The NHL playoffs tend to start with a first-round crescendo, a crash of symbols, if you will, then settle into a grind resembling something like the low-pitched rumble of an eardrum. This year is a little different.
Out West, Alberta’s first battle in 31 years was joined in the second round. The provincial confrontation, which in the 1980s had the weight of a Stanley Cup final, tends towards the epic. Thursday night, the latest edition got its final horn when Edmonton’s Connor McDavid scored 5:03 into overtime and provided the sudden death in Game 5 in Calgary.
The Oilers were the underdogs and they managed to send a bigger, stronger and deeper team into the Flames. Given that McDavid (rightly) draws comparisons to Wayne Gretzky, the Oilers might be a better all-around team than they look on paper.
McDavid’s warp-speed gear was missing in parts of Games 4 and 5. The Oilers still managed to finish off their arch-arch-arch-arch rivals. Leon Draisaitl, who tied McDavid’s seven goals and 26 points in 12 playoff games, has struggled with (undisclosed) injuries. A suspicious defense held up well. And old Mike Smith held on in net.
There is something special about oil.
The West-class Colorado Avalanche had the St. Louis Blues on the brink of elimination heading into Game 6 on Friday night. The looming conference finale will be great theater. McDavid is must-have television.
In the East, the Carolina Hurricanes will try to eliminate the New York Rangers in Game 6 at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night. The Hurricanes, the heavy favorites, are having an interesting spring: They’ve been unbeatable at home, beating the Boston Bruins and Rangers 25-8 at PNC Arena, but they’re yet to win a game on the road.
Former Blue Jackets left-winger Artemi Panarin had nine points in 12 playoff games but failed to make a $10 million impact. He was held without a shot in Game 5 on Thursday night. Former Blue Jackets manager Gerard Gallant, hired by Rangers to put some grunt at the club, was unhappy with his side’s passivity in Game 5. MSG will bang on Saturday night.
Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin, the Vezina Trophy favorite, has sometimes gotten into the heads of the Carolina shooters. He is quite capable of pushing this series towards a Game 7, when anything can happen. Even in Raleigh.
Meanwhile, the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning is resting.
“The best goalie (in the playoffs) has been Andrei Vasilevskiy, bar none,” said Daryl Reaugh, former goaltender, longtime Dallas Stars TV analyst and friend of the program.
“He moves like a machine. He’s so competitive. He’s got all that athletic ability mixed in with the agility mixed in with the size. What better mark for a goalkeeper than a game when everything is on the line? You can load a shotgun with a handful of rice and shoot him, and you won’t get anything against him in a fence match.
As Blue Jackets fans will note, Columbus was the last team to beat the Lightning in the playoffs with a shocking upset in a four-game sweep in 2019.
Since then, Vasilevskiy has posted six shutouts in seven series-clinching games. The only exception was Game 7 of this year’s first round against Toronto, when he stopped 30 of 31 shots in a 2-1 victory.
The Lightning’s last job was a sweep of the Florida Panthers, who averaged “just” 4.1 goals and won the Presidents’ Trophy during the regular season. The Battle of Florida was not as short as the Anglo-Zanzibarian War of 1896, but it was as brief as possible.
In the clincher, Vasilevskiy stopped 49 shots. It was exactly what the doctor had ordered.
The average age of their attackers is 30 years old. The average age of their defenders is 28. Vasilevskiy is 27 years old.
After a grueling seven-game series against Toronto, a sweep of the Presidents’ Trophy winner and state rival is a godsend. This guarantees their relatively old bones a week of sweet, sweet respite (and a chance for Mr. Clutch, Brayden Point, to recover from an injury that sidelined him the last round).
“I’ve been on the road, flying, driving, eating bad food, and weighing myself and gaining 10 pounds,” said ESPN player-by-play John Buccigross. “I’m coming home for 10 days and getting back to my eating, sleeping and training habits – and that’s huge! Imagine what it’s like for these elite athletes. . . .
“PK Subban (New Jersey defenseman, ESPN analyst and recognized influencer) said that’s what fueled Nashville in 2017. They rested a lot (after a first-round sweep) and made it to the Finals. It’s a huge factor.
The Conference Finals schedule will be set early next week. The Lightning will be fresh. A hat-trick is within reach.