It's difficult for the Tampa Bay Lightning to look on the bright side after one of the biggest collapses in NHL history, one that saw the regular season's top team get swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets, who only squeaked into the playoffs.
That's especially true when this undoubtedly stings more than any previous post-season failure. While still a top team and a likely contender next season, the Lightning will be hard-pressed to keep their group together given they're projected to have $6.3 million in cap space with a new, high-priced contract for Brayden Point looming. That will see a wide-open window close ever-so-slightly.
Of course, the Lightning aren't the only higher-seeded team booking tee times earlier than they expected. Of the five completed playoff rounds that have been completed, the New York Islanders are the only top-seeded team to advance. Every other series has featured an upset of varying degrees, and that could continue Tuesday when the lower-seeded Toronto Maple Leafs and Vegas Golden Knights embark on Game 7s with an opportunity to advance to the second round. The wild card Carolina Hurricanes could also advance Wednesday if they pick up a Game 7 win over the defending champion Washington Capitals.
With so many top teams falling by the wayside, the Bruins' Brad Marchand and Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon are the only players who finished top-10 in regular season scoring still standing in the playoffs. Nikita Kucherov, who led the league with 128 points in the regular season, had just two points in three games for Tampa Bay, while the Calgary Flames' Johnny Gaudreau, Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby and Lightning's Steven Stamkos combined for just four points. For the most part, it's been a rough playoff for some of the season's highest scorers.
But it's not all doom and gloom. As always, a few under-the-radar players rose to the occasion, even in defeat. Here are five players who stood out despite early post-season exits:
Rasmus Andersson, D, Calgary Flames
Andersson, 22, had three points in the first three games against the Avalanche, leading the team's blueline with 1.93 points per 60 minutes and 8.38 shots per 60 minutes at all strengths. The Flames had trouble scoring in the series, registering only 11 goals in five games, but Andersson's 62.5 goals-for percentage at all strengths was the best among the five Flames defensemen who played at last 90 minutes in the series. Calgary's defense corps is rather crowded next season with eight blueliners under contract, but Andersson's late-season play and his strong playoff effort should be enough to warrant consideration for a spot in the top four.
Rocco Grimaldi, LW, Nashville Predators
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand that scoring was an issue for the Predators this season. Nashville's 240 goals ranked 19th in the regular season and their 76 goals after Feb. 1 were the fourth-fewest over the final months of the regular season. The Predators' top line of Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg managed a mere two goals and four points, while Kyle Turris finished with a goal and an assist in six games. Good thing Grimaldi, 26, picked up the slack with three goals in the series. He was the only Predators forward to score more than one goal. Grimaldi's goal production came out of nowhere, too. Grimaldi had just five goals in 53 games this season, a career high. Statistically speaking, it was a good end to the season for Grimaldi before he becomes a restricted free agent this summer.
Andrew Copp, LW, Winnipeg Jets
The Jets fell way short of expectations – trust us, we know – but Copp took his game to a new level in the first round. The bottom-six winger's five assists put him into a four-way tie for second in team scoring and were a significant improvement from the three points he had during the Jets' run to the Western Conference final last season. Copp excelled at getting the puck to the point, assisting on two of Dustin Byfuglien's goals, and the 24-year-old continued to show chemistry with Brandon Tanev and Adam Lowry as the trio combined for eight points. A big, versatile depth forward, Copp is an RFA this summer, and his stellar playoff performance won't hurt when it comes time to negotiate a new pact.
Erik Cernak, D, Tampa Bay Lightning
If you had bet Cernak, a rookie defenseman with 16 points in 58 games this season, would finish the post-season as Tampa Bay's top scorer, you'd be in the process of purchasing a sports car right now. But that's how rough the Lightning's first round was: the league's highest scorer in more than 20 years, Kucherov, had two assists, and the rest of his line – Point and Tyler Johnson – had one point each. Cernak spent most of the series with Ryan McDonagh, earning the opportunity when Victor Hedman exited with an undisclosed injury, and performed well above expectations. While he was a second-pairing option this season, Tampa Bay has four defensemen heading into unrestricted free agency and have to worry about signing Point long term. So, Cernak, on an entry-level deal until the end of 2019-20, could get even more looks next season after an effective post-season.
Justin Schultz, D, Pittsburgh Penguins
Schultz has become one of Pittsburgh's most important defensemen over the past few campaigns, but injuries limited him to just 29 games this season and Schultz had only two points in the final 12 games of the season. However, in a series where the Penguins were swept for the first time since 2013 and just the fourth time in team history, Schultz finished tied with Evgeni Malkin for the team lead, scoring three points in four games. The Penguins only had six goals in the series, with Schultz's marker at 18:31 in the third period sending Game 1 to overtime. Schultz's 44.4 GF% was the best among players with at least 80 minutes of ice time at all strengths. Pittsburgh's blueline was a mess during the post-season, so at least one defender showed up to the party.
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