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Explaining the unpredictable Round 1 results

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The story of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs has been all about upsets and a bunch of teams you’re not used to seeing this time of year making unexpected runs.

All four division winners lost in Round 1, five lower-seeded teams in total advanced, and a lot of the traditional powers that we have come to expect to be playing this time of year are already finished. Chicago and Los Angeles didn’t even make the playoffs. Pittsburgh, Washington, and Tampa were all bounced and won just three games (all from Washington!) between them. Winnipeg and Nashville, a Stanley Cup favorite for much of this season and a recent Cup Finalist, are also gone.

Other than Boston, San Jose, and St. Louis, we are left with a wide open field that is full of teams that are not normally here.

  • The Carolina Hurricanes are in the playoffs for the first time since the 2008-09 season, and obviously playing in Round 2 for the first time since then.
  • This is the first time the Columbus Blue Jackets have EVER made it this far in the playoffs.
  • The Dallas Stars are in the playoffs for just the third time since 2009, and in Round 2 for just the second time since then.
  • The Colorado Avalanche have not been in Round 2 since the 2007-08 postseason.
  • This is only the second time since 1993 that the New York Islanders have made it this far.

The two main talking points as to how we got here seem to revolve around the highly controversial playoff format, and just how meaningful the regular season actually is.

Let’s start with the latter point, regarding the regular season and what it means. When you see all four division winners go down in Round 1 it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the 82 games you just played didn’t mean anything and that just getting in is all you need. There might be some element of truth to “just getting in” being important, but let’s not overreact to one year here and just assume the regular doesn’t mean anything. Because it does, and winning your division usually does get you a pretty big advantage in the playoffs because it means you are playing one of the weaker teams in the field.

The results before this season show just how big of an advantage that is.

In the five previous seasons under this current playoff format division winners won their first-round matchup 14 out of 20 times, and usually did so relatively easily. Those division winners won their series in an average of only 5.2 games, and none of them needed a seventh game to advance.

On the six occasions that they did lose, three of them were in a seventh game and two of them were in a sixth. You had the occasional upset, usually in an anything can happen Game 7, but it wasn’t anything like this. 

Obviously Tampa and Calgary are the two big upsets, simply because they were top seeds in their respective conferences and because they went out with such a thud. Tampa was swept, while Calgary managed just one win against the No. 8 seeded Avalanche.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The only thing you can probably say about each one is they were playing teams that probably weren’t your typical “No. 8 seeds” going in to the playoffs.

Columbus loaded up at the trade deadline with rentals to bolster what was an already strong lineup that was probably better than its record had indicated all season (I was high on them around mid-January, even before the trades!) because the goaltending had sunk it so much. Throw in a Victor Hedman injury and a Nikita Kucherov meltdown on the Tampa side and suddenly the gap closes a little. That doesn’t excuse the rest of the Lightning’s no-show performance, but if you dig below the surface “top seed loses four in a row” you can at least start to rationalize it a little (but only a little).

Even though Colorado was 17 points worse than the Flames during the regular season, the Avalanche still have three of the best forwards in the NHL, all of whom can take over a game at any time, and they had the better goalie going into the series. That isn’t to say Mike Smith wasn’t the reason the Flames lost, but Philipp Grubauer was great in the Avalanche net (and the three superstar forwards were also great) and sometimes that is all it takes for an upset.

These are still stunning results, and even more stunning when you add them to the other division winners going out. It’s there that things start to become a little more reasonable (and this also includes Pittsburgh and Winnipeg going out) because the gaps between the teams just weren’t that large.

If they even existed at all.

The Capitals were the defending Stanley Cup champions, but only finished five points ahead of their first-round opponent, the Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes had been one of the best teams in the NHL since January 1, storming into the playoffs playing on a level that only a handful of other teams in the league were at.

The Predators, Central Division champions, were seven points ahead of the Stars, and that gap had been shrinking for weeks leading up to the end of the regular season as the Predators started to fade and the Stars started to trend upward.

The Islanders finished three points ahead of the Penguins. The Blues and Jets finished with the exact same number of points.

A No. 1 seed going down in Round 1 isn’t unheard of in the NHL. It happens. Not regularly, but often enough that it’s not a total shock when it does happen. We also know that the Stanley Cup Playoffs can be a bit unpredictable because of the nature of the game where a hot or cold goalie can swing a series, an injury can hold a team back, or a couple of forwards can simply shoot the lights out for six or seven games and carry a team.

It is at times a completely random sport.

This postseason has just been a perfect of storm where all of it came together at the same time to produce what has been, so far, one of the weirdest and most unpredictable postseasons we have ever seen. The wild card teams were, in a lot of ways, better than your typical wild card teams we are used to seeing. The division winners were maybe a little more vulnerable for one reason or another (injuries, goaltending).

I don’t think it’s a statement on the league or the format as a whole, I think it’s just a statement on the sport itself in that sometimes weird things happen.

And that might be the simplest way to explain the 2019 playoffs: It’s been a weird year.

MORE Round 2 coverage:
Round 2 schedule, TV info

Questions for the final eight teams
PHT Roundtable
Conn Smythe favorites after Round 1
Blue Jackets vs. Bruins
Hurricanes vs. Islanders
Blues vs. Stars
Avalanche vs. Sharks

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Bruins win Game 3 without Rask, Pastrnak; Hurricanes lose, Svechnikov injured

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Heading into Game 3, the news was really bad for the Bruins. Heading out of a 3-1 win for the Bruins, who took a 2-1 series lead, the bad news swung against the Hurricanes in a big way.

[Read up on Tuukka Rask opting out of the NHL bubble.]

Halak was brilliant — except for a blunder — in helping Bruins beat Hurricanes in Game 3

For those of us familiar with Jaroslav Halak‘s career — not just that incredible 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs run, but that too — it was hard not to belt out a “the other guy’s pretty good” when word surfaced that Rask opted out.

Aside from a disastrous puckhandling/passing moment that opened the door for a Nino Niederreiter power-play goal, Halak was nearly perfect in Game 3. Halak made 29 out of 30 saves in this big win. While Petr Mrazek was fine, it’s fair to wonder if the Hurricanes might turn to James Reimer, who helped Carolina win Game 2.

Here’s that blunder by Halak, which again ended up being an aberration:

Hurricanes lose game, Svechnikov might be injured

Looking back at Game 3, and looking forward at the rest of this First Round series, the Hurricanes must feel a mixture of regret and concern.

When it comes to regret, the Hurricanes must rue some special teams setbacks. While both teams went 1-for-5 on their power plays, the Bruins scored the game-winner shorthanded. It’s also tough to stomach when you realize that Carolina’s lone goal mainly boiled down to Halak’s gaffe.

Of course, there were also some moments that might tempt Rod Brind’Amour to get fined again. In particular, a missed high stick to Dougie Hamilton‘s face left Hurricanes fans fuming.

But the biggest concern is going forward. Late in Game 3, Andrei Svechnikov appeared to suffer a knee injury getting tangled up with Zdeno Chara. While it’s too early to tell how severe the issue might be, Svechnikov needed help off of the ice.

The Bruins showed that they could win without David Pastrnak and Rask, and maybe Carolina can do the same without its budding star. It’s pretty painful when you combine it with narrowly losing Game 3, though.

Charlie Coyle played well in Game 3, scoring a goal and an assist. Also, David Krejci turned some heads with some sharp passing, finishing Game 3 with two assists. Brad Marchand inflated the margin of victory with an empty-netter.

After being outshot 15-7 in the first period, the Bruins ended up with a 39-30 shots on goal advantage. That sure seems like a strong response to losing key players, and supporting Halak.

No. 4 Boston Bruins vs. No. 5 Carolina Hurricanes (BOS leads 2-1)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Bruins 4, Hurricanes 3 (2OT) (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 13:Hurricanes 3, Bruins 2 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 15: Boston 3, Carolina 1
Monday, Aug. 17: Boston at Carolina, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Carolina at Boston – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Boston at Carolina – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Carolina at Boston – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Coyotes-Avalanche stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup First Round

Coyotes-Avalanche stream
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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs continues with Friday’s First Round matchup between the Coyotes and Avalanche. Coverage begins at 3 p.m. ET on CNBC. Watch the Coyotes-Avalanche stream at 2 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

When you look at effort alone, the Coyotes presented a night-and-day difference between their play in Game 1 (passive, bad) and Game 2 (aggressive, good). Unfortunately for Arizona, the Avalanche are also aggressive and good, and they were able to squeeze out a win.

With that, the Coyotes find themselves down 2-0 heading into Game 3. The two teams played a physical, close game on Friday, so it will be interesting to see how the Avs and Coyotes perform during this back-to-back.

Could the fatigue factor benefit the defense-minded Coyotes? Maybe the Avalanche can burst out of the gate in Game 3 and leave the Coyotes feeling less than confident? So far, Nathan MacKinnon has been deadly, while Nazem Kadri has been clutch. Meanwhile, time is running out for Taylor Hall and the Coyotes. It could be a short series if Arizona can’t get it done in this one.

WHAT: Arizona Coyotes vs. Colorado Avalanche
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Saturday, August 15, 3 p.m. ET
TV: CNBC
ON THE CALL: Kenny Albert, Pierre McGuire
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Coyotes-Avalanche stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

No. 2 Colorado Avalanche vs. No. 7 Arizona Coyotes (COL leads 2-0)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Avalanche 3, Coyotes 0 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 14: Avalanche 3, Coyotes 2 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 15: Colorado at Arizona, 3 p.m. ET – CNBC
Monday, Aug. 17: Colorado at Arizona, 5:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Arizona at Colorado – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Colorado at Arizona – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Arizona at Colorado – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

Hurricanes-Bruins stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup First Round

No Rask Halak starts Bruins Hurricanes livestream Game 3
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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs continues with Saturday’s First Round matchup between the Hurricanes and Bruins. Coverage begins at 12 p.m. ET on NBC. Watch the Hurricanes-Bruins stream on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

When Tuukka Rask made comments about not being in “prime shape” for the NHL Return to Play, maybe we should have seen it coming. Even so, it was a little startling to hear that Rask opted out of the return to play before Game 3 of Bruins – Hurricanes.

As the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners, the Bruins were already dealing with turmoil. You don’t often see top seeds fall all the way to fourth place, but then again, sports leagues also don’t often need to navigate global pandemics. If the Bruins are going to go deep in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, they clearly need to overcome more than the Hurricanes.

While these are far from ideal circumstances, don’t count the Bruins out altogether. Boston turns to capable backup Jaroslav Halak, who probably could have had a shot at a starting job (or at least a 1A/1B situation) if he didn’t stick with the Bruins.

Being that David Pastrnak missed Game 2, the Bruins are dealing with some tough times. In the Hurricanes, they also face a very tough opponent. We’ll see if Boston can roll with the punches in Game 3 on Saturday afternoon on NBC.

WHAT: Carolina Hurricanes vs. Boston Bruins
WHERE: Scotiabank Arena – Toronto
WHEN: Saturday, August 15 – 12 p.m. ET
TV
: NBC
ON THE CALL: John Forslund, Mike Milbury, Brian Boucher
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Hurricanes-Bruins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

No. 4 Boston Bruins vs. No. 5 Carolina Hurricanes (Series tied 1-1)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Bruins 4, Hurricanes 3 (2OT) (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 13:Hurricanes 3, Bruins 2 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 15: Boston at Carolina, 12 p.m ET – NBC
Monday, Aug. 17: Boston at Carolina, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Carolina at Boston – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Boston at Carolina – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Carolina at Boston – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

Bruins’ Tuukka Rask opts out of NHL return to play

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The Boston Bruins announced on Saturday morning that starting goalie Tuukka Rask has opted out of the NHL’s return to play this postseason and will be leaving the bubble in Toronto.

Rask had started the first two games of their First Round series against the Carolina Hurricanes.

The two teams play in Game 3 of the series on Saturday afternoon (12 p.m. ET, NBC).

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

“I want to be with my teammates competing, but at this moment there are things more important than hockey in my life, and that is being with my family. I want to thank the Bruins and my teammates for their support and wish them success,” said Rask in a statement released by the team.

Bruins general manager Don Sweeney said on a conference call that the team “completely” understands where Rask is coming from in his decision to opt out, and that the organization fully supports his decision, why he made it, and is not totally surprised by it.

Sweeney pointed out that Rask has three children at home, including a newborn daughter and that family has to be the priority. He also added that Rask’s family is safe and healthy and that there was no specific incident that resulted in him opting out, other than that he was having a difficult time being away in this environment.

With Rask now leaving the bubble, Jaroslav Halak will take over the starting goaltending duties for the Bruins.

Halak started one game for the Bruins in the Round-Robin phase, stopping 25 out of 29 shots in a loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. He appeared in 31 games during the regular season, posting an 18-6-6 record with a .919 save percentage.

No. 4 Boston Bruins vs. No. 5 Carolina Hurricanes (Series tied 1-1)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Bruins 4, Hurricanes 3 (2OT) (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 13: Hurricanes 3, Bruins 2 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 15: Boston at Carolina, 12 p.m ET – NBC
Monday, Aug. 17: Boston at Carolina, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Wednesday, Aug. 19: Carolina at Boston – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Boston at Carolina – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Carolina at Boston – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.