With the Columbus Blue Jackets eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs and a week deep into offseason, fans in Central Ohio could be forgiven for checking out on happenings at various rinks until the NHL Draft Lottery.
If you haven’t, great! You’ve seen some amazing hockey at a high level. Also, you’ve seen the Islanders and Penguins play, or you have skipped that series entirely, which is smart.
If you have checked out on the playoffs, well, that’s why I’m here - I’m here to present the storylines for you to consider jumping back in and checking out the playoffs. You don’t have to, but as a fan of the sport as a whole, I encourage it - the Columbus Blue Jackets were terrible and not fun to watch this past season. These playoffs are a glimpse at what the team can be if rebuilt properly - a fun, skilled contender that plays with speed and physicality en route to winning a Stanley Cup.
Here we go.
Storyline 1 - Can the Colorado Avalanche climb the mountain?
The Colorado Avalanche finished the regular season with three straight wins, including a pivotal victory over the Vegas Golden Knights, to claim the President’s Trophy. The Avalanche are healthy, boast one of the deepest teams in the league, and competent enough goaltending to advance.
Will they? They’re the odds on favorites, but in the NHL, we all know how little that means. There hasn’t been a President’s Trophy winner to also win the Stanley Cup since the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks. Since 2007-08, twice as many President’s Trophy winners (4) have been eliminated in the first round as have won the Stanley Cup (2).
Thus far, it looks like (barring a serious collapse) the Avalanche will avoid that fate - they lead their series with the St. Louis Blues 2-0 and will avoid one of the Minnesota Wild and the Vegas Golden Knights. But even for the most talented teams, winning the Cup is hard. Colorado does not have a lot of depth behind Phillip Grubauer in net, and Cale Makar and Nathan MacKinnon have missed time this season with injuries. Now, after his illegal check to the head, the team is likely going to miss Nazem Kadri for several games.
The Avalanche are the favorites for a reason, but they don’t have the Cup locked up. It’s a long postseason. While I’m personally rooting for the Avalanche to win it all - they are fun as hell - the odds are against them actually winning it all.
Storyline 2 - Who will emerge from the North Division, and will that team have a chance against the other division champs?
The Toronto Maple Leafs won the North Division this year for their first division title since 1999-00. Given the division setup this year, the Leafs have the easiest path to the final four they’ve had in years - the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins do not stand in their way until the third round. The Leafs are shaky in net, and the prospect of going Full Leafs at any time looms large, but they don’t have an obvious hurdle to clear - everything appears open before them.
That is, of course, unfairly discounting the Edmonton Oilers and the best player in the NHL, Connor McDavid. McDavid, you might have heard, should probably be the unanimous Hart Trophy winner. McDavid finished the season with the Art Ross Trophy, earning 105 points in 56 games, including 11-30-41 in his last 17 games. The Oilers rely on a 38 year goaltender and have just a 39% goals for percentage when McDavid or Leon Draisaitl are not on the ice, but having the best player in hockey at his absolute apex means they cannot be dismissed out of hand. Naturally, the Oilers went and lost game one to the Winnipeg Jets last night.
Whichever team comes out of the division will have the narrative from The Hockey Media stacked against them - the North has been criticized all year (unfairly) as by far the worst division in the league. The Leafs nearly won the President’s Trophy, and Edmonton has the two most recent Hart Trophy winners. Either team would deserve its place in the final four of hockey.
(For the record, I picked Edmonton in my bracket challenge. Do with that information what you will)
Storyline 3 - Which former Blue Jacket will go furthest in the playoffs?
Riley Nash and Nick Foligno hit the ice tonight for the Toronto Maple Leafs as they face off against the Montreal Canadiens in one of the most historic rivalries in hockey. David Savard and the Tampa Bay Lightning lead Blue Jackets South (TM) two games to zero in the battle of the two and three seeds in the Central. Brandon Saad and the Avalanche lead the Blues 2-0, while William Karlsson and the Knights are tied 1-1 with the Wild.
General feeling via social media is that most Blue Jackets fans are rooting for Foligno to hoist the Cup with Toronto - it would mean good things for the former captain, even if it would also mean good things for the Toronto Maple Leafs, their fans, and the Toronto media ecosystem. Win some, lose some.
Blue Jackets fans will have a player too root for in every round, and nearly every series going forward. Pretty cool to see former Jackets across the league succeeding in their new environments.
Storyline 4 - Boy, the East Division is a bag of wet cats, isn’t it?
Pittsburgh won the division this year. The Islanders finished fourth and played terribly before beating the Penguins in game one of their series. Games one and two of Boston/Washington went to overtime before Boston won in double overtime to take a 2-1 series lead last night.
Any one of these teams could win this division. I picked Boston because their numbers since acquiring Taylor Hall are absurd, but the Boston media is ready to run Tuukka Rask out of town and it’s only round one. Pittsburgh is surviving thanks to duct tape and unicorn dreams, but they have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, so they cannot be discounted; they have also revitalized Jeff Carter this season as if they’re trying to collect as many players I hate as possible. The Islanders brand of anti-hockey can gum up the works against anyone, and Washington has an absolute goon who can end any player’s season on any given night and the greatest goal scorer of all time - they can’t be dismissed.
Any of these teams can win the division.
Storyline 5 - Can Florida find a way to get back into their series against Tampa Bay?
Florida-Tampa game one was arguably the best hockey game in the last five years. It was fast, physical, featured multiple lead changes, physical play, star power, hits, and a late go ahead goal by the Lightning’s Brayden Point. In game two, with Sam Bennett suspended for boarding Blake Coleman, the Lightning put the clamps on the Panthers and won 3-1. As the series shifts to Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay, the Panthers have to find a way to get a win in game three. They have already dug a hole, and Tampa is approximately a billion dollars over the cap right now - Florida has no room for error. The Panthers might start their third goaltender in three games. It’s getting late early for the Panthers.
Conn Smythe Award Watch
Who has the inside track for playoff MVP so far? Here’s my early top five:
- Marc-Andre Fleury
- Nikita Kucherov
- Nathan MacKinnon
- Brad Marchand
- Alex Nedeljkovic
What have you enjoyed through week one of the playoffs? What storylines are you looking forward to following as we advance toward the Stanley Cup being awarded?