- Vegas is the first to earn a spot for the second round, the Caps finally figured out how to win in overtime and the Jets are a win away from moving on.
However seriously this topic of conversation was taken in NHL circles throughout the regular season, it just got extremely real: It’s time to consider the possibility the Golden Knights really could mess around and win the Stanley Cup.
With a comprehensive, suffocating 1–0 victory on Tuesday night, Vegas earned a sweep of the Kings in the franchise’s first playoff series. Those four wins were bookended by two spotless Marc-Andre Fleury shutouts in which Los Angeles held the advantage in shots but rarely sniffed a prime scoring chance, rendered helpless against an opportunistic forecheck that waits for the puck-carrier to make a mistake and then swarms before there’s any chance to recover. The Kings, made up of many members of the same core that won Stanley Cups in 2012 and ’14, scored just three goals in four games.
Defenseman Brayden McNabb, who was left exposed in the expansion draft by these same Kings, dropped to one knee to rifle a one-timer past a helpless Jonathan Quick at 4:04 of the second period, a beautiful transition goal that proved to be the series-winner. In the third, when the Kings got a power play with 7:44 to play and spent the next two minutes scrambling to get control the puck as if they had mismatched lines at 5-on-5, not a man advantage, it became clear that only a magical individual effort to best Fleury would save L.A., and Fleury was razor sharp when tested in the final minutes.
The only negative to be found in Vegas right now is that its likely second-round opponent is also having an easy go of its first playoff matchup: The Sharks can secure a sweep by beating the Ducks at home on Wednesday night. The Golden Knights’ record against San Jose this season: 3-0-1.
In light of America’s fascination with roster construction in basketball, baseball and football, the run the Golden Knights are on almost feels bad for hockey. You mean you can piece together a roster of players whose former teams didn’t care whether they stayed or went in an expansion draft, hire a coach whose last job ended with him loading his bags into a taxi after a road game, and go on to win the division in your first year and advance in the playoffs? What has everyone else been doing, then?
On the other hand, the innocence with which Vegas demolished the Kings is so novel that only good things can come from a run exactly zero experts saw coming six months ago.
CAPITALS 3, BLUE JACKETS 2
No team has ever lost three overtime games to open a playoff series, and so of course that’s the kind of history the Capitals flirted with before finding a roundabout way past Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky nine minutes into the second overtime session for a 3-2 Game 3 win that temporarily stopped the momentum building in Columbus and lowered the DEFCON levels of embattled Caps fans. Washington may not have a deep playoff run in it this year—certainly not if its top lines continue to look as choppy as they have in the final 30 minutes of every game—but it has at least avoided the ignominy of a surprise sweep at the hands of an upstart team with much less postseason experience.
Maybe the Capitals should have started making preparations for an extra session as soon as they took a 1–0 lead on Tom Wilson’s redirect goal early in the second period. For the third straight game, Washington jumped in front only to watch the Blue Jackets pull level, and for the balance of the game Columbus looked like the more poised team. A perfect wrist shot from Pierre-Luc Dubois after two Capitals turned their backs to him in transition opened the Blue Jackets’ scoring, and although Washington regained the lead a few minutes later, Panarin and Cam Atkinson turned a shaky offensive-zone pass by Alex Ovechkin into a clinical two-on-one goal the other way early in the third period. All the while, Bobrovsky looked completely comfortable as the Washington offense tightened up.
The Capitals would have had genuine grievances if things had been decided in the first overtime, when a high stick to the face of T.J. Oshie went uncalled and the Blue Jackets were given a power play shortly after. Instead, they got the final lucky bounce, or bounces, when Bobrovsky failed to squeeze Brett Connolly’s shot and the rebound ricocheted off Lars Eller’s leg, off defender Zach Werenski’s leg, off Eller’s toe and, eventually, into the net.
JETS 2, WILD 0
Connor Hellebuyck outdueled Devan Dubnyk to help the Jets regain control of the series after withstanding the Wild’s best shot in Game 3, collecting the franchise’s first playoff shutout in the process with a 30-save night. Both teams played Game 4 without key players, just the latest casualties of a series that has taxed both rosters: Zach Parise suffered a broken sternum on Sunday night and likely won’t have a chance to return this postseason unless Minnesota makes the Stanley Cup Final, and Jets defenseman Tyler Myers was held out after sustaining a leg injury of undisclosed severity on an awkward collision with Marcus Foligno. The loss of Parise appears to have doomed the Wild’s comeback chances, with limited game-breaking firepower waiting in the wings and the series headed back to Winnipeg.
HIGHLIGHT OF THE NIGHT
Jay Beagle has made his mark on Games 2 and 3 of Capitals-Blue Jackets after missing the series opener with an upper-body injury, but I bet he wishes he had been watching this Artemi Panarin dangle from the press box instead of serving as a set prop for it.
It wasn’t all sizzle and skill for Panarin on Tuesday night, however.
- Connor Hellebuyck, WPG — The Vezina Trophy finalist earned his first career playoff shutout, turning away all 30 Minnesota shots.
- Artemi Panarin, CBJ — Panarin has consistently been the best player on the ice in this series, from his Game 1 overtime winner, to Tuesday night’s game-tying goal, to the blistering slap shot he rang off the goal post in the final 90 seconds of regulation, to a slew of other scoring chances created by his speed and creativity.
- Mark Scheifele, WPG — The Jets’ only source of offense in Game 4 beat Dubnyk with a wrister in the slot and wrapped things up with an empty-netter.
Penguins-Flyers has been light on third-period drama, with no game decided by fewer than four goals so far. Philadelphia netminder Brian Elliott has a sterling 34-save night sandwiched between two five-goal nightmares so far this series; with Sidney Crosby & Co. clicking on offense, the Flyers need nothing less than Elliott’s best to even the series heading back to western Pennsylvania. The Game 4 crowd at Wells Fargo Center will sweat out every save until it’s safe to assume Elliott is settled in.
The Devils were rewarded for making a change in net for Game 3, when Cory Schneider stopped 34 of Tampa Bay’s 36 shots for his first win of 2018 (he was 0-10-2 dating back to late December). Does the shape of this series change with New Jersey’s franchise netminder back to his old self and slated to start Game 4? The Lightning, like the rest of the league, has had no answer for Taylor Hall (two goals, three assists in three games) so far, but they’re still the deeper, more talented team by a wide margin. It will be critical for the underdog Devils to hold serve at home and give the East’s best team something to think about on the flight back to Tampa.
The Predators have gotten more than they bargained for from the opportunistic Avalanche, who ambushed the West’s top seed for four goals in the first 25 minutes of Game 3 en route to a 5-3 win to ensure that this series will return to Bridgestone. Colorado has scored first in every game of the series, and even a team as good as Nashville has to show up on time at some point to put this series away, especially now that the Avs have Nathan MacKinnon humming after 2013’s No. 1 pick broke out with two goals on Monday night.
Will anyone give the Ducks directions to SAP Center on Wednesday night? The visitors let the Sharks cruise to an 8-1 win in their playoff home opener, as goals from eight different players put Anaheim in a 3-0 series hole. It can’t be comforting to Ducks coach Randy Carlyle that Ryan Miller was just as shaky as John Gibson after a goalie change was made with the game out of hand.