NHL: Contenders and Pretenders of the Stanley Cup Playoffs

The Stanley Cup Playoffs have been underway for only a few weeks now and history has already been made. The Columbus Blue Jackets (WC2) swept the President’s Trophy Tampa Bay Lightning (1). The New York Islanders (2) established themselves as a tough team as they swept the Pittsburgh Penguins (3). There have been many surprises so far, but now it is time to see who are the contenders and who are the pretenders!

The Contenders

New York Islanders

The Islanders are establishing themselves as a team not to be taken lightly. After sweeping the once back-to-back champion Penguins, the league took notice of their success. The Isles outscored the Penguins 14 to 6. Jordan Eberle is proving to be an early candidate for the Conn Smythe (MVP) award with four goals and six points in four games. Goaltender Robin Lehner has been lights out with a 1.47 goals against average and a .956 save percentage. In three of the four games played so far Lehner has only allowed one goal. It is safe to say that the Islanders are a real contender with balanced scoring and solid goaltending.

Columbus Blue Jackets

It doesn’t matter who you cheer for, these guys are the real story of the 2019 playoffs. Coming into this series as the second wild card team, a lot of people had Columbus getting swept in the first round. Tampa had a historic season, tying the overall regular season wins record with 62. Columbus had never won a playoff series in their entire franchise history. They started their playoffs out going down three to nothing in the first period of game one. By the second period, the momentum would shift for Columbus for the remainder of the series.

Sergei Bobrovsky is big story here. Bobrovsky has only allowed eight goals and has a .932 save percentage. Their trade deadline acquisition of Matt Duchene has really paid off as he has seven points in four games. The offense has heated up at the perfect time and propelled them into the second round for the first time ever.

Colorado Avalanche

Another underdog team proving to be a real contender, the Colorado Avalanche. The Avs are another shocking team in this year’s playoffs. Being another second wild card team going up against what seemed like a tough matchup in the Calgary Flames, the Avs have figured them out.

Philipp Grubauer has been spectacular this playoffs. After sitting back-up to Braden Holtby in last year’s playoffs, Grubauer got his chance to lead his own team after a trade in the offseason. So far it’s paid off handsomely for Colorado as he’s posted a 2.09 goals against average and a .933 saver percentage.

The top line of Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog has been one of bigger reasons for Colorado’s playoff success. Rantanen had two goals in game four where one tied the game late and the other was the OT winner. MacKinnon has three goals this playoffs as well, including an OT game-winner which tied the series at one.

The Avalanche are proving to be a very tough team to play against and will have a deep playoff run.

Vegas Golden Knights

The Golden Misfits are back for another crack at the cup! Well they’re not really misfits anymore with how many top players they’ve acquired this season. Vegas appeared as if they were going to be a push-over this playoffs after game one ended in a 5-2 victory for San Jose, but Vegas has turned things around. They now lead the series 3-1 thanks to a dominant offense. Vegas has scored 18 goals so far and has restrained the Sharks to only 11 goals. Marc-Andre Fleury has one shut-out so far in the playoffs and has a .920 save percentage. The real interest lies within the offense though.

Deadline acquisition Mark Stone has proven to be a great pick-up for Vegas. Stone has six goals so far in the playoffs including a hat-trick in game three. Offseason acquisition Max Pacioretty is right behind him with four goals. Both are tied with 10 points in just four games so far. Pau Stastny has show some offensive skill as well with eight points in four games. In total the three have combined for a total of 28 points! A crazy stat for the Golden Knights, who will be on the verge of another deep playoff run.

Winnipeg Jets

Another playoffs another White Out in the Peg! Winnipeg is a strange story, but they are still a real contender. Despite going down in the series 0-2 to St. Louis, Winnipeg has completely turned things around and have tied the series at two games a piece. After going down 0-2 the Jets marched into St. Louis and scored a commanding six goals. Game four followed and went to overtime where Kyle Connor scored to tie the series. Right now Winnipeg has all the momentum.

Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine lead the team in goals with three. There is a four-way tie for overall points with five points, Connor is among that list. The young-gun is proving to be a real dark horse for the Conn Smythe. Mark Scheifele has continued to be the high-skilled center that he is. He is tied for points with five and has two goals. Goalie Connor Hellebuyck has a .916 save percentage and has only allowed 10 goals.

The Jets are thrusting with momentum and are a really tough team to play against with their ability to continuously fight back.

Toronto Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs are having themselves a great playoff run so far. Despite the series being tied at two games a piece, they still have the potential to be a contender.

The youth movement is in full swing in Toronto. Young guns in Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares are leading the charge against Boston for the second straight year. The trio leads the team in points with four points each. Auston Matthews has been heating up as of late which has boosted Toronto’s offense.

Toronto needs to tighten up a bit more on defense to pose as a serious threat, but with their play as of late, they have more momentum over Boston and will win the series.

Washington Capitals

The Capitals are oddly in the position of being defenders of the Cup; not something the hockey community is use to seeing. Regardless, there’s a reason they are the defending Stanley Cup champions. This team is really good.

Braden Holtby still remains to be a solid goalie. With a 32-19-5 record, Holtby currently has a .905 save percentage and is 2-2-0 in the playoffs. Regardless of his playoff record, Holtby is a Vezina-quality goalie who can come up with big save when needed. He’s registered a 2.09 goals against average in 86 playoff games in his career which is outstanding for any goal tender.

The Caps have a killer offense. Alex Ovechkin’s 51 goals and 89 points on the season gives this team that deadly offense. T.J. Oshie is another key piece to the Cap’s offense. His 25 goals and 54 overall points help elevate Washington’s offense. The American-winger’s playmaking ability also deserves some praise. The 29 assists he’s registered not only shows his excellent playmaking abilities, but his ability to help his teammates score, which is a key piece to a successful offense.

Boston Bruins

At first it looked as if the Bruins aging core was showing after a 4-1 loss at home in game one. Game two however showed that they aren’t aging at all. The Bruins offense is lethal when they get going. Their powerplay is impeccable and goaltending is decently consistent. Going against Toronto for the second straight year, it appears as if they may meet their maker, but they will still be a very tough opponent to take down.

The Bruins have stellar goaltending in both Tukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak. Rask has a 2.28 goals against average with a .924 save percentage while Halak has a .922 save percentage with a 2.34 goals against average. These are very good stats for goalies and this shows that no matter who the starter is the Bruins will have solid goaltending. This is what this series is going to come down to: goaltending. The Leafs and Bruins are very equally-skilled teams. Both are strong contenders, but Rask and Halak establish the Bruins as a strong contender.

Those are the contenders of this playoffs to watch for. Now for the pretenders!

The Pretenders

St. Louis Blues

The St. Louis Blues have been an uncontrollable roller coaster this season. At one point they were dead last in the West, but by the end of the season, they had somehow clawed their way back into the playoff picture, capturing the third seed in the Central. Although the Blues won the first two games of the series, the momentum has slowly been slipping out of their grasp; they are getting overrun by the Jets.

This team’s dark horse goes to rookie goalie Jordan Binnington. Binnington came into action when the Blues thought they were out of the race, but it had the opposite effect. The rookie went 24-5-1 in 32 games played and earned himself the starting goalie position. Binnington may have an impressive record, but the issue lies within his attitude. During a post-game interview he was asked if he was nervous on playing these games. His response was: “Do I look nervous?” It is clear Binnington has confidence, but there’s a difference between confidence and cockiness. The Blues’ goalie has a 2.94 goals against average in the playoffs which just won’t cut it.

Now the blame isn’t just going towards Binnington. He will be a Vezina-quality goalie for years to come, but other issues lie upon the Blues’ first line. The first line consists of Ryan O’Reilly, Vladmir Tarasenko, and Brayden Schenn. These three have combined for a total of 199 points in the regular season. At one point they were the hottest line in the league. Come playoffs this line has gotten quiet. In the playoffs, these three have four points in four games, with Schenn having yet to record a point.

The Importance of Game 5

Game 5 can be analyzed in two different ways. The Blues won that game by a score of 3-2, however, it wasn’t a dominant victory. They didn’t convert until the third period, which followed by a very controversial goal to tie the game late. With 15 seconds left, the Blues took their first lead of the game. Despite the win, the Blues offensive struggles were on display. This game shows one of two things. First it shows that their offense is slacking. The second vantage point can be seen that St. Louis keeps fighting and can take advantage of their tired opponent.

With the offense lacking and the inconsistent goaltending, the Blues aren’t ready to be true contenders just yet.

Dallas Stars

This was a very tough call, however, the Stars are going to be put under the pretenders list. The Stars are a very good team, with all due respect. Under a new head coach, they were able to propell themselves into the first wild card spot. The offense clicks very well and they have a Vezina-quality goalie in Ben Bishop. However, they are pretenders, because we haven’t seen any consistency from this supposed ‘elite’ team.

Ben Bishop has been very good this season. He holds a record of 27-15-2 and a .934 save percentage. In the playoffs, however, he’s only 2-2-0, but due to less action he has a.942 save percentage. He’s allowed eight goals in four games; that’s two per game which, if compared to other team’s play, isn’t as good.

The Stars offense is also very well built. They have 11 goals in the playoffs so far, but five of those goals came in game four. Unless players like Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, and Mats Zuccarello get rolling, it’ll come back to haunt them. Game four showed signs of momentum, but with the inconsistency seen in previous games, the Stars will remain pretenders. They have a bright future in defensemen Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg, and forward Roope Hintz, who have been brilliant in the playoffs thus far.

Carolina Hurricanes

The ‘Jerks’ have ended their playoff drought and the Storm Surge paid off! The Hurricanes have proven to be big underdogs this year. With the series tied at two games a piece, they are starting to come together, but home ice tends to be a leading factor. The home team has won all the games in this series and Carolina doesn’t have four of them. Petr Mrazek has been the backbone of this team. He had a regular season record of 23-14-3 with a .914 save percentage. Playoffs, however, he’s posted a .897 save percentage. Despite a tied series, the Canes still lack in offense.

The Carolina offense has 12 goals this playoffs, but five of those were scored in game three, which was a shutout. The Canes have scored only twice in two of the games this matchup against Washington. With Washington having home-ice advantage, the Canes just won’t have enough to make them true contenders.

Calgary Flames

The Flames looked like one of the more dominant teams in the 2019 playoffs, but have been everything but. Even though they started their post-season with a 4-0 win over Colorado, the momentum has shifted heavily. The Flames are down in the series 1-3 and are on the verge of a very early exit. It’s hard to pin-point a main issue with this team as goal tending has been outstanding from Mike Smith.

The Canadian goalie’s stats are .931 save percentage and a 2.78 goals against average. However Smith has been playing outstanding making big saves when needed. The offense is where the problem lies. The offense has only registered 10 goals this post-season scoring only two goals in three of the games. The goal-scoring leader, Matthew Tkachuk, leads the team with two goals. Sam Bennett leads the team in points with four. It’s clear that Calgary’s offense is slacking, which is why they are pretenders this offseason.

San Jose Sharks

The Sharks are one of the easier pretenders to point out, there’s just no kinder way to put it. After a strong start in game one, winning 5-2, they went on to drop the next three to Vegas. Offense isn’t an issue as they’ve put up 16 goals. The problem lies in their goaltending.

Martin Jones has one of the worst stats out of all starting goalies in the playoffs. He holds a .866 save percentage and a 4.37 save percentage. Stats like these just won’t cut it for a contending team, which is why they are seen as pretenders. They have the offense, but when leads can’t be sustained, games can’t be won. 13 goals have come on home ice for the Sharks, but only three have come on the road. One of their road games in Vegas resulted in a shutout loss. Vegas can clinch the series on their home ice so San Jose will be leaving early this post season.

Nashville Predators

The Nashville Predators are quite a surprise this playoffs and not in a good way. The Predators, who have the first seed in the Central Division, have only put up eight goals this post-season. Their leading scorer is a seven-way-tie of two points. That is just not enough to be successful in the playoffs. Now this series between Nashville and Dallas was predicted to be a low-scoring series. Both team’s goalies are outstanding. Nashville’s Pekka Rinne had a great regular season with a 30-19-4 record. In the playoffs however, he hasn’t been the same. The Predators have allowed 11 goals including a 5-0 shutout-loss where Rinne was pulled. The Predators need to find a way to score more and have more consistent goaltending. Their play as of late has resulted in them being classified as pretenders.

So, this is the list of pretenders and contenders. It is extremely tough to determine who is the best for the Stanley Cup as anything can happen. So, many surprises have occurred in the first round alone and more are sure to come.

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