First-Round Knockouts Turn Stanley Cup Playoffs Upside Down

There wasn't much sense to the opening round but this is the NHL playoffs, where anything is possible.
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WASHINGTON, D.C. — It was like the hockey gods couldn’t bear to witness their handiwork end just yet, as though they wanted to milk every last drop of drama from this bonkers opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Or perhaps they have just been drunk since the first puck dropped and lost interest altogether. It makes about as much sense as what actually happened.

Consider: When the clock struck midnight on April 25, all four divisional winners had been sent packing this early for the first time in NHL history. It started with Columbus’ stunning sweep of the Lightning, runaway title favorites and owners a record-tying 62-win regular season. Next came Colorado, dousing Western Conference–leading Calgary in five games on the shoulders of center Nathan MacKinnon, and later Dallas, exposing the Predators as paper tigers with stingy defense and top-heavy offense under rookie coach Jim Montgomery. 

The latest and last goliath to fall was defending-champion Washington, which coughed up its crown in double overtime against visiting Carolina on Wednesday night, 4–3, less than 24 hours after San Jose eliminated Vegas in a tell-your-grandkids kind of Game 7, which mercifully only required a single sudden-death period. “Crazy playoffs, right?” said Hurricanes captain Justin Williams, who earned the primary assist on Brock McGinn’s series-clinching redirection. “Everyone says you just get in, just get invited to the dance, and it’s anyone’s game.”

Indeed, take a look at those teams still boogying now. The Islanders are well-rested after a clinical sweep of Pittsburgh, not to mention relishing the schadenfreude from Boston’s elimination of Toronto (and, let’s be honest, specifically John Tavares). Rearmed with mercenary rentals Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, the eighth-seeded Blue Jackets have similarly enjoyed the benefit of relaxation before facing the Bruins, another team coming off a seven-game marathon. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, stormed and surged to their first series win since ‘08–09—against Alex Ovechkin and company, no less.

“We weren’t relevant in any hockey circles, when people talk about championships and making playoffs,” Williams said, sitting inside the visiting locker room at Capital One Arena. “We were just afterthoughts. So we’ve had to earn our stripes this year. To get rewarded from hard work and belief, which is a huge thing, is very satisfying, very rewarding right now.”

Out west, the Blues have already become the first expansion-era club to win a playoff series after ranking last at any stage after New Years’ Day. Now they can reach a second conference finals in four seasons, provided rookie goalie Jordan Binnington has enough magic left to lift them past the Stars, whose CEO deemed it fitting to deride the play of centerpieces Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin as “f------ horses---” only five months ago.

And how about the Sharks, who trailed 3–1 in their series against the Golden Knights and 3–0 in Game 7 before Cody Eakin’s instantly infamous (and dubious) cross-checking major helped breathe life back into the tank? “Enjoy tonight, back to work tomorrow,” San Jose center Joe Thornton told after Barclay Goodrow’s overtime winner on Tuesday. “Simple as that.”

There will be plenty of time to dissect the futures of those franchises imminently bound for the golf course. The 2017 Stanley Cup finalists, Nashville and Pittsburgh, each demonstrated a serious need for retooling, while the True North will once again finish 0-for-Canada with Calgary, Winnipeg and Toronto all gone before the calendar so much as flipped to May. And though television suits can hardly be salivating over the potential ratings for, say, Islanders-Hurricanes, the remaining field is the ultimate testament to NHL parity: Of the nine teams to hit 100 points in the regular season, just three—the Bruins, Islanders and Sharks—are still dancing.

“It sounds Pollyanna,” said Doc Emrick, the playoff voice for NBCSN, “but it’s just wonderful.”

Emrick was phoning from Boston, where he will handle play-by-play duties Thursday night for Game 1 of the Bruins–Blue Jackets series, the opening salvo of the second round. As usual, he had a story to share. Earlier that day Doc had been walking around the Faneuil Hall marketplace, not far from the famous Samuel Adams statue. “There was a guy, playing this very artistic jazz electric piano at a street corner,” Emrick says. “But instead of being out there with glasses and a beard, he’s decided that he can probably get a few more contributions in his jar, so he’s got this bear’s head on, and a light-brown bear suit, and he’s wearing a Bruins jersey.”

It was a weird sight to see on a weekday afternoon, Emrick admits. And yet, backdropped by this bonkers postseason, maybe the hockey gods just wanted to hear a grizzly play Gillespie before shutting down their first-round party. After all, it makes about as much sense as what actually happened.