Photo credit:Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports
NHL Second Round Notebook: What we (and hopefully the Canucks) have learned
9 months ago
The second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is reaching its end, and by tomorrow morning, four teams will be left standing.
Some people will tell you that the lack of Canadian or big-market teams left in the postseason is a bad thing. But in reality, it’s a phenomenal example of what a franchise can accomplish with the free reign to build a winner.
Are Raleigh, Vegas, and South Florida world-renowned hockey hotbeds? Maybe not, but with more time, they absolutely could be. Are Dallas and Seattle too entrenched in other sports like football to ever see hockey as more than a novelty? No way.
At the end of the day, sports are nothing without people to enjoy it. And if it takes a season like this to grow the game’s reach in places like Texas, Nevada, and the Carolinas, it’s a season well spent.
On the ice, there’s a lot we can gather here from the teams moving on and, maybe more importantly, the ones that aren’t. Let’s break it all down.
Cinderella or For Real?
To call this year’s playoffs the ‘Year of the Upset’ would be a massive understatement.
Yes, two division winners will play in the conference finals, but so could two wild card teams; the Panthers and the second-year expansion Kraken, who’ll play the Dallas Stars in Game 7 tonight.
The Kraken have been a prime example of how crucial a well-rounded scoring attack is. Dave Hakstol’s group bested the defending champion Avalanche in seven games, and now they’ve dragged the Stars to a do-or-die match thanks to their scoring-by-committee approach.
Out of the 20 skaters that have suited up for the Kraken during the postseason, 19 of them have at least two playoff points and 18 have at least one goal. For context, it took the Canucks 18 games during the regular season to get to 18 unique goal scorers. It took Seattle 12 in the playoffs.
That’s the type of full roster attack required to win at this time of the year.
The Panthers’ ride to the conference finals has been a lot more top-heavy, but they have a different advantage on their side: zero expectations. Not a lot of people expected Florida to come back from a 3-1 series deficit against a Bruins team that had shattered the regular season wins record. But once they did, they were suddenly playing with a whole lot of house money.
The Panthers still needed the defensive skill to lock down the Maple Leafs’ top scorers in the semifinals, but already succeeding in a big way probably made it a whole lot easier to play without sweating the results.
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But it’s still worth remembering that this Cats team didn’t come out of nowhere. The nucleus of last season’s President’s Trophy winning team is still there — albeit with Matthew Tkachuk swapped in for Jonathan Huberdeau — but new head coach Paul Maurice’s coaching style took them a while to get used to. Now they’re gelling at the perfect time.
Even Seattle, despite finishing behind the Canucks in points last year, felt like a group that could crash the playoff party if they could just get some consistent goaltending. Lo and behold, here they are.
The Canucks are currently in a position where the Panthers’ path is a lot more attainable than Seattle’s. But they still have to clear the first hurdle of consistent playoff berths that Florida took ages to get past.
The Question about Cores
If Quads had given me a summer meme budget, I’d probably put a photo here of Captain America sitting backwards on a chair.
“So, you finally made it out of Round 1 only to get eliminated by the Panthers.”
The Leafs’ version of the Miracle on Ice ended with a hard slap in the face by reality, brushed aside in a convincing five games by the Panthers.
For years, Leafs fans were able to cling to the “Just wait until they win a round, then they’ll be unstoppable!” belief. But now, that’s officially flown out the window.
The core four was held completely in check throughout the series. Mitch Marner became a turnover machine, Auston Matthews and John Tavares couldn’t muster a single goal between them and William Nylander looked underwhelming despite his three points.
So do you walk away from the core four you’ve spent the last half a decade building around? Or do you keep pushing?
I’d be very surprised if the Leafs walk away from Kyle Dubas after finally breaking through to the second round. Maybe Dubas has plans of his own, but Toronto probably needs him.
With Matthews’ contract up at the end of next season, the Leafs will have to convince him there’s still time for this core to gel into a winner. If Dubas is shown the door, the odds of making that sales pitch convincingly will drop by quite a bit.
The Canucks are facing a similar uphill battle with extending Elias Pettersson. He’ll be hitting RFA status next July — as opposed to Matthews, who’ll hit the open market — but the talking points the front office uses are going to be nearly the same. “We promise we can build a Stanley Cup winner around you if you give us the time.”
The key difference, besides the expiry status, is that the Leafs will have six years of playoff berths as a sample to show off. The Canucks will only have one.
Two Players aren’t enough (but they are helpful)
It sure looked like the runway was clearing for the Edmonton Oilers. After besting the Kings, all that seemed to stand in the Oilers’ path to a Cup was their Pacific Division rivals.
Not only did the Knights win, but in their four wins, they dominated.
Leon Draisaitl’s four-goal performance in Game 1 felt like an eternity away after mustering just one assist across the final four games. Once the Golden Knights found a way to shut down Draisaitl’s production, the offensive taps seemed to turn off for the entire Oilers roster.
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Obviously, having two generational talents is better than not. But you can’t rely on them solely to win, and the supporting cast that featured Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Evander Kane simply couldn’t hack it against a much deeper Vegas team.
If the Canucks plan on taking any notes from the top two Canadian teams’ respective early exits, it’s just how crucial it is to surround your stars with enough talent to weather any storm you come across. The current team is closer than they’ve been in a while, but there’s still a lot of work left.
The Bright Side
There are now five teams left in the quest for the Stanley Cup. Between them, they’ve won just two previous Cups; the Hurricanes were the first champions of the post-lockout era in 2006, while the Stars have been waiting since 1999.
If the Kraken win Game 7 in Dallas, three of four conference finalists will be eight wins from their franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
Maybe the ability to watch a new team hoist Lord Stanley’s Mug might provide some valuable inspiration for the Canucks that someday, that could be them!
Or it might just make the 52-year drought harder to stomach. Who’s to say?
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