The Paper Feature is a weekly column and sidebars that appears in the print edition of the Vancouver Courier newspaper. Track it down!
The first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is always a little wild and wacky, but this year’s edition has been more unpredictable than most. For the first time since NHL expansion in 1967, the two top-seeded teams lost in the first round.
Not only did they lose, but they got completely creamed. The Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning went from one of the best regular seasons of all time, tying an NHL record for 62 wins, to being swept in the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team that had never won a playoff series.
Meanwhile, the Calgary Flames finished first in the Western Conference with 50 wins and a plus-62 goal differential that was second only to the Lightning in the NHL. The next best team in the Western Conference had a plus-28 goal differential. In the playoffs, though, the Colorado Avalanche ran rampant over the Flames, besting them in just five games, and racking up over 50 shots on goal in two of the five games of the series.
Those are two monumental upsets, with the top teams in the Eastern and Western Conference combining for just one win in the first round of the playoffs.
Those aren’t the only upsets, however. All four division champions got knocked out: the Carolina Hurricanes upset the defending-champion Washington Capitals in seven games, while the Dallas Stars took just six games to knock out the Nashville Predators. The Boston Bruins and San Jose Sharks were two higher seeds that moved on to the second round, but just barely, taking seven games to do it. The only higher-seeded team to win their series in under seven games was the New York Islanders, and even they were considered underdogs against the powerhouse Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Islanders, who missed the playoffs the last two seasons, swept the Penguins in four games. Sidney Crosby, who tallied 100 points in the regular season, managed just point, an assist, in the four-game sweep.
The temptation for some Canucks fans is to see these upsets and think that just sneaking into the playoffs should be the goal: just get in to the postseason and hope for the best, because clearly underdog teams can best the favourites. What this perspective might be missing, however, is just how good those underdogs had to be to even make the playoffs.
The Blue Jackets sweeping the Lightning was certainly an unexpected upset, but the Blue Jackets are still a dangerous, talented team, who loaded up for the playoffs at the trade deadline by adding Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel to an already potent core. They’re led by Artemi Panarin, who had 87 points in the regular season, Cam Atkinson, who scored 41 goals, a pair of 40+ point defencemen in Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, and two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky in net. After five seasons out of the playoffs, Duchene did damage, scoring three goals and seven points in the four-game sweep.
Likewise, the Avalanche have an outstanding young core, led by Nathan MacKinnon, who tallied 41 goals and 99 points in the regular season. Mikko Rantanen (87 points in 74 games) and Gabriel Landeskog (75 points in 73 games) round out their top forwards, with the 59-point Tyson Barrie leading their defence. With goaltender Philipp Grubauer playing out of his mind in the playoffs, it’s no wonder they made short work of the Flames.
It’s similar in the other upsets, which have come via fantastic goaltending and elite, top-end talent at both forward and on defence. Ben Bishop has been ridiculous in goal for the Stars, who also boast elite talent like Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, Jamie Benn, and John Klingberg. The Hurricanes were one of the most dominant puck possession teams in the NHL all season: they were first in expected goal percentage, second in corsi percentage, and third in scoring chance percentage. Meanwhile, the Islanders rode an incredible year from goaltender Robin Lehner to get into the playoffs and he hasn't missed a beat in the postseason.
In other words, while the teams that are winning in the first round might be getting some luck and good bounces, they’re still really good teams.
While there’s certainly a blueprint to follow for the Canucks, they can’t depend on just getting into the playoffs and hoping for the best. The questions for the Canucks are if Elias Pettersson can be an elite scorer like Panarin and MacKinnon; if Brock Boeser can be a 40-goal scorer like Atkinson; if Bo Horvat has another gear and can be a point-per-game centre like Landeskog; and if Quinn Hughes can be a 40 or 50-point defenceman like Jones, Werenski, and Barrie. And, if the answer to those questions is yes, do the Canucks have the goaltending and the supporting cast to go with that core and compete with the best of the best in the playoffs?
The Canucks need to compare themselves to the best teams in the NHL and also to the teams that upset the best teams in the NHL: are they there yet? Can they get there next season or the season after that?
0 - Canucks goaltending prospect Michael DiPietro has been on a roll in the OHL Playoffs with the Ottawa 67’s. Zero is the number of games they’ve lost as they head into the OHL championship series, as they've gone 12-0 so far. DiPietro has a .913 save percentage and made 21 saves on 22 shots in the 67's 2-1 overtime victory to sweep the Oshawa Generals.
.956 - Robin Lehner of the New York Islanders has been ridiculous all season long and he’s continued his dominance in the playoffs, posting a league-leading .956 save percentage in their sweep over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Stick-tap and Glove-drops
A tap of the stick to the players who escaped the Ottawa Senators to dominate in the playoffs. Mark Stone, Erik Karlsson, and Matt Duchene are all among the leading scorers in the playoffs; Stone may have been knocked out with the Golden Knights, but he lead the playoffs in scoring in the first round with 6 goals and 12 points in 7 games.
I’m dropping the gloves with the Nashville Predators and their dreadful power play. They’re the only team that didn’t score a single goal on the power play in the postseason, going 0-for-15, after having the worst power play percentage in the NHL during the regular season. A team with their talent has no business being that bad with the man advantage.