The Stanley Cup playoffs began as an experiment.
After the onset of the coronavirus pandemic ended its regular season, the N.H.L. adapted its postseason format — players in enclosed environments competing in a March Madness-style daily lineup of games that mattered. With the league returning to best-of-five series for the first time since 1987, only one matchup went the distance — the Columbus Blue Jackets beat the Toronto Maple Leafs, 3-0, in Sunday’s Game 5 — and only one was a sweep, as the Carolina Hurricanes summarily dispatched the Rangers.
But the play-in and round-robin tournaments, hosted in Toronto and Edmonton, unfolded with upsets, overtimes and thrilling finishes throughout, proof that even these expanded 24-team playoffs have all the unpredictability and momentum swings that define an N.H.L. postseason.
Play-In Top Seeds Upset in Both Conferences
In the Western Conference, the No. 5-seeded Edmonton Oilers, playing in their home arena and toting this year’s scoring champion and runner-up, were outgunned by the No. 12 Chicago Blackhawks in a qualifying round series where betting the over in three of the four games would have been lucrative.
Chicago pushed the pace behind its decorated captain Jonathan Toews and wing Dominik Kubalik, a 24-year-old rookie who notched five points in his postseason debut. Goalie Corey Crawford, who recently recovered from Covid-19, turned in a 43-save performance in Game 4. Edmonton’s Connor McDavid led all players in the series in goals and points and Hart Trophy finalist Leon Draisaitl was productive, but the Oilers still went away, or rather stayed home, frustrated.
“At the end of the day, you play this game to win a Stanley Cup. And we’re sitting here after a qualifier not even in the playoffs, not even in the top 16,” Edmonton defenseman Darnell Nurse said. “So you can talk about strides all you want. I don’t think anyone’s happy.”
Perhaps more startlingly, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the East’s top seed in elimination play, were jostled around by the Montreal Canadiens, and also lost in four games.
Montreal (31-31-9) had the worst record of any team in the tournament, but got a tenacious boost from its blueliners Shea Weber, who set the tone with domineering physical play, and Jeff Petry, who scored two game-winning goals in the series. Goalie Carey Price posted a .947 save percentage and a shutout in Game 4.
Pittsburgh’s window could open wide again if they win Monday’s draft lottery for the top overall pick, as they did the last time there was an unconventional drawing. It won the 30-team lottery in 2005 that followed the lockout, and used the pick to select Sidney Crosby.
Boston and St. Louis Cede Top Standing
The St. Louis Blues (42-19-10) and Boston Bruins (44-14-12) were their respective conferences’ top regular-season finishers after meeting in last year’s Stanley Cup finals. Neither was able to secure top seeds. In fact, neither won a game and they finished last in the round robin tournaments. Boston will face a rested Carolina and St. Louis will clash with a young Vancouver squad after falling to fourth following a shootout loss to Dallas on Sunday.
St. Louis lost its first game after the most memorable goal of the postseason so far, when Colorado Avalanche center Nazem Kadri put his team up, 2-1, with one tenth of a second remaining in their game. It was the latest goal ever scored and the second ever in the final second of an N.H.L. postseason game.
The round robin winners? The Vegas Golden Knights, who entered the postseason third in the Western Conference standings, and Philadelphia Flyers, who were fourth in the East.
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Vegas twice rallied from multi-goal deficits during the round robin and faces Chicago next. Philadelphia’s depth helped the Flyers to early leads that they defended in each of its three round robin games, a trend that carried over from a regular season in which they went 32-0-2 in games when they held a two-goal lead. They will take on the Canadiens.
“Please exit your couch safely”
Teams in both hub cities made an effort to replicate the atmospheres in their home arenas despite the absence of fans.
Nashville played its usual goal celebration song, Tim McGraw’s “I Like It, I Love It,” though Arizona’s Brad Richardson scored the series winner in overtime to upset the favored Predators. Chicago piped in their fans’ raucous cheering during the U.S. national anthem and there were nightly nods to the viewers watching from home during all games, with scoreboards that read, “Tonight’s attendance: 0” and “At the conclusion of tonight’s game, please exit your couch safely.”
Montreal and Toronto Nail-Biters
In Game 3 of their series against Pittsburgh, the Canadiens joined the teams to surmount multi-goal deficits, and their archrival Maple Leafs staged a stunning comeback to push their series against Columbus to the brink.
Toronto became the first team to rally from three goals down in the final five minutes of a game in which they faced elimination. Their surge forced overtime against Columbus in Game 4, where they got a power-play winner from center Auston Matthews to force a decisive Game 5 on Sunday. But the scoring slowed, as Joonas Korpisalo made 33 saves in a shutout win for Columbus.
Toronto’s Game 4 comeback had returned the favor to Columbus, which had overcome a three-goal deficit to win Game 3 behind center Pierre-Luc Dubois, who scored the franchise’s first postseason hat trick including the game-winner in overtime.
The Blue Jackets now face Tampa Bay in a rematch of last year’s first-round series. Columbus swept the Lightning after they’d won a record-tying 62 regular-season games. This time around, Tampa Bay’s sniping center Steven Stamkos and the hulking defenseman Victor Hedman are both recovering from injuries and their status for the series is uncertain.
Goalie Tandems Make a Comeback
Goalie tandems fell out of favor after successful runs by Carolina in 2002 and Minnesota in 2003. But so far in this postseason, nine of the 24 participating teams have used two goalies. It was a development that Bruins netminder Tuukka Rask predicted two weeks before the playoffs began, noting that goalies were particularly vulnerable to groin and hip injuries, especially given the suspension and resumption of play.
“I’d be surprised if you see goalies play every minute of every game in these playoffs,” Rask said.
Matt Dumba Set the Tone
The round’s best player may have been McDavid or Carolina’s Sebastian Aho, who turned in a magnificent two-way, three-point performance in the Hurricanes’ Game 3 win over the Rangers.
But Minnesota defenseman Matt Dumba, who managed just one point in a four-game series his team lost, garnered attention in another way.
Before the first game played in the West, Dumba knelt at center ice during the U.S. national anthem as Nurse and Chicago goalie Malcolm Subban, both Black Canadians, placed a hand on his shoulders.
Dumba, a Canadian of Filipino heritage with a diverse family, had just delivered a speech on behalf of the newly formed Hockey Diversity Alliance. His remarks addressed the need to battle bigotry and systemic racism, in hockey and beyond.
“I hope this inspires a new generation of hockey players and hockey fans. Because Black Lives Matter. Breonna Taylor’s life matters,” Dumba said, referring to an African-American medical worker who in March was killed by the police in Louisville, Ky.
“Hockey is a great game. But it could be a whole lot greater. And it starts with all of us.”