NHL roundtable: best first round matchup; Bolts' fate, more
Every Friday, a trio of SI.com staffers sits down for a discussion of the hockey world’s hot-button issues. This week, Michael Blinn, Sam Page and Al Muir dig into thrilling playoff matchups, Tampa Bay's revised status without Steven Stamkos, Russia's national team drug scandal, contentious Calder Trophy voting and the season's unlikeliest storyline.
Al Muir: Blues-Hawks looks like the marquee matchup for sure. The defending champs against a desperate team facing a massive overhaul if it fails to advance out of the first round for the fourth consecutive season? That's some drama there. Honestly though, I'll be just as happy if it ends up being Dallas-Chicago. The Stars have given the Hawks fits all year, beating 'em four times and taking a 4–0 lead in each of the past three. And there's the Patrick Sharp/Johnny Oduya/Stephen Johns angle. You know they'd love to send their old buddies to the golf course. In the East, I'd like to see Philly grab the second wild-card berth and line up against the Capitals. The Flyers and their scrappy desperation seem to match up well against Washington's skill and depth, and Steve Mason has it in him to steal a series. Or Washington could just put its foot on the gas, hit top speed in a matter of seconds and blow their doors off. Either way, it'd be fun to watch.
SP: I feel bad for the kids, since apparently trainers hand Meldonium out in Russia like salt pills. Since this drug isn’t a steroid or anything, I suspect the ultimate impact is a unified generation of Russian hockey players with a huge chip on its shoulder.
AM: I would love to give it to McDavid, because he's clearly been "the most proficient in his first year of competition in the NHL." I mean, the kid has been named Rookie of the Month for each month in which he's appeared in more than one game. I think it's obvious that he's been the very best of a very good bunch, and it's not even close. But even I have to admit that missing three months is going to cost him, which is why I'm leaning towards Gostisbehere. No knock on Panarin, who's been a very nice piece for the Hawks, but Ghost pretty much turned around Philadelphia's season on his own by excelling at the toughest position for any rookie to make an impact. He's revolutionized their attack and he has a knack for the big moment in that 15 of his 16 goals have either tied the game or put the Flyers in the lead. #Clutch, right? Yes, he started late, but missing a month doesn't kill his candidacy in my books.
SP: I didn’t expect the Panthers to be so good, either. Nothing on their team is independently surprising: Jagr leading the team in points, Sasha Barkov breaking out, Luongo having a great year—all that stuff I could have pictured going into the season. But to have it all break right at once has been amazing. And now they’ve got a real shot in the weak Eastern Conference.