For all the talk about how much playoff experience goes into winning the Stanley Cup and the guys with gray in their beards who have been there before, rookies are stealing the show early in this NHL postseason.
Three rookie goaltenders have won a game, the defending Stanley Cup champions are getting major production from a rookie forward and the likely rookie of the year has found his groove after a rocky start.
From New York Islanders goaltender Ilya Sorokin, Carolina’s Alex Nedeljkovic and Florida’s Spencer Knight making saves to Tampa Bay’s Ross Colton and Minnesota’s Kirill Kaprizov scoring goals, the first round is proving to be something of a rookie showcase.
“I think it’s a little bit in your mental makeup,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “I’ve seen guys that are 28, 29 not be able to make some plays that 20- and 21-year-olds have been able to make, and it’s just having that mental makeup of calming everything down.”
Sixteen of the 27 rookie skaters who have appeared in the playoffs have at least one point, but the calm confidence is coming from the rookie goaltenders who have been playing like veterans.
Knight at 20 became the youngest goalie to start an elimination game and allowed a goal on the first shot he faced in his NHL playoff debut Monday night. Then he stopped the next 36 to keep the Panthers alive against the Lightning.
“I just approached it like I did every other hockey game,” Knight said. “I was a little nervous, but then I just kind of thought and remembered it’s just playing hockey and I just tried to control what I can and just have fun.”
Knight left little doubt he will start again for Florida in another elimination game Wednesday night at Tampa Bay. The same goes for Nedeljkovic in net for the Hurricanes, despite the 25-year-old starting just 23 games during the season as part of a three-goalie tandem with Petr Mrazek and James Reimer.
Stopping 142 of 153 Nashville shots for a 2.13 goals-against average and .928 save percentage through four games was more than enough for Nedeljkovic to stay in net.
“He didn’t lose the job; he didn’t play poorly,” said coach Rod Brind’Amour, who won the Cup as a player in 2006 with rookie goalie Cam Ward earning playoff MVP honors. “He played great, so there’s really no reason to take him out.”
Islanders coach Barry Trotz wouldn’t think of taking Sorokin out after he stopped 48 of 50 Pittsburgh shots in a double overtime victory in Game 5, though veteran Semyon Varlamov carried the team at times during the regular season. Trotz isn’t ready to crown Sorokin yet, despite a 1.66 GAA and .951 save percentage.
“He’s played well in this series, (but) to me, greatness is about longevity,” Trotz said. “Sidney Crosby and (Evgeni) Malkin and those guys have been really good players and elite players for a decade, and Ilya hasn’t proved it yet in the league, but it’s a good start.”
Kaprizov, the likely Calder Trophy winner as rookie of the year, had a rough start to the playoffs. The young Russian winger had just one assist to show for Minnesota’s first four games against Vegas before scoring a big goal Monday to help the Wild stave off elimination.
The polar opposite to Kaprizov’s hype, Colton has played an outsized role for the Lightning compared to expectations. He stepped in during the season amid injuries and put up 12 points in 30 games, so his two playoff goals haven’t been a surprise.
“The regular season clearly helped him out,” Cooper said. “But you’ve got to be fearless. You can’t have reservations. You can’t hold back. When you start playing not to lose, that’s basically when you’re going to lose. These guys that attack situations and have confidence with it usually have success.”
There are other rookies playing well, too: Colorado’s Alex Newhook, who played the entire first-round sweep of St. Louis, and Montreal’s Cole Caufield, who won the Hobey Baker Award as the best college player in the country and played in Game 3 against Toronto.
“There’s a lot of things to like,” linemate Nick Suzuki said of Caufield. “He plays the game with a ton of energy, sees the ice well. … He’s able to make all the plays, and when he gets a scoring opportunity, he’s always ready to shoot the puck.”
Newhook played with Knight at Boston College this past season and like Caufield only got a handful of regular-season games before being thrown into the playoff fire. The Avalanche are expecting continued improvement from one of their top prospects.
“He’s starting to make an impact on the offensive side of things and (we) trust him defensively,” coach Jared Bednar said. “Not playing a ton of minutes, but he’s been good in the minutes that he’s played.”
Colorado’s staff will be watching to see how consistent Newhook can be as the the competition gets tougher. That goes for all rookies, no matter how impressive their starts.
“You have to do it over time,” Trotz said. “That’ll be the test.”