By Derek Felix
Normally, the first round of the NHL Playoffs has a couple of riveting series. This year has been lacking that usual bite.
To say it’s been disappointing would be a understatement. While there have still been plenty of highlight reel goals and saves from elite talent, I can’t think of one match up that’s gotten me out of my seat.
With the Lightning eliminating the scrappy Devils on Saturday in five games, that made it four teams already into the second round. Despite Tampa’s ridiculous scoring depth and talent edge, at least it was competitive. Unlike the lopsided sweeps we got in the Pacific with the Golden Knights dominating the Kings and Sharks humiliating the Ducks, the Devils battled hard. They showed up and made the Bolts earn it. Kudos to John Hynes’ club on a superb season that proved no fluke.
As for the Kings and Ducks, the less said the better. Both teams need to undergo serious overhauls. That’s how overmatched they looked against arch rivals.
It also speaks to the cohesiveness and chemistry both Vegas and San Jose have. They toyed with their opponents at times. It’s amazing to think how good the expansion Golden Knights are. A credit to Jack Adams lock Gerard Gallant and his players for buying in. They have a great chance to advance to the Western Conference Final.
With the Knights featuring a balanced offense led by William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith along with proven netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, they should give the Sharks all they can handle. Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Evander Kane lead a potent attack along with Brent Burns in a compelling Pacific Final that pits Martin Jones against Fleury. Hopefully, it won’t disappoint given the skating and quick transition of both teams.
There are still four series left entering Sunday. The Penguins can again close out the Flyers with a win in Philly. At times, the Battle of Pennsylvania has been one sided with Sidney Crosby having his way. It’s astonishing that the Flyers are still alive. They can thank surprise Game Five starter Michael Neuvirth for that along with hero Sean Couturier, who pulled his best Willis Reed by scoring the game-winner with 75 seconds remaining after his status was uncertain due to a bad knee stemming from a injury suffered in practice thanks to Radko Gudas. He’s even injuring teammates.
Winnipeg also easily advanced over the all too predictable Wild who were no match for their high powered offense. Devan Dubnyk did all that he could but finally caved in a embarrassing Game Five that saw the Jets chase him for four goals in the first period en route to a 5-0 shutout. Vezina nominee Connor Hellebuyck’s second consecutive shutout. TMT (Too Much Talent) with Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine, Paul Stastny, Dustin Byfuglien and a balanced attack doing in the Wild, who couldn’t compete once they lost jinxed high paid forward Zach Parise to another injury. Without Ryan Suter, they were no match.
The Jets have the look of a serious contender. It’s great to see Winnipeg advance past the first round. Even if it’s not the original franchise which is on the way back up in Arizona, they’ve done a great job turning it around since the days of the Thrashers. Paul Maurice doesn’t get enough respect for how good a coach he is.
The interesting subplot is that they’re still waiting for a winner between the top seeded Predators and Avalanche. Colorado extended their Cinderella season by stunning Nashville on late goals by Gabriel Landeskog and Sven Andrighetto to pull out a come from behind 2-1 win to send the series back to Colorado. They did it thanks to the amazing return of The Hamburglar, Andrew Hammond. He only started one game in the NHL this season but in a big spot, stood on his head making 44 saves. If the Nathan MacKinnon Avs can win on home ice later, they’ll force the heavily favored Predators into a pressure packed do or die Game Seven. Who ever would’ve believed that could be possible?
Assuming Nashville does win that series, the big match up awaits with Winnipeg. One with electricity and intensity on both sides. The drawback would be that it’s Round Two. We’ll see if the Preds can deliver the series the NHL needs.
The Maple Leafs finally showed some life going into Boston last night and holding off the Bruins to win 4-3 in Game Five. That means a Game Six in Toronto. Win and they can force a deciding seventh game. That would add exciting theatre to a bland opening round. They can thank Frederik Andersen for bailing them out by making 19 of his 42 saves in a lopsided third period. They got to Tuukka Rask sending him to a early exit by scoring four times on 13 shots. If Auston Matthews can spring to life on home ice, there will be a Game Seven. Just imagine the pressure on Boston in this huge rivalry if it happens.
Hopefully, Columbus can back up John Tortorella’s guarantee after blowing a 2-0 series lead to the resurgent Capitals, who have taken three in a row thanks to Braden Holtby being reinserted by clueless coach Barry Trotz and two overtime wins with Nicklas Backstrom playing the Game Five hero on a unreal redirection of a Dmitry Orlov shot in one heck of a OT.
That’s been by far the best series with four of five games needing sudden death. The Blue Jackets took the first two but the Caps won Games Three and Five with Lars Eller’s bizarre goal that deflected off him and Zach Werenski in double overtime swinging the series. Does Columbus have a answer at home? They can’t really go 0-3 in their own building. This is a franchise that’s never advanced past the first round. It’s up to Artemi Panarin, Cam Atkinson, Thomas Vanek, Pierre-Luc Dubois, a healthy Alex Wennberg along with Werenski, Seth Jones and former Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky. They have enough talent. Do they have the heart? We’re about to find out.
Aside from the unusual quiet Round One, you have League partner NBC continuing to screw its own audience with two 3 PM games for a second straight week. I don’t get it. Between this and the other identical 7 PM starts, they have been awful. I’m not talking about the broadcast talent here or studio analysts here. They do their jobs well. Even Mike Milbury, who’s been okay filling in for Ed Olczyk with Doc Emrick. Pierre McGuire is excellent when he’s not on Pens games waxing poetic about Crosby.
It’s hard to fathom why the NHL’s TV partner hasn’t promoted each game more. Marketing has never been the league’s strong suit. Maybe that changes if two bitter rivals go seven in the Eastern Conference. Many fans who don’t have a rooting interest are holding out hope for the Leafs to force a Game Seven against the Bruins. And who wouldn’t love to see the heavy underdog Flyers somehow muster up the energy to take the two-time defending champion Pens seven with all the pressure squarely on Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Kris Letang and Company?
It would at least give the first round that added spice it’s lacked.
-What is worse? The fact WFAN hardly aired any Devils games down the exciting stretch including their return to the playoffs or MSG not bothering to do a postgame show following their elimination. Just because they’re not the Rangers doesn’t make it right. I was stunned that MSG did nothing after airing the games that weren’t NBC exclusives. They deserved better treatment.
-One other thing. WFAN is a joke for not cutting away from yesterday’s lengthy Yankees postgame show. They missed the first two periods for silly reports from Suzyn Waldman on Game 19 in April of a 162-game baseball schedule. Utterly ridiculous.
-Even though I took the opposite side on the Nikita Kucherov hit that ended Sami Vatanen’s season, if they suspend Drew Doughty for one game on a similar hit, then the precedent dictates that Kucherov should’ve also gotten a game. There’s no consistency or integrity from the Department of Player Safety. I understand Devils blogger Hasan’s point. And wouldn’t you know it. Kucherov put the final dagger in the Devs’ season with his 10th point.
-I still can’t believe some foolish Bolts fans had the audacity to boo Brian Boyle. Talk about clueless. Boyle is the epitome of class and perseverance personified. He will win the Bill Masterton Trophy for his tremendous fight against cancer, helping inspire and lead the Devils back to the postseason.
-The best studio analyst isn’t on NBC or NBCSN. It’s former Devils great Scott Stevens. The way he breaks down games is great. He really uses a lot of fine details and highlights where some of the defensive breakdowns are that lead to goals. His take on the Kucherov hit was solid. But I liked how he noted Holtby not trusting defenseman John Carlson on a two-on-one to take away the pass on a Matt Calvert shorthanded goal. Had he fully trusted his teammate, Holtby would’ve remained aggressive challenging to take away the angle. Instead, he backed up and gave Calvert enough real estate to score. Don’t forget Stevens coached team defense as a assistant in both New Jersey and Minnesota. He sounds like a future coaching candidate for a vacant job. No. He’s not coming to the Rangers. Can someone retire Larry Brooks already?
-From a Russian article in which he was interviewed, Pavel Buchnevich didn’t have any reaction to Alain Vigneault’s firing. The former third round noted how at times, he was afraid of being benched along with not playing when the team led. It doesn’t paint a rosy picture. Everyone knew the gum chewing coach had to go. He also mishandled Jimmy Vesey. A player who plays a hard nosed game. Under the right coach, he can improve. It would be a mistake to move him.
-I know he’s playing with great players in Kucherov and Steven Stamkos but that J.T. Miller sure makes things happen on the forecheck. It’s kind of nice that he’s no longer benched or taking shifts on the fourth line.
-It was a strange moment when Ryan McDonagh made a great defensive play to clear the zone and pass to Ryan Callahan for the empty net goal that ended that series. Anton Stralman was also out. Considering how hard the Devils social media account trolled Rangers fans on Twitter, a bit of twisted irony that the last two former Blueshirts captains combined to end the Devils season. Funny how that works sometimes.
-In a week, the NHL Draft Lottery will take place up in Toronto. Please let it not be Edmonton.
-The Devils should be in the market for a defenseman and center to aid Taylor Hall. Would John Tavares have interest in moving from Brooklyn to Newark to a more organized team on the right track? What about Jersey native Carlson coming home?
-All those silly rumors of Ilya Kovalchuk to the Rangers, who are rebuilding because it always makes plenty of sense to overpay a aging scorer who hasn’t been in the NHL for a few years.
-If I am Jeff Gorton and there is enough cap room, I would consider going after Evander Kane, who plays with the physical edge and skill that would be perfect. A top two lines featuring Chris Kreider and Kane would be imposing. But that’s only if the Rangers are willing to spend the money. They have quite a few Group II’s with Kevin Hayes, Brady Skjei, Vesey, Ryan Spooner and Vladislav Namestnikov all featured.
-After resigning as coach of the Hurricanes, Bill Peters is expected to be hired as the new Flames coach. I wonder why he left.
-He didn’t have a point in the final two games but Hall proved his career best 39-goal, 93 point season wasn’t a fluke. He definitely bought in.
-I’ve taken to calling Brad Marchand The Rat. He would be proud.