Roundtable: NHL playoff surprises; vulnerable top seeds

Now that we’re done with the Qualifying Round, what aspect (not team) surprised you the most?

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Yes, the ice sometimes seemed like a melted candle/swimming pool, and there was certainly some sloppiness. But overall, the quality of the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers (not: NOT THOSE ROUND-ROBIN GAMES) was fantastic. Maybe credit that nasty first Brady Skjei hit in Game 1 of Rangers – Hurricanes, but it was shockingly easy to watch this as actual playoff hockey, rather than some pale imitation.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: I was most surprised how the round-robin tournament turned out. I thought it was quite unfair to the top seeds and too fair to the bottom seeds. I would have given the top teams heading in (Boston and St. Louis) three points, Tampa Bay and Colorado two points apiece, while Washington and Vegas would have received one point and Philadelphia and Dallas as the fourth seeds, no points heading into the round-robin.

Based on this formula (and if teams tied in points after the round-robin, the higher seed heading in would receive the higher ranking), it would have been Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, Washington and Boston as the top-four seeds in the East (Tampa Bay and Philadelphia switch spots), and Colorado, Vegas, St. Louis and Dallas in the West, rather than Vegas, Colorado, Dallas and St. Louis.

While the home ice advantage and fan support is negated in the bubble, the final change for the home team means a lot, especially in a Game 7.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: I really enjoyed how the NHL leaned into the uniqueness of the situation and tried to have fun. You had the hats on the ice following Connor McDavid‘s hat trick, “attendance” numbers posted on the scoreboard, making sure fans left their couches safely, and thanking their fans:

We would have never expected any of those dad jokes to come from the NHL a year ago. Good to see they’ve embraced the circumstances and let’s hope there’s some more fun down the road.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: I think the aspect that surprised me the most was just how smoothly everything went, and how after the first game with no fans in the stands everything just seemed so … normal. I thought the lack of fan atmosphere would be noticeable in these high stakes games — the crowds are a huge part of the playoffs — but I cannot say that I ever really missed it. Aside from that, I am surprised at how much I liked the play-in portion. The upsets were a huge part of that, as was the fact there was NHL hockey on literally all day long. It is still not something that I want to see in a normal season (16 playoff teams are enough and I do not like the idea of making the regular season less important) but given the circumstances for this season everything worked.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: I thought the television product, despite the empty arenas, was fantastic. The in-arena presentation came across well on TV, the audio experience was better than expected, and I loved the league’s clever, self-deprecating stunts throughout the week. The Qualifiers were a hockey fan’s dream, and nothing about the unique circumstances took away from the at-home experience.

My one wish: that we got more mic’d up content.

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports


Which top-four seed from either conference do you feel is most vulnerable?

James O’Brien, NHL writer: The Stars. I was tempted to say “the Stars, easily,” but the Hurricanes are a fairly scary opponent for the Bruins. The gap between the Stars (82 standings points) and the teams that finished outside of the top four in the West was tiny; in fact, the Oilers (83) actually had more standings points, but Dallas played two fewer games. The point is that the Stars didn’t stand far above their peers, and those peers include the Flames. While the Stars play the sort of strong defense that can take them far in the playoffs, I picked Calgary to win that series, as they strike a better overall balance of depth, scoring, and may still have the best blueliner in the series in Mark Giordano. (For now, at least.)

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: : The top-four team that is most vulnerable in my opinion is Washington. I have been impressed with the Islanders and think that they will beat Barry Trotz’s former team. I’m not a big fan of Braden Holtby and without Ilya Samsonov to back him up, I think the Capitals will have a tough time with New York.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Let’s get wild. I know the Lightning have a lot to prove after last year’s sweep… but 2020 has been a crazy year and we’ve seen some wild things already. The Blue Jackets may not have the star power compared to Tampa, but they buy into John Tortorella’s system and approach and it shows on the ice. Look how much trouble they gave the Maple Leafs in shutting down their big names. For as much as the Lightning want to get revenge, Columbus has entered this postseason — really, this entire season — without fear and full of confidence.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: The easy answer here for me is Dallas because they did not look great in the Round-Robin phase and I still question if they can score enough goals to make an impact. But they have a great goalie situation and an outstanding defense and that gives them a chance. So I am going to go bold here and say the Boston Bruins are the most vulnerable. Not necessarily because they struggled in the Round-Robin phase, but because they have the toughest Round 1 matchup of any of the top-four teams are are getting an opponent in the Carolina Hurricanes that is absolutely good enough to beat them. They have an exciting young roster and just steamrolled the New York Rangers in the play-in round, and did so without the services of Dougie Hamilton, their best defenseman. Very difficult opening matchup for a team that ran away with the best record in the league during the 2019-20 regular season.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: The Bruins. Partly due to their performance in the three Round Robin games (notably: 1 point combined from Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak), and partly because their First Round opponent, the Hurricanes, steamrolled the Rangers last week. We know Boston can beat Carolina (see: 2019 Eastern Conference Final), but this is a dangerous (and improved) Canes squad that will be eager to avenge last year’s loss. Boston better find its game quickly if it wants to hang around in the 2020 playoffs.

NHL Power Rankings: Best First Round matchups
Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

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    Rangers sign Filip Chytil to 4-year extension

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    NEW YORK — The New York Rangers have signed forward Filip Chytil to a four-year contract extension worth $17.75 million, locking up another member of their core long term.

    The team announced the deal Wednesday night. Chytil will count just under $4.44 million annually against the salary cap through the 2026-27 season.

    Chytil, 23, is in the midst of a career year. He has set career highs with 22 goals, 20 assists and 42 points in 66 games for the playoff-bound Rangers.

    The Czech native is the team’s sixth-leading scorer and ranks fourth on the roster in goals. The 2017 first-round pick has 144 points in 342 NHL regular-season and playoff games. He was set to be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights this summer.

    New York already had top center Mika Zibanejad signed through 2030, No. 1 defenseman Adam Fox through 2029, veteran Chris Kreider through 2027, winger Artemi Panarin through 2026 and reigning Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Igor Shesterkin through 2025.

    General manager Chris Drury’s next order of business is an extension for 2020 top pick Alexis Lafrenière, who is only signed through the remainder of this season and can be a restricted free agent.

    Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews returns to ice, hints at retirement

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    CHICAGO — Longtime Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews returned to the ice but hinted his stellar NHL career could be winding down after 15 years.

    Toews, 34, skated with teammates prior to Chicago’s game with the Dallas Stars. It was his first time practicing with them since a game in Edmonton on Jan. 28.

    He made a statement through the team on Feb. 19 saying he would be stepping away because of the effects of Chronic Immune Response Syndrome and “long COVID.”

    In meeting with reporters, Toews stopped short of saying he hoped to play in any of last-place Chicago’s nine remaining games. His eight-year, $84 million contract is set to expire at the end of the season.

    Toews said he’s feeling stronger, but isn’t sure if he’ll be able to play again for the Blackhawks or another team.

    “Both if I’m being fully honest,” Toews said. “I feel like I’ve said it already, that I’ve gotten to the point where my health is more important.

    “When you’re young and you’re playing for a Stanley Cup and everyone’s playing through something, that means something and it’s worthwhile. But I’m at that point where it feels like more damage is being done than is a good thing.”

    Toews, the Blackhawks’ first-round draft pick (third overall) in 2006, joined the team in 2007 and was a pillar of Stanley Cup championship clubs in 2010, 2013 and 2015.

    At the peak of his career, he was one of the NHL’s top two-way centers, winning the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward in 2013.

    In 1,060 regular-season games, Toews has 371 goals and 509 assists. In 139 playoff games, he’s posted 45 goals and 74 assists, and he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2010.

    Toews missed the entire 2020-21 season with Chronic Immune Response System, which caused debilitating inflammation and fatigue.

    He appeared in 71 games in 2021-22, then started this season with renewed energy before slowing and eventually shutting himself down.

    Entering this season, it looked as if Chicago might deal him, as it did fellow star Patrick Kane, before the March trade deadline. But Kane went to the New York Rangers and Toews to injured reserve.

    Toews believed he was progressing before a relapse in January left him so sore and tired that he could barely “put on my skates or roll out of bed to come to the rink.”

    Toews said his progress over the past month has been “pretty encouraging” and he’s delighted to be back among his teammates. He has no timetable beyond that.

    “We’re just going to go day by day here,” Chicago coach Luke Richardson said. He deserves anything he wants to try to achieve here.”

    Richardson hoped Toews “can take that next step later in the week and hopefully (he) gives us the green light to go in a game.”

    But Toews emphasized his long-term health and ability to lead a “normal life” is most important. He wants to go out on a positive note and not hit the ice for a game playing through excessive pain and dysfunction.

    “It’s definitely on my mind that this could be my last few weeks here as a Blackhawk in Chicago,” Toews said. “It’s definitely very important for me to go out there and enjoy the game and just kind of soak it in and just really appreciate everything I’ve been able to be part of here in Chicago.”

    Budding Wild star Matt Boldy more willing to shoot, and it shows

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    ST. PAUL, Minn. — Matt Boldy was unable to resist a smile in the aftermath of his second hat trick in five games for the Minnesota Wild, a young right wing and reluctant star trying to make sense of a remarkable hot streak.

    Does the puck feel as if it’s automatically going in the net these days each time he shoots?

    “Yeah, it does,” Boldy said in the locker room after leading the first-place Wild to a 5-1 win over Seattle. “My linemates are playing great. Hopefully you guys are giving them a lot of credit. You look at some of those goals – just putting it on a tee for me.”

    This non-attention-seeker has found himself squarely in the NHL spotlight. Boldy has 11 goals in nine games since Wild superstar Kirill Kaprizov was sidelined with a lower-body injury to raise his goal total to 28, in part because he’s been more willing to shoot. With vision and stickhandling as strengths and the humility of being a second-year player, it’s easy to be in a pass-first mindset.

    “Everybody kind of took turns talking to him. But it’s not that he didn’t want to. A lot of times a situation like that where a guy’s got that skillset, it’s a real unselfish quality, right?” coach Dean Evason said. “But I think he gets now that he helps the team a lot when he scores goals.”

    The Wild were confident enough in Boldy’s scoring ability to commit a seven-year, $49 million contract extension to him earlier this winter, after all.

    “I think I’ve always had that mentality, but sometimes you just get into spots and it comes off your stick good,” Boldy said. “When things are going well, the puck goes in the net.”’

    The Wild are 6-1-2 without Kaprizov. Boldy is a big reason why.

    “You go through the slumps, you learn what you need to do to score. I think he’s found a good way to be in the right spot and shoot the puck when he had a good opportunity,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said.

    The Wild have only won one division title in 22 years, the five-team Northwest Division in 2007-08. They’re leading the eight-team Central Division with eight games to go, with both Colorado and Dallas too close for comfort. They haven’t won a playoff series since 2015.

    With Kaprizov due back before the postseason and Boldy on this heater, a Wild team that ranks just 23rd in the league in goals per game (2.93) ought to have a better chance to advance. Eriksson Ek and Marcus Johansson have been ideal linemates for the Boston College product and Massachusetts native.

    Since the Wild entered the league in the 2000-01 season, only five NHL players have had more hat tricks at age 21 or younger than Boldy with three: Patrik Laine (eight), Marian Gaborik (five), Steven Stamkos (five), Alex DeBrincat (four) and Connor McDavid (four). Boldy turns 22 next week, so there’s still time for one or two more.

    “He’s big. He controls the puck a lot. He’s got a good shot, good release. He’s smart. He switches it up. He’s got good moves on breakaways. He’s a total player,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”Fun to watch him grow this year.”

    Pezzetta scores shootout winner; Canadiens beat Sabres 4-3

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    BUFFALO, N.Y. ⁠— Brendan Gallagher and the Montreal Canadiens rallied back to avoid playoff elimination with less than three weeks left in their season. The Buffalo Sabres, meanwhile, are running out of chances to stay in the Eastern Conference wild-card hunt.

    Gallagher forced overtime by scoring his 200th career goal, and Michael Pezzetta scored the decisive shootout goal in a 4-3 win over the Sabres on Monday night.

    “It’s one of those things I think we earned that chance. We weren’t fantastic but we did enough on the road tonight to get a win,” Gallagher said. “Smiles all around.”

    The Canadiens could laugh, especially after Pezzetta celebrated his goal by putting his stick between his legs and riding it like a wooden horse — much like former NHL tough guy Dave “Tiger” Williams did during his 14-year NHL career spanning the 1970s and 80s.

    “I’m not sure we’ll see that again. One of a kind,” said Gallagher. “I’d be worried about falling over.”

    Pezzetta scored by driving in from the right circle to beat Eric Comrie inside the far post. Buffalo’s Jack Quinn scored in the fourth shootout round, but was matched by Montreal’s Jesse Ylonen, whose shot from in tight managed to trickle in through Comrie.

    Jordan Harris and Alex Belzile also scored for Montreal, and Jake Allen stopped 30 shots through overtime, while allowing one goal on six shootout attempts.

    Montreal would have been eliminated from playoff contention for a second straight season – and two years removed from reaching the Stanley Cup Final – with any type of loss.

    The Sabres squandered a 3-2 third-period lead to drop to 3-6-3 in their past 12. Buffalo also blew a chance to move to within four points of idle Pittsburgh, which holds the eighth and final playoff spot.

    “Just a little hesitation,” forward JJ Peterka said of the Sabres third-period lapse. “We didn’t play with much energy and we didn’t play that aggressive as we played the two periods before. I think that was the difference.”

    Buffalo’s Lukas Rousek scored a goal and added an assist while filling in for leading scorer Tage Thompson, who did not play due to an upper body injury. Peterka and defenseman Riley Stillman also scored, and Comrie stopped 38 shots through overtime, and allowed two goals on six shootout attempts.

    Montreal blew two one-goal leads to fall behind 3-2 on Stillman’s goal at the 8:31 mark of the second period.

    Gallagher scored on the fly by using Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin as a screen to snap in a shot inside the far left post. With the goal, Gallagher tied Bobby Rousseau for 24th on the Canadiens career scoring list.

    “I liked the way we corrected ourselves, it’s a sign of maturity, in the way we stayed on task,” Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis said, in recalling how the Canadiens recently unraveled in an 8-4 loss two weeks ago to Colorado, which plays a similar up-tempo style as Buffalo.


    The Sabres hosted their third Pride Night, with Russian D Ilya Lyubushkin electing not to participate in warmups by citing an anti-gay Kremlin law and fears of retribution at home in Moscow, where he has family and visits in the offseason. The remainder of the team wore dark blue jerseys with the Sabres logo on the front encircled by a rainbow-colored outline.

    During the first intermission, the Sabres broadcast a video in which GM Kevyn Adams said: “This is about recognizing someone’s humanity and true identity. We know there are people out there struggling with who they are, and we want them to know that they have an ally in the Buffalo Sabres.”


    Canadiens: At the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night.

    Sabres: Host the New York Rangers on Friday night.