QSAO’s Insights around the NHL: Excitement and upsets define Round Two as we progress to the Conference Finals

By Constantine Maragos

Well, what can I say?

If they hadn’t yet, the Stanley Cup Playoffs assuredly delivered their yearly dose of pure insanity in the second round; upsets, comebacks, incredible goaltending performances, what more could you ask for?

Three 3-1 deficit comeback Game 7’s?

That too.

The NHL Bubble has provided us with nothing short of memorable moments that will make these playoffs unforgettable, even if they “don’t count.”

Now, with another round of the playoffs set to begin, the latest edition of QSAO’s Insights Around the NHL unpacks the madness that was Round Two and looks ahead to what you should expect in the 2020 Conference Finals.

1. The Lightning bounce the B’s – Is the Bruins’ run done?

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The Tampa Bay Lightning have punched their ticket to Edmonton (my condolences) after handily defeating the Boston Bruins in five games.

I find it funny to think that I assumed this was going to be the closest series in this round, but clearly, I was wrong. The Lightning absolutely dominated this series. The Bolts controlled the majority of possession throughout, posting a 51.82 Corsi % at 5v5, and owning 60% of 5v5 High Danger Chances (54-36), while also converting those chances at a higher clip (9-5).

The Lightning also outperformed their shot quality, scoring 14 5v5 goals while recording a 10.98 xGF. In turn, the Bruins posted an 8.16 xGF at 5v5, while only scoring 5. 

Tampa\’s top line of Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov had themselves quite the series. The trio dominated possession on all fronts, averaging over 60% of possession at 5v5, with Patrice Bergeron being the only other forward to average similar numbers through five games. In particular, Ondrej Palat finally arrived in the playoffs, scoring 5 goals (including his first) and 7 points, while Point (1G, 7A) and Kucherov (2G, 5A) combined for 3 goals and 15 points in the series. 

Victor Hedman also showed up big against the Bruins, scoring 4 goals and 6 points in the series. Head Coach Jon Cooper relied on Hedman heavily this series, icing him for 27:36 per game, more than any other player in the second round. Along with the impressive stat line, Hedman was able to create an abundance of chances for himself by taking 19 shots on goal in five games, behind only Shea Theodore and Nate Schmidt amongst defenseman (no kidding). I found myself impressed time and time again with how Hedman was able to create space and weave through opposing defenders in the offensive zone, especially considering his size. Hedman is deceivingly agile and has slick hands when he needs to. I am excited to see how his play adjusts against the defensive juggernaut New York Islanders.  

After another heartbreaking loss in the playoffs, the Bruins have reached a crossroads, and the franchise has some big question marks moving forward. With Torey Krug’s inevitable departure from the club, captain Zdeno Chara’s future uncertain, on top of an overall ageing core, the Bruins will have a number of holes in their lineup moving into next season. 

With a hair over $15.5-million in cap space, the B’s will need to replace at least one of the two aforementioned names and pay Jake DeBrusk his first big contract. With Charlie Coyle\’s monster 6-year/$31.5-million contract set to kick in next year, the Bruins cannot afford to cash in on any more big deals this summer, especially considering they will need to pay David Pastrnak a king\’s ransom in three years. 

One thing to look out for is whether or not rookie defenseman Urho Vaakanainen can step into the B\’s blueline full time this year, after a 5-game stint earlier this season, in place of Torey Krug among other injuries. 

All in all, the Bruins will be one of the more interesting teams to watch this offseason, so look for them to potentially shake things up this fall. 

2. The Stars shock the Avalanche in an electrifying 7-Game series – Breaking down the madness

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After an intense, up-and-down seven-game series, the Dallas Stars have prevailed against the Colorado Avalanche. I don’t think there was a game in this series where there weren’t any curve balls thrown at either team or the viewers themselves. 

In Game One, Colorado starter Phillip Grubauer, and shutdown defenseman Erik Johnson left with injuries, and neither returned in the series. Both were key cogs to this Avalanche team and were huge losses. Despite leading all Avs defensemen in Defensive Zone Starts/60, Johnson still posted positive possession numbers. Johnson was also on their top PK pairing, so his defensive contributions on the ice were sorely missed. 

With Grubauer out, backup netminder Pavel Francouz was forced to step in, and unfortunately, he did not turn in his best effort. Through four games, Francouz allowed 15 goals on 109 shots for an 0.862 Sv%, along with the worst High Danger Save Percentage amongst goalies who played at least one game in Round Two. On top of that, Francouz also fell to injury and didn\’t dress again after being pulled in Game Four. In his absence, Michael Hutchinson made his playoff debut, and while he put together a formidable effort, it was not enough to push the Avs through. 

On top of that, Colorado also was without Conor Timmins, Matt Calvert, and Joonas Donskoi for significant time throughout the series, with Calvert not dressing for a single game, with Timmins and Donskoi only managing three games between them. The most gut-wrenching loss, however, has to be losing captain Gabriel Landeskog for Game 7. With 2 goals and 5 points through six games, Landeskog wasn’t at the top of the scoresheet but losing a high-impact player for the most important game of your season does not exactly improve morale. 

Now, I am by no means undercutting the play of the Dallas Stars, who put together their absolute best effort in this series. I mentioned in my last article, the key to this series was for Dallas’ top line to step up when they needed to, and they certainly did just that. Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov led the charge for Dallas forwards, scoring 8 goals and 17 points between them, including two game-winning goals from Radulov. This series was all offense, and with Dallas’ supporting cast coming through like last round, all they needed was for Benn and Radulov to start putting pucks in the net. 

3. Conn Smythe watch – Theodore, Point leading the way

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If it weren’t for the fact that Dallas knocked off the Avs, the Conn Smythe debate would not be much of a discussion. Tip of the hat to Nathan MacKinnon, who was the best player in these playoffs by a wide margin and is now officially placed in the god-tier of NHL talent alongside Connor McDavid.

But I digress, here are the outstanding candidates for the 2020 Conn Smythe Trophy.

Shea Theodore, Vegas Golden Knights

As much as nearly every Golden Knight played outstanding in their 7-game series against the Canucks, Shea Theodore was a cut above the rest. With 2 goals (including this absolute beauty) and 9 points, along with a round-leading 33 shots in seven games, Theodore played as perfect of a series as you could get. In terms of possession numbers, Theodore was elite, posting the 4th best Corsi % at 5v5 in the league (64.53). Additionally, alongside teammate Nate Schmidt, Theodore led all defensemen in High Danger Chance Creation (5). Should the Golden Knights hoist their first-ever Stanley Cup in a few weeks, Theodore is the only choice for the Conn Smythe. 

Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars

Miro Heiskanen’s performance against the Colorado Avalanche only continued to solidify his place amongst the league’s best. Heiskanen’s 2 goals and 9 points tied him for first in points amongst defensemen in Round Two, and with 5 goals and 21 points in total this post-season, he now leads active players in points. Head coach Rick Bowness relied heavily on Miro this series, as he averaged 25:38 through seven games, over a minute more than any other Stars d-man. With a far more physical series against the Golden Knights set to start, look for Heiskanen’s usage to only increase. 

Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning

Brayden Point has continued to pile up the points this post-season. As of now, Point stands at 6 goals and 18 points through 13 games, giving him the best points per game total amongst active players. What makes Point’s run of form even more impressive is that all but 2 of his points were scored at even strength. Like I mentioned earlier, Tampa’s top-line has controlled possession at a high clip, with Point leading the charge. Despite now facing the challenge of breaking Barry Trotz’s near-perfect defensive system, look for Point to continue to drive the offense for Tampa.  

Mat Barzal, New York Islanders

While the past three names have been my picks for the Conn Smythe insofar, Mat Barzal is the player I think will be the Playoff MVP should the Isles go the distance. With 5 goals and 13 points through 16 games, Barzal only third in points for New York, behind Josh Bailey (17) and Brock Nelson (15). However, Barzal and linemates Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle lead the Isles across the board in terms of possession numbers and chance creation. With that being said, almost 90% of Barzal’s zone starts have come in the offensive zone, but that is his role on this team – create chances and score goals. I have a strong sense that if the Isles’ defensive system continues to hold against the Lightning, Barzal will have the opportunity to convert the looks he’s getting into goals. Look for a breakout playoff performance from the 2018 Calder Trophy winner. 

4. Rookie Report: Thatcher Demko, Quinn Hughes, and Joel Kiviranta make history in Round Two

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Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t remember the last time we have seen a more spectacular rookie showing in the playoffs, maybe ever. Not only have we seen this year’s rookies playing in important roles in these playoffs, but their play is pivotal to the success of their teams. 

Now, there’s only one way to start this column right, and that’s by talking about Thatcher Demko’s historic playoff debut. Through three games in the absence of Jacob Markstrom, Demko posted a 0.985 Sv%, 0.64 GAA, and one shutout. Demko is also the first goalie to win their playoff debut while facing elimination since Jose Theodore in 1997. It is quite hard to put into words how good Demko actually was so I\’ll put it in numbers. 

In Game 6, Demko faced 48 shots from the Vegas Golden Knights, where they recorded 5.32 expected Goals, the third-highest total in the entire playoffs. 

Demko stopped all of them.

If you’re wondering how Demko managed to literally save the Canucks season on two occasions, Demko’s positional play is his greatest strength. His ability to track the puck and maintain net coverage allows him to make spectacular saves look routine. Now, you can’t get more Vancouver than having a goalie controversy, and unfortunately, this one was inevitable. With Jacob Markstrom looking to cash in on his Vezina calibre season and the Expansion Draft looming, the Canucks are either going to have to move on from Markstrom, sell high on Demko, or pay a king’s ransom to deter Seattle from picking up Demko in 2021.

Staying on the topic of the Canucks, Quinn Hughes beat out Cale Makar for the All-Time Rookie Defenseman Playoff Points record, 16 and 15 points respectively. Quinn Hughes also set the playoff assists record for defensemen with 14, another milestone for an already incredible rookie season. 

As fun as it is to bicker about the Calder debate, we are truly blessed to have seen these two young phenoms grow into stars before our very eyes this season. These two have been a marvel to watch, they both possess generational hockey IQ, paired with technical skillsets we have not seen since Erik Karlsson broke into the league. While it is unfortunate we won’t see either of these players again in these playoffs, keep in mind that this is just the beginning for these two.

Now, onto our next record-breaking rookie: Joel Kiviranta. A healthy scratch for all but two games in these playoffs, Joel Kiviranta was thrown into the Stars’ lineup for Game 7 due to Andrew Cogliano suffering an injury. From there, the rest is history. Not only did Kiviranta score the 1st Game Seven Hat-Trick since Wayne Gretzky in 1993, but he also scored the overtime game-winner at that. Funny enough, Kiviranta’s hat-trick goal was the niftiest, high IQ play of the bunch. Kiviranta took notice of the Avs’ overload around the crease and snuck out to the left slot for an easy behind-the-net pass from Andrej Sekera

Kiviranta may have caught lightning in a bottle here, but man, what a way to do it.

Now, a couple more quick hits before I wrap up what could be the best rookie report we’re ever going to get. A total of 16 rookie skaters and 2 goalies participated in Round Two, with six recording a goal and twelve recording a point. With Joel Kiviranta’s Game Seven hat-trick, the Dallas Stars become the only team to feature two rookie playoff hat-tricks in the same year. 

In the same tune, Denis Gurianov potted 2 goals and 8 points in the Conference Semi’s, giving him 15 points this post-season. If Dallas and can keep scoring, there’s a real possibility that Gurianov finishes the post-season with the rookie playoff record, which is 21 points, held by Dino Ciccarelli.

5. QSAO’s Conference Finals Preview 

Tino’s Playoff Prediction Counter: 7/12 (58.33%)

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Vegas Golden Knights (1) vs. Dallas Stars (3)

The Stars and Golden Knights are set to face off in what should be a high tempo, highly physical series. Vegas is coming into this contest with one of the most offensively dominant performances in these playoffs, outshooting the Vancouver Canucks 273-169, while also the only team to control over 60% of possession in the second round. After a hard-fought series against the Avalanche, the Stars left it all on the ice. With that being said, Dallas is coming into this series tired. The key for Dallas is for centre Tyler Seguin to get going in these playoffs. With only 2 goals and 7 points in 15 games, Seguin is not contributing nearly as much as he should be. For Vegas, coming up against a less convincing goaltending tandem, they just need to keep playing their game and the goals will begin to pile up.

My Pick: Vegas Golden Knights

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Tampa Bay Lightning (2) vs. New York Islanders (6) 

This series is a classic case of unstoppable force meets immovable object – Tampa Bay’s electric offense against New York’s well-oiled defensive system. I can say that I have doubted the Islanders heavily throughout these playoffs (bad take, but nobody is perfect, right?) and you have to give credit where credit is due, but the Isles have not played a team like the Lightning yet in these playoffs. If there is any team that can break down the Isles’ system, it’s Tampa. Since I’ve already doubted New York twice so far, I may as well continue to do it, expect the Lightning to take this in seven.

My Pick: Tampa Bay Lightning

­Statistics retrieved from Cap Friendly, Daily Faceoff, Natural Stattrick, NHL.com, Rotoworld, Russian Machine Never Breaks, Sportsnet, The Score

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