When Washington’s Marcus Johansson slipped one by Toronto netminder Frederick Andersen in OT last night, it ended a tightly contested six game series between the two clubs, as well as marking the end of the NHL’s first round.
The Capitals punched the last ticket to the second round, with the series going into the extra frame an astounding five times. Pittsburgh had to be a bit gleeful, seeing the young Leafs give the more experienced Caps everything they had.
Earlier in the day, the Ottawa Senators beat Boston in Game 6 of their series, 3-2 in OT, winning their first playoff series in four years.
Now the stage is set, with Ottawa due to tangle with the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh do battle with Washington in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. Over in the west it will be St. Louis vs. Nashville and Anaheim against Edmonton.
The first round featured some great hockey and some very impressive — and surprising — performances from teams and individuals. Here are 10, in no particular order.
10. Erik Karlsson Is Mr. Everything In Ottawa’s Win
Whether or not he wins his third Norris Trophy as the league’s top defencemen, we’re sure Erik Karlsson would trade it for his first Stanley Cup. Ottawa’s captain showed in the first round that he is a force to be reckoned with and a tough nut, as it was revealed he played the entire series with two hairline fractures in his left foot. Now that’s a Bobby Baun moment. Bad foot or not, Karlsson was third in Sens scoring in the first round, registering six assists — including a doozy of a Hail Mary for an apple on a beautiful goal by Mike Hoffman. He also looged a team high 30:24 in ice time, seemingly never leaving the sheet. Karlsson wasn’t the only story, as the expensive and criticized Derick Brassard led all Ottawa scorers with eight points and Bobby Ryan put a miserable season in the rearview with four goals and seven points. And, wasn’t it nice to see Clarke MacArthur, who missed almost the whole season, score in OT Sunday to win it?
9. Chicago Bounced In Four Straight
We said it, right here, that the Chicago Blackhawks were the favorites to win the Stanley Cup this year. And apparently, we weren’t alone. Just about every major sports news source in North America had the Hawks claiming their fourth title in eight years. Then along came Nashville, who were considered easy-first round roadkill. Behind the goaltending of rejuvenated Pekka Rinne (.976 save percentage, 0.70 goals against, two shutouts) and great five-on-five play (one powerplay goal among 13 scored), the Preds swept Chicago out of the first round with nary a whimper. The Blackhawks, who scored nearly three goals a game in the regular season managed just three goals all series, with only the usual suspects, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, finding the twine along with Dennis Rasmussen. There was surprisingly little fight from this perennial contender.
8. Justin Williams Is Justin Williams Again
When Washington went looking to add an ingredient to what they hoped was the secret sauce to success in the summer of 2015, they thought they had it in free agent Justin Williams. The free agent veteran had won three Stanley Cups with two different clubs and was a better player in playoffs than the regular season. Prior to coming to D.C. Williams had 582 regular season points in 918 regular season games for an average of 0.63 and in the post-season he had 78 points in 115 contests for an average of 0.68. In addition, his only major individual award, ever, was the Conn Smythe he won with the champion Kings in 2014. Thus, it was expected he’d be able to push the Caps over the hump in 2016, but it was not to be. He did score seven points in 12 playoff games but it wasn’t enough. He had his usual dependable season this year, scoring 24 goals and 24 assists in 80 games for the President’s Trophy winning Caps. And in the first round against Toronto, he was money in the bank, with three goals and three assists in six games, including the OT winner in Game 5. He’s back.
7. Connor McDavid And Oilers Passed First Playoff Test
Drawing the Stanley Cup finalist San Jose Sharks in the first round of the NHL playoffs had to be disheartening for the Edmonton Oilers. They had an outstanding season, finishing two points out of first in the Pacific Division and were 8-2 in their last 10 games. Four points behind them were the Sharks, no doubt hungry to get back to the finals. This was to be Connor McDavid’s coming out party and a litmus test for many Oilers who’d seen too many early trips to the golf course. It started out well for the Sharks in Game 1, as they won in overtime. The plucky Oilers salvaged a split at home, with McDavid potting a rare shorthanded goal in a 2-0 win. The Oilers then did the previously unthinkable, downing the Sharks 1-0 in game 3. However, San Jose thoroughly whipped Edmonton 7-0 in game 4, casting doubt that the young Oil would survive the first round. Yet, the lesser lights shined in a 4-3 OT victory in game 5, while McDavid sparked his team with a huge open-ice hit. They capped a first round victory with McDavid scoring an empty-netter to push his team leading point total to four. Look out, Anaheim.
6. The Toronto Maple Leafs Kids Send A Message
Even though they lost in six to the NHL’s best regular season team, this particular post-season demise doesn’t feel as bad as Toronto’s 2013 collapse in Boston. The youthful Maple Leafs served notice to the rest of the league — and did Pittsburgh a tremendous favor by going into OT in five games — that they will only get better season over season. Auston Matthews followed up what is sure to be a Calder Trophy winning campaign with a virtuoso performance, scoring four times and adding an assist. Frederik Andersen, who played his most games ever in the regular season (66), proved to be a steal of an acquisition by making some clutch saves in the six-game series while facing an average of 35 shot a game. Defenceman Morgan Reilly tied Matthews for the team lead in scoring and came into his own as a leader, logging nearly 27 minutes per game in all situations. William Nylander (four points), Mitch Marner (four points), Zach Hyman (four points) and Kasperi Kapanen (two huge goals) all made the fuzzy-faced brigade look legit. The future is very bright, indeed.
5. Bruce Boudreau Is Still Cursed
There is a huge disparity in Bruce Boudreau’s sterling regular season record and his post-season mark. The long-time bench boss, now with his third team in Minnesota, is 458-217-88 in the regular season, good for a .646 winning percentage. However, in the playoffs, despite having some excellent teams, he is just 42-43 (.494). The total blame can’t be put on him for the Wild’s meek five-game loss to St. Louis (which was stolen by Blues goalie Jake Allen, more on him later), yet there just seems to be something missing. In his first season with the Wild this year, Boudreau pushed them to their best record ever, 49-25-8 and the second most goals for, 266 (only Pittsburgh was better). Despite their outstanding year, the Wild never really got untracked offensively against Allen and the Blues, playing catch-up four of five games and falling behind 3-0 in the series, which spelled their doom. Which leads us to believe Boudreau, who has now lost five first round series, is just plain jinxed.
4. Jake Guentzel And Other Fine Freshmen Find The Range
Given the season he had, and playoffs, it was pretty hard to upstage Auston Matthews, who fired four goals and had an assist in Toronto’s first round ouster. But, Jake Guentzel, the Omaha kid, did it with flair. The University of Nebraska Omaha grad was lights out in 44 AHL games over parts of two seasons, scoring 48 points. Then, in 40 games with Pittsburgh, he had 33 points (16 goals). In his first taste of NHL playoff hockey, Guentzel scored five times in five games, leading all goal scorers so far (and rookies in scoring with six points). He wasn’t alone, as other freshmen (not with Toronto) added value to their team’s hopes. Anaheim defenceman Shea Theodore tied Matthews in points with two goals and three assists and Montreal’s Artturi Lehkonen finished with two goals and two assists. Elsewhere, Nashville’s Kevin Fiala struck twice for goals (one in OT) as did Boston’s Sean Kuraly and Rangers defenceman Brady Skjei. They may not have great playoff beards, but they’ve grown their fledgling legends.
3. Role Players Roll With It
The old post-season axiom that “a team’s best players have to be the team’s best players” only holds water for so long. When the elite aren’t firing on all cylinders, the role players have to step up, either with scoring or intangibles like blocking shots, winning key face-offs or making big hits. Three role players in particular come to mind, offensively at least, who made key contributions in their team’s first round triumphs. The Capitals Tom Wilson gets special mention, for scoring three goals including an OT marker (he had seven all season) and being a pain in Toronto’s butt with 19 hits (tied for 25th). Edmonton’s Zack Kassian, brought in for grit, tallied twice after scoring seven all season for the Oilers and recorded 18 hits. Nashville’s Colton Sissons, a fourth liner, had three points (two goals) in four games after a 10-point campaign. Special mention has to go to Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, who, while he’s far from being a bit player, may have found the secret to being a key cog, dishing out 28 hits and blocking five shots (while scoring three times) to help Washington over the first round hump.
2. Goaltenders Come Up Huge Nearly Across The Board
Whether they won, or lost, in the first round, goaltenders were the difference. What we mean is, Montreal’s Carey Price allowed just 12 goals in six games, which in most years would be good enough to move on. San Jose’s Martin Jones was even better, surrendering just 11 goals to Edmonton, but finds himself on the outside too. Add to the loser’s list Devan Dubnyk of Minnesota (just 10 goals against in five). On the flip side, the winning goaltenders proved that goaltending will (eventually) win a championship. Pekka Rinne was stingiest, allowing but three goals in four games for Nashville, followed closely by the all-world heroics of Jake Allen, who was beat just eight times in five games and faced 182 shots (fourth most in the playoffs). Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury was his old self (13 goals against, .933 save percentage on 194 shots in five games) and Henrik Lundqvist was superb, allowing just 11 goals on a first round high 206 shots (.947 save percentage). Braden Holtby (.925 save percentage) got better as the first round wore on, while Cam Talbot, John Gibson and Craig Anderson all played central roles in their teams’ triumphs.
1. First Round Overtimes The Most Ever
As we said earlier, Washington’s Marcus Johansson ended Toronto’s hopes with an OT goal on Sunday night, the fifth such match in the six-game series and the 18th in the first round — a NHL record. Other than Johansson, some big, and not so big, heroes got in on the action. San Jose’ Melker Karlsson got the first OT goal of the 2017 Big Dance, scoring to beat Edmonton on April 12. Other lesser lights to strike in the extra frame were St. Louis Joel Edmundson, Washington’s Tom Wilson, Toronto’s Kasperi Kapanen (in 2OT on April 15), Nashville’s Kevin Fiala, Boston’s Sean Kuraly, and Ottawa’s Clarke MacArthur (series winner Sunday against Boston). Surprising overtime goals came from Ottawa’s Dion Phaneuf, Edmonton’s David Desharnais and St. Louis’ Magnus Paajarvi. Washington’s clutch scorer Justin Williams added his second ever OT winner, as did Anaheim’s Corey Perry. All in all, a very exciting first round.