First-round upsets rob Stanley Cup Playoffs of marquee players
The NHL perpetually struggles for attention in the U.S. sports market against the NBA, NFL, Major League Baseball, NASCAR, PGA and, lately, even MMA.
So I wonder how the league feels about a Columbus Blue Jackets-Carolina Hurricanes Eastern Conference final in the Stanley Cup playoffs?
That’s a possibility after so many first-round eliminations of top teams and their marquee stars.
The latest ouster came Wednesday night when the Hurricanes defeated the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals 4-3 in double overtime in Game 7 of their series.
It’s great for Carolina and Columbus fans to see their teams succeed, but a conference matchup of the two would not be the best thing for a sport that has perpetually struggled for major media attention in the United States.
With the Capitals gone, superstar Alex Ovechkin and his notable cohorts Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeni Kuznetsov and John Carlson are on the sidelines until next season.
Other major casualties were the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins, who were swept in the opening round by the Blue Jackets and New York Islanders, respectively.
That’s the loss of two more marquee organizations and a boat load of star power. And don’t forget the league dominance of the Lightning in the regular season when the team tied an NHL record with 62 wins (set by the Red Wings in 1995-96).
Among the players done for the season is one long considered to be hockey’s best player: Penguin Sidney Crosby. He’s joined by the Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov, the NHL’s scoring champion this season; Crosby’s longtime tag-team partner Evgeni Malkin; Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos, one of the league’s biggest stars; Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, who was last season’s Norris Trophy winner and is a finalist again this season, and Pittsburgh’s main cog defenseman Kris Letang.
Add to that list Toronto stars Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Mitch Marner as well as their Stanley Cup- and gold medal-winning coach Mike Babcock, after the Leafs’ second-straight seven-game, first-round loss to Boston.
The Bruins – with their top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak – will face Columbus in the second round in a series that begins at 7 p.m. Thursday night (NBC Sports Network and CBC).
The Blue Jackets have outstanding players in red-hot goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, talented forwards Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene and outstanding young defensemen Seth Jones and Grosse Pointe product Zach Werenski. But only hard-core hockey fanatics and Ohio sports fans know who they are.
The Islanders, led by the almost unbeatable goalie Robin Lehner, a Vezina finalist, will take on Carolina, whose most notable player is Sebastian Aho. At least the Hurricanes bring the notoriety of their on-ice celebrations after home wins this season to the proceedings.
The Western Conference has also lost two top teams and players with the first-round eliminations of the No. 1-seeded Calgary Flames and the Winnipeg Jets.
The exit of those teams means the likes of the Flames Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk and Norris Trophy finalist defenseman Mark Giordano and the Jets Blake Wheeler, Patrick Laine and Dustin Byfuglien are no longer participating.
But there are still some marquee players remaining out West.
The San Jose Sharks swim on after their incredible third-period comeback and overtime win in Game 7 on Tuesday night that eliminated the Vegas Golden Knights. That means Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and Joe Thornton are still present and accounted for in the playoffs. But Joe Pavelski is a question mark after hitting his head on the ice due to a crosscheck by the Golden Knights Cody Eakin on Tuesday.
The Sharks will face the Colorado Avalanche in the second round. The Avalanche’s series win over Calgary was mostly engineered by the Avs top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog.
The Dallas Stars – featuring Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin – took out the Central Division champion Nashville Predators in the opening round. That means goalie Pekka Rinne and defensemen Roman Josi and P.K. Subban are now on the sidelines.
The Stars will face the St. Louis Blues in the second round. That series also begins Thursday night at 9:30 p.m. (NBCSN).