The first round of the NHL’s COVID Cup has provided viewers with a plethora of exciting memories, including an abundance of goals and some monumental comebacks (or collapses rather), not to mention a near eight-period game to kick things off. In short, we’ve had some pretty exciting hockey.
Despite losing in five games, the Columbus Blue Jackets had some truly inspiring performances by their top players. Seth Jones, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and Joonas Korpisalo proved that the Columbus Blue Jackets can be a dominant team in this league and should hold their heads high looking back at this postseason. They forced the Tampa Bay Lightning to pay a high price to get through to the next round, and they are surely going to feel the effects of this series as they progress deeper into the playoffs
With that being said, these playoffs seem to be an unofficial changing of the guard around the league. With many of the stars of this past decade either taking early bows in the Play-In or dealt with swiftly in the first round, we are seeing many of the next decade’s stars taking the reigns. Not only are we seeing the Colorado Avalanche turn into a bonafide Cup contender in front of our eyes, but many playoff newcomers are making immediate contributions to their clubs
In the latest instalment of QSAO’s Insights Around the NHL, we look at how the playoffs have shaken out so far, and where they’re headed next.
1. The Flames give an uninspiring performance in Round One – Are big changes needed?
I had an optimistic feeling about the Calgary Flames this year.
As I mentioned in my last article, after watching their play against the Jets, it looked like it was all coming together. Forward Johnny Gaudreau finally showed up during the playoffs, and Cam Talbot looked readily able to give the Flames’ defense a couple of lucky breaks when needed. However, that all became undone when forward Matthew Tkachuk left Game 2 early after taking a couple of big hits from Jamie Benn and Jamie Oleksiak.
While Tkachuk was not necessarily driving the offense for Calgary this post-season, scoring only 1 goal and 2 points this post-season, he did rank 6th amongst Flames forwards in xGF (2.27) and xGF% (53.2%) at 5v5. Following Tkachuk’s exit, the Flames did manage to shut out the Stars’ offense, however, they followed that up with three straight losses, including two massive comebacks from the Stars.
To scope things in, Game Six was quite a debacle. There is a myriad of reasons as to why the Flames fumbled this game, but to generalize, it all came down to sloppy play and irresponsible hockey. Bad giveaways, bad goaltending, stupid penalties (we’re looking at you Milan Lucic), you name it, it was all there. In all fairness, I did think Lucic’s delay of game penalty was unlucky, as it looked to have grazed the shoulder of Corey Perry. It’s unfortunate that this game smears what was otherwise a decent postseason performance from Lucic, who scored 1 goal and 5 points in ten games.
Moving forward, the Flames need to take a hard look at their roster composition.
Despite having already committed money and term to Rasmus Andersson and Noah Hanifin, the future of the Flames back-end is still uncertain. Apart from the aforementioned duo, only rookie defenseman Juuso Valimaki and captain Mark Giordano are signed past this season.
Defenseman TJ Brodie, who has been an integral part of the Flames’ defense, looks set to hit free agency this fall, which opens up a big hole on the offensive side, despite a lacklustre performance this post-season. While keeping Brodie is a huge boost in the locker room, letting him walk may be the first step in a much-needed shakeup.
Additionally, with over $10-million tied up in the contracts of ageing forwards Mikael Backlund and Milan Lucic, it is important that the Flames’ roughly $20-million in expected cap space be used effectively. That may mean going with a new-look defense next season, in order to provide better goaltending and improved secondary scoring up front. Regardless of how GM Brad Treliving decides to address the Flames’ issues, they will be one of the teams to watch this offseason.
2. The stars are on display in the bubble – Picking the early Conn Smythe leaders
This year’s playoffs have provided an opportunity for many players to take the next step in terms of their importance to their teams, as the playoffs usually do for the stars of the league. So far, there are a few names I found to be a cut above the rest of their peers. Of course, it’s early, and a lot can happen in the forthcoming rounds, but with the way that these five players have been performing, there is no doubt in my mind that their roles (and production) will increase exponentially as their teams push on in their quest for the Cup.
Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
While we shouldn’t be surprised with Nathan MacKinnon’s play in Round One, we can certainly admire it. MacKinnon simply outplayed Arizona in their five-game series, scoring 3 goals and 10 points in 5 games, doubling his PPG from the Round-Robin. The Coyotes simply did not have an answer to MacKinnon and company, and the Avs took full advantage of that. MacKinnon was always a safe bet for Playoff MVP, but he knows he still has a lot to prove in this league, and he is making sure to show up these playoffs.
Jacob Markstrom, Vancouver Canucks
Where would the Canucks be without Jacob Markstrom? Not only is Markstrom the most important player to his team right now but has been by far the best goaltender through the first two rounds of the NHL’s Return to Play. Markstrom leads all goalies (min. 200 minutes played at 5v5) in Goals Saved Above Average (7.09) and High Danger Save Percentage (0.957), among other impressive statistics.
In their series against St. Louis, Markstrom made save after save, allowing Vancouver just enough time to get it together and swing the momentum of the game in their favour. The game that sticks out the most for me is Game 5, where Vancouver went through a solid stretch where Markstrom was forced to defend surefire goals on several occasions, including this save due to an untimely deflection off the referee. Despite the tall task ahead of the Canucks against Vegas, if Marky continues to play the way he has the past 10 games, he will give Vancouver the opportunity to beat anybody.
Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning
Brayden Point has already played the role of hero multiple times for the Tampa Bay Lightning, scoring two OT game-winners, including the dagger in their 5OT thriller. With 5 goals and 10 points in the post-season, Point leads the Lightning in both categories, while his line composed of Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov, and himself have dominated control of the puck throughout the Return to Play. Looking ahead to their series against the Boston Bruins, Point’s resiliency will be tested against a team that plays as physical as Boston does. That being said, the Lightning will continue to lean on Point’s offensive instincts and goalscoring ability as they battle it out in the Eastern Conference.
Shea Theodore, Vegas Golden Knights
There has not been a team that has bullied any of the competition they have faced more than the Vegas Golden Knights, and Shea Theodore has been one of the main reasons as to why. With 4 goals and 7 points, Theodore ranks 1st in goals and 3rd in points among defensemen. Theodore has been a puck-possession beast in these playoffs, ranking 4th in xGF% (65.82%) among all active defensemen, while also ranking 3rd in Scoring Chances/60 (37.88). With his booming slapshot and physical playstyle, Vegas will continue to rely on their star defenseman at both ends of the ice as they begin their second-round series against the high-flying Canucks.
Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars
Miro Heiskanen is quietly putting together a monstrous playoff performance. Heiskanen’s 3 goals and 12 points rank first amongst defensemen and 3rd amongst all skaters, behind only Elias Pettersson and Nathan MacKinnon. Heiskanen’s calmness with the puck allows him to slow the game down and find passing lanes with ease, which he did time and time again during their six-game series against Flames. Throughout his first two years in the league, Heiskanen is already one of the league’s best and is the engine that runs the Dallas Stars machine, averaging 26:06 per game, ranking second amongst active skaters this playoff. Now, Heiskanen is set to go toe-to-toe with fellow 2017 draftee Cale Makar in what will be an exciting series against the Colorado Avalanche.
3. Rookie Report: Welcome to the Denis Gurianov show, Makar & Hughes Continue to shine in Round One
Getting drafted in 2015 comes with a lot of added attention. Fans endlessly harp on how their franchises could have better utilized their selections in a draft that has the potential to beat 2003 as the greatest Entry Draft of all time. For the Dallas Stars, this conversation has surrounded their 12th overall pick in 2015, Denis Gurianov. Gurianov’s road to the NHL has had its ups and downs, to say the least, namely being a healthy scratch at times during the Texas Stars’ Calder Cup run in 2018.
Fast forward to the 2020 NHL Playoffs, where Gurianov is tied for 1st in playoff goals (6), including a monstrous four-goal game to send the Stars into the second round. Gurianov was a highly-touted goalscorer leading up to the draft and has shown flashes of top-six sniper potential in his game. Now, after already scoring 20 goals during the regular season, Gurianov is proving that he can become the elite sniper that he was hoped to be in his draft year. With 6 goals and 7 points in nine games, Gurianov is tied for 3rd in rookie scoring, and don’t expect him to slow down, especially with the Stars’ looming offensive battle with the Avalanche.
In other rookie news, Cale Makar picked up his play immensely in the first round of the playoffs, scoring 1 goal and 6 points in five games against the Coyotes, which featured this beautiful end-to-end goal. Quinn Hughes continued his dominant play this postseason as well, matching the NHL rookie defenseman point streak record at six games, which he now shares with Al MacInnis and Zarley Zalapski. Heading into Round Two, the two young phenoms will have their work cut out for them, as they will have to carry the burden of shutting down some electric offensive teams in the Dallas Stars and Vegas Golden Knights.
Despite their first-round exits, Nick Suzuki and Kirby Dach have proved to be essential to their the Hawks and Habs’ success early in their careers. Both players will benefit immensely from their extended playoff stays and are showing flashes of star potential already.
Another rookie I’ve noticed all over the ice these playoffs is Flyers first-year Joel Farabee. Farabee’s 3 goals and 4 points place 9th in rookie scoring, but what I noticed the most in this series was his tenacity and confidence on the ice, plus he has not been afraid to trade shoves with anyone these playoffs. That confidence and energy on the ice will provide a great deal of value in Philly’s quest for the Cup.
4. QSAO’s Western Conference Round Two Preview
Tino’s Western Conference Playoff Prediction Counter: 3/4 (75%)
Despite all my talk about the Eastern Conference (particularly the Metropolitan Division) during the season, I have to say that the Western Conference is looking scary right now. Not only does the West feature the two best teams in the NHL’s Return to Play thus far in Vegas and Colorado, but also two dark horses with upset potential in Vancouver and Dallas. All four teams have immense talent on their rosters, making for an exciting Conference Semi-Finals.
Vegas Golden Knights (1) vs. Vancouver Canucks (5)
The Vegas Golden Knights are the team to beat right now.
After cruising through the Qualifiers, the Golden Knights made light work of the Chicago Blackhawks, winning the series in five games. The Knights have been magnificent at 5v5, as they lead the league with a 59.53 CF% through eight games, and they lead the NHL in 5v5 Goals For with 15. Additionally, the Knights rank second among active teams in High Danger Chances For % (60.4%) behind only the NY Islanders, while ranking first among active teams in HDCF (90).
The Canucks on the other hand, have been quite shaky in their own end at 5v5, posting the second-worst Corsi For % (45.69%) and most High Danger Chances Against (91) amongst active teams. However, as alarming as these statistics may be, it goes to show how good Jacob Markstrom has been in these playoffs. As impressive as it was for this young team to knock off the defending champs, Jacob Markstrom cannot bail out the Canucks forever (well, he probably can but we’re talking semantics here). Vancouver needs to tighten up their play in the defensive zone if they want any chance against a high-pressure team like the Knights.
The key to this series for the Canucks is to keep up their intensity on the forecheck that worked against St. Louis, and to keep their foot on the gas, because as soon as they play less aggressively, teams are able to pick them apart with ease. For Vegas, they just need to keep playing their game, and exploit the Canucks’ defensive inefficiencies as much as possible. While this will be a great series to watch, and it pains me to say it, the Knights should be able to get through to the Conference Finals quite comfortably here.
My Pick: Vegas Golden Knights
Colorado Avalanche (2) vs. Dallas Stars (3)
The Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars are both coming into this series on an extreme high. The Avalanche picked the ‘Yotes apart, outscoring them 22-8, including a 14-2 goal differential in their last two games. The Stars, on the other hand, showed the NHL that once again, no lead is ever safe, coming back from a three goal deficit with seven-straight goals to knock off the Calgary Flames.
This is an interesting matchup for me, as both the Avalanche and Stars have deep rosters, and can receive contributions from up and down the lineup. The key for the Stars is to, well, get their stars going. Tyler Seguin has recorded a measly 3 assists during this post-season, while Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov have scored only 2 goals each, respectively. The Stars’ top-line trio needs to pick it up offensively or else Dallas simply will not have the firepower to beat an Avalanche team that could realistically cruise their way to the Cup. Again, this series is not a surefire win for the Avalanche, but the Stars need more goals out of their top guys for that sentiment to hold true.
My Pick: Colorado Avalanche
5. QSAO’s Eastern Conference Round Two Preview
Tino’s Eastern Conference Playoff Prediction Counter: 2/4 (50%)
The second-round matchups in the Eastern Conference provide some interesting storylines to look forward to. In Philadelphia versus New York, we see an astute coaching battle, whereas in Boston versus Tampa Bay, we see two teams that have gone through heartbreak and disappointment year after year, despite being two of the most dominant teams in the past five years.
Philadelphia Flyers (1) vs. New York Islanders (6)
It should not be understated how bad the Islanders made the Washington Capitals look in their five-game series. The Isles’ tight defensive structure left the Caps unable to string together as much as a pass at times, and even if they did, most shooting lanes were covered, forcing Ovie and company to scramble for shooting opportunities. For Philadelphia, they were able to use their size and experience to defeat the Montreal Canadiens in six games, along with some top-tier goaltending from playoff rookie Carter Hart.
Both teams have enjoyed pretty balanced scoring across their lineup, with both clubs having 11 different goalscorers during this postseason. I think that this series will come down to goaltending, as both teams are relatively even in Corsi %, however, the Flyers surrender more lethal chances at 5v5 (60.74 vs. 42.86 HDCF% in favour of the Isles). Carter Hart has certainly covered the spread in terms of stopping said lethal chances and looks sharp heading into this series. Semyon Varlamov comes into this contest with the 2nd best 5v5 Save % (0.963) amongst active goalies, followed by Carter Hart (0.958), however in one more game played.
The key for the Flyers is to capitalize on every opportunity that they are given because there will not be many. With this in mind, the Islanders can easily win this series if they keep their momentum going. Additionally, the Flyers powerplay (10.3% on 34 attempts) needs to improve in this series, as the Islanders have not been particularly great on that front, allowing 8 goals on 32 attempts (75%). We also need to remember that while the Isles have seen great success so far, they have not played a team as good as the Flyers yet, so they need to ready themselves for Philadelphia’s high-intensity, aggressive play style in this series.
My Pick: Philadelphia Flyers
Tampa Bay Lightning (2) vs. Boston Bruins (4)
This is my pick as the first series to go seven games in this year’s playoffs. Both teams are quite familiar with each other, and both are preparing to go the distance. With that being said, rest is going to be a huge component of this series. The Bruins cruised through their first-round series against Carolina, where despite playing behind for great lengths of time throughout the series, they could simply flip the switch and take the game back with ease.
The Bolts are coming in already beaten down by a tenacious Blue Jackets team, who truly tested their limits. Fortunately for Tampa, their star duo of Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov have kicked into another gear, and look unstoppable. For the Bruins, they need to hope that David Pastrnak can find his goalscoring touch, as he has not been his usual self these playoffs, having missed some time with an undisclosed injury.
The key for both teams is going to come down to special teams. Both the Bruins and the Lightning have been near-perfect on the penalty kill (87.1% vs 85.7% in favour of TB), however, Boston has been more lethal on the man-advantage (17.9% vs 13.3%). In Tampa’s defense, they have not drawn many penalties (15), and so with more looks comes more goals, especially with the firepower that Tampa possesses.
Nonetheless, it’s going to be a great series and one which Tampa Bay comes out victorious by the skin of their teeth.
My Pick: Tampa Bay Lightning
Statistics retrieved from Daily Faceoff, FOX Sports, NHL.com, and Natural Stattrick