(Twitter // NhatVMeyer)
Round One of the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs was more bizarre and entertaining than anyone could’ve imagined. This has a lot to do with the fact that no right-minded and sane member of society even dreamt that all four division leaders would've been kicked to the curb already.
Hence the whole ‘Second Chance Bracket’ thing the NHL is doing. Not a big fan of that to be honest. Just like the real world, you should be forced to live with the mistakes you’ve made. What’s done is done.
Anyways, if you are a little kerfuffled with how the first round shaped up, you’re not alone. But now that the chaos has come to a close, it's now time to see what exactly has revealed itself in all of the mayhem.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Islanders (NYI won in 4 games)
- Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock may not be a defensive duo that has ‘shutdown pairing’ written all over it, but they proved to be just that in Round One. These two were Barry Trotz’s go-to against the Sidney Crosby-Jake Guentzel-Jared McCann grouping, and they were otherworldly. The trio combined for just one goal and three points across the four-game series against the defensemen. This was Crosby’s worst showing in a series since the 2013 Conference Finals where the Boston Bruins held the phenom to 0 points en route to a four-game sweep. To be fair, Pittsburgh only scored two goals against the Bruins.
- Robin Lehner proved that he was more than just a regular season sensation, turning aside 130 of 136 shot attempts against the Penguins. His story about his battles with addiction are well documented and make his successes even more impressive. If he can continue playing at this high level, then there’s reason to believe the New York Islanders can out-goaltend any team that comes in their way.
- I’m not willing to let this series signal the end of the Pittsburgh Penguins dynasty. Mainly due to the fact that the widely criticized defence wasn’t the issue. The Penguins' rearguard’s only allowed more shot attempts in one game of the entire series (Game 2). The club surrendered 11 goals in four matches, which isn’t anything egregious, but the team’s offence notched just three goals in the final three games of the series. With names like Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jake Guentzel all likely returning, I doubt the production will be that poor again. The Penguins are not going to vanish to playoff irrelevance like the Chicago Blackhawks have, at least, not anytime soon.
Carolina Hurricanes vs. Washington Capitals (CAR won in 7 Games)
1. The Washington Capitals title defence has officially come to an end. And it didn't look like they had a whole lot left in the tank by the time Game 7's OT rolled around, did it? Of course, the loss of Michal Kempny on the backend didn't make matters better, but Washington simply looked out of gas by the end of it all.
2. Rod Brind'Amour is quickly becoming one of my favourite coaches in the NHL. For starters, the guy is brutally honest – for better or for worse – at all times. Secondly, you have to admire the fact that he was able to lead a group of talented youngsters and get them to believe that they could knock off the reigning Stanley Cup champs. A task that seemed rather unlikely when the team was down 2-0.
3. I'm going to marvel once again at Mr. Game 7, Mr. Clutch, or whatever you want to call Justin Williams. He's like John McLane in Die Hard. Every time his back is against the wall, he comes through. After his game-winning assist in Game 7, he now has seven goals and eights assists in the nine Game 7's he has been in. I don't want to say the man has ice in his veins, because that would be a massive understatement.
Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (CBJ won in 4 games)
- It’s hard to think rationally when the GREATEST TEAM IN RECENT NHL MEMORY FLOPS IN THE PLAYOFFS, but lets at least try. First off, let's be real: The Tampa Bay Lightning are not, and should not blow this team up. However, the roster will be shaken up just a little bit given the impending changes to their cap situation. Nikita Kucherov, Ryan McDonagh, and Yanni Gourde all have seizable contract upticks setting in for next year, and we haven’t even talked about Brayden Point in need of a new contract coming off of his entry-level deal. Additionally, the club has four defensemen in need of a new contract, including Anton Stralman, Brayden Coburn, and Dan Girardi. So while there will be some retooling happening in Tampa Bay, I do not expect the Lightning to throw caution to the wind and trade away one of their key players.
- When it comes to keying in and matching forward lines, John Tortorella and the Columbus Blue Jackets will not do it, at least, not as religiously as we have seen across the league. In the series between the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Patrice Bergeron line faced off against the John Tavares line 70% of the time in five of the seven games. In this series, Columbus never put the same forward line on more than 50% of the time against the Kucherov-Steven Stamkos duo. This would explain why no forward for the Blue Jackets played more than 19 minutes per game, and why their least played forward, Ryan Dzingel still managed to play a tick under 12 minutes a night. They will likely switch between the Alexandre Texier-Nick Foligno-Josh Anderson line along with the Riley Nash-Boone Jenner-Brandon Dubinsky grouping in an attempt to shut down opposing team’s top line.
- This third point may be the most important point. I really can’t stress this point enough, but Seth Jones is a bonafide star in the National Hockey League. He plays every situation: Penalty kill, power play, and 5v5 against the other team’s top line, and he plays all of those situations exceedingly well. All things considered, outside of Alex Pietrangelo and Brent Burns I would say he is the best defenseman remaining in the Stanley Cup Playoffs right now.
Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Boston Bruins (BOS won in 7 games)
- Depth scoring ended up being the deciding factor in this series’ Game 7. While neither team’s bottom-six was overly impressive through six games, Boston received key goals from their third and fourth line in Game 7. Pairing that with Tuukka Rask’s impressive outing is what led Boston to victory. Naturally, each team had good reasons as to why their bottom-six didn’t perform well. The Maple Leafs had Nazem Kadri suspended for Games 3 to 7 while Boston was without Marcus Johansson for Games 2 and 3 as he battled an illness, and without Sean Kuraly for Games 1 to 5 as he dealt with a fractured hand.
- Although there was much made about the Toronto Maple Leafs’ lack of toughness and grit, that never really played a factor in this series. The playoff matchup between these two teams didn’t feature a single fight and saw minimal pushing and shoving occur after whistles. The Bruins’ toughness was a point that was highly overstated. An injured Kevan Miller took away some team toughness, sure, but when players like David Backers and Miller are out, it is not lineup gifted with players that play a heavy brand of hockey. Toronto did not have to worry about matching Boston’s physicality, as it never really materialized outside of Game 2.
- The Bruins’ power play proved to be otherworldly, and a major difference maker against the Maple Leafs. Clicking at 43.8%, the Bruins capitalized on seven of their 16 chances on the man advantage. In situations like Game 6, it proved to be a major difference maker. During the first elimination game of the series, Boston went two-for-two when up a man, leading them to a 4-2 victory, pushing the series to Game 7. Seeing mixed results at 5v5, the trio of Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-David Pastrnak was able to receive more success on the PP. Toronto’s inability to adapt to the Bruins’ powerplay was one of the major factors that prevented the club from putting the series out of reach when they had opportunities.
St. Louis Blues vs. Winnipeg Jets (STL won in 6 games)
- Let’s not get it twisted: Alex Pietrangelo is the best defenseman on the St. Louis Blues, but he and defensive partner Carl Gunnarsson were not given the assignment of going up against Mark Scheifele’s line in Round One. That task was given to the pairing of Jay Bouwmeester and Colton Parayko who did a fairly good job slowing down the trio of Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, and Kyle Connor. The three combined for just 10 points at even strength over the course of the six games. Bouwmeester and Parayko weren’t sensational, but they did hold their own against Winnipeg’s top unit.
- Nikolaj Ehlers has to be better for the Jets in the postseason. But before I get into that, you’ve got to respect him for his shot block at the end of Game 5, and playing through a leg fracture in Game 6. However, given his cap hit of $6M per season, he is not being paid that sum to block shots and generate chances. He has to finish at the rate they are paying him at. The Jets forward has now gone two-straight postseasons without scoring a goal (21 games in total). Additionally, the Danish hockey star didn’t even record a single point through the series. That kind of production from a forward who is likely to be the fourth highest paid offensive weapon on this team next season is simply not good enough.
- Over the course of the series, Jordan Binnington earned a .908 save percentage, a number not likely to blow anybody away. However, looking at it from a game-to-game basis, the Cinderella story netminder proved to be more impressive than the final number. After his worst performance since being called up to the NHL – a six-goals allowed loss in Game 3 – he fired back with a pair of stellar outings in Games 4 and 5. For a young goalie to have the worst game of his career occur at a pivotal time, there some questioning if Winnipeg had finally broken through. Binnington responded with two of his best games of the series, en route to doing enough in Game 6 to get the series win. The Blues are riding a hot goalie into Round Two.
Dallas Stars vs. Nashville Predators (DAL won in 6 Games)
- Jamie Benn was made for playoff hockey, but the Nashville Predators did not help themselves when it came to containing this line. The line which features Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alexander Radulov was fairly quiet in Games 1 and 2. Preds coach Peter Laviolette's initial strategy was to play the pairing of Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis against that line, and that move paid off. The three only tallied four points combined in the first two games. Then for Games 3, 4 and 5, Laviolette did not get that pairing out nearly as much against that line, and it was actually Mattias Ekholm and P.K. Subban who drew Dallas' top line most frequently. The results were not as good as they were earlier in the series. as the trio combined for 12 points over that three-game stretch in the middle of the series. Then, for Game 6, the Stars' best line went back to seeing a much heavier dosage of Josi and Ellis, which only surrendered two points to Benn, Seguin, and Radulov in that game. Why Laviolette went away from shadowing that line, especially for Game 5 at home where he controls the matchup? I don't know, but I do not think it was a wise move.
- We may have severely over-estimated how good Nashville's offence was. Many forwards carried rather forgettable regular seasons into the playoffs, and it showed. Rocco Grimaldi finished as the only offensive player on the team to record more than two points. That's frightening, and essentially all you need to know about their scoring woes.
- I can pretty confidently say Ben Bishop is the best goalie remaining in the Western Conference, so I'm going to go ahead and say he is the best goalie remaining in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The towering goaltender finished March with a SV% of .969 and earned a shutout in his lone regular-season start in April. Bishop played stellarly in four games of this series, proving that if need be, he can steal the Stars a series.
Colorado Avalanche vs. Calgary Flames (COL won in 5 games)
- Let's give Nathan MacKinnon a round of applause, shall we? This guy was a series destroyer in Round One of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In Game 2, after the Avs dramatically knotted the score up late in the third, the Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia product broke through with the winner in OT. In Game 3, he tallied two goals and three points in the first period. He was unstoppable. Playing with Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog, that skilled line proved to be too much for Calgary's top pairing of Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie.
- Even with how surprising Round One was, the greatest surprise of it all may have been the emergence of playoff Mike Smith, not to be confused with regular season Mike Smith. The veteran netminder posted a .917 save percentage in the series against the Avs after producing a concerning .896 mark through during his 2018-19 campaign. The funny thing about this is if anyone knew Smith was going to put up those kinds of numbers in the postseason, it would've been hard seeing how the Flames could lose. But unfortunately for them, they could not capitalize on their top-notch goaltending.
- The injury to Samuel Girard in Game 2 was a bit of a bump in the road for Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar, who had used the defenseman in the first two games to shut down Johnny Gaudreau's line which features Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett. However, his fill in to play alongside Erik Johnson, off-season acquisition Ian Cole, proved to be just as effective. This pairing saw most of the ice time against the Flames' top line, which combined for a measly eight points across five games. Girard is trending towards playing in Round Two, but it may be wise for coach Bednar to leave the Cole-Johnson pairing intact.
Vegas Golden Knights vs. San Jose Sharks (SJS won in 7 games)
- I didn't know it was possible for a goalie to make up for a bad series in just one game, but Martin Jones helped me realize that this was possible. After a shaky Game 2, 3, and 4, the Sharks' netminder had a solid Game 5, but it was his performance in Game 6 that rectified any previous wrongdoing. The once series scapegoat turned into the hero, stopping 58 of 59 shots en route to a 2-1 OT win, pushing the series to an unforgettable Game 7 that the Sharks won, once again in extra time.
- So about Game 7… I think it is pretty safe to say we will be talking about it forever. The scene of Joe Pavelski on the ice after the collision was brutal to see, but I think we can all agree that Cody Eakin didn't deserve to be assessed five and a game for the play. Also though, the Golden Knights' penalty kill could've stepped up, and oh, I don't know, not allowed four goals? This shocker is right up there with playoff Mike Smith. Totally didn't see it coming.
- Erik Karlsson is visibly not 100%, but Erik Karlsson is also leading all defensemen in points through Round One. That should tell you everything you need to know about how good this guy is. He has yet to record a goal, but the talented rearguard has nine assists to his name. Not bad. You can tell by his play in the defensive zone that the groin injury he has been battling is still not fully healed, but Karlsson has still been able to make an impact in the points department.
Now that Round One is officially through, are things going to start making sense in the NHL? Probably not. This is the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and anything goes.