By Andrew White | Staff Writer
As the weather gets nicer and classes start winding down, it’s also finally time for playoff hockey.
April 12 marked the start of the NHL postseason, and it started out with a bang. The postseason has seen many Stanley Cup favorites surprisingly falter, and other young startup teams have come out flying.
Thus far, three of the top-five teams in the league, the Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets, all find themselves in trouble as they all dropped the first three games of their respective best-of-seven matchups. The Calgary Flames also find themselves in the same hole, down 3-0, against the red-hot Anaheim Ducks.
The Blue Jackets, however, managed to win Tuesday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins in game four to cut their series deficit to 3-1. Minnesota, Calgary and Chicago will all hope to remain alive for yet another day soon, as they all will play in a potential elimination games in the coming days.
The lone other Western Conference series is much more competitive than the other three have been thus far. After losing Game 1 on their home ice, the youthful Edmonton Oilers came back to win their next two games in shutouts. Surprisingly, the Oilers were blown out by the San Jose Sharks 7-0 in Game 4 to tie the series at two games apiece. Game 5 takes place on April 20 in Edmonton.
Conversely, the Eastern Conference has been much more competitive thus far. After falling behind three games to none, the Columbus Blue Jackets prevailed in Game 4 to get their first win of the series.
Blue Jackets rookie defenseman Zach Werenski has provided perhaps the grittiest performance of any player in the postseason to this point. The rookie of the year candidate exemplified the ruggedness of playoff hockey after taking a puck to the face, and then returning to the game. After the game, it was announced that he finished the game with a facial fracture and would be sidelined for the rest of the playoffs.
The series between the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs has been perhaps the best series so far. The Maple Leafs had taken a surprising 2-1 series lead behind a group of young players headlined by rookie Auston Matthews, but dropped Game 4 on Wednesday night 5-4. The first three games went into overtime, including a double-overtime win for Toronto in Game 2. Going into the playoffs, the heavily-favored Capitals had the best odds to win the Cup at 3-1.
The Penguins will look to close out their series with the Blue Jackets tonight when they take the ice at PPG Paints Arena for Game 5 at 7 p.m.
The New York Rangers battled back to tie their series with the Montreal Canadiens at two games apiece on Tuesday night with a 2-1 victory in Game 4. After stealing the first game in Montreal, the Rangers dropped the next two contests. The series shifts back to Montreal for Game 5 tonight.
The Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins have also played an exciting series. After winning Game 4 1-0 on Wednesday night, the Senators have a 3-1 series lead, backed by two other 4-3 overtime wins.
The first round has provided as much excitement as fans could want early on, and maybe even more. Each series has had at least one overtime game thus far, and many surprising teams have jumped out ahead of the Cup favorites so far.
The current playoff bracket calls for this sort of premature mayhem. Instead of the traditional conference playoff format, the NHL utilizes a divisional playoff bracket. Due to this format and an exceedingly strong Metropolitan Division, including playoff teams Washington, Pittsburgh, Columbus and the New York Rangers, the NHL saw two of its top-five teams play each other in the Pittsburgh-Columbus series in the opening round. Under the old playoff format, Pittsburgh and Columbus would have been seeded second and third in the East, and likely would not have played until the semifinal round.
As the postseason progresses, it will be interesting to see if favorites such as the Blackhawks and the Wild can avoid being swept, and if the heavily-favored Capitals can turn it around to beat the Maple Leafs. For hockey fans, it is time to sit back, relax and enjoy the fantastic spectacle of playoff hockey.