 53 points and 25 power-play points while the 25-year-old Kubalik led first-year players with 30 goals, 38 even-strength points and 26 even-strength goals.

The Norris Trophy winner as the best defenceman was awarded to captain Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators, making him the first player from the franchise to win it. Josi posted a career-best 16 goals, 49 assists and 65 points and ranked second in the NHL in each of those offensive categories. He also set club records for his assists and point total.

John Carlson of the Washington Capitals finished second in voting with Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning coming third. Carlson led all blue liners with a career-best 60 assists and 75 points as well as six-game-winners  while tallying 15 goals. Hedman notched 11 goals and 44 helpers for 55 points. This was also voted on by the PHWA.

The Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender went to Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets. He led the league with six shutouts and tied for games played at 58. He placed second in wins with 31, seventh in save percentage at 92.2, posted a goals-against average of 2.57 with a 31-21-5 record and faced the most shots in the NHL at 1,796 and made the most saves with 1,656. He’s now the first player in franchise history to win the award after placing second in voting in 2017-18.

Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins finished second on the ballots and Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning placed third with the votes coming from the league’s 31 general managers. Rask went
26-8-6 this season and led the league with a (2.12 goals-against average and was second with a 92.9 save percentage and five shutouts. He won the Jennings Trophy earlier this season for allowing the fewest goals against. Last year’s Vezina winner, Vasilevskiy, led the league with 35 wins and posted a mark of 35-14-3 with a 2.56 goals-against average, three shutouts and 91.7 save percentage.

NHL begins handing out individual awards

With the 2019/20 NHL season being paused back in March due to Covid-19, the league’s annual awards show on the Las Vegas strip didn’t take place in June as it usually does. However, the top players haven’t been forgotten as the league began handing out its famous pieces of silverware in September.

Several winners were already known as soon as the league officially halted the campaign. The Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard trophy for leading the league in goals during the regular season was shared by Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals and David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins as they scored 48 times apiece.

Forward Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers took home the Art Ross Trophy for leading the league in scoring with 110 points while Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak of the Boston Bruins won the William M. Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals against during the regular season.

The King Clancy Memorial Trophy is given to the player who exemplifies leadership on and off the ice as well as making a humanitarian contribution to the community. This award is decided on by a committee of senior league executives including deputy commissioner Bill Daly and commissioner Gary Bettman. Matt Dumba of the Minnesota Wild was this season’s winner with the other finalists being Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers and P.K. Subban of the New Jersey Devils.

The finalists for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy were Stephen Johns of the Dallas Stars, Oskar Lindblom of the Philadelphia Flyers and Bobby Ryan of the Ottawa Senators with Ryan getting the nod. The trophy goes to the player who exemplifies sportsmanship, perseverance and dedication to the sport of hockey and is voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association. Ryan left his team in November of 2019 to enter the league’s player assistance program help battle alcohol abuse and returned to the Senators in late February.

The Jack Adams Award for the best coach during the regular season is voted on by the NHL’s Broadcasters’ Association with this year’s finalists being Bruce Cassidy of the Boston Bruins, John Tortorella of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Alain Vigneault of the Philadelphia Flyers. Cassidy was named the winner with 37 first-place votes and being named on 82 of the 132 ballots. He helped the team win the Presidents’ Trophy this season as the top team during the regular season with 100 points from a record of 44-14-12 and a .714 points percentage.

The Bruins had a goal differential of 53, were ranked second on the power play at 25.2 percent and third in penalty-killing at 84.3 per cent. The team also allowed the fewest goals against at 174 in 70 games. Cassidy becomes the fourth Bruins’ coach to win the award after being named a finalist two times in the past three seasons. Other Boston coaches to take home the trophy have been Pat Burns, Claude Julien and Don Cherry. Vigneault raked in 32 first-place votes in the balloting this year while Tortorella received 28.

Sean Couturier of the Philadelphia Flyers won the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward in the league with the other finalists being Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins and Ryan O’Reilly of the St. Louis Blues. The centre posted 22 goals and 37 assists for 59 points in 69 contests and won a league-high 59.6 per cent of his faceoffs. He was also the only player to win at least 58 per cent of his draws in each of the offensive, defensive and neutral zones. The voting was done by the Professional Hockey Writer’s Association with Couturier being named on 163 of the 170 voting slips with 117 of them being first-place ballots.

The Lady Byng Memorial Trophy for combining gentlemanly conduct, a high level of play and sportsmanship was also voted on by the Writers’ Association and was contested by Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche, Ryan O’Reilly of the St. Louis Blues and Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The award went to MacKinnon, who led Colorado in scoring with 35 goals and 58 assists for 93 points in 69 games while receiving just 12 minutes in penalties.

Meanwhile, the Jim Gregory General Manager of the Year Award is voted on  by a panel of media members, general managers and NHL executives. This year’s finalists were Jim Nill of the Dallas Stars, Julien BriseBois of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Lou Lamoriello of the New York Islanders with Lamoriello being named the winner. In addition, Calgary Flames’ defenceman and team captain Mark Giordano was named the winner of the Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award for exemplifying excellent leadership qualities on and off the ice.

The NHL also announced that the winners of the Calder Memorial Trophy, Hart Memorial Trophy,
James Norris Memorial Trophy, the Ted Lindsay Award, and the Vezina Trophy will all be revealed during the Stanley Cup Final series.

NHL playoffs down to final four

The NHL’s final four teams will all be based out of Edmonton, Alberta from now until the end of the Stanley Cup playoffs after the quarterfinals were all completed on Labour Day weekend. The New York Islanders shut out the Philadelphia Flyers 4-0 in game seven of their series on Saturday night after the Dallas Stars edged the Colorado Avalanche 5-4 in overtime and the Vegas Golden Knights blanked the Vancouver Canucks 3-0 in their respective game sevens on Friday.

The Tampa Bay Lightning had already taken care of the Boston Bruins in five games earlier in the week. The Eastern Conference clubs, which played the qualifying series and first two rounds of the postseason in Toronto since July 27th, now head west to compete at Rogers Place in Edmonton. The Western Conference Final features Vegas vs Dallas while the Eastern Final pits Tampa against the Islanders.

When it comes to the starting goalies, it appears Robin Lehner will get the nod over Marc-Andre Fleury for Vegas while Anton Khudobin will start for Dallas. Khudobin has taken over in net for the Stars as Ben Bishop has been Ben Bishop listed as unfit to play for the team in 10 of the last 11 games. Bishop started the fifth game of the series against Colorado but  was pulled after conceding four goals on 19 shots before 14 minutes had elapsed in the contest. Bishop was then listed as unfit to play for the final two encounters of the series.

So far, Khudobin has compiled an 8-5 record in the playoffs with a 90.9 save percentage and a goals-against average of 2.94. It’s still unknown if Bishop will be healthy enough to play against Vegas but if he is, fans may see head coach Rick Bowness start him again since he’s still considered to be the team’s number one netminder.

One of the hottest players entering the semi-finals is blue liner Miro Heiskanen of Dallas as he’s riding an eight-game scoring streak of two goals and 10 assists to set a franchise playoff record for a defenceman. Heiskanen has racked up five goals and 16 helpers for 21 points in 16 postseason outings so far. Just seven rearguards have managed to reach 20 points in fewer playoff contests in NHL history with these being Paul Coffey, Bobby Orr, Brian Leetch, Ray Bourque, Al MacInnis,Denis Potvin and Larry Robinson. All seven are in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

In Vegas, Lehner has taken over as the top goalie from Fleury but Fleury has played a few games in the playoffs this season. Lehner’s record so far stands at 8-4 with a 91.8 save percentage with a 1.99 goals -against average and three shutouts while Fleury has gone 3-0 with an 89.3 save percentage to accompany his 2.67 goals-against average.

Both Dallas and Vegas replaced their head coaches during the season with Rick Bowness taking over the Stars on Dec. 10th when Jim Montgomery was let go and Peter DeBoer getting the job in Vegas on Jan. 15th to take over from the fired Gerard Gallant. Bowness coached in a conference final 28 years ago when he was behind the bench with Boston while this is DeBoer’s third conference final after guiding the New Jersey Devils to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012 and the San Jose Sharks in 2016 with both teams losing in six outings.

In the East, Tampa’s win over Boston came early enough to give the team an extra five days of rest. This could turn out to be beneficial or it may be too long of a layoff. However, in Tampa’s case the rest may have done more good than harm since the club played a total of nine overtime periods in the first two series for a total of 134:29 extra minutes. They technically eliminated the Bruins and Columbus Blue Jackets in 10 games but in reality played the equivalent of 12 games.

On the injury front, Tampa winger Nikita Kucherov should be ready to play after being injured in the fifth game against Boston and center Steven Stamkos may make his first appearance of the playoffs against the Islanders.

For the Islanders, this is the first time since 1993 they have reached a conference final and they haven’t been to the Stanley Cup Final since 1984. The team has used both Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov in net this postseason with Greiss starting just twice and posting a shutout. Varlamov has started the other 14 encounters with a 9-4 record, a 92.1 save percentage, a 2.00 goals-against average and two shutouts.

Nathan MacKinnon proving his worth in NHL playoffs

Sitting on top of the NHL’s playoff scoring parade on the last day of August was centre Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche with seven goals and 14 assists for 21 points in 12 games. What made the numbers even more impressive was the fact MacKinnon’s consistency has shone through as he had recorded at least one point in all 12 games.

He’s also set and tied some Avalanche club records along the way in the postseason such as three points in a period, four points in a series-winning game and most consecutive games with a point from the start of a playoff season. The 24-year-old has now appeared in 37 career NHL games and has produced 18 goals and 32 assists for 50 points with a plus-22 rating and five game-winners. His 12-game point streak to start this postseason eclipsed the old team mark of 10 set by Joe Sakic in 1995/96.

He’s been producing in the postseason all through his career though as MacKinnon racked up 61 points in 34 games as a junior with the Halifax Mooseheads in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and added seven goals and 13 points in four Memorial Cup contests. This isn’t to say he doesn’t chip in during the regular season because he certainly does.

In 525 career games he stands at 190 goals and 305 assists for 495 points. He also has a plus-39 rating, 56 power-play markers and 39 game-winners. In the last three seasons, MacKinnon’s points totals were 97, 99 and 93 for 289 in 225 outings. His 99 points this season resulted in being named as a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the player deemed most valuable to his team.

The Avalanche chose MacKinnon first overall in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft and was named the league’s rookie of the year for 2013/14 when he notched 29 goals and 63 points in 82 games with a plus-20 rating. He was the youngest player ever in franchise history to step on the ice in an NHL contest and earned a pair of assists in his debut.

And since he hails from Springhill, Nova Scotia, which is close to Cole Harbour where Sidney Crosby was born there has always been comparisons with the Pittsburgh Penguins’ star. With MacKinnon growing up and playing minor hockey in the Cole Harbour community he’s a friend of Crosby’s and also lists him as his mentor.

MacKinnon is used to winning, be it the QMJHL title, Memorial Cup, or World Championships, but for all of his heroics, the Avalanche are unlikely to get past the Dallas Stars in the second round of this year’s playoffs as they trailed 3-1 in the best-of-seven series. MacKinnon has certainly been doing his job, but the team’s secondary scoring has dried up since downing the Arizona Coyotes in five games in the first round.

On the bright side, if the Avalanche is eliminated this round MacKinnon has an interesting hobby to fall back on during his down time as he’s been dabbling in acting. He’s appeared several times in the past on the Canadian comedy shows “Mr. D” and “Trailer Park Boys” and has filmed a series of commercials with his buddy Crosby for Tim Hortons restaurants.

But if MacKinnon’s teammates can lift their game to his level, they’ll be able to come back against Dallas and continue their 2019/20 postseason journey.