After two weeks that were unforgettable and, to be candid, crazy, the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs has begun. In that time, I’ve seen and read everything there is about this year’s NHL playoffs, and I wanted to let you know some of my random stats and thoughts.
Road Teams & Upsets
Upsets have been the story of the playoffs thus far. Not only have the three major markets of New York, Boston, and Los Angeles lost their defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, but the elimination of the team has also hurt the team’s TV ratings. It’s also a tribute to the niche markets that have been steadily growing their audiences.
The Canes have been seeing organic development over the past few years, and this season they broke a record by selling out 33 games throughout the regular season. General Manager Don Waddell told me he had to spend the whole morning before Game 5 calling individuals to apologize that he couldn’t get them tickets. Meanwhile, Devils supporters are rejoicing that the rebuilding process is finally over. Tickets, sponsorship, groups, entertainment, and food and beverage sales all broke records in New Jersey. The Devils boast a 99% season ticket retention record and have already sold more than 1,500 season tickets for next year. To put that into perspective, if the NHL had 1,500 new season ticket holders last year, they would have been eighth in the league.
Auston Matthews and Matthew Tkachuk, two of the most exciting American players, will face off in this series between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Florida Panthers. They look like their complete complement of players, something that hasn’t been the case all season. Matthews’ output dropped after his 2021-22 MVP season, but that was mostly due to his playing with a hand injury.
It’s no secret that Tkachuk irritated the Bruins in the first round; indeed, even goalkeeper Linus Ullmark, who I had on my list for the Lady Byng, came close to getting into a fight with him. However, Tkachuk has shown this season that he is at his best when he takes things easy. Tkachuk received 17 minor penalties (59 penalty minutes) in his first 34 games with the Panthers. Tkachuk was in the zone as the club made its major drive following the All-Star break, particularly in March. Tkachuk has scored 28 points in 18 games over the previous five weeks while committing only six penalties.
Tkachuk has been a huge boost to the Panthers’ morale and has lived up to all of their expectations in terms of talent and strength. Tkachuk has been praised for being an excellent teammate by both head coach Paul Maurice and general manager Bill Zito. It’s the simple things; he’ll offer to bring everyone in the room a Gatorade if he has to walk across the room to get one for himself. He’s always the one to open the door for you. The flying staff has his gratitude. As Florida was transitioning its identity from “playground hockey” to “competitive and structured” hockey, Tkachuk was the ideal player at the ideal time.
Injuries have been a major problem for Carolina this season, but the team has found ways to keep winning. Due to injuries, Max Pacioretty (Achilles) and Andrei Svechnikov (ACL) are ineligible to play in the playoffs. In the first round, Teuvo Teravainen suffered an injury. The veteran forward’s injured left hand from Game 2 of the first round required surgery. The crew was given a four-week minimum recuperation time by the doctors. It’s still unlikely that Teravainen will be able to play a significant role in these playoffs. Still, the club doesn’t want to rush him back since they know that athletes heal at various rates and that many things affect rehabilitation.
Is Luke Hughes going to make an appearance in the postseason? After finishing his undergraduate season at Michigan, the No. 4 selection in the 2021 NHL draft moved to New Jersey to train with the Devils’ coaching and development staff. Toward the end of the regular season, Hughes only appeared in two games. The team’s first outing was deemed satisfactory by management. The second game was considerably more competitive, albeit against a Washington squad that had already given up on the season. New Jersey is looking ahead to Jack Hughes’ younger brother’s future contributions to the team and is treating him as a depth option for the playoffs.
The Devils currently believe that younger Hughes might perform adequately in a defensive and offensively playoff game. But it’s not right to force him into some situations. He wouldn’t make his Madison Square Garden debut on the road. A Game 5 or 7 wasn’t in the cards for him. The fact that someone would have to take a seat to make room for Hughes is his biggest problem. Those with the team throughout the season are given special treatment.
Why the Boston Bruins lost in the first round is still a mystery. During the Panthers series, fans have paid close attention to Jim Montgomery’s lineup and line changes. Even the coach himself admitted he would have done some things differently, such as starting Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand together for Game 5. However, earlier in the series, he revealed why he shuffled his lines so often. “I do it because if we get to a third period of a Game 6 or a Game 7, the players are not thinking I’m panicking,” Montgomery said. “It’s just, I think it might give us an edge.”
The New York Rangers’ moves this season backfired, and there will be fallout this summer. Coach Gerard Gallant is expected to be the fall guy, but a roster reshape is likely as well. It was especially hard to watch Patrick Kane, who so desperately wanted to make an impact after willing the trade out of Chicago once he found out the Blackhawks didn’t have interest in re-signing him.
Kane was available to media members nearly every day, sitting at his stall, fielding questions from a scrum of reporters, no matter how uncomfortable. Even though Kane downplayed his hip injury, people in Chicago told me how much treatment and prep he required to get on the ice. I texted with a few of his former teammates during the playoffs, and one said it best: “That’s not Showtime out there. Don’t recognize him.” An offseason of rest — and potentially surgery — should help Kane regain his form, and he’ll be one of the more interesting free agency cases this summer.
The goalies’ unwavering loyalty to their teammates despite being demoted is one of the nicest things I’ve seen at hockey arenas. The Florida Panthers’ Sergei Bobrovsky was the most enthusiastic player on the bench whenever Alex Lyon made a huge save in Game 1 of the series against the Boston Bruins. When Akira Schmid of New Jersey comes off the ice, Vitek Vanecek usually greets him with the biggest smile and a bear hug. And everyone watched how Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman encouraged one another all season long in Boston.
Can’t wait for Round 2