May 21st, 2024

Analysis: From one goal to three, no lead is safe in the NHL playoffs this spring

By Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press on May 9, 2024.

Dallas Stars center Roope Hintz kneels on the ice after being issued a penalty for embelishment in the third period in Game 2 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup second-round playoff series against the Colorado Avalanche in Dallas, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

If you went to sleep midway through either of the Western Conference NHL playoff games the past two nights, there’s a good chance you woke up to a different winner than you thought.

On Tuesday night, Dallas led Colorado 3-0 after the first period and lost 4-3 in overtime. Roughly 24 hours later, Edmonton was up 4-1 on Vancouver late in the second and lost 5-4 in regulation.

Up a goal, up three goals, no lead is safe in hockey’s post-season this spring.

“Once you get to this time of the year, it’s so close, and you’re not going to see teams pack it in,” former player-turned-TNT analyst Anson Carter said Thursday. “I think you’re seeing a lot of guys bearing down because it’s the playoffs.”

Carter was at Game 2 of the Boston-Florida series Wednesday night in which the Bruins scored to make it 1-0, then lost 6-1. Entering Thursday, teams allowing the first goal have won 19 of 50 games this playoffs, the highest winning percentage in that department since 1999.

The Stars and Oilers blowing three-goal leads in their respective second round-opening losses to the Avalanche and Canucks also made some history. It’s just the third time there were three-goal comebacks on consecutive days, though Edmonton was on the right side of the rally when it last happened a year ago.

“The teams that win and have success this time of year are the teams that are able to recognize when they have momentum and try to keep it and when they don’t have it, try to get it back as quickly as possible,” Carter said. “I don’t know if there’s so much more that teams can do. I think teams are playing pretty good hockey now. It’s just that this time of the year sometimes you get the bounces and sometimes you don’t.”

Bad bounces certainly factored into the Oilers’ stunning defeat, but so did timing. Had they gotten through to the second intermission up three goals and not allowed Elias Lindholm to score with 2:59 on the clock, they might have been able to weather the storm as they did protecting an even slimmer lead last round against Los Angeles.

Reigning MVP and captain Connor McDavid drew that comparison talking to reporters in Vancouver afterward, saying sometimes the script flips on a team trying to protect a lead.

“That happens in the playoffs,” McDavid said. “You try to hold on to leads and sometimes you’re a little bit, maybe, too passive.”

In that vein his coach, Kris Knoblauch, would have liked to see Edmonton push more offensively and make Vancouver defend. But the Canucks aren’t the comeback kids of this post-season for no reason, after erasing a two-goal deficit in the final three minutes of regulation in Game 4 against Nashville to help get to this point.

Dallas got to the second round by knocking off defending Stanley Cup champion Vegas despite playing short on the blue line: missing injured defenceman Jani Hakanpää and playing Nils Lundkvist just over 4 1/2 minutes a game. Colorado was able to throw MVP front-runner Nathan MacKinnon, Norris Trophy finalist and 2022 playoff MVP Cale Makar and waves of talent at the Stars, who rotated five defencemen for nearly half the game after Lundkvist skated his final shift a little over midway through.

“That puts a lot of stress on your team,” Carter said. “They’re playing undermanned. They’re literally playing against Colorado with five defencemen. It’s tough to play against them with six defencemen.”

Coach Peter DeBoer wasn’t happy with how his team handled the game tilting in the Avalanche’s favour but is glad the tough lesson to learn came in Game 1 and not Dallas facing elimination. Veteran Joe Pavelski, who has been through many a playoff grind, understands he and his teammates have to better handle momentum shifts moving forward.

“You just can’t take your foot off the gas,” Pavelski said. “You’ve just got to be better.”

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AP Sports Writers Tim Reynolds in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Stephen Hawkins in Dallas 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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