The first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs is well underway, and through the first three games, we have four teams that are facing elimination and a potential major upset underway in the Eastern Conference.
There is still plenty of hockey to play, but many prognosticators’ predictions can be thrown out the window. If you have predicted that the Calgary Flames, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild would be down 3-0 in their series and had those series down as potential sweeps, buy a lottery ticket.
Even then the Toronto Maple Leafs weren’t supposed to have a chance against the Washington Capitals, but suddenly that looks like a series that could go the distance. Shayna Goldman (THW), compiled our staff predictions at the beginning of the playoffs, and the largest discrepancy in a series was between the Capitals and Leafs.
One of the next largest was between the Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators. The Leafs and Predators, both underdogs according to our votes, are now leading their respective matchups.
Taking that into account, here are five of the biggest playoff surprises so far and the reason’s why they’ve unfolded:
Leafs Giving Capitals Run for Their Money
When the playoffs started most predictions for the Washington versus Toronto series had an identical tag line; the Leafs should just be happy to be here. The Capitals had a 23-point difference over the Leafs in the regular season, and 15 more wins. Washington was heavily favored to exercise their demons and win the Stanley Cup this spring.
It was evident why the THW staff voted 24-1 in favor of Washington winning this series, with most predicting the series would end in five games. Fast forward and the young, upstart Toronto team that wasn’t supposed to have a chance against a behemoth Cup contender like Washington is up 2-1 heading to Game 4.
There’s been much talk about how weak the Leafs defense is and how it doesn’t even compare to the talent on the Capitals’ backend. Leafs head coach Mike Babcock has found a way around his patchwork group with Jake Gardiner (31:03) and Morgan Reilly (29:37) taking the brunt of the minutes and leading all defenders, besides Alex Pietrangelo, in ice time.
Babcock has outcoached Barry Trotz, and Toronto beat Washington twice in overtime. The Air Canada Centre exploded when Auston Matthews scored his first playoff goal, which put the Leafs back into Game 3 and started the comeback. The Leafs are now just two wins away from upsetting the Presidents’ Trophy winners.
Smashville About to Knock off Chicago
Only four teams have ever come back to win a series after trailing 3-0, but four teams will look to add their names to that stat as the Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild, Calgary Flames and Columbus Blue Jackets are all facing elimination.
THW staff voted 20-5 in favor of the Blackhawks beating the Nashville Predators, as Chicago looked like a definite Stanley Cup contender with the best record in the Western Conference (109 points). The Predators have had other intentions though, and have a commanding 3-0 lead in the series.
Pekka Rinne has returned to his old form, and his 0.61 goals against average (GAA) and .979 save percentage (SV%) are tops among goaltenders who’ve played three games. He’s stopped 93 of 95 shots by the Blackhawks and allowed goals to just Patrick Kane and Dennis Rasmussen. The Hawks who finished ninth in league scoring (240 goals) have just two goals in this series, let that sit in.
Chicago lost a nail-biter in Game 1 (1-0) but was blown out in Game 2 (5-0). After back-to-back shutouts by Rinne, they finally solved him for the first time in 141 minutes and five seconds into the series.
Game 3 was the Hawks’ best game of the series, but they will need some big performances from Jonathan Toews and the rest of the offense to claw back. The Hawks came back from 3-0 to tie the series in 2011 against the Vancouver Canucks, they can do it again in 2017.
Blue Jackets on the Brink
The defending Stanley Cup Champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins are all over the Blue Jackets right now and are up 3-1 in that series. The THW staff predicted Pittsburgh would win this series by a 17-8 vote, but this was the most likely series to go seven games. The Penguins have outscored the Blue Jackets 12-6, with Evgeni Malkin (six) and Sidney Crosby (five) combining for 11 points.
While the Penguins have been able to roll four lines, the Blue Jackets’ top line of Brandon Saad, Alexander Wennberg, and Nick Foligno have just one goal. Boone Jenner, Brandon Dubinsky, and Cam Atkinson have been able to provide three, but Columbus will need all hands on deck to get back in this series.
The Blue Jackets also lost arguably one of their best defensemen in Zack Werenski, a Calder Trophy hopeful, for the rest of the playoffs. Heading into Game 4, John Tortorella scratched veteran Scott Hartnell.
Tortorella hasn’t come up with an answer to stop the Penguins’ top guns, and neither has their likely Vezina Trophy candidate Sergei Bobrovsky. After being the Blue Jackets’ MVP this season, Bobrovsky has fallen off the rails in the playoffs with 11 goals allowed in three games.
His save percentage has declined from 0.932 (regular season) to 0.897 (playoffs), that’s third-worst among goaltenders. For Columbus to have any hope, Bobrovsky is going to have to return to being their best player.
Flames Looking Into Goaltending Change?
The Ducks have a commanding lead over the Flames after winning three one-goal games. The THW staff predicted Anaheim would win this series with the votes being 19-6, but the consensus was that it would go at least six games. It hasn’t quite worked out as well for the Flames, and goaltender Brian Elliott is getting the goat horns right now.
As the series has progressed, Elliott’s save percentage (SV%) has fallen from 0.927 in Game 1 to 0.833 through the rest. Elliott’s allowed eight goals on 48 shots, and there’s a possibility Calgary starts Chad Johnson in Game 4. Johnson bailed the Flames out in November when Elliott struggled; it might be his job now to salvage this series.
In November the Flames were up against the ropes, and Johnson was unreal going 7-3-0 during a stretch that got Calgary back within a playoff position after an ugly October. Goaltending isn’t the Flames’ only worry, they’ve been on the unfortunate end of two video reviews this series and blew a commanding 4-1 lead in Game 3. All this happened after the Flames had scored three power play goals (PPG), and chased Ducks starter John Gibson from the net.
After a successful regular season, Dougie Hamilton’s defensive play has once again been called into question, as have Glen Gulutzen’s coaching decisions. Not to be forgotten, the Flames also blew a 2-1 lead late in the second period of Game 1. If Calgary had held onto those leads, we’d be talking about a 2-1 series lead for the Flames instead of a 3-0 deficit. Calgary has won just once in their last 30 games in Anaheim, and they’ll need to win two if they’re going to complete the comeback.
Schwartz, Allen & Blues Dominating Wild
The fourth series with a commanding 3-0 lead, the St. Louis Blues are dominating the Minnesota Wild at all ends of the ice. The THW staff voted 19-6 in favor of Minnesota winning this series, likely in six games.
There’s plenty of attention on the Wild’s bench boss, Bruce Boudreau, who’s team is once again melting down in the playoffs. Wild GM Chuck Fletcher has to be feeling some of that pressure as well after paying a hefty price for two pending unrestricted free agents (UFA’s) Martin Hanzal and Ryan White.
At the deadline, the Wild had emerged as a potential Stanley Cup favorites going 39-13-6, but since March 1st Minnesota has limped into the playoffs with an 8-11-2 record. That’s the worst play down the stretch than any other playoff team.
Devan Dubnyk has been a different goaltender since March 1, he went 6-8-2 through 17 games and was pulled once during the stretch drive. He’s since improved his numbers in the playoffs from a 2.88 GAA and 0.888 SV% since March to having a 1.86 GAA and a 0.923 SV% in the playoffs. It’s a substantial improvement, but it hasn’t equaled Jake Allen’s play at the other end of the ice for the Blues.
Allen’s 0.91 GAA and 0.979 SV% has been out of this world. He’s also been insulated better by his defense led by Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson. The Wild haven’t supported Dubnyk as well, as evidenced by the Jaden Schwartz game-winner in Game 3 where Jared Spurgeon lost a key puck battle in front of the net. Dubnyk doesn’t track pucks well, so the Blues have put more traffic in the lanes, making those saves harder to make for the Wild goaltender.
If the Wild are going to win this series, they’ll need someone to equal the clutch scoring of Schwartz who has scored two game-winners in this series. He’s got 13 shots and, along with his linemates Ivan Barbashev and Vladimir Tarasenko, they’ve combined for five points. Minnesota’s top line of Erik Haula, Mikko Koivu and Markus Granlund have yet to score a goal. With just three goals on 117 shots, this stagnant offense can’t continue for the Wild to win this series, no matter how friggin’ good Boudreau thinks they’ve played.