NHL Mid-Playoffs Roundtable: Biggest Surprise, Conn Smythe Predictions, More

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Vegas refuses to ends its magical expansion season. Washington finally got past Pittsburgh in the playoffs. What else has surprised our experts this postseason? What should we expect the rest of the way? SI’s Jermey Fuchs, Michael Blinn, Kristen Nelson, Tyler Horka, Eric Single and Tim Hackett discuss.

1. What has surprised you most this postseason?

Fuchs: It’s the easy answer, but it’s also true: Vegas has been stunningly good. The Golden Knights have won in blowouts. They’ve won in overtime. They’ve done everything a savvy veteran team does in the playoffs. And yet they’re still the new kids. With each additional round it gets more tempting to think that the wheels will fall off. But the lesson with Vegas is that the Knights are not only here for a long playoff run—they’re built to last long-term.

Blinn: The Golden Knights. I keep assuming the magic is going to run out at some point and they keep proving me wrong. Marc-Andre Fleury looks as good as he has in a long time and when the offense gets going, it can hang seven on a pretty good Sharks team. I don’t think the Golden Knights are going to win the Cup, but as they continue to remind me, what do I know?

Nelson: The ease with which Vegas has worked through the first two rounds is both baffling and exciting to watch. Although I’m not entirely surprised they have made it this far, I didn’t expect them to be as dominant as they’ve been in doing so. I don’t think that the Jets, though most likely exhausted from seven games against Nashville, will be as stress-free for the Golden Knights, however. That is going to be a dizzying series.

Horka: It wouldn’t have shocked me to see Vegas fall flat in its first crack at playoff hockey, but the Golden Knights have simply picked up where they left off in the regular season. They took out two teams with copious amounts of playoff experience, one of which reached the Stanley Cup Final two years ago. Now they have a chance to eliminate last year’s runner up to the Penguins. If they do, my level of disbelief only grows.

Single: Marc-Andre Fleury’s narrative-flipping dominance was the one part of Vegas’s stunning inaugural season I was absolutely sure wouldn’t translate to the playoffs. Instead, Fleury has handily outdueled Jonathan Quick and Martin Jones in succession to lead the Golden Knights into the Western Conference Final, with none of the embarrassing mistakes that rattled some Pittsburgh teams he backstopped. Four shutouts is an admirable total for four series of playoff hockey, let alone two series and 10 games.

Hackett: It might seem like having one of the league’s top scorers is a sure path to success in that league. But this year, that hasn’t been the case: Of the 22 top point-getters through the first two rounds, 11 of them will be watching the final two rounds from home. That number includes the five guys with the most points in the postseason. Instead, the ability to generate offense from up and down the roster has been tantamount to longevity. While Winnipeg and Tampa Bay unquestionably have top-of-the-line talent, they wouldn’t still be in the mix were it not for their forward depth and some key goals from the blueline.

2. What playoff prediction would you like a do-over on?

Fuchs: After two games, it sure looked like Columbus was earning the “upstart” moniker. That fell off quickly.

Blinn: I called the Maple Leafs an “upstart team” a few weeks ago, and that wasn’t really fair. They were contenders with a few already-know weaknesses exposed and now they have a few months to figure them out.

Nelson: I never made my predictions official, but I would have picked the Blue Jackets over the Capitals in the first round. I really thought Columbus had something gritty enough in them to come out on top, but it seems like all those extra overtime periods really tired them out. And Washington seems to be on a level we’ve never seen before.

Horka: A three-peat. The way the Penguins finished the regular season and the return of Matt Murray had me believing that a three-peat was inevitable. Sidney Crosby’s dominance and Jake Guentzel’s emergence in the first two rounds reaffirmed my thinking. But the Pens simply ran into a Capitals club that wouldn’t be denied this time around. Hats off to the Caps.

Single: I thought the Maple Leafs’ young stars only needed one year of seasoning to go from wide-eyed upstarts to serious contenders bound for at least the conference finals. Then they got big-boyed in the first two games of their first-round matchup with the Bruins, losing by a total of eight goals, and although they battled back to force a Game 7, a more focused effort could have had Boston on the ropes early enough to make a difference. In the end, only Mitch Marner made a convincing jump, with a big assist from grizzled linemate Patrick Marleau.

Hackett: That’s an easy one for me. I banked on the veteran leadership, defensive depth and quality goaltending of the Anaheim Ducks to get them through the first round and all the way into the Cup final. I’m glad I didn’t bet anything tangible on that, however, because the Ducks crashed out of the playoffs harder than the pixelated waterfowl from Duck Hunter. None of those three areas I highlighted showed up: the offense was anemic, producing only four goals, two of which came on the powerplay, over four games. The defense was still alright, but the loss of Cam Fowler proved much more problematic than anticipated. And finally, John Gibson truly wasn’t terrible, but he was nowhere good enough to salvage Anaheim’s season, and a far better Sharks team moved into the buzz saw that is Vegas.

3. Who’s leading the Conn Smythe race after two rounds?

Fuchs: I originally picked Pekka Rinne, but it’s time to switch goaltenders. Andrei Vasilevskiy hasn’t been truly tested yet, but he’s played well and given the Lightning a level of comfort. Of course, to win it all, he’ll have to steal a game or two. He’s shown he can do that.

Blinn: Alex Ovechkin has poured himself into this Capitals Cup run. Not only is he out to kill the easy narratives, he’s playing some of the best hockey of his career.

Nelson: No doubt Marc-Andre Fleury is most deserving right now, with four shutouts and ridiculously acrobatic (some might mistake them for spastic) saves to help make the Knights’ playoff experience a breeze so far. Vegas may be making history, but Fleury is the one spearheading it all.

Horka: Marc-Andre Fleury is the current Conn Smythe frontrunner. His 1.53 goals against average and .951 save percentage are tantalizing statistics. But sticking with my revised prediction of Tampa Bay winning it all, Nikita Kucherov will ultimately win the award. He has six goals and six assists through two rounds, and there’s no reason to think he can’t double both numbers by the end of the Cup final.

Single: Ovechkin has been the victim of simplistic postmortems throughout his career, taking the blame each spring Washington has come up short, so if the Capitals win it all there’s no doubt who deserves to take the majority of the credit. He has not disappeared or played selfishly in the face of stingy defense, and with Sidney Crosby & Co. out of the way, I’m expecting him to play unencumbered as the stakes rise.

Hackett: The Conn Smythe trophy has never been awarded to someone who doesn’t make the Cup finals, but even if Vegas bows out in this upcoming round, Marc-Andre Fleury must get consideration. That’s how good he’s been. Of the five Conn Smythe winners on teams that have lost the Cup, four have been goalies, so if Vegas loses in the final round, Fleury ought to get serious consideration. The Knights have been wholly impressive all season, but Fleury has gotten them this far, and he could legitimately take them all the way. If Tampa wins, though, Nikita Kucherov is probably a safe choice.

4. Which player who has been relatively quiet through two rounds will step up in the next few weeks?

Fuchs: Tyler Johnson looked like a superstar the last time the Bolts made a deep run. He’s fallen off a bit since then, but he did score 21 goals and 50 points in the regular season. In the playoffs, though, he’s been silent, with five points in 10 games. He’s shown in the past that he can step up.

Blinn: Steven Stamkos had just two goals and four points in the semifinals and that just won’t do against the Caps. More, please.

Nelson: Winnipeg’s Kyle Connor had an impressive Game 5 against the Predators, but other than that he’s been relatively quiet. Now that he’s had a taste for scoring in the playoffs, I think the rookie will step it up in the third round. Vegas will force a fast-paced series that will bring out the best in the top goal scorers on both teams, and Connor will feed off Mark Scheifele’s success thus far to challenge the Knights.

Horka: Erik Haula. He scored the second most goals (29) during the regular season for the Golden Knights. He has three goals through 10 games in the postseason, which is tied for second on the team. Vegas has done a good job of sharing the wealth in the playoffs, but if the team wants to continue its dream season by beating a powerhouse like Winnipeg, it is going to have to take some pressure off Fleury and produce more goals. Haula is a guy who can help do that.

Single: Only three goals for Patrik Laine so far, huh? His talents as a chance creator for others have shown up more often than his finishing skill, but if the Jets continue to control play as well as they have in Rounds 1 and 2, he’s going to have a chance to close the gap with Mark Scheifele’s team-leading 11 tallies.

Hackett: It’s not exactly his fault that he’s been quiet, but the re-addition of Andre Burakovsky to the Washington lineup would likely provide a big boost to the Caps’ Cup final credentials. Burakovsky took three shots, and one costly penalty, in two games against Columbus before he was hurt on a hit by Boone Jenner, and he’s been out since. Nicklas Backstrom, needless to say, would be a welcome re-addition to the lineup as well, though it must be said that Washington’s reconfigured second line of Lars Eller between Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie performed very well in Game 6 against Pittsburgh. In fact, both Vrana—who’s been occupying Burakovsky’s normal spot on the second line—and Eller have been good this whole postseason, combining for 12 points, but that doesn’t even tell the whole story. It’s unclear when Backstrom and Burakovsky could return, but their presences would surely aid Washington’s depth in this upcoming matchup with the deepest team in the playoffs.

5. We don’t have Brad Marchand around to do any more licking. What takes over as the big story in Round 3?

Fuchs: It’s the Golden Knights, and as long as they remain alive, it will be the Golden Knights. What they’ve done as an expansion team is beyond remarkable. But it’s time to move past that. It’s time to look at them as legitimate Cup contenders. They can win this thing.

Blinn: We already know the officiating is epically bad. This will become known as the round where a coach, player or executive Just Can’t Take it Anymore and delivers a presser for the ages.

Nelson: How Tom Wilson bounces back after his three-game suspension for his hit on Pittsburgh’s Zach Aston-Reese. Every hit he dishes out in the third round will be watched very carefully, and it will be interesting to see if that alters his success on the ice. Plus, rookie Jakub Vrana did a fine job of replacing Wilson while he was gone.

Horka: Will Alex Ovechkin—arguably the second best player of his generation and the best goal scorer of the era—finally play in a Stanley Cup Final? He seems determined to do so, leading the Capitals with 15 points through two rounds. Seven more points will give him a postseason career high. If he’s able to get those seven in the conference final, that might be enough to beat the stacked Lightning and send Ovi and the Caps into the Cup Final.

Single: Winnipeg taking up the mantle in the quest to end Canada’s 24-year Stanley Cup drought. With the Predators out of the way, the fanatics in white who spent a decade and a half in the wilderness as their former franchise toiled in Arizona will make Bell MTS Place the third round’s most emotionally-charged venue.

Hackett: With Marchand out of the way, once Game 2 of the East final gets going the light will shine bright on another guy quickly rising up the list of the NHL’s most hard to like players: Tom Wilson. Fourth in the league in hits and second in PIMs in the regular season, Wilson is already known for his physical play. While he admirably and admittedly has improved the rest of his game in the postseason the last two years, he remains somewhat of a ticking time bomb, and now he’ll get matched up with Tampa’s Ryan Callahan, who Marchand knows well, and Cedric Paquette, who leads these playoffs in penalty minutes. Expect some fireworks and maybe some fisticuffs.

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