Alexis Lafreniere (right) is the projected top pick. A lucky loser will be rewarded in Part Two of the NHL Lottery today. Getty Images
If anything has been learned from the unique expanded format that’s featured eight best-of-five Qualifying Series, it’s to expect the unexpected.
While a few favored teams advanced to the Sweet 16 in the Stanley Cup Tournament, there have been plenty of surprises. A pair took place Saturday with each 12 seed advancing over a 5 seed.
First, the heavy underdog Canadiens eliminated the star struck Penguins 2-0 to prevail in four games in Toronto. In a tight checking game, Paul Byron set up Artturi Lehkonen on a delayed penalty for the series clincher with 4:11 left in regulation.
With the stunned Pens pressing late with Game Four starter Tristan Jarry pulled for an extra attacker, Shea Weber’s bank clear off the boards took a favorable carom and bounced right into the vacated Pittsburgh net to seal the big upset for Montreal.
Carey Price recorded 22 saves for the shutout. He proved to be the difference in the Preliminary Round. Even in a tough year where he was overworked by coach Claude Julien which resulted in some uneven performances, the former Hart and Vezina winner proved he’s still one of the best goalies in the game. Without him, the Habs would’ve had no chance.
Interestingly, in a series where the Habs top four finishers didn’t score, they were able to prevail due to other players stepping up. It wasn’t Brendan Gallagher, Tomas Tatar, Max Domi or Joel Armia scoring. Instead, it was Weber, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Jeff Petry, Nick Suzuki, Jonathan Drouin, Byron and Lehkonen doing the damage.
While Weber and Petry were expected to contribute from the blueline logging big minutes, the secondary scoring of rookie Suzuki, the often overlooked Byron (1-3-4) and Lehkonen (1-2-3) proved to be the difference.
With Price stepping up by stopping 126 of 133 shots versus the dangerous Pens, he finished with a sparkling 1.67 goals-against-average (GAA) and .947 percentage. That was enough to send birthday boy Sidney Crosby (turned 33) home along with Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, Kris Letang, Jason Zucker, Bryan Rust and Patric Hornqvist.
For their trouble, the Canadiens know they’ll have their work cut out in the more traditional best-of-seven first round. They’ll draw the Flyers in the official first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Philly went a perfect 3-0 in the round robin to earn the East’s top seed. That’ll present a challenge for Les Canadiens.
Here’s the astonishing part. The same Habs lost all four games to lowly Detroit. It just goes to show that following such a long layoff, anything can happen under a unique setting.
While the Canadiens advanced, the Penguins became one of those eight postseason teams to have a 12.5 percent chance at winning the Alexis Lafreniere NHL Draft Lottery later today. A pretty scary scenario for lesser teams like the Rangers, Panthers, Wild and Predators, who were eliminated.
In another ironic twist, the underdog Blackhawks ousted the Oilers in four games by taking Game Four by a score of 3-2 in Edmonton at Rogers Place.
Once again, the Oilers who feature former Hart winner Connor McDavid and certain league MVP Leon Draisaitl went belly up. It’s astonishing to think a team with two of the game’s brightest stars could flop so badly.
It didn’t matter that Edmonton boasted the scary duo of McDavid and Draisaitl along with overlooked former top pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. They weren’t the better team in the series. Getting worse goaltending and poor defense, they were outplayed by the proven star tandem of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Along with Duncan Keith, they are champions and proved it by leading their team to a well deserved victory.
None of it is possible without Corey Crawford. In a high scoring series with plenty of skating and special teams as expected, he saved his best game for Friday night. The veteran netminder who backstopped the last two Hawks teams to Stanley Cups in 2013 and ’15 was utterly brilliant in finishing with 41 saves to hold off the Oilers.
Chicago also got key contributions from Dominik Kubalik, Kirby Dach, Brandon Saad, Matthew Highmore, Olli Maatta and Ryan Carpenter. Their depth and experience proved to be a factor in the upset.
So, now you have the Oilers in Monday’s 6 PM drawing. The same team that landed Taylor Hall (currently with Coyotes), Nugent-Hopkins and McDavid. They also netted Draisaitl in the top three. Can you imagine if the lottery ball comes out for Edmonton again? How many lottery picks do they need?
Perhaps GM Ken Holland will address the weak defense and goaltending issues that continue to plague the Oilers. Andreas Athanasiou was a bust. Mike Green didn’t even play due to opting out. Maybe improve the key areas so it doesn’t fall all on McDavid and Draisaitl.
In a hat trick that was completed on the final night of the Play In phase, the Maple Leafs once again saw their shadow by getting shutout 3-0 to the Blue Jackets. Columbus will draw the Lightning again in a first round rematch. That in itself is intriguing.
There really is no rational explanation for this one. Sure. We knew the John Tortorella Blue Jackets would give the Leafs a series. However, I thought the top tier talent of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly would win out in five games.
What I didn’t figure on was Toronto to pull off the greatest comeback ever in postseason history. They erased a 3-0 deficit with under four minutes left in regulation during a crazy Game Four. It was astonishing how they did it with goals coming from Nylander, Tavares and Zach Hyman to stun Elvis Merzlikins and the Jackets. A bogus tripping call on a incensed Nick Foligno that Rielly drew led directly to Matthews’ overtime winner.
The question following the shocking turn of events was would the Jackets be ready for a deciding Game Five. I concluded that they would for two reasons. Tortorella always seems to have his team prepared. They had to move on from that insane loss and know they had one big opportunity to still advance. The second reason was the Leafs. Historically, they are fragile. Having lost in seven games to the Bruins a few times, they have not advanced past the first round since 2004.
Sure enough, Tortorella went back to Joonas Korpisalo on Sunday night. He started the first three games, pitching a shutout in Game One before losing Game Two and being replaced by Merzlikins in a whirlwind Game Three that saw the Jackets rally from three down to beat the Leafs. Pierre-Luc Dubois scored twice including the OT winner on a backhand past Freddie Andersen. Dubois is becoming a star. He’s the offensive leader of Columbus.
What nobody figured was that the Blue Jackets would shutout the Leafs 3-0. Zach Werenski scored in the first period and then it was the outstanding play of Korpisalo that kept Toronto’s top guns off the board. Nobody had better scoring chances than Tavares with him blowing a golden opportunity to tie the game in the second. Instead, he hit the goalpost. Korpisalo would rob him pointblank on a power play and make two big glove saves on Nylander and Andreas Johnsson to stone Toronto.
A bad line change cost the Leafs dearly. On a smart dump in from Gustav Nyquist, Liam Foudy walked in and surprised Andersen by going five-hole to give Columbus a 2-0 lead with still over eight minutes left in regulation. Plenty of time for the Leafs to come back. It wasn’t to be. They couldn’t work their magic. Korpisalo was locked in and stopped everything. He made 33 stops for his second shutout.
Ironically, Foligno erased any doubt by scoring into a vacated net to end the Leafs’ season. They didn’t even make the Sweet Sixteen. It doesn’t matter how much talent they have. Until they learn to play better defense and win board battles, they’ll never be successful. Tavares looks like a bust. Even though he produces, that money would’ve been better served on improving the weak defense.
Even the Nazem Kadri trade for Tyson Barrie and Alex Kerfoot looks bad. Barrie will leave in the off-season. At least they still have Kerfoot. What if Kadri has a good postseason without the shenanigans and leads the Avalanche to a Cup? He would have the last laugh after receiving deserved criticism for the past two Toronto first round exits.
So, what is the Doomsday Scenario? It’s complete thanks to the latest Leafs failure. You now have three teams who could wind up with that top pick later. Imagine if it’s the Leafs, Oilers or Pens. Two of three having gotten rewarded in the past. Pittsburgh twice with Mario Lemieux and Crosby, who each saved the franchise along with Jaromir Jagr in the ’99 first round upset of the Devils. He isn’t credited for anything despite being a legendary Penguin. Crazy.
I already mentioned the Oilers. What about the Leafs, who have an All-Star lineup of forwards. Do they really need another shiny new toy in Lafreniere? Let’s say Toronto or Edmonton won the pick. Would they actually consider trading it to improve their roster? In a deep draft that features Quinton Byfield, Tim Stuetzle, Jamie Drysdale, Alexander Holtz, Jaroslav Askarov, Lucas Raymond, Jake Sanderson, Braden Schneider and Anton Lundell, it’s a possibility.
With the first round set and the eight teams vying for the top pick, who knows what will happen. One lucky loser will cash in on their 12.5 percent chance and win today’s lottery. Just hope it’s not rigged for one of the Big Three.
The Rangers are among the eight teams who can move all the way up following their brief stay in the playoff bubble. They’ve never picked first since the NHL Draft Lottery was installed. After moving up to two last summer to select Kaapo Kakko, I am not expecting anything. In fact, I’ve decided to skip watching today’s drawing. I can find out from friends.
Here is the full list of eight that can win the potential draft rights to Lafreniere:
1. Edmonton Oilers
2. Florida Panthers
3. Minnesota Wild
4. Nashville Predators
5. New York Rangers
6. Pittsburgh Penguins
7. Toronto Maple Leafs
8. Winnipeg Jets