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As the Stanley Cup Playoffs of the delayed and shortened 2020-21 season due to the Covid-19 pandemic have finished two rounds and is about to go into the third round, here are some observations on each of the qualifying teams. These observations include the teams that are still alive and the teams that have already been eliminated and are arranged in alphabetical order.
Boston Bruins – The Boston Bruins are the best team in hockey of the 21st century, outside of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Chicago Blackhawks even if they have won just one Stanley Cup since the U.S. Bicentennial or the first year of the Washington Capitals’ existence or whatever other arbitrary starting point after 1972 you can think of. They seem to be the “most perfect” team with near perfect management with the “Perfecto Line” that the fans of nearly every other team envy. Their General Managers seem to draft better than anyone else, ending up with players like Brad Marchand in the second round and David Pastrnak late in the first round. Nearly every team who made selections in the 2014 NHL Draft prior to Boston’s turn and missed out on Pastrnak likely regrets their choice, save the Edmonton Oilers and possibly the Toronto Maple Leafs. They also ended up getting Taylor Hall at the trade deadline for a relatively cheap cost since Hall had let it be known that Boston was his most desired destination. Many of their core players, such as Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Brad Marchand, and Tuukka Rask, are all approaching their mid-thirties but seem to be aging like fine wine. They also employed the now-departed Zdeno Chara for 14 seasons, who was effective, even past the age of 40. Their Stanley Cup total since 1974 will remain at just one since the New York Islanders just eliminated them.
Carolina Hurricanes – Carolina won the division but struggled in the last few regular season games which cost them the Presidents’ Trophy. The team got past their first round opponent, the Nashville Predator But then met a buzzsaw in the Tampa Bay Lightning. They started off by losing two low scoring games to Tampa Bay. Their rookie goalie, Alex Nedeljkovic made a mistake in overtime which cost them one of those games. This convinced Head Coach Rod Brind’Amour to switch to veteran goalie Petr Mrazek, who had missed most of the season due to injury. It worked well for Game 3 when they won a low-scoring game in overtime, but not for Game 4. Carolina returned to Nedeljkovic in goal but lost Game 5 by a 2-0 score. Either the Hurricanes can’t stand prosperity or Tampa Bay is a better team than they looked this regular season. Most likely the latter as Tampa Bay is the defending Stanley Cup Champion and they managed to finish in third place with their best player out for the entire season and another star also out for a significant amount of time. It seems that the ‘Canes play better in the playoffs as an underdog with low expectations, as they twice made runs to the Conference Finals as a severe underdog, ousting superior teams in the process.
Colorado Avalanche – The Avalanche are the best example of a quick turnaround in fortune. Only three seasons ago, they had a horrible season that was historically bad. Their outlook did not look much better after the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, when they did not win either of the three draft lotteries and picked fourth, where they chose defenseman Cale Makar. Makar now looks like the best player in that particular draft class and is a finalist for the Norris Trophy in 2021 as the league’s best defenseman. Their fortunes in the standings improved, making the playoffs in 2018, just one year after that horrible season and finished second in their division in 2018-19 and were regarded as one of the top contenders in the league. For 2020-21, they won the Presidents’ Trophy, edging the Vegas Golden Knights for that honor on tiebreakers, even though they were tied in points.
RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Edmonton Oilers – The Oilers are the team who famously won the NHL draft lottery for three consecutive years (2010, 2011, and 2012) but remained in the nether regions of the standings. Unlike the Pittsburgh Penguins, they were not able to quickly build a contender out of their early picks. 2015 first overall pick Connor McDavid has lived up to the hype but the Oilers of the last two years have matured into a second place team who continually fails in the playoffs, having been unable to make out of a single playoff round, despite the presence of McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who was the third overall pick of 2014. Draisaitl has developed into a superstar himself, almost comparable to McDavid. The problem is the rest of the supporting cast.
Florida Panthers – It was a great regular season for the former Southeast Division member, rising from a bubble team, to a solid second place, even finishing ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the defending Stanley Cup Champions. The team lost their top defenseman Aaron Ekblad to injury, and then lost to Tampa Bay in the “Battle of Florida” that took place in Round 1 of the playoffs. Their playoff appearances are relatively rare and they have not advanced past Round 1 since their one and only appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996.
Vegas Golden Knights – The Golden Knights are the “Instant Contender” who made the Stanley Cup Final in their first year of existence (losing to the Capitals), something only the St. Louis Blues were able to do. Since that first season, the Golden Knights have not made the Cup Finals but have made the playoffs every season and nearly won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2020-21. They tied the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Colorado Avalanche in standings points but the Avalanche had won the tie breakers and were able to come back from a 2-0 series deficit and win the series and advance. Once again the team has a shot at the Stanley Cup and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has been making his former team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, regret exposing him to the expansion draft as his Golden Knights have done better in postseason play than the Penguins have.
Minnesota Wild – This season was one of the best in the history of the franchise with their highest point percentage ever. They were exciting to watch with Kirill Kaprizov, a rookie who finally came over to play in North America after playing in the KHL for many years, making an instant impact. He led the team in goals and total points and was second in assists and was named a finalist for the Calder Trophy, the award given to the best rookie. Despite one of their best seasons, the Wild met trouble in the playoffs in the Golden Knights, who tied for the best record in the NHL with the Colorado Avalanche and were ousted in the first round. It was a season of transition for the Wild, as one of their longtime stars, Zach Parise, is showing his age. Head Coach Dean Evason demoted him to the fourth-line before the season ended and scratched him from the lineup for the first three games in the playoffs. Parise scored a goal when he returned to the lineup and had two goals for the playoffs. Still, the speculation is that his time with the Wild could be ending.
Montreal Canadiens – It’s been a long time since the Canadiens have won the Stanley Cup, with their last title dating back to 1993. Their dynasty days have long since passed, but they have proven great at playing the playoff spoiler who upset teams who were much better during the regular season. This was true for 2020-21, when they upset the Toronto Maple Leafs (who had finished first in their division). It was also true when they upset the Pittsburgh Penguins in the post-lockout play-in series in 2020 and, most famously, in 2010 when they upset the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals. Carey Price continues in the “Hot Goalie” tradition and is the only player making over $10 million a year whose team is still alive in the playoffs.
Nashville Predators – It was not long ago, when against all odds, the Nashville Predators, who had barely squeaked into the playoffs, advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals, in spite of losing center after center to injury. They finished first in the division the next two years, including a President’s Trophy, but were not able to advance past the second round. They’ve been a playoff bubble team during the last two seasons. The 2020-21 season was a rough season, with many postponed games, thanks to uncharacteristically bad weather in Dallas and players being in COVID-19 protocol, on both their team and opposing teams. Between the delayed games and a poor start, the Predators had fallen into last place. However, Nashville rallied in the end to qualify for the playoffs.
New York Islanders – The Islanders’ performance during the last three seasons is proving that veteran bench boss Barry Trotz is a better coach than anyone ever realized. The Islanders have advanced past the first round in each of the last three seasons and advanced past the second round the last two consecutive seasons, this was after John Tavares, who had been their Captain and their best player, left the team in free agency after the 2017-18 season. Prior to Trotz taking over the team, the Islanders were generally a bubble playoff team, at best. Now the Islanders are winning in the playoffs, playing defensive systems reminiscent of the old New Jersey Devils and seem to be doing it again.
Photo: John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Pittsburgh Penguins – The team’s playoff fortunes could be described by the words in the Joni Mitchell song “Big Yellow Taxi”, “…Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone…”. This is in regards to their goalie situation. Since exposing their longtime starter Marc-Andre Fleury to the Vegas Expansion Draft in 2017, the Penguins have not won the Stanley Cup. The Washington Capitals eliminated them in the second round of the 2018 playoffs. After that, they’ve been eliminated in the first round. Since 2017, the Knights have generally advanced further in the Stanley Cup playoffs than the Penguins have. The Penguins have made the playoffs every year since 2006-07 and have won more Stanley Cups than any other team since 1990. Their star players have aged well (Sidney Crosby, Evgeny Malkin, and Kris Letang). There is a cloud on the horizon concerning Malkin, though, as he recently underwent surgery and will not be ready in time for training camp.
St. Louis Blues — Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2019, the Blues seem to be followed by the proverbial black cloud. They have lost in the first round in each of the last two seasons. Last season, several players on the team contracted Covid-19. This season, the team was plagued with injuries and barely made it into the playoffs. Just last season, they had a better record than either Vegas or Colorado but this year was not the case. They had their best player of the season, David Perron, contract Covid-19 right before the playoffs, even after being vaccinated, a loss that really hurt.
Tampa Bay Lightning – The Lightning’s best player, Nikita Kucherov, missed the entire regular season due to hip surgery (for which he was placed on Long-Term Injured Reserve). As an added “bonus” their other main star, captain Steven Stamkos, was injured with about a month left in the season and was also placed on LTIR. Neither returned until it was time for the playoffs and (notably) the Salary Cap limit was no longer applicable. Many speculate that Kucherov and Stamkos probably were healthy enough to return before the regular season ended but, due to salary cap limits, could not do so. The Lightning now have their stars available and more depth than anyone has.
Toronto Maple Leafs – The Toronto Maple Leafs’ outlook for both the regular season and the playoffs was expected be better given that they did not have either the Boston Bruins or the Tampa Bay Lightning to worry about in their division. They did their part in the regular season by winning the Scotiabank North Division. However, they were upset in Round 1 by the Montreal Canadiens, following the exact same script the Washington Capitals had followed 11 years ago, as the Leafs have a team build similarly to that particular Capitals’ team. Aside from that season, the Caps would generally advance past the first round which is something the current edition of the Leafs has not been able to do.
Washington Capitals – Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2018, the Capitals seem to be followed by the proverbial black cloud. They have lost in the first round the last three seasons and kept having key players injured during the playoffs or just in time for the playoffs. Last season, they missed both Nicklas Backstrom and Lars Eller for a portion of the playoffs. This season, their injury list in the playoffs consisted of most of their top forwards (Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, TJ Oshie, Lars Eller, and Evgeny Kuznetsov with Covid-19) and their top defenseman, John Carlson. The old cliché is that everybody is banged up for the playoffs but this injury list was beyond normal. The team is the oldest team in the NHL and the question is .. how well will their veterans sustain their performance.
Adam Glanzman/Getty Images
Winnipeg Jets – After playing poorly at the end of the 2020-21 regular season, the Jets pulled off a major upset, beating the Edmonton Oilers led by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. During their loss in the first game against Montreal in the second round, their leader in points, Mark Schiefele, lost his temper late in the game and earned a five game suspension. The Jets proceeded to get swept as they were unable to mount a series comeback sans Schiefele. Should Patrick Laine have requested to leave them? As disastrous as their second playoff round was, at least they made it to the playoffs and advanced to the second round which is more than Laine’s new team, the Columbus Blue Jackets, was able to do. The story of the Jets in the playoffs was: first they swept and then they were swept.
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By Diane Doyle