Let me begin this week by offering kudos to all of you who picked the Blackhawks and Kings to lose in the first round. I see all three of you of there.
Seriously, though, isn’t that what makes the NHL playoffs so great?
A pair of shocking first-round upsets has already eliminated many people’s co-favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
The mystery of anticipating the first round lies in identifying teams that can exorcise demons and/or overcome difficult setbacks to pull out upsets. San Jose and St. Louis were not teams at the top of that list for me.
In fact, we saw a number of surprising results.
In the East, things only went according to form in the Caps’ series win over the Flyers, though it took a bit longer than widely expected. Meanwhile, the series between Tampa and Detroit was surprisingly short.
The other two Eastern series also produced surprises. Who would have guessed that the Penguins could get past the Rangers without Marc-Andre Fleury in goal, leaving the inexperienced tandem of Jeff Zatkoff and Matt Murray to face off against Henrik Lundqvist? And how could the steady and deep Panthers lose to the Islanders, who juggled their lineup almost every night and were forced to rely on backup goalie Thomas Greiss?
The West was even more shocking, save for the Stars eliminating the Wild, as the aforementioned perennial first-round disappointments, San Jose and St. Louis, took out the ‘Hawks and Kings. The other series was a seven-game nail-biter that finally saw the Predators saddle the Ducks with a fourth straight Game 7 home-ice defeat. That's led to the firing of coach Bruce Boudreau, as much more was expected of this group.
I’m already enjoying the renewal of the sidney Crosby-Alexander Ovechkin clash as the Capitals meet the Penguins; in the regular season, the road teams went 5-0, but the Caps pulled out Game 1 at home in overtime Thursday.
In the first salvo of Round 2, unheralded Shane Prince paced the Islanders’ attack in a 5-3 win in Tampa, wresting home-ice advantage from the Lightning. He’s typical of the annual rite of spring in which a guy who scored three goals in 20 regular-season games already has three goals in eight playoff games. That’s a surprise contributor coming up large for the underdog Islanders as they try to upset their second straight division-winning team.
Looking ahead at the draft lottery
This weekend, the ping-pong balls will fall and deliver some defining moments for the lucky winners. The Maple Leafs, Oilers (again) and Canucks have the best odds of snagging the top three spots in June’s draft. The top prize is Arizona native Auston Matthews, a big and skilled center who decided to forego North American junior hockey in favor of a professional league in Switzerland. The Coyotes have the seventh-best odds of winning the lottery, but there’s is a lot of speculation that they may be willing to pay a ransom for a player who could help stabilize that franchise and sell a ton of tickets. Behind him, a pair of Finnish forwards, Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi, fill out the consensus top three spots, ahead of an uncharacteristically deep pool of talent.
I could certainly imagine a scenario in which Toronto wins the lottery and then considers trading that choice to the Coyotes for their top pick from last year, Dylan Strome, as well as whatever pick Arizona gets in the first round this year. Of course, any team that wins the lottery could get that deal out of the Coyotes, but the added factor in the Toronto scenario provides two other intriguing options, as the Leafs could trade down and still pick Alexander Nylander, brother of their own William, or they could use that lower pick to grab Matthew Tkachuk, who’s currently on the most torrid line in junior hockey alongside Mitch Marner, the Leafs’ top pick from last year’s draft.
There’s a certain synchronicity to the introduction of this new draft lottery format in a year when the opening round of the postseason has produced so many surprises. Expect more surprises in Round 2.