The Stanley Cup Playoffs are a little more than a week old. And it didn’t take long for the Nashville Predators to shock the world.
Entering the playoffs as the last wild card seed in the Western Conference, the Predators did what nobody thought they’d do: knock off the Western Conference’s top seed, the Chicago Blackhawks. Even more stunning was the fact the Predators took down the Hawks in four straight games. However, the Preds weren’t the only team to advance in the playoffs. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Anaheim Ducks also punched their tickets to the second round, while a few others are on the brink.
We’ll take a look at the first week of the playoffs. We’ll also look at nominees for a few NHL awards (including a certain Lightning defenseman), expansion draft news, and how the Buffalo Sabres cleaned house on this week’s edition of Around The NHL.
The Predators didn’t just pull of the upset: they manhandled Chicago
There might have been a small handful of people who thought Nashville would upset the Blackhawks. Even fewer probably thought Nashville would pull off a sweep. Not only did the Preds sweep Chicago, they took them to the woodshed, outscoring them 13-3 in the process.
The series marked a couple of firsts for both Nashville and the NHL. The Predators swept a playoff series for the first time ever. Since the NHL adopted its current playoff format in 1994 (tweaked in 2013), a top seed in a conference had never been swept. Until Thursday night, that is. This series also marked the first time the Blackhawks were on the business end of a broom in a series since the opening round in 1993.
Throughout this series, Nashville simply wanted it more. They played fast, they played hungry, and they played with a sense of purpose, winning puck battles, generating chances, and keeping Chicago back on their heels. Goaltender Pekka Rinne was outstanding when called upon. The Predators’ defensive corps, led by P.K. Subban and Roman Josi, showed why it’s one of the best units in the league. Their top line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson, known as the JOFA Line, couldn’t be contained.
Even Rinne had a pair of assists. His two points were more than anyone else on Chicago’s roster with the exceptions of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. They also finished the series with two points each. Nashville awaits the winner of the Minnesota-St. Louis series in the second round.
Anaheim sweeps Calgary, awaits either the Oilers or Sharks
Entering the playoffs, the Calgary Flames knew they were going to need quality goaltending, some bounces to go their way, and to end their mind-boggling losing streak in Anaheim.
None of those things happened. As a result, the Flames’ offseason arrived much earlier than they would have liked. Meanwhile, the Anaheim Ducks will take on the winner of Edmonton-San Jose in the second round after they swept Calgary with a 3-1 win in Game 4 at the Scotiabank Saddledome. Anaheim prevailed thanks to a pair of 3-2 wins on home ice, followed by their rally from a 4-1 deficit to take Game 3 5-4 in overtime. Anaheim had an answer for everything Calgary threw at them. When the Ducks took leads and Calgary rallied, Anaheim came up with clutch plays when they needed them.
Even though two of the game-winning goals came on fortuitous bounces for the Ducks, it was clear who the better team was in this series, as they also got timely saves from goalies John Gibson and Jonathan Bernier. Although the Flames’ Brian Elliott was one of the hottest goalies in the league down the stretch, his poor performance in net for Calgary in this series couldn’t have come at a worse time. He’s due to be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and it’s not hard to imagine the Flames making a big push for pending UFA Ben Bishop or Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
Penguins withstand physical onslaught to eliminate Columbus
This series was thought by many to be one to go the distance. It was also the poster child for critics of the current playoff format. Many folks thought a match-up between two of the top four teams in the league was too good for the opening round.
Turns out we were wrong.
The Columbus Blue Jackets handed out hit after hit after hit on the speedy Pittsburgh Penguins in an effort to slow them down. It didn’t work, as the Pens continued to find ways to fill the net in closing out the Jackets in five games after a 5-2 win in Game 5. The series was a little closer than the final game count would indicate, as wild momentum swings were the norm between these two teams.
The difference turned out to be Pittsburgh’s star power up front, their championship experience, and the goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury was expected to be a spectator during the postseason, but Matt Murray left pregame warm-ups in Game 1 with a lower body injury and hasn’t returned. However, the injury thrust Fleury back into the starting gig, and he delivered, helping the Penguins withstand early surges from the Blue Jackets in multiple games, allowing his team to get their feet under them.
It doesn’t hurt that Pittsburgh’s stars delivered. Evgeni Malkin had 11 points against Columbus, Phil Kessel had eight, and Sidney Crosby finished with seven. Heading into Friday’s games, they’re the top three scorers in the league in the playoffs. We always hear about depth in the playoffs, which you need. However, star players have to deliver. Pittsburgh’s delivered, and as a result, they get some extra rest before playing either Washington or Toronto next.
The Buffalo Sabres clean house, fire Bylsma and Murray
When Terry Pegula purchased the Buffalo Sabres in 2011, he vowed to turn them into a Stanley Cup contender. Unfortunately for him, that hasn’t happened. The Sabres entered into a lengthy rebuild that was supposed to show significant progress this season. Injuries played a part in derailing Buffalo’s season, but the team simply didn’t make the progress that teams like Edmonton and Toronto have made in their rebuilding jobs.
As a result, Pegula handed head coach Dan Bylsma and general manager Tim Murray their walking papers. Buffalo’s next head coach will be their fifth since Pegula’s ownership began. The Sabres hired Bylsma in May 2015 after Mike Babcock shot them down. Babcock chose to sign with Toronto instead. Former team president Pat LaFontaine hired Murray in January 2014. Murray was a long-time scout, but never a GM until taking this gig. Although Murray drafted franchise center Jack Eichel, traded for Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane, and signed Kyle Okposo during his tenure, the team never got over the hump. They finished 33-37-12 this season, dead last in a weak Atlantic Division.
Even worse, rumors ran rampant the players and Bylsma didn’t see eye to eye. There was even a report that Eichel would not sign an extension if Bylsma remained the coach. Eichel’s agent, Peter Fish, shot the rumors down, calling them “ridiculous”:
“I don’t know where anyone is getting these reports, but they are ridiculous in a word,” Peter Fish said by phone Wednesday. “Jack, he left Buffalo, he thought he had a real good meeting with coach Bylsma and a real good meeting with General Manager Tim Murray. When he got home to Boston, he was genuinely excited with the thoughts that maybe they’re just a few players away from getting into the playoffs.”
Talk has centered around former Kings GM Dean Lombardi being the leading candidate to take over Murray’s position. Other candidates could include Lightning assistant GM Julien BriseBois or Penguins associate GM Jason Botterill.
T-Mobile Arena to host both NHL Awards Show and Expansion Draft
Since 2009, the NHL Awards Show ceremony has been held in Las Vegas at multiple different venues, including the Palms Hotel, Encore at Wynn Las Vegas, MGM Grand, and The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. On June 21, T-Mobile Arena hosts both the awards show and the expansion draft at 8 pm on NBCSN. The expansion Vegas Golden Knights unveil their first roster in the arena they’ll call home.
All teams must submit their list of protected players for expansion draft by 5 pm EST on June 17. Vegas must complete all of their selections by 5 pm EST on June 20 leading up to the unveiling ceremony. Golden Knights owner Bill Foley expressed his enthusiasm over what will be a busy week for his new team:
“June 21 will be an incredible day for the city of Las Vegas and our fans. The anticipation around the Expansion Draft has been building for months and that excitement will continue to grow as we get closer to Draft Day. By combining the draft with the NHL Awards, Golden Knights fans will get to experience a monumental day in our team’s history while enjoying one of the premier NHL events that features the game’s biggest stars.”
The awards show and expansion draft begins what should be a busy week for the Golden Knights. Just two days after the unveiling of the expansion draft results, the NHL Entry Draft begins in Chicago. Vegas has a 10.9% chance of winning the draft lottery. The draft lottery takes place on Saturday, April 29th.
NHL unveils awards finalists day-by-day
Beginning on Wednesday, the NHL began unveiling the finalists for its major awards day-by-day. They started by revealing the finalists for the Selke Trophy, going to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game. Those include Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, a three-time winner of the award who is a finalist for the sixth consecutive season. Anaheim’s Ryan Kesler is now a five-time finalist, winning the award in 2011 with the Vancouver Canucks. Minnesota’s Mikko Koivu rounds out the group, earning his first career finalist nomination. He is the second Wild player to be named a finalist, as Wes Walz was the first back in 2003.
On Thursday, the finalists for the Calder Trophy for top rookie were named. This year’s crop of rookies was one of the strongest in league history. However, the finalists were no surprise to anyone. Toronto’s Auston Matthews scored 40 goals, a record for an American-born rookie. He also led all rookies in goals and points (29). Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine ended the season second behind Matthews in both goals (36) and points (64), setting franchise records for a rookie in both categories. He also led rookies in shooting percentage at 17.6%. Columbus’s Zach Werenski brought stability to the Blue Jackets’ blue line, leading all rookie defensemen in goals (11), assists (36) and points (47) in 78 games. He also topped all rookies with a plus-17 rating.
Earlier this afternoon, the league announced the finalists for the Norris Trophy for best defenseman. Among them was Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, a first-time finalist. He led all defenseman with a career-best 56 assists, putting him at fourth overall in the NHL in that category. His 16 goals and 72 points were also career highs, placing him second among blue-liners. Hedman also ended the season second in power play points (33) while leading the league with 29 power play assists.
Despite a late-season swoon, San Jose’s Brent Burns was a heavy Norris favorite for much of the season. He topped all defensemen with 29 goals and 76 points. Burns also led the entire league with 320 shots on goal. This is his second straight nomination.
Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson won the Norris in 2012 and 2015. He concluded the season third among defensemen with 71 points (17 goals, 54 assists). Karlsson, who was a finalist last season, also blocked 201 shots, a career-high. His play down the stretch could push him towards the winner’s podium for a third time.