Okay. That was extreme. Pretty sure the hockey universe is still measuring its collective heart rate after five Game 7s over two days to close out the first round of the NHL playoffs. Early on in those series, though: I have to admit to being disappointed in the quality of the games on the ice. In spite of loads of goals so, many early games were lopsided, in part because, thank goodness, officials were calling the standard (see below). But as time passed, the game-to-game drama was off the charts, with Florida coming from behind in three straight games to win their first playoff series since 1996, Tampa erasing a 3-2 series deficit to extend Toronto’s playoff agony to 18 straight years and the New York Rangers’ never say die attitude carrying them to overtime in Game 7 before Artemi Panarin ended it. It was grand theater and sets up some unique second-round matchups, including a second straight Battle of Florida and the first Battle of Alberta since, wait for it, 1991.
Here are 10 storylines to watch in the second round.
Stay the Course, Zebras
We made this our top storyline at the start of the playoffs, and it’s worth revisiting; how are officials going to call these second-round games now that the zany first round with five Game 7s is behind us? Have to admit I felt a high level of angst at how officials were going to respond to the plethora of Game 7s that helped make the first round so memorable. But for the most part I thought the standard adopted through most of the first round, where stick and obstruction fouls were routinely called regardless of the score or state of the game, held true in these deciding moments. Loved the way the Rangers/Penguins Game 7 tilt was called, including an overtime holding penalty on Pittsburgh’s Brock McGinn that was more than justified and which ultimately cost the Penguins the series. Good on Kelly Sutherland and Gord Dwyer for getting it right. The Oilers might have had the odd question about non-calls in Game 7 with the Oilers controlling so much of the puck possession in the game, but the critical insurance goal late in the third period came on a delayed penalty call to the Kings that was, again, totally justified even though Kings defenseman Sean Durzi inexplicably stopped skating to protest the coming call, allowing McDavid a better chance to give the Oilers a 2-0 lead. I felt players adjusted to the higher level of scrutiny as the first round went on, which is the hope. Still, the true test of the league’s commitment to call the game to the standard is yet to come, and here’s hoping commissioner Gary Bettman makes a gentle reminder, as he did to start the first round, to keep the standard the standard. The game is miles better for it.
Battle of Alberta. Pass The Popcorn.
The Calgary Flames had to outlast Dallas goaltending sensation Jake Oettinger through seven tight games to bring home the second part of the Battle of Alberta equation after the Oilers erased a 3-2 series deficit against pesky Los Angeles to advance beyond the first round for just the second time in the Connor McDavid/Leon Draisaitl era with a win at home in Game 7 on Saturday. But we have no doubt this will be worth the wait. This series should pop, and no one will be envying netminders Mike Smith who was terrific in Games 6 and 7 for the Oilers, and his counterpart Jacob Markstrom, as McDavid has elevated his already stratospheric game to a new level and Johnny Gaudreau, who scored the overtime winner in Game 7, is leading the way for the Flames with eight points in seven games. The matchup guarantees a Canadian team in the conference final and it will mark the first time an Alberta team will advance as far as the final four since the Oilers went to the final in 2006, so the emotions will be through the roof for this first provincial matchup since 1991. For many, this is a series about Calgary’s ability to control the uncontrollable McDavid and Draisaitl (although Draisaitl was clearly hobbled by what is believed to be an ankle injury which bears watching) versus the impressive depth of the Flames, who had nine different players score at least one goal against stingy Dallas. But the Oilers had 12 different players score in the first round, and if they can get that kind of production against the Flames, it will take some of the pressure off Edmonton’s dynamic duo and make life even more miserable for the Flames, even though Calgary will enjoy home ice advantage.
Battle of Florida Part Deux
I have argued that last year’s first-round matchup between Tampa and Florida was the most compelling of all the playoff series. Hard, nasty and skilled, the Lightning were tested en route to a six-game series win after which they completed a rare back-to-back Stanley Cup run. Now the Panthers are back, better, more experienced and once again owning home ice advantage over the two-time defending Stanley Cup champs. The Presidents’ Trophy winning Cats are hungry for more (sorry about that) after winning their first playoff series since 1996, and this will be a grand test to see what or how much they learned from that first-round loss a year ago. The Lightning are beat up – Brayden Point’s injury in Game 7 against Toronto looms large as the second round begins. Wouldn’t it be poetic if the Bolts’ magical playoff run ended at the hands of their cross-state rivals? A kind of passing of the Florida hockey baton if you will? One thing’s for sure: all-world Tampa netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy will have to better than he was early in the Toronto series against the powerhouse Panthers.