May 27th, 2024

Analysis: The NHL playoffs are off to an odd start, from the net out

By Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press on April 29, 2024.

The greatest goal-scorer of his generation was held without a point for the first time in a series in his nearly two-decade NHL career.

The best goaltender in the league this season has given up a first round-high 19 goals. Vancouver has lost a Vezina Trophy finalist, used three different guys in net and taken a 3-1 series lead anyway; the Canucks, in fact, won Game 3 at Nashville 2-1 while putting the puck on net just 12 times. Edmonton, with all of its scorers, won a game with just 13 shots — a 1-0 shutout behind the goalie everyone thought was their biggest liability to make a run at the Stanley Cup.

The start of the playoffs has been anything but predictable, which is exactly what hockey fans have come to expect this time of year.

Bucking the trend of recent Presidents’ Trophy winners bowing out early, the New York Rangers swept Washington in the first round by keeping Alex Ovechkin off the scoresheet for the first time in his 15 trips to the postseason.

How did they do it? “It’s a secret,” MVP candidate and fellow Russian winger Artemi Panarin said.

Whatever secret sauce the Canucks are using, everyone in the league would take it. They lost Vezina Trophy finalist Thatcher Demko to injury after he won Game 1 against Nashville but Casey DeSmith bounced back from a loss to beat the Predators in Game 3. When he was unavailable, it was Arturs Silovs to the rescue in his playoff debut, backstopping a comeback overtime victory to put the Predators one loss from elimination.

“I don’t think the moment’s too big for him,” coach Rick Tocchet said. “I’m proud of the goaltenders. It’s a next-man-up mentality. Those guys know it’s the next man up.”

Connor Hellebuyck is unquestionably the man for Winnipeg, and he’s the front-runner to win the Vezina after being the best goalie in the league during the regular season. In four playoff games against Colorado, Hellebuyck has allowed 19 goals for a save percentage of .870 – a far cry from his .921 over 60 starts from before the series began.

Hellebuyck allowed four goals to the Avalanche on 30 shots in a blowout loss Sunday that pushed the Jets to the brink of elimination. Coach Rick Bowness pulled him after two periods because he was under pressure the entire time he was in net.

“I don’t think those goals are his fault,” center Mark Scheifele said. “He’s our backbone. He’s our heart and soul. Just a change of scenery, I’m sure. He’s our backbone.”

The Edmonton Oilers didn’t expect goalie Stuart Skinner to be their backbone, especially having reigning MVP Connor McDavid and longtime running mate Leon Draisaitl around to score a bunch of goals. So, naturally, they beat the Los Angeles Kings 1-0 in Game 4 thanks to one goal set up by McDavid and Draisaitl, and Skinner stopping every shot he faced.

“He was great for us,” said defenseman Evan Bouchard, who scored. “He was the rock. When we made mistakes he was there to support us. When you’re not letting in any goals, you’re going to win the game.”

The other Vezina finalist, Florida’s Sergei Bobrovsky, gave up 13 goals through the Panthers’ first three games against Tampa Bay. Yet he and the defending Eastern Conference champions are one win from moving on to face Boston or Toronto.

The Bruins are up 3-1 in that series and the Maple Leafs losing in the first round is a familiar stumble for Toronto fans. The team’s core group ed by Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander is 1-6 in the first round over the previous seven years.

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AP Sports Writers Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Pat Graham in Denver and Joseph Reedy in Los Angeles contributed.

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AP NHL playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/stanley-cup and https://www.apnews.com/hub/NHL

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