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Embrace the Chaos: The NHL Playoffs First-Round Exit Survey

Shocking sweeps. Game 7 heroics. Bracket-breaking upsets. Controversial calls and fisticuffs. The wild opening round of the hockey postseason had everything, and we’re just trying to make sense of it all.  

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It began with two sweeps (Islanders over Penguins, improbably; Blue Jackets over the almighty Lightning, inconceivably). It ended with the sudden Game 7 deaths of last year’s Stanley Cup finalists (Golden Knights and Capitals). Along the way, seven of the top 10 regular-season teams crashed out, including every division winner—and all four wild-card teams advanced. If this wasn’t the all-time best first round in NHL playoff history, it was certainly the most chaotic—and maybe the wildest opening postseason round we’ve seen in any sport, ever. As we take a breath before the second round begins Thursday, here’s our staff’s take on the past two weeks of puck madness.


1. What is your Twitter-length review of the first round of the NHL playoffs?

Katie Baker: “I honestly woke up this morning and felt intoxicated, even though I didn’t touch a drop of alcohol yesterday. I had that feeling I was intoxicated and unsteady on my feet, and it was just the euphoria still.” —Chet Couture, Logan’s old man

Andrew Gruttadaro:

Michael Baumann:

Cory McConnell: Aside from my favorite team in sports being swept:

Megan Schuster:

Nobody:

Me: “You guys talkin’ Sharks-Knights?”

Matt James:

Donnie Kwak:

2. What was your favorite first-round series?

Kwak: Columbus sweeping Tampa Bay, for the schadenfreude. (To be fair, I wanted Columbus to miss out on the playoffs, also for the schadenfreude.)

Baker: Boston defeating Toronto, for the schadenfreude. (To be fair, I wanted Boston to lose to Toronto, also for the schadenfreude.)

Gruttadaro: In terms of pure, NHL playoff madness, Sharks-Knights was peak. In terms of the series that brought me the most joy, seeing the Islanders snatch Sidney Crosby’s soul at Nassau Freakin’ Coliseum was a personal highlight.

Schuster: LMAO, PENS. Many have reveled in this loss as a way to laugh at Crosby, or to celebrate a once-dynastic team getting their asses handed to them, or to just generally be a Capitals fan. But I love this loss because maybe, finally, Phil Kessel will be sent to a team I can actually root for. And really that’s all I want out of life.

McConnell: Sharks over Knights. San Jose came back from 3-1 down in the series and 3-0 down in Game 7 to win and advance. Their run of goals also happened around the same time as Dame Lillard’s legendary clinching 3 (plus wave) to make for one of the most fun sports nights in recent memory.

Baumann: I didn’t watch more than a couple of minutes of the Penguins-Islanders series, because I hate the Penguins. But because Pittsburgh got humiliated, it’s also my favorite series, because I hate the Penguins.

James: I enjoyed watching the underdog Stars solve the mighty Predators. The stars of the Stars actually put points on the board, and Ben Bishop continued to project a palpable confidence in net. On the Preds side, Pekka Rinne had some up-and-down play, but the blame shouldn’t be placed on his Vezina-winning shoulders. Nashville exited the postseason the same way it entered: in last place in power-play percentage. The Predators went 0-for-16 in their six games against the Stars. No matter what the Preds tried, they couldn’t fix their one glaring weakness.

3. WTF happened to Tampa Bay?

Gruttadaro: BOB AND TORTS. While we’re here, though, can I just say that Donnie Kwak and I knew this was going to happen in February?

Baumann: Their best player took the James Neal Memorial Frustration Suspension and their best defenseman got hurt, which is tough to overcome. They got outworked and outskated. And bizarrely, John Tortorella so completely outcoached Jon Cooper that Pierre McGuire spent more time saying “bumper spot” about the Jackets’ power play than he did telling you who played for which junior team.

But what’s getting lost is that the Jackets are not your average no. 8 seed: They have a two-time Vezina winner in net, they can score up and down the lineup using a variety of looks, and a bunch of their key players—not just trade deadline pickups Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, but also 19-year-old French rookie Alexandre Texier—played only a handful of regular-season games. This is a better team than even the club that posted a 98-point season.

McConnell: Pointing to goaltending as a team’s downfall is almost always an oversimplification of a series’ circumstances, but Andrei Vasilevskiy’s numbers were brutal. After posting a Vezina-contending .925 Sv% and 2.40 GAA in the regular season, his numbers tanked to .856 Sv% and 3.82 GAA in this series. Lightning fans may wish they still had Ben Bishop back there.

Kwak: The Lightning’s league-best power play having only six opportunities over four games was a huge factor. At even strength, Tampa Bay looked mortal—even weak. In soccer they call pretty attacking play “champagne football.” Likewise, the Lightning played a bubbly form of highlight-reel hockey all season long. But the playoffs are more like “Long Island Iced Tea hockey.” Tampa Bay may need a few guys with a higher tolerance.

Schuster: When you think of the yips, you may first picture a golfer who can’t line up a putt or loses the feel for a chip shot. Or maybe it’s a baseball player who is so shook that he can’t throw the ball to first without airmailing it. When I think of the yips, though, I think of the Lightning in the playoffs. I think the best thing Tampa Bay players can do this offseason is to take a vacation, clear their heads, and maybe start employing a regimen of daily affirmations—anything to get their minds off the elephant (read: silver cup) in the room.

James: My Swedish friend recently told me that if you’re driving at a decent speed and a moose jumps out into the road, you speed up. In this metaphor the Lightning are the imposing moose, and the Blue Jackets are a car that accelerated to a speed far greater than necessary. Momentum: a force never to be underestimated.

Baker: Wait, was that story just a veiled metaphor for Victor Hedman’s injury? Because my answer is: Victor Hedman’s injury.

4. What was the most memorable moment of the first round?

Kwak:

A paradox: I would never clap for a concussion, but I still love fighting in hockey. As a Caps fan, I want to forget the Carolina series ever happened, but I’ll always remember the moment when the kid got KO’ed by his idol.

Gruttadaro: I’m probably not an expert because I wasn’t a first-round completist, and I really don’t wanna celebrate a guy getting knocked out, but: The Ovechkin-Svechnikov fight in Game 3 of the Caps-Canes series was a one-in-a-million moment. A seemingly minor scrum materialized into a 19-year-old committing to a fight with one of the most powerful hockey players in history, ended in a knockout, and became a turning point in the series. Watching it live you knew you were witnessing something bizarre and rare.

Schuster: The Sharks’ scoring four goals in four minutes [insert your gripes about major penalties being called on questionable hits in the playoffs here] was astounding. I mean:

WOW.

James: I’ll never forget walking home from the bar with Vegas leading San Jose 3-0, only to arrive home and find the Sharks up by one. The questionable major penalty that led to San Jose’s comeback will not only be talked about for years, but also may be talked about this summer in discussions regarding rule changes. The league should automatically trigger a video review whenever major (non-fighting) penalties are handed out in the playoffs. Majors are too impactful to get wrong, and they’re too infrequent for video review to significantly slow down the game. Even if double-minor penalties start being called as majors to trigger video reviews, we’re still not talking about a very common occurrence.

Baker: Also the Sharks, except I’m going with the B-side: Tomas Hertl’s shorthanded 2OT winner in Game 6.

Baumann:

Columbus’s first-period bed-shitting in Game 1 was so in character I couldn’t believe that it’d ever get out of that hole. The Blue Jackets’ comeback victory, capped by Seth Jones’s game-winner, seemed even more improbable than San Jose’s power play reign of terror. So shocking, in fact, that the series was over before the sense of wonder wore off.

McConnell:

5. Who was the biggest goat of the first round?

Kwak: Nikita Kucherov, he of the 128-point regular season, failed to score a single goal against Columbus, and missed a game after being suspended for a reckless hit. The shame didn’t end at the whistle—Kucherov had to endure this from his countryman Artemi Panarin in the post-sweep handshake line:

Gruttadaro: Probably Nikita Kucherov for going full Draymond Green. But I’m also officially out on Stamkos too.

Baumann: I’m gonna go with Kucherov as well. Johnny Gaudreau could end up in this section, but I still can’t find him.

James: You hate to single out a goaltender for small-sample-size stats, but Andrei Vasilevskiy is a Vezina finalist this season, and he just finished dead last among all first-round goaltenders in save percentage (.856). He certainly wasn’t the only Tampa Bay player to underperform, but the higher you are, the farther you have to fall.

Schuster: Can I say all the Canadian teams? I’m going to say all the Canadian teams.

Baker: On the one hand, I feel ridiculous and unfair judging anyone based on a postgame press conference held right after they’ve just been extravagantly and unexpectedly swept; it goes against all my softy values. On the other hand, something about Jon Cooper’s remarks following Game 4—“In today’s game with the parity,” he said, “it’s not unusual that an 8-[seed] beats a 1 anymore”—just felt disappointingly hollow, like something that you’d BS when caught off-guard in a conversation about a sport you haven’t followed. Karma shall now strike me down.

McConnell: The Penguins offense. All credit to the Islanders—the regular season’s best defensive team—but Malkin-Crosby-Kessel scoring a combined two goals on their way to being swept is shocking in any context.

6. Conversely, who was the first-round GOAT?

Gruttadaro: As a fan of the Buffalo Sabres, watching Robin Lehner on the Islanders has been, uh, less than fun.

McConnell: Because the series was a dud, no one’s really talking about NYI’s neck-tatted goaltender, Robin Lehner (sorry, Andrew). He had a .956 Sv% and 1.47 GAA in that series, by far the best goaltending numbers of this postseason. He’ll likely come back down to earth eventually, but for now he’s fueling the surging Islanders’ run.

Baker: You mean besides Barry Trotz? Hmm … the Official’s Major Penalty Call may have been pretty bad, but the League’s Impenetrable Circular Logic Vortex Statement Addressing the Official’s Major Penalty Call stays undefeated.

Schuster: Choosing a goalie is probably a cop-out, but can we talk about Ben Bishop’s first-round stats for a second? .945 save percentage (third in the league), 1.90 goals against average (tied for third), and 206 total saves (fifth). A hot hand in net can shift entire playoff series, and I certainly wouldn’t want to stare down him and Dallas in Round 2.

Baumann: Mark Stone. I know his team got knocked out, and that while he scored 10 points in the first four games of the series (when the Knights went up 3-1) he had just two points in the final three games (all losses). But Stone was unbelievably dominant, more so than one could possibly expect from a forward, particularly a winger.

James: Vegas’s Max Pacioretty–Paul Stastny–Mark Stone line was relentless, tallying up 31 points between the three and contributing to the team’s 27.6 percent power play. That line was clicking like no other, and their creativity was a joy to watch.

Kwak: Colorado center Nathan MacKinnon has received media plaudits for making the leap this postseason, but most already knew he was an elite NHL player. Rookie defenseman Cale Makar, however, didn’t play a single NHL game before his playoff debut. On April 12, the UMass sophomore won the Hobey Baker Memorial Award as the NCAA’s top college hockey player. On April 13, his Minutemen fell to Minnesota Duluth in the NCAA title game. On April 14, Makar signed an entry-level deal with the Avalanche, who drafted the Calgary native with the no. 4 overall pick in 2017. On April 15, Makar made his NHL debut in Game 3 of Colorado’s first-round series against his hometown Flames and scored a goal on his first shot attempt. The Avalanche won 6-2 and then beat Calgary two more times to finish off their upset. Averaging 18 minutes of ice time, the 20-year-old Makar has lived up to his billing as an elegant, unflappable offensive D-man. With his emergence, Colorado is already looking like a force this postseason; with two first-round picks (including the no. 4 overall) in June’s draft, they could be stocked for years to come.

7. With the top two seeds gone in the first round, does the NHL have a regular-season problem or a playoff-format problem? Or should we just embrace the chaos?

James: There’s no problem at all here. The uncertainty of the NHL playoffs is what makes them so much more exciting than the NBA playoffs.

Gruttadaro: EMBRACE THE CHAOS. It’s what makes the NHL postseason so good. Look at the NBA, where only one first-round series went to 2-2, and where only one lower seed at most is going to advance. Meanwhile, the NHL had multiple upsets and three Game 7s. Yeah, I’m OK with this.

Kwak: I like the divisional format—give me Bruins-Leafs every spring—but I do think the failures of Tampa Bay and Calgary prove that the regular season is largely meaningless except for the pursuit of individual stats. One possible solution is to shorten it by 10 to 15 games, but we know that’ll never happen.

Schuster: I would like to select two of these options for reasons completely independent of one another. First: The NHL should change the playoff format. I know, I know, the early-round rivalry games we get are exceptional and really distinguish the pre-final competitiveness from other leagues (*cough* the NBA *cough*). HOWEVER. If we are truly trying to gauge who the best teams in the league are, there are better ways to do that than continually pitting the same franchises against each other year after year.

Second: LET CHAOS REIGN. Losing the no. 1 seeds early on isn’t a problem for me—in fact, it makes me appreciate this league that much more. No team is safe, at any stage, against even the lowest-of-the-low opponents. I love a good Round 1 upset and love a Round 1 upset sweep even more. Bless the hockey gods for truly delivering this season.

McConnell: The chaos is fun, but as a Metro Division watcher, I’d like a conference-based, NBA-style playoff format. This year, an excellent CBJ team nearly missed the playoffs because of a stacked division (and proceeded to trounce the Bolts!). Divisional inequity is real, and that’s one way to address it.

Baker: Don’t claim to crave the chaos unless you’re willing to force teams to have to choose their first-round opponents!!!

Baumann: Nah man, the chaos is why we do the NHL playoffs. If you want the best teams to face off in the Stanley Cup final, I have a list of stocks for you to buy when you hop in your time machine and head back to 1968.

8. Which second-round series are you most looking forward to?

Kwak: My team is done, so my interest will inevitably wane. That said, Avalanche-Sharks should make for some fun late nights.

Schuster: Bruins–Blue Jackets, if only because I’m hoping and praying Torts can work his wily magic and save us from another impending Boston championship.

McConnell: Bruins-Jackets is going to be chaos. Two chippy, physical teams. One city that wins everything every year versus one that’s never won anything. A giant fucking cannon. The NHL’s best villain (Brad Marchand) versus Torts. What’s not to love?

Baumann: Bruins-Jackets. Most of the fun teams got knocked out in the first round, so this looks like the most intense and physical series left on the docket.

James: Bruins-Jackets is going to be a tiring bloodbath, and I can’t wait to see which team limps into the East finals, bruised and battered. Honorable mention to Avalanche-Sharks. I can’t fathom how Martin Jones is going to handle the impossible number of shots that the Avs put on goal.

Baker: Dallas just needs to win one more series for the 2019 pick it traded to the Rangers for Mats Zuccarello to convert to a first-rounder from a second. Go Stars! (More broadly, Dallas just needs to keep having the type of happy, team-building postseason experience that might convince Zuccarello to re-sign there this summer, which would also give the Rangers a 2020 first-rounder instead of a third. GO STARS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

9. After round one, who is your Cup champ?

Kwak: NHL playoff predictions are clearly a fool’s errand, but I hope either San Jose or St. Louis lifts the Cup for the first time in their respective franchise histories. Their fans have suffered enough, and I want them to experience this kind of joy.

McConnell: Sharks. Looking at their roster, there are too many talented players who’ve never won the Cup, so they’re a fun sentimental pick. Seeing Jumbo Joe pass the cup off to Erik Karlsson would be incredible. This … is never going to happen, is it?

Baker: My heart wants to see whether Joe Thornton would react to four wins in the Cup final the same way he once promised to treat four goals in one game; my head assumes that I’ll have to endure, like, a week of Storm Surge think pieces. (Hey, if the Canes do go deep, can somebody please check on Jeff Skinner?)

Gruttadaro: For my own health, I must continue to mentally prepare for the city of Boston winning championships in all four major sports in the same year. I will not sleep peacefully until the Bruins are dead.

Schuster: [Deep, existential sigh] Probably the Bruins. Welcome to hell.

James: The best thing about this opening round is how unpredictable it’s been. I certainly didn’t predict this at the start of the postseason, but my Cup pick at the moment is the Columbus Blue Jackets. They’ve got grit, they’ve got goal-scoring across four lines, they’ve got great goaltending, and they just swept one of the greatest regular-season teams of all time.

Baumann: Give me the Blue Jackets and their Gigantic Fucking Cannon.