First week of NHL playoffs full of fast starts and blowouts

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Turns out a two-goal lead is the safest lead in the first round of the NHL playoffs.

A three-goal lead? Insurmountable. Fall behind at all in a game? Well, good luck.

The first week of the NHL playoffs has been a stark contrast to the regular season that was full of multigoal comebacks and furious finishes. The team that scores first has won an astonishing 26 of 32 postseason games. Only one team — Pittsburgh — has erased a deficit of more than a goal and won. And 14 games have been decided by two or more goals (excluding empty-netters).

And there have been plenty of those, too.

“In the first period, you can turn it off, which is somewhat unfortunate and somewhat unexpected,” back-to-back Stanley Cup-winning Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “This is an aberration for me because, to me, in a sport that has the greatest two months of playoff action that any sport can deliver, this has probably been one of the more underwhelming playoffs we’ve seen.”

Underwhelming perhaps game to game, with just three going to overtime through Monday and just two others decided by one goal at the final horn of the third period. But six of eight series were tied at 2 through four games — matching the most in league history in a single round.

An increase in penalty calls and power-play goals combined with the quality of teams involved has contributed to an uneven start to the playoffs following a regular season that featured 42% of games resulting in a comeback win of some sort. Every team but the Philadelphia Flyers rallied from two-goal deficits, while teams overcame three-goal margins 19 times.

“Good teams know how to close out games,” Boston coach Bruce Cassidy said Tuesday. “In the regular season, you’re just not as dialed in and you have some teams that just don’t do it that often. This time of the year, guys know what needs to be done: You’ve got to manage the puck at the blue line, you have to be willing to get in the shooting lane, you might have to take a punch in the head. I think it’s just what you do in the playoffs.”

[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2022 First Round schedule, TV info]

With the notable exception of the rough-and-tumble Dallas-Calgary series that more closely resembles old-school playoff hockey, goals are not hard to come by. Scoring is even up compared with the regular season: 6.5 goals per game compared with 6.2, which was the highest since the salary cap era began in 2005.

How goals are being scored is drastically different, however.

Almost a quarter of all goals have come on the power play, up from 19% in the regular season. The league reported 78% of goals during the season came at even-strength — tied for the second-highest since the expansion era began in 1967 — compared with just 62% in the playoffs.

Asked why so many games have been lopsided, Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang said: “We see a lot more power plays in the postseason than we used to in previous ones. Maybe that’s one of the factors.”

The 8.22 power plays per game is a significant increase from the average of 6.39 over the past five playoffs and the 5.78 during the regular season. That’s a direct result of more minor penalties being called: More than 10 per game, up from under 6.5 during the season.

That has made a strong power play and penalty kill even more important than it typically is this time of year.

Take Colorado, for example. The Avalanche scored a playoff-leading seven power-play goals on 16 chances on the way to sweeping the Nashville Predators and becoming the first team to move on to the second round.

They are the exception so far. Even though the combined score of games has been 156-54, empty-net goals have inflated the margins and made a lot of close games look like they got out of hand.

“You can throw the scores out,” Minnesota coach Dean Evason said midway through his team’s series against rival St. Louis. “Every game has been close. There’s been a separation once the end of the game is finished, but I can tell you from our end of the games that we’ve won, they’ve been tight right to the end.”

The extra eyeballs on hockey back that up. Turner Sports said ratings are up nearly 50% from last year and 2019 and ESPN reported a 27% increase in viewership from the first round in 2021.

“I’ve been mentally drained because it’s been so emotional,” said Turner Sports analyst Anson Carter, who played 698 NHL games from 1996-2007. “The emotional roller coaster has been unbelievable.”

The roller coaster has not included a lot of comebacks, though. Known for being the “Comeback Cats” during the season, the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida Panthers have done it just once, though it came at a crucial time to even their series against Washington.

Falling behind just isn’t a recipe for success in the first round, which could be explained by all eight teams in the Eastern Conference putting up 100-point seasons and most of the West being even.

“The elite teams are playing now,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “Tougher to come back.”

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    Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

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    FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

    The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

    Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

    “Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

    Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

    The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

    Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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    LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

    The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

    This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

    But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

    Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

    Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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    DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

    Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

    The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

    According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

    The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

    Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

    Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

    The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

    The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.

    Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

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    DALLAS — General manager Jim Nill sensed things were coming together for the Dallas Stars even before the season started with new coach Pete DeBoer and a roster mixed with proven veterans, up-and-coming young players, and even a teenaged center.

    At the NHL’s All-Star break, after 51 games together, these Stars are leading the Western Conference.

    “Every year you start, you put a team together, and there’s always going to be question marks,” said Nill, in his 10th season as the Stars GM. “You have ideas how you think you’re going to come together, but there’s always the unknown. . This year has been one of those years where right from the start, you could just see everything was kind of jelling.”

    The Stars (28-13-10, 66 points) have their trio of 2017 draft picks that just keep getting better: All-Star winger Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The seemingly ageless Joe Pavelski, at 38 and already re-signed for next season, is on the high-scoring top line with Robertson and point-a-game winger Roope Hintz. Wyatt Johnston, their first-round pick in 2021 and half Pavelski’s age, has 13 goals.

    There is also the resurgence of six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin two years after hip surgery and 33-year-old captain Jamie Benn, who already has more goals (19) than he did playing all 82 games last season.

    The Stars have a plus-40 goal differential, which is second-best in the NHL. They are averaging 3.37 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than last season when they were the only team to make the playoffs after being outscored in the regular season. They are also allowing fewer goals, and have improved on power plays and penalty kills.

    “Where we sit at this break, I think guys are happy with that,” Seguin said, before being asked the keys to the Stars leading the West and on pace for a 100-point season with their new coach.

    “Our style, our team speed, our puck speed, being predictable. All the clichés, knowing where the puck’s going. Really how we play the five-man unit,” he said. “Our pace this year, it’s been a lot quicker. There’s been some solid depth scoring this year while we’ve got one of the best lines in hockey.”

    The Stars went into the break on their only three-game losing streak of the season, all 3-2 overtime losses at home.

    “Those aren’t real losses,” said DeBoer, who twice has gone to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team. “I’m happy where we’re at. I like how we’re playing.”

    Plus, Dallas won’t have to worry in the playoffs about 3-on-3 hockey, which has been the only real stain on their season so far. Only one team has more than its 10 losses after regulation.

    “We’ve played a lot of good hockey. We’ve made a lot of good strides in our game,” DeBoer said. “We still have another level we have to get to when we get back, but there are a lot of good things that have happened. They’ve worked to have us where we are right now in the standings. Good spot to be in.”

    The Stars have 31 games left in the regular season. The first four after the break at home, like the last four before their week-long hiatus.

    Robertson’s 33 goals rank sixth in the NHL, and the 23-year-old has the same number of assists while averaging 1.29 points a game even after he missed most of training camp before signing a four-year, $31 million contract. Pavelski has 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) while playing every game, and Hintz 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in only 43 games.

    Oettinger, who is 21-7 in regulation, has a .923 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average since signing his three-year, $12 million contract. That deal came after 223 saves in a seven-game playoff series against Calgary last May, capped by 64 in the series finale that went to overtime.

    Nill said Robertson’s production has improved even with the league adjusting to the high-scoring forward, and that Oettinger is proving to be one of the league’s best goalies. But they are just part of what has been a tremendous team effort.

    “They kind of had that mojo right from the start, and it was kind of this team’s got the right mix,” Nill said. “It’s come together well, and it’s shown in the standings. It’s been good to watch.”