Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final will take place on Monday at 8:00 p.m. ET (NBC) and it will feature two teams that no one saw coming. The St. Louis Blues were dead last in the NHL as late as Jan. 3 and still managed to navigate their way through the Western Conference. The Boston Bruins had the third best record in the NHL this season, but are still considered a surprise because they are not the Tampa Bay Lightning.
One of those two teams will now lift the Stanley Cup as champions in a postseason that should serve as a reminder that when it comes to hockey, you only need to make it into the playoffs. From there, anything can happen.
"It's just how close it is," Braden Holtby said at the Capitals' breakdown day. "Everyone's been saying it forever – or I guess since the salary cap era more – you just have to make the playoffs. You have a good a chance as anyone because you look at teams outside from Tampa, it's a few games here and there and the standings are all mixed up. Once you get there, anyone's got a chance and you've just got to see what you can do to be better than the others."
The first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs established that this was going to be a crazy postseason with a number of crazy upsets in the early rounds.
In the west, the Colorado Avalanche won four straight after losing Game 1 to douse the conference-winning Calgary Flames. The Nashville Predators were no match for a Dallas Stars team whose president was swearing at his top two players back in December. The defending conference champion Vegas Golden Knights lost a 3-1 series lead then a 3-0 third period lead in Game 7 to the San Jose Sharks who scored four goals on a major power play.
The Blues, meanwhile, led by a rookie goalie and interim head coach, defeated the Winnipeg Jets in the first round and won three games in Winnipeg to do so. It took double-overtime in Game 7 against the Stars for St. Louis to finally emerge victorious and the Blues also stifled the Sharks in the conference final who looked like a team of destiny after benefitting from several horrendous officiating mistakes and who was playing to get future Hall-of-Famer Joe Thornton a Cup before he retires.
The East side of the bracket looked like a mere formality with the Lightning expected to cruise through the conference after one of the best seasons in NHL history. Instead, they did not win a single game and were swept in the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
"Obviously, as a whole, Tampa was way better than everybody else," Matt Niskanen said. "Taking into consideration an 82-game season they were way better than anybody, but when you get into a playoff series and it's just one-on-one that's where weird things can happen. There's a lot of things that go into a playoff series that can kind of negate the skill difference or the perceived level of play. And you saw it quite often this spring, actually."
Tampa Bay was one of two sweeps in the first round of the playoffs as the John Tavares-less New York Islanders also swept the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Islanders would then get swept by the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round-playing in the playoffs for the first time in a decade-and the Hurricanes would share a similar fate in the conference final losing in just four games to the Bruins.
As crazy as these results may be, however, this season is hardly an anomaly. The NHL is known for its unpredictable postseasons and only eight Presidents' Trophy winners have gone on to win the Cup since 1986 when the trophy was first awarded. Seven times the Presidents' Trophy winner has been eliminated in the first round.
"You would think it's ‘Oh, boy, this is a weird spring,'" Niskanen said. "But hockey is a weird sport like that. Who the heck could predict what'd happen in the first round? And there's a reason for that. It's hard to win. Seven and eight seeds are not lay-ups like maybe they were sometime in the past. I don't know how long ago that was, but they're certainly not a lay-up right now. Usually the team that wants it the most, plays the best, is going to win whether it's a one or an eight seed."
It is a known fact that in hockey, regular season success only gets you into the playoffs, but it does not mean all that much when you get there.
"I always said it and I think it shows right now that anything can happen," Nicklas Backstrom said. "Your only goal should be getting into the playoffs. The No. 1 seed can lose to the No. 8 seed easily, so I think that shows this year and shows how good this league is, how tight everyone is."
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