NHL Playoffs: Underdogs, Upsets, and Firsts

The second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs did not fail to entertain, as upsets galore now lead to Conference Finals full of storylines and expectations.

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By Felipe Marin Bautista

“I don’t think they want Florida that much anymore,” Florida Panthers winger Matthew Tkachuk said.

This witty response was a highlight of Tkachuk’s interview after a shocking five-game series win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, before which Leafs fans had already sealed the fate of their team. Invigorated after beating Tampa Bay and exorcising their first-round demons with their first series win in nearly two decades, they had chanted “We want Florida!” across Toronto. Due in large part to Tkachuk and the heroics of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, the Panthers had little trouble taking the first three games. The “core four” of the Leafs roster, who take up an incredible 49 percent of the team’s salary cap, were remarkably invisible. Now, the Maple Leafs and their fans have new problems to contend with––most prominently, the search for Kyle Dubas’s replacement as general manager after he was fired by frustrated president Brendan Shanahan. 

This was only one of the dramatic storylines from the second round, where the trademark intensity of the postseason was dialed up another notch. Classic playoff beards stretched longer, coaches grew even more irate, and the referees became the targets of passionate fans once again following more controversial calls. While some teams are getting ready for a long offseason of golf, others are moving on to the conference finals. Let’s dive in. 

The series between the Vegas Golden Knights and Edmonton Oilers pitted two teams with a lot to lose against each other, to say the least, and the series would be dictated by a few key questions. Would the Golden Knights be able to keep their momentum after a quick series win in round one? Could Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and the historically successful Oilers power play get them to advance? Many fans had picked Edmonton to win the Stanley Cup in their brackets this season. Against everyone’s expectations, the Knights picked up the upset win in six games, with lopsided games being exchanged in the early stages before Vegas edged out victories in games five and six. Vegas center Jack Eichel proved to be the difference maker, especially when combined with the Knights’s far superior depth players. Despite Edmonton’s power play continuing to click at a 47.4 percent success rate in the playoffs, five-on-five play and goaltending let down the Oilers, and much of their roster outside of Draisaitl and McDavid contributed little. Draisaitl specifically has to be disappointed in his team, as he now heads home early despite producing over a goal per game during their short-lived postseason run.

The other series in the West—between the Seattle Kraken and Dallas Stars—came in a little more low-profile but did not disappoint in the slightest. The series went all the way to seven games, with the Stars advancing after the tightest series fans have seen in years. For Dallas, round two held an unlikely hero in the form of 38-year-old center Joe Pavelski. Pavelski, who was injured for the entirety of their first-round matchup versus the Minnesota Wild, scored eight goals against the Kraken to help Dallas advance. This included a storybook four-goal performance in Game 1 before the Stars lost in overtime. Though the Kraken fought hard and got a surprisingly vintage performance from goaltender Philipp Grubauer, Stars goaltender Jake Oettinger was up to the task, helping his team eke out a 2-1 win in the do-or-die Game 7. The Kraken failed to establish early leads for much of the series, and it ended up costing them greatly. Still, Seattle—who finished close to dead-last in the standings in their inaugural season last year—has a lot to be proud of after this year’s quick turnaround.

In the Eastern Conference, a young New Jersey Devils team was taking on the division-winning Carolina Hurricanes. Many were wondering if New Jersey’s young core would continue their miracle season and lead them to the promised land against a battered Canes squad. The answer to that question turned out to be a resounding no, courtesy of Carolina and coach Rod Brind’Amour. Except for a wide-open 8-4 win for the Devils that featured three—that’s right, three—shorthanded goals, the Hurricanes stomped out the Devils en route to a five-game gentleman’s sweep. Except for recent first-overall pick Jack Hughes, the Devils’ star players were unable to match Carolina’s depth. Defenseman Dougie Hamilton and forwards Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt combined for a singular goal. Simply put, not good enough. Three of the Hurricanes’ wins were by four goals or more, as the Devils’ defense and goaltender Akira Schmid turned leaky while the offense turned dry. Yikes, New Jersey.

The second round raised almost as many questions as it did answers. Two of the four remaining teams—the Panthers and the Golden Knights—have never won a Stanley Cup in their franchise histories. Even the Hurricanes and Stars had their most recent championships 17 and 24 years ago, respectively. The world is guaranteed to see new faces raising the Stanley Cup in June, with regularly contending juggernauts like the Lightning and Avalanche already long gone. 

With the first game of the conference finals between the Panthers and Hurricanes already going to quadruple overtime, hockey fans should buckle up and enjoy the adrenaline rush while they can. This round will be even more exciting than the last.