The NHL, like any pro sports league, can become a copycat or hive-minded exercise where teams look to replicate what has brought success to the current teams that make deep runs in the playoffs.
Three teams have already qualified for their respective Conference Finals, and they all have a common thread as to why they are there. Unfortunately for NHL general managers, the secret sauce is going to be almost impossible to replicate somewhere else.
Tampa Bay, Colorado and Edmonton have punched their ticket for the NHL’s version of its “final four” teams remaining, and all have done so emphatically with star-caliber performances.
The two-time defending champions in Tampa have put things into hyper-drive, sweeping the Presidents Trophy winning Florida Panthers for their 10th straight playoff series win. Andrei Vasilievskiy just absolutely crushed the hopes and dreams of the Panthers, stopping 151 out of 154 shots he faced. That’s right — Vasilievskiy gave up three goals TOTAL in a series while facing the NHL’s highest-scoring team in years that averaged 4+ goals per contest in the regular season. All of Florida’s hard work and build over seven months to get to a special run was just completely destroyed in a matter of days. Hockey can be brutal like that.
In Colorado, the pre-playoff favorite Avalanche have done nothing to not live up to that billing, going 8-2 in the early rounds. Nathan MacKinnon’s numbers aren’t popping compared to some more performances still to be mentioned, but his 8G+5A in 10 playoff games are setting the tone and he’s buzzing around the ice looking as in control as ever. Not even Jack Johnson’s typically hilarious costly blunders can stop the Avs.
And all of that might pale in comparison to what is happening in Edmonton, where the Oilers are finally making a long run. After Connor McDavid has had to quietly sit there and absorb years of taking ridiculous criticism from the media about not playing a playoff-style or enough defense this time of year, McDavid has apparently just said the hell with it and completely gone off the deep end.
Both McDavid and running mate Leon Draisaitl have not only video game level numbers, but video game while playing on easy mode level numbers. Fittingly both have the exact same stat-line with 7G+19A in 12 games. 26 points in 12 playoff games! Draisaitl’s performance might be the even more impressive one because he is clearly playing through what looks like an ankle injury that is hampering him somewhat — not that you would know it from the results.
Before this season, McDavid had won just one playoff series in the first six seasons of his career. That was hardly his fault considering team strength and makeup, but as captain and the league’s best player, he took a lot of responsibility for the lack of success. While the Oilers were largely expected to defeat the upstart Los Angeles Kings in the first round, Edmonton’s defeat of division winning Calgary (in just five games) was the biggest statement McDavid has made in his career when he scored the series-clinching goal in overtime.
The truly elite players in the NHL that are in their primes are stepping up and putting on a show this post-season. There isn’t a lot other teams can try to do — goalies like Vasilievskiy don’t come around often, nor do players like McDavid.
For the Penguins, it’s a bitter pill to watch all these star performances without being involved. And Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel were right there as good as anyone in the first round. It’s tough to not think the fleeting thought that if Pittsburgh had the exact same team but also Vasilievskiy playing goalie, they would almost certainly still be playing. Of course, it’s pretty easy to casually wish for assigning perhaps the best playoff goalie in history to a team.
Another item that gets repeated say a lot, but still is true is just how difficult it is to win this time of year, and how thin the space between winning and losing is. I’ve been thinking about this note from Sean Gentille from yesterday:
It’s funny how this stuff works; if Toronto beats Vasilevskiy one more time in the first round, a big part of the Tampa postmortem probably would’ve revolved around how ordinary Vasilevskiy looked in that series. Instead, he slid into form sometime during the second intermission of Game 6. In the 338:12 minutes of play since then, he’s allowed four goals, total, against the regular season’s top two scoring teams and eliminated them both. Not ordinary. Not close.
Vasilevskiy only had a .880 save% in the first five games of the playoffs against Toronto. To expand on what ol’ SG mentioned, Vasilevskiy surrendered three goals in the second period of Game 6 against Toronto, including allowing two goals in the final minute of the period. John Tavares had scored a goal with just eight seconds left to give the Maple Leafs a lead and all the momentum. Toronto took that lead into the second intermission and were 20 minutes away from winning the series. It was right there.
And then, suddenly, it wasn’t. Vasilevskiy stopped all of the next 13 shots he saw to finish that game, another star in Nikita Kucherov scored a third period power play goal that would force overtime. Late in the first OT, yet another star player, Brayden Point, ended the game with a goal.
In moments, Tampa had flexed their muscles with star power and went from the brink of elimination to forcing a Game 7. That was over two weeks ago now, and they still haven’t lost a game since that point.
The difference between winning and losing can be super narrow, but when a team has players at the level of McDavid and Draisaitl or MacKinnon or Kucherov, Point and Vasilevskiy all playing at ridiculously high levels, it sure makes the ability to win more likely.