There are so many times I get so caught up in my microcosm of hockey – culling over stats until my eyes bleed. Things like listening to some 15-year Canadian kid from fucking Moose Jaw go into deep analysis of, say, the Calgary Flames’ list of third round draft prospects. Watching game after game of mind-numbing OT wins that stretch late into the night. First world problems, right?
Let’s just cut to the chase. There is so much about hockey that a general fan, or even an interested fan, doesn’t care about. Corsi ratings? What’s that? Fenwick? Like in Boston? Um, no .. The fact is, hockey is for geeks, but for the casual fan, here’s another guide to the Stanley Cup Playoffs
Players to Watch
Connor McDavid – the guy is the poster boy of hockey this year, and he’s got sidekick Leon Draisaitl, a German, dishing passes to him. Nice combination to have. In the first round, McDavid and Draisatl got throttled 4-1 by the Winnipeg Jets (yeah, I know they were there, then left, then came back .. Canadians are weird sometimes.) The Jets – a team no one every talks about – are pretty good, have a lot of veterans most notably goalie Connor Hellebuyk, a brick wall in the playoffs.
Auston Matthews – The scoring leader this past season with 41 goals for the Toronto Maple Leafs (more on that circus later). Matthews is a game-changer and must be tended to at all times on the ice. Watch him shred defenses and break ankles with his fancy stickwork. He also benefits from having Mitch Marner, his fellow iPhone TV commercial buddy, dishing assists his way. Don’t forget, they also feature Grandpa Hockey – Joe Thornton. He is best known for his scraggly beard and his mortician-like stare. The NHL loves storylines, and this guy has played forever. The Leafs will rely on Matthews to score the goals, but Thornton brings his veteran leadership with the Boston Bruins, the San Jose Sharks and now with the Maple Leafs. He does have a kickass IDGAF grandpa beard. With Matthews sporting a ‘porn ‘stache of epic proportions, you cannot miss these two hell raisers on the ice.
Nathan MacKinnon – The speedster from the Avalanche hasn’t been seen much across America for a variety of reasons. First, due to the placement of the Avalanche in the West Division and the late start to games that come with that assignment, East Coast fans knew little or nothing about this player. This guy is for real and he is huge reason why the Avs are expected to make a deep run to the Cup this season.
The Thrill – Kirill Kaprizov – You may not have heard of this player, because it’s his first year in the NHL after playing pro hockey in Russia. Kaprizov plays for the Minnesota Wild (hey, I think the name is stupid too) and he has lit the lamp often. He is a dazzling player, well worth sitting in on a Minnesota game. The Wild stunned the favored Vegas Golden Knights and sent the showgirls home dateless. Kaprizov has scored 27 goals and added 24 assists. The Calder Trophy – which recognizes the league Rookie of the Year – will have his name on it. The Stanley Cup? Not so sure about that …
The key to the playoffs is how hot your goalie is going into these bruising seven-game series. This is the time of the year where highlight-reel saves are the media clip du jour because they happen so often and in every game. Still, here are some goalies you’ll want to watch:
Marc-Andre Fleury – Vegas Golden Knights: The goalie went 26-10 this season with six shutouts – a nearly impossible feat in a division with MacKinnon and Kaprizov to name just two. Fleury is a veteran, and you would think that would be a benefit, but veteran goalies are like girlfriends of 10 years – they get a little flaky and moody. The playoffs is where new goalies can cement their name in NHL lore forever, even if their careers tank a year later.
Fleury has 886 NHL games under his belt, as well, and he’s hoisted the Stanley Cup three times already – all with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
He is capable of stealing a game, as the Wild saw in Games 1 and 2 of their playoff series.
Phillip Grubauer – Colorado Avalanche: Grubauer is a 29-year-old goalie from Germany who was drafted by the Washington Capitals in 2010 in the fourth round. He is 30-9 this season with seven shutouts and a .922 save percentage. His team plays with extreme confidence in him, and he will seal a game or two, as the St. Louis Blues are finding out in their playoff series. Grubauer has stymied the Blues scorers Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan O’Reilly, to name two stars who remain without a point this series.
Tukka Rask – Boston Bruins: It is difficult to root for anyone associated with Boston, because when talking sports, they get loud, obnoxious and are often quite full of shit. That said, when they squawk about Rask not getting any respect, they’re right. He’s led the Bruins to the 2019 Cup Final. He played his head off that series, and is capable of standing tall for the Bruins. Rask went 15-5-2 during the regular season. He is a two-time NHL all-star as well. He’s a winner with something to prove – that the 2019 loss was an aberration.
Toronto Maple Leafs – Playing in the North Division – who are we kidding, it’s freaking Canada – the Maple Leafs enter these playoffs stacked, stocked and ready to rock. We mentioned Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Joe Thornton, but they also boast 24-year-old William Nylander, NHL vet Jason Spezza, John Tavares, and they traded to get Stanley Cup champion Nick Foligno in April. These guys are deep and have a host of NHL credentials. They face the Montreal Canadiens in the first round, but despite the weepy montages about hockey in Canada, the Leafs should throttle the Quebecois.
Vegas Golden Knights – The Stanley Cup may very well be the anticipated second-round matchup between the Golden Knights and the Avalanche. Colorado has MacKinnon an an unstoppable line with Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. But Vegas has Fleury – who is able to change a game with this stops – as well as a whole bucket of Alexes – Alex Pietrangelo, their big free agent signing, Alex Tuch, and Alec Martinez. They also have veteran scorers Max Pacioretty, Jonathan Marchessault, Mark Stone, and William Karlson. Vegas was built for this moment – with a lot of help by NHL expansion that enabled them to protect draft picks and players. Still, these guys are good, explosive and they play a bruising style.
Boston Bruins – We talked about Rask the goalie, but don’t sleep on David Pastrnak, the star of the Dunkin Donuts ads. He keys a team that includes the Rat Brad Marchand (hated by everyone, but just scores goals); Patrice Bergerson, David Krejci, Charlie McAvoy and Charlie Coyle. Oh yes, did we mention the addition of Taylor Hall, former NHL MVP at the trade deadline? Deemed a “cancer in the locker room” in Buffalo, all he’s done for the Bruins is score. His goal against the Capital is Game 2 was key in helping Boston even that series (at this writing). He’s scored eight goals in 16 games for the Bruins this year.
Tampa Bay Lightning – It’s easy to count the Bolts out as a one-year wonder, as their Stanley Cup came in the bubble, in a shortened season ,when everyone everywhere thought life, and Netflix, sucked. They played a little dirty pool, putting their top star Nikita Kucherov on the injured list, but miraculously, he was just fine as dandy for the opening game of the playoffs. Science! Beyond that, they have a great goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy, they also have the team’s captain, Steven Stamkos, who will undoubtedly be in the Hall of Fame one day. There’s Victor Hedman, one of the top defensemen in the league and the MVP of last year’s Cup-winning run, and center Braydon Point led the team in points this season. Pat Maroon, a scruffy, scrappy player good in the paint, won two Cup with Tampa last season and with St. Louis in 2019.
The Bolts bring veteran experience, plus their championship pedigree (ahem) give them an edge to get to the third round. Because they have such an arsenal of scorers, you’ll be seeing a lot of this team in the postseason. A lot.
SPOILER ALERT – Do not be surprised if the Bolts win it all.
Hockey in Florida. Yeah. Seems fitting for a bizarre year like this one.
Thanks for reading!