It takes 82 games during the National Hockey League’s regular season to decipher what League teams will be the favorites to hoist the Stanley Cup but once mid-April rolls around, it’s a clean slate. Throw everything out the window because anything can happen in the postseason and no year has that been more evident than this one. With unbelievable underdogs, sensational Game 7s and never before seen records, was this first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs the best ever?
Exhibit A would have to be the Tampa Bay Lightning. In one of the all-time great regular seasons, which saw the franchise tie the record for most wins (62), the Lightning had three players score over 40 goals en route to Tampa Bay’s first Presidents’ Trophy. But, as many teams before the Lightning have learned, winning the President’s Trophy means little. Over the last 18 seasons, only four teams that have won it have gone on to hoist the Stanley Cup but as the strong favorites, the Lightning seemed unstoppable. Then Tampa Bay ran into the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team that squeaked into the postseason on the last day – a team that made substantial moves at the trade deadline to bolster its roster. In the end, the Lightning became the first team to win the Presidents’ Trophy and get swept in the first round. Columbus just out-hustled their opponent and clearly wanted it more – and getting their first franchise series win made it just a little sweeter.
But over in the Western Conference, the top seed wasn’t fairing too well either. After taking a 1-0 series lead against the Colorado Avalanche, the Calgary Flames folded like a cheap suit, dropping the next four straight. Colorado definitely surprised the hockey world and, in doing so, it marked the first time in the Expansion Era, which dates back to 1967, that both No. 1 seeds were booted from the postseason in the opening round. Even before the other series were wrapped up, the door was opened for several teams, including the defending champion Washington Capitals.
Facing off against the Carolina Hurricanes, a team that hadn’t appeared in the postseason in almost a decade, the Capitals took a big 2-0 series lead to Carolina for Game 3 but the pesky Hurricanes fought and clawed their way back, ultimately forcing Game 7 in Washington. The Hurricanes have built up a reputation, thanks to Don Cherry, of being a bunch of jerks but Carolina is playing a fun, inspired brand of hockey. Game 7 was a rollercoaster, which saw the Capitals take an abrupt 2-0 lead into the first intermission before Carolina retaliated and eventually won it in double overtime. It was one of three Game 7s in the first round and although it was an overtime thriller, it wasn’t the best one.
Tuesday night’s Game 7 between the San Jose Sharks and the Vegas Golden Knights was an instant classic, one that both cities will be talking about for the foreseeable future. After trailing in the series 3-1 and looking dead, San Jose clawed its way back, forcing Game 7 at home and the Sharks appeared dead in the water midway through the third period, trailing 3-0. But then, the contest was flipped on its head, thanks to a overblown hit on Sharks captain Joe Pavelski, which led to a five minute major penalty and an ejection for Vegas’ Cody Eakin. While the NHL has since apologized to the Golden Knights for the call, it doesn’t change the fact that San Jose rattled off four straight goals during the man advantage and went on to win the game and the series. The third period was nothing short of stunning. These two teams are forming an elite rivalry and this series threw gasoline on a four-alarm blaze.
And then there’s the classic Original Six rivalry between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins. Meeting in the playoffs for the third time since 2013, it had all the makings of an entertaining series and, like the two series before it, this one also went to Game 7. It really could have been a better series as several games were a blowout and Game 7 was no exception. Having said that, the atmosphere for each was electric. Once again, the Maple Leafs couldn’t take down the Bruins in the elimination game, which has been at Boston’s TD Garden for each of the last three series between the two. It was a win that immediately solidified Boston as one of the new front-runners for the Stanley Cup but, judging by more of the busted brackets out there, any team can do it and none should be discredited.
And then there was the Islanders, who swept the Pittsburgh Penguins in four games as an an underdog with something to prove, the St. Louis Blues, who were the worst team in the league just a few months ago but have found their stride and the Dallas Stars, who took down the Nashville Predators in a series that was way more fun than the 4-2 outcome proved – with four games being decided by one goal and two going to overtime.
The next batch of series kick off with a doubleheader Thursday night, while many hockey fans are still trying to catch their breath from the first round. What we all just witnessed was certainly the most shocking round of playoff hockey ever, with only three favored teams winning, but the most entertaining? It’s certainly high on the list but we’ll let you be the judge of that one.