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The Biggest Surprises (And Disappointments) From Round 1 Of The Stanley Cup Playoffs

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): When last we chatted, the Stanley Cup playoffs hadn’t yet begun. Now the first round is very nearly over, with six teams having already clinched and the remaining two series on the verge of being over as well. So today, I thought we’d talk about what really stood out to us during Round 1, and what we’re looking forward to in the second round.

But first, I wanted to start with quick takes on the two unresolved series — Vegas-Minnesota (Game 7 tonight!!!!) and Toronto-Montreal (which was extended to at least a Game 6 with the Habs’ OT win last night). After how great they both were in the regular season, are we really going to potentially not see either the Knights or the Leafs move on to Round 2?

emily (Emily Scherer, designer): Well, as I said last time we chatted … it’s the Leafs so … potentially not!

neil: LOL, yes, I thought about that last night.

Both before the comeback, and then again after OT.

terrence.doyle (Terrence Doyle, contributor): Lotta chewed-off nails in Toronto right now, I’d imagine.

emily: Reminds me, I gotta go check on Dangle.

neil: No video yet after Game 5. 😬

terrence.doyle: He tweeted about not being on Twitter during or immediately after games, so he seems to be taking care of himself.

neil: Good for him!

terrence.doyle: Dangle is good — I don’t like that he is probably sad at the moment.

neil: Now, to maybe talk Toronto fans down off the ledge some, you’d certainly rather be in their position still than Vegas’s. The Leafs have pretty handily taken the games they’ve won, and their only losses have been by one goal apiece. And they just have to win one of the next two. The Knights, on the other hand, are now in do-or-die mode.

terrence.doyle: Yeah, I think the Leafs will wrap it up in Game 6. They’re the much better hockey team. (The better hockey team doesn’t always win, of course, but the Habs just aren’t very good. Like, wouldn’t-have-made-the-playoffs-in-a-normal-year not very good.)

Carey Price is very good though, so maybe he steals it.


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emily: Yeah, I can see this going much of the way that Canes-Predators did. The better team will win out in the end, but it’ll have been a much harder road than anyone expected going in.

terrence.doyle: I selfishly want the Habs to do the thing.

neil: Always gotta root for the story.

emily: Narratives!

terrence.doyle: [Vader voice]: The narrative is strong with this one

neil: Minnesota upsetting Vegas would also be a great upset story, and I gotta say I am pretty concerned for the Knights given how banged-up they are. This was a team that at times looked like the best in the league, but we’ve often seen those types of teams get stunned in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

terrence.doyle: Classic Stanley Cup playoffs story. Tale as old as time.

I think this series is my pick for my most surprising thing so far. I figured VGK would win at a canter. And yet here we are.

neil: Yeah, I wanted to ask you both what was most surprising and/or impressive about Round 1. Minnesota taking Vegas to seven and potentially knocking them out certainly qualifies!

emily: I think some series we expected to be short went long(er), some we expected to be long went short, and others ended up really short.

terrence.doyle: I’m kinda blown away by it, but also, the Wild have a very solid roster full of “character” guys. Kinda on the old end, but looking at the players they have, I get it.

neil: And this is with Kirill The Thrill scoring just 2 points in the first six games! The other contributors have stepped up.

terrence.doyle: (Also I just said to myself, “Wow, Ryan Suter is old as dirt,” before realizing he’s just seven days older than I am. Pretty awful feeling.)

emily: I thought Nashville-Carolina was going to go long, but I was expecting a battle in the Capitals-Bruins series, and I don’t know how anyone could have seen the Jets sweeping the Oilers coming.

neil: Oh man, the Oilers.

terrence.doyle: Emily, I can’t believe how the B’s vs. Caps series went. Figured after the first three games it was going seven, and every game was going to OT. But the Caps folded like a cheap umbrella, and the B’s … hmm, I gotta be careful here … the B’s have the LOOK.

Connor McDavid standing in full NHL gear. In the background is blurred hockey stadium seats.

related: Connor McDavid Is One Of The Best Young Players In NHL History. The Oilers Are Squandering Him. Read more. »

neil: The model is impressed with the Bruins, as well. They have the third-best Cup odds now, although that will change if Vegas moves on.

terrence.doyle: This Taylor Hall guy is pretty good at hockey.

You know, I’ve obviously watched him enough to know that. But getting to watch him night in, night out, as a fan of the team he plays for, has been pretty special. He’s obviously the most talented hockey player on the ice every time he’s out there. It’s pretty, pretty, prettttttty, pretty good.

neil: And David Pastrňák looks like he’s in strong form again.

terrence.doyle: The Perfection Line was just that, and yeah, a big reason for it is Pasta getting back to doing Pasta things.

Tuukka Rask playing out of his mind also helps.

emily: And yet, I think the goal that changed the series was the 2OT steal from Craig Smith. 

Craig Smith!

neil: Big plays from unsung sources, love that part of the playoffs.

terrence.doyle: He’s come good!

He was struggling earlier in the season, but he’s kind of always *felt like* a Bruin, so I’m happy to see it.

neil: One other thing that impressed me before we move on: The Tampa Bay Lightning look like they are going to be a very tough out yet again. They pretty much absorbed the best shots from a Florida team that hockey-hipsters (such as myself) had been talking up all season, and mostly handled it fine. And Nikita Kucherov certainly seems like he hasn’t missed a beat (sparking a thousand conspiracy theories about the whole salary-cap-circumvention thing).

terrence.doyle: They’re going to win again, aren’t they?

emily: Neil, tell us the odds!

neil: Hahah

15 percent, which is second-best behind Colorado (which destroyed the Blues). 

terrence.doyle: Kuch looking like the best player in the world again after not playing for an entire season is a) amazing to watch and b) very depressing for fans of literally any other playoff team.


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neil: So scary. And the source of so many sour grapes from the rest of the league.

terrence.doyle: The cap-circumvention “scandal” is a big shrug from me. I get the anger, but also, it allows teams to play their best players in the playoffs if they get healthy. Which is, uhh, why we watch?

Like, I’m right in saying hockey is better when Kucherov is playing than when he’s not, yes?

 neil: Everyone who doesn’t own a plastic rat agrees.

terrence.doyle: LOL, fair. Panthers had the look. Would have been a fun run. Alas.

neil: Well, maybe on that topic: Who was the biggest disappointment? Or instead, if you want, which eliminated team is facing the most uncertain future this offseason and beyond?

terrence.doyle: I want to say the Preds, but they always figure out how to be just good enough to not piss off their fan base.

Maybe this tweet from the Carolina account will motivate them to find some scoring in the offseason:

neil: Carolina’s social folks have been coming in HOT

terrence.doyle: (I’m generally not a fan of official Twitter accounts behaving like clout merchants, but I’ll allow it here.)

emily: Those Nashville banners deserved to be mocked.

terrence.doyle: They were calling out for scrutiny.

neil: LOL. I think the Preds at least showed some fight in the second half of the season and this series, so I think they can hold their heads somewhat high. There is the question of the long-term future for this core, of course, which we’ve talked about before. But to me, the Oilers are the most disappointing team by a mile.

emily: Agreed. The expectations were low for the Predators after their start this season, and they managed to exceed them. The Oilers were pure disappointment.

terrence.doyle: Neil, would you say the Preds can hold their heads Higher than the Oilers?

neil: Omg

terrence.doyle: 🙃

neil: Meanwhile, Connor McDavid must be saying he’s in My Own Prison.

terrence.doyle: LOL

neil: (I’m so sorry I’ve contributed to this.)

terrence.doyle: Poor Connor. I just want him to be happy.

Connor McDavid is in good company

NHL players who hit at least 100 adjusted points at least four times before their age-25 season, with their playoff stats before turning 25 and the average end-of-season Elo rating for their teams in those seasons

Player Seasons 100+ Adj. Pt. seasons Playoff Games Playoff points Avg. Team Elo
Wayne Gretzky 1980-85 6 70 156 1561
Connor McDavid 2016-21 5 21 22 1481
Mario Lemieux 1985-90 4 11 19 1463
Alex Ovechkin 2006-10 4 28 40 1495

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

Listen, there’s still hope. But it’s still such a bummer that he plays on such a bummer of a team.

neil: Yeah, he’s too good for this outcome. Against Winnipeg, the Oilers played both McDavid and Leon Draisaitl over 30 minutes per game — granted, a lot of those games went to OT — and they had 9 combined points on the team’s eight total goals.

Really a testament to how those two are being asked to carry a ridiculous load for Edmonton to even have a chance.

terrence.doyle: Right? I mean, they’re probably the best and like, third- to fifth-best players in the world. But that doesn’t matter much when the rest of the roster is built the way it is.

The average end-of-season Elo rating for the Oilers throughout McDavid’s career is abysmal.

I don’t know this off the top of my head, but I have to imagine they rank pretty low in terms of roster talent by goals above replacement?

neil: Just looking at the numbers from this season, only four Edmonton skaters had double-digit value over replacement per 82 games: McDavid (35.2), Draisaitl (29.4), Darnell Nurse (21.0) and Tyson Barrie (18.5). All of the rest were in single digits, which speaks to the lack of depth. 

terrence.doyle: Makes sense. I was going to say that Nurse and Barrie are pretty much all they got on the blue line, so this tracks.

Two world-beaters, two very good D-men, and then … Ryan Nugent-Hopkins? (I like Nuge, he’s a lovely skater and a pretty silky player, but yea, idk, he’s not winning anyone a Cup.)

neil: Yeah, it’s a big drop-off from their top two forwards to RNH. Like, a BIG drop-off.

Meanwhile, as we’re talking about disappointments, I do also think we have to note that the 2017 (Penguins), 2018 (Capitals) and 2019 (Blues) Stanley Cup winners were all ousted in relatively underwhelming fashion and face some real questions going forward.

Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin aren’t getting any younger.

terrence.doyle: The Blues looked pretty toothless in that series. I don’t know where they go from that. Getting Vladimir Tarasenko healthy for a full season is a good place to start.

(Or seeing what they can get for him in a trade, because his deal is up in 2023.)

I think the Pens and Caps will be fine, FWIW. Sid is not a Kid anymore, Ovi is as gray as a grandad, but they both had good seasons, and both teams have relatively strong rosters and score tons of goals. But it’s probably time to make a  plan of succession, nonetheless.

emily: Can’t forget that the Caps’ goaltending situation was up in the air much of the season (and postseason) too.

terrence.doyle: Good point. Who had “Craig Anderson Makes 65 Saves On 70 Shots In The Playoffs, In Friggin’ 2021” on their bingo cards?

neil: All right, let’s close things out by looking ahead. We don’t know all of Round 2’s matchups yet, but we do have a decent idea of what the bracket will look like from here. Which second-round series have got you the most hyped?

terrence.doyle: Carolina-Tampa.

emily: Of course, I’m hyped to watch the Bruins play another round. But Carolina-Tampa should be awesome.

terrence.doyle: Seconded.

One team with a very real shot at doing the thing is going out either way, which is always fun. 

neil: I’m excited to see Carolina’s waves of talented forwards go up against that Tampa blue line. 

terrence.doyle: It’s a matchup I welcome With Arms Wide Open.

neil: 💀💀💀

terrence.doyle: Lol. I’ll feel the same way about Colorado-Vegas, if that’s how it shakes out in the West.

neil: That’s one we’ve basically been waiting for all year … but like we said, it requires the Knights to survive a Game 7. We’ll see.

emily: It’ll be fun to see Colorado get challenged. I still think it could be a blowout, though, regardless of whether it’s Minnesota or Vegas.

And then up in Canada, RIP to that fabled Matthews-McDavid matchup we all hoped for.

terrence.doyle: 😩

neil: Hey, we might get Mark Scheifele vs. Tyler Toffoli, and that’s just as good, right? 😭

emily: “We have Matthews vs. McDavid at home.”


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Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Emily Scherer is FiveThirtyEight’s senior designer.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.

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