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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.

Roundtable: Round 1 surprising players; toughest road to Stanley Cup Final

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What player surprised you most (good or bad) in Round 1?

SEAN: Entering Round 1, there wasn’t a whole lot of confidence in the Calgary Flames goaltending. They had enough talent to get by the Colorado Avalanche despite the up and down play from Mike Smith and David Rittich during the regular season. While they went out in five games, you can’t place any blame on the play of Smith, who posted a .947 even strength save percentage and a .935 high-danger save percentage, via Natural Stat Trick.

JAMES: Johnny Gaudreau, and frankly, the Flames’ top players overall, Matthew Tkachuk included. It’s one thing for Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen to dominate – they tend to do that when they’re even remotely healthy – but Calgary must be stunned by just how severely the strength vs. strength matchups went in Colorado’s favor. The Lightning getting swept was the biggest upset of Round 1, but the Flames’ play was the most upsetting.

ADAM: I almost think I have to go with Warren Foegele, even though I hate — HATE! —  the play that knocked T.J. Oshie out of the series and thought he was fortunate to not get suspended for it. But if you would have told me at the start of their Round 1 series with the Washington Capitals that not only would the Hurricanes win, but it would be Foegele that ended up leading the team in goals I would have laughed in your face. He only had 10 goals and 15 total points all season and finished the first round with four goals and six points in only seven games. Totally out of nowhere for me.

JOEY: Jordan Eberle had a tough regular season, but he really came to play in the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Not only did Eberle get his name on the scoresheet at least once in every single game but his team also controlled nearly 54 percent of the shot attempts when he was on the ice. He was also on the ice for 21 high-danger chances for compared to just eight against. The Islanders forward picked a heck of a time to put it all together, as he’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1st. They’ll need him to keep performing at this level if they’re going to make it through to the next round.

SCOTT: Oskar Sundqvist. For a long time, Sundqvist was just that got that got pasted by Tom Wilson in the preseason. After watching him for six games in the series against the Winnipeg Jets, you start to see more than just that nasty hit. Against Winnipeg, he was physical, he produced, adding two goals and two assists in the series, and he played meaningful minutes alongside Jaden Schwartz and Brayden Schenn on the second line (including a five-shot effort in Game 6).

RYAN: Warren Foegele had 10 goals and just 15 points in 77 games in the regular season, but he managed to be a factor in the first round. He had two goals and an assist in Game 3, scored just 17 seconds into Game 4, and chipped in another goal in Game 6. With six playoff points, he’s tied for second place in the Hurricanes’ scoring race, though I don’t expect him to be nearly as effective going forward.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Which Round 2 team do you believe faces the toughest route to the Stanley Cup Final?

SEAN: The most immediate challenge for the Colorado Avalanche is facing a San Jose Sharks team coming off the emotional high of a 3-1 series comeback and an epic Game 7 to advance to Round 2. That could benefit them early on in the series if the Sharks are still riding those emotional waves. But if Good Martin Jones is what we’re going to see, then the Avs are in for a challenge. The Blues and Stars would pose a similar challenge in going up against stingy defense and good goaltending. Plus there’s the change in play at how the Blues have played since January and the Stars finally finding an identity under Jim Montgomery down the stretch.

JAMES: The Blue Jackets, by a hair. I don’t think you can emphasize enough how unlikely that Lightning sweep was. We can dig through reasons all day, yet Columbus played at a high level — and the Blue Jackets had to. Next, they face a focused, versatile, and dangerous Bruins team. While a would-be third-round opponent seems less foreboding on paper, Columbus still isn’t in a spot to take anyone lightly. The West is likely to provide a robust opponent in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, too. There are plenty of other arguments because there aren’t many easy outs in this tournament (if Colorado goes deep, they’ll have a case), but the Blue Jackets get my vote.

ADAM: Honestly it is still probably the Blue Jackets for me, just because I think they have to play the most complete team still standing in Round 2. This was always going to be their issue for me in the playoffs, the fact they got stuck in the hardest bracket and that even if they got through Tampa Bay, they were going to have to face another top team in the very next round. If they get through this they will have more than earned their spot in the Eastern Conference Final and it would probably be one of the most impressive postseasons runs we have seen in quite some time.

JOEY: I have to go with the Carolina Hurricanes. Yes, they knocked off the defending Stanley Cup Champions in the first round, but all that did was get them a date with one of the stingiest teams in the league. That’s not to say that Carolina can’t beat the Islanders over seven games, but their journey to the next round definitely won’t be an easy one. Also, if they do find a way to win their second-round series, they’ll have Columbus or Boston waiting for them in the next round. No matter what happens though, they’re playing with house money at this point.

SCOTT: Columbus. Sorry, but can lightning strike twice? The Bruins are going to grind much harder than Tampa, and they likely know that they’re the frontrunners now with Tampa gone and the rest of the division winners. That’s going to provide some extra steam in the engine. Can Columbus beat Boston? After Round 1, anything can be done. But if we’re talking toughest route to the Cup, it’s got to be the team that has to knock off the first- and second-ranked teams in the NHL to get there. It’s an incredible tale to tell if they do. 

RYAN: The Avalanche. Although Martin Jones continues to give me pause, I still believe the Sharks are ultimately going to win the Stanley Cup and the Avalanche will have to go through them to get any further. Even if the Avalanche manage to pull off that, they’ll have to face the winner of the Stars-Blues series. The Blues are a great all-around squad while the Stars have an elite offensive core supported by a Vezina Trophy finalist in goal, so either of those teams would make life very difficult for the Avalanche even if they do manage to get past San Jose.

PHT’s Round 2 previews
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

The Playoff Buzzer: Wilson’s brace helps Avalanche through; Andersen bounces back

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  • Auston Matthews and Kasperi Kapanen scored 2:12 apart in the third to push the Bruins to the brink
  • Avalanche trample Flames, sending Calgary crashing out of the playoffs

Maple Leafs 2, Bruins 1 (TOR leads 3-2)

A game where neither team gave the other much time through two periods ended in a bit of a flurry as Toronto, led by Auston Matthews, (controversially) found two goals in 2:12 in the third. It would prove to be enough, with the Bruins scoring with less than a minute left and their net empty. Toronto has a chance now to finally oust the Bruins on Sunday.

Avalanche 5, Flames 1 (COL wins 4-1)

Colorado fanned the Flames right out of the playoffs with an impressive, and surprisingly easy Game 5 win. Calgary didn’t provide much resistance facing elimination and are now the second top-seed team in the playoffs to be sent packing. Mike Smith could only do so much with the lack of scoring he received. And Calgary could only watch as Colorado’s top line of Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog trampled all over them.

Three stars

1. Colin Wilson, Colorado Avalanche

Two goals, one assist and a second-period effort that put the Flames down 4-1. Wilson first two goals of the series helps the Avs put their foot on the throats of the Flames. Wilson also assisted on Mikko Rantanen’s first of the night, a goal that stood as the game-winner.

2. Kasperi Kapanen, Toronto Maple Leafs 

Auston Matthews’ goal may be tainted by a controversial non-call on a goaltender interference challenge. There was no doubt about Kapanen’s goal, however, and it proved to be the deciding marker in a close game. Kapanen had a great game and nearly scored shorthanded earlier in the game on a breakaway. He’ll sleep soundly knowing his first of the playoffs was a crucial one. Kapanen added an assist on Matthews’ goal and had three shots on goal.

3. Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs

After allowing five goals on 30 shots in Game 4, Andersen surrendered just one in Game 5 to put the Boston Bruins on the brink of elimination.

Highlight of the night

Tic-tac-toe:

Controversy of the night

Factoids

  • Never before had both top seeds from their respective conferences been eliminated in the first round. (Frank Seravalli)
  • The Maple Leafs are 19-5 when leading a best-of-seven series 3-2. (NHL PR)

Thursday’s Games
Game 5:
Stars at Predators (Series tied 2-2), 3 p.m. ET, NBC (Live Stream)
Game 6: Jets at Blues (STL leads 3-2) 7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, (Live stream)
Game 5: Hurricanes at Capitals (Series tied 2-2), 8 p.m. ET, NBC (Live Stream)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Avalanche douse Flames as Calgary fanned from playoffs

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It’s taken just nine games for both No. 1 seeds from their respective conferences to be ousted from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Nine. And the team that tied an NHL record for wins in a regular season went out in four. The 107-point Calgary Flames resisted for an addition game as the eighth-place Colorado Avalanche dispatched them in five games after a 5-1 win on Friday.

In the NHL’s storied history, over 100 years of existence, never have the top seeds from each conference from the regular season been put out in the first round.

After the Columbus Blue Jackets shocked the hockey world earlier this week, the Avalanche sent similar tremors when they fanned the Flames, Colorado’s first series win in 11 years

It’s hard to imagine.

Maybe Colorado was burned out a bit after clinching the final playoff spot just a few days earlier. Maybe it was Smith’s solid outing after he was given the vote of confidence heading in as the starter despite his struggles down the stretch

Maybe it was all a facade.

Game 1 seemed more like what many thought this series would resemble as Mike Smith and the Flames shutout the Avs 4-0.

Colorado made a third-period comeback in Game 2 and then won the game in overtime. The momentum carried into Game 3, where Colorado scored six to take the series lead. Finding themselves down once again in the third, the Avs erased a 2-0 deficit to tie the game and then won once again, emphatically, in overtime.

Game 5 was just a continuation of Colorado playing better and finding a way.

The Avs built a 2-0 lead, allowed a goal with six seconds left in the first, and then took over in the second and third.

Colin Wilson scored a brace in the middle frame and Mikko Rantanen scored this fourth and fifth of the series just 57 seconds into the third to really put this series to bed.

Perhaps there’s something to be said for teams playing meaningful games down the stretch. The Avalanche did so every night until Game 82. An off-night could have spelled disaster, so there was that heightened sense of urgency and ability to play at a high level right out of the gate, even if Game 1 didn’t suggest that.

Calgary, better rested, took advantage in Game 1, but Colorado’s pace was just too much after that.

Smith, who had all sorts of question marks dragging in the tin cans behind him. But he put a lot of that to rest in Game 1, and then was solid the rest of the series. His problem was lack of run support.

Johnny Gaudreau? One assist.

Sean Monahan? One goal, one assist.

Elias Lindholm? One goal, one assist.

Matthew Tkachuk? Two goals, one assist

The Flames found just seven goals in the final four games. That won’t do it in the playoffs, even with Smith playing well. .

Calgary led the lead with a league-low 28.1 shots allowed per game in the regular season. They entered Friday’s game allowing a league-high 43.3, over 15 more per game (and eight more than the next most-peppered team in the playoffs this year.

And, most importantly, they couldn’t stop Mikko Rantanen (five goals, four assists) or Nathan MacKinnon (three goals, five assists.

Colorado’s top line came as advertised. In fact, they combined (along with Gabriel Landeskog) for 21 points in the series, more than all of the Flames’ 12 forward combine.

Calgary’s regular-season offense proved more false advertising.

“Calgary didn’t _____” will be a popular fill-in-the-blank question in southern Alberta for the days and weeks to come as try to figure out what went wrong in the postseason.

Aside from Tampa’s epic exit, Calgary’s is not far behind in terms of unlikelihood. If nothing else, both series show that all a team needs to do is get into the playoffs. From there, the sky’s the limit.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Wraparound: Goaltending hasn’t been an issue for Flames

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down each day’s matchups with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

Even though the Calgary Flames finished right at the top of the Western Conference standings, many hockey fans doubted whether or not they were a serious Stanley Cup contender. The reason for the doubt was pretty obvious, too. No one seemed to believe in either of their goaltenders.

Mike Smith and David Rittich both had difficult stretches at various times throughout the season. In the end, the Flames decided to roll with Smith in the postseason. The 37-year-old finished the campaign with 23-16-2 record, a 2.72 goals-against-average and a .898 save percentage in 42 games.

The belief heading into the series was that if Calgary’s best players could score enough, they could compensate for the shaky goaltending. After all, the Flames had five players surpass the 70-point mark during the regular season. Johnny Gaudreau (99), Sean Monahan (82), Elias Lindholm (78), Matthew Tkachuk (77) and Mark Giordano (74) so offensive production wasn’t a worry.

But after four games against the Colorado Avalanche, the Flames now find themselves on the brink of elimination, and it’s not for the reason we all thought. They have to find a way to stay alive in Game 5 (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN, live stream)

Smith hasn’t been the issue at all. He’s actually been really good between the pipes throughout the entire series and if anything, he’s kept them in games. It’s their high-end offensive guys that have let them down. Gaudreau has one assist through four games and Monahan has a goal and a helper. That’s it.

Over the last two games, Smith has stopped 99 of 108 shots the Avalanche have fired his way. The fact that he’s faced that much rubber over the last two games is insane. Yes, that’s a lot of goals to give up over two games, but the team in front of him checked out in Game 3 and they blew a 2-0 lead in Game 4.

“It’s nothing personal,” Smith said after Game 4, per the team website. “It’s about the team winning. I’m just one little cog.

“It’s nice to have personal success, obviously, but when you don’t get the results it doesn’t matter. You need to do more.”

The Flames are in must-win mode. We’ve already seen one no. 1 seed go down, so it wouldn’t be too shocking to see the top team in the West go down, too.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

TODAY’S SCHEDULE

Game 5: Maple Leafs at Bruins, 7 p.m. ET (series tied 2-2): It’s been a fierce battle between the top line of both teams. John Tavares and Patrice Bergeron have gone head-to-head a lot. In Game 3, the Leafs trio got the better of that matchup, but in Game 4 the Bruins’ top players took their game to another level. Who comes out on top tonight? (NBCSN, Live stream)

PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs

Predators vs. Stars
Blues vs. Jets
Flames vs. Avalanche
Sharks vs. Golden Knights

Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.