Storylines From an Unforgettable First Round

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From beginning to end, the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs exemplified the phrase “there is nothing like playoff hockey.” After a relatively tame regular season, it was possible–perhaps even expected–that this year’s second round would match last year’s almost exactly.  Instead, the first round saw all four division winners falter in 4, 5, 6, and 7 games, leaving only the San Jose Sharks left standing from last year’s top 8 and none of last year’s Conference finalists still vying to return. The Tampa Bay Lightning, who tied the NHL record for wins during the regular season, were embarrassingly swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets. The defending champion Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins, combined winners of the last three Stanley Cups, lost to opponents most didn’t even predict to make the playoffs. The Vegas Golden Knights choked twice, yet it was a bizarre referee decision that will headline one of the greatest game 7’s in history. Speaking of referees…yikes. Here are the top five storylines from an unforgettable first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

5: The Refs in the National Hockey League

Hockey is not an easy sport to referee. It’s incredibly fast-paced and, at its best, is played just at the edge of the rules, with as much physicality and vitriol as can be practiced without crossing the line of what’s allowable. Unfortunately, the NHL hasn’t seemed to have found people capable of performing this job adequately. The refereeing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs so far has been nothing short of atrocious. This is not intended to blame the refs for any single team’s loss, but rather to call out NHL referees in general for their poor job performance.

It would take far too long to list all the examples of poor refereeing, so here’s a select few off the top of my head from just the Capitals-Hurricanes series: a five minute major for a fairly innocent Micheal Ferland hit, but only two minute minors for Dougie Hamilton’s vicious head-high elbow and a crosscheck from Warren Foegele on a defenseless T.J. Oshie leading to a severe injury, and then a series of obvious penalties (on both teams) in Game 7 that went uncalled as the refs seemed to have lost their whistles.

Then there’s goaltender interference, the absolute worst rule in hockey. There is not a person on this Earth who can honestly tell you they know what is goalie interference and what isn’t.The Caps have a tying goal taken away in Game 6 in a call that is consistent with rule 69.3 but contradicts rule 69.7, while Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask is impeded in his crease and Toronto’s goal stands. The NHL needs a better system for goaltender interference. Now.

4: Continued Canadian Woes

No more O’Canada in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Calgary, the one seed in the Western Conference, was handled by the eight seed Avs in five games, Winnipeg lost a hard fought series to St. Louis in six, and Toronto went out the usual way, in seven to Boston. Calgary has a solid young core and should be proud of the season they accomplished, despite faltering spectacularly. Winnipeg also has a young core but, with serious cap issues pending, will be forced to pick and choose which young talents stay and which they let go. Additionally, once future franchise goalie Connor Hellybuck is starting to raise concerns about his ability. Toronto, although boasting one of the most talented rosters in the league, has been ousted three times in five years by the same team, which has impatient fans and media members prematurely calling for Mike Babcock’s job.

If Calgary, Winnipeg, and Toronto can’t give Canada hope, the four who failed to make the playoffs – Vancouver, Edmonton, Ottawa, and Montreal – certainly aren’t going to liven the Canadian Hockey spirit. 1993 remains the last time a Canadian team won the Stanley Cup.

3: Division Winners Faltering

In what other league would two, let alone all four, division leaders bow out in the first round? It just doesn’t happen. Parity in the NHL is unlike anything in American Sports, which is why teams like the Jackets and Hurricanes proved confident enough to shock the defending Eastern Conference Finalists and the Avs and Stars took care of business against the two favorites of the west. Imagine if the second round of the NBA playoffs featured Nets-Magic and Clippers-Jazz, the entire basketball world would turn to chaos. Instead, the parity and desire-factor compels each and every hockey enthusiast to stay engaged, whether they are familiar with the teams or not. Personally, I’m happy to move on from the usual TBL-BOS and WSH-PIT second round matchups.

2: San Jose vs Vegas

NHL playoff hockey is perhaps the best experience in sports if you’re not a fan of either team playing. If you are, well, you better get a good heart doctor. This series was excellent from start to finish, but Game 7 was one of the all-time great games in the history of sports.

Down 3-0 in the third period, San Jose looked like they were done. But a questionable terrible call against Vegas gave San Jose a five minute power play, which they used to score four goals, an almost unheard of feat. That in itself would’ve caused plenty of interest. But it gets better. With less than a minute to go and Marc-Andre Fleury pulled, Vegas tied the score at four and then nearly scored again for the win seconds later. Then, after nearly a full 20 minutes of overtime, the unlikeliest of heroes arose for the Sharks. Barclay Goodrow, playing only his second shift of the overtime period, beat Fleury with a beautiful move on a semi-breakaway and ended the series.

Vegas can complain about the refs all they want, and they have a point. But you can’t expect to win a Game 7 if you give up four power play goals in a period, and then still lose in overtime. What a game.

1: Tampa Bay Lightning

What do I even say? Let’s start with something, which is more than Jon Cooper had to offer after the worst collapse in the history of the NHL. The Lightning were far and away the best team in the regular season, equalling the all-time mark for regular season wins. More importantly, Cooper’s guys had been embarrassed 4-0 at home in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals just last year. It’s a franchise that had been knocking on the door, and the expectation was never a great regular season, but a special performance in the playoffs.

Columbus, on the other hand, squeaked into the playoffs on the final weekend in hopes to win their first EVER (19 years) postseason series. Columbus didn’t come in soft though, they went all-in at the trade deadline in order to make a playoff push, acquiring Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel while retaining Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky despite previously trade rumors.

In the first period of the first game, everything went almost as expected. Tampa was dominating, led 3-0, and Columbus just didn’t look good enough. Unfortunately for Tampa, that was the only period the entire series which they seemed to be the #1 seed and historic regular season performers. What ensued for the next 280 minutes was an onslaught never before seen in the NHL. Columbus looked faster, more skilled, better disciplined, and most importantly, hungrier than the Lightning. They dominated all facets of the game in each an every period to disgracefully sweep Tampa. The hockey world expected a dominate series, they just didn’t know it would come from Columbus. What a way to win your first series in franchise history.

-Tiger Bjornlund and Shane Simmons

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