With the Chicago Blackhawks officially beginning their offseason last Saturday, the news has fallen silent. That doesn’t mean though, that there is no more hockey. For the first time since 2007-2008, the Blackhawks are not participating in the NHL playoffs. In the NHL playoffs this year, things seem more obscure than ever.
Teams like the Las Vegas Golden Knights, in their inaugural season, made the playoffs by a landslide, nearly taking home the President’s trophy in the process. The Colorado Avalanche executed one of the biggest single season turnaround’s in NHL history to make it to the big dance, finally earning a spot in a do or die game against the St. Louis Blues for the final spot in the Western Conference. This week, we take a look at some of the biggest stories of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Let’s start with the obvious, the Las Vegas Golden Knights. In their first season, they were expected to be at the bottom of the league, being an expansion team that would take years to become a legitimate contender in today’s NHL. The Golden Knights were the complete opposite of that. Not only did the Golden Knights survive an early injury bug to their goaltenders, but they defied the odds and won the Pacific division with a total of 109 points.
The Golden Knights entered the playoffs looking to make a statement and they sure did. Only Vegas could make an opening ceremony quite as theatrical as they did, with a golden knight beating up an "evildoer" holding a Los Angeles Kings flag. On top of that, longtime player and now analyst Jeremy Roenick sounded the horn to lead the Golden Knights onto the ice. A spectacle among modern hockey traditions, we can expect theatrics for every year following this season that may even be more grand than this year.
The Columbus Blue Jackets also had a magical season, going on a tear in the later stages of the season, ripping off 10 straight wins in March and winning 13 out of their last 17 games to end the season and taking the first wild card spot in Eastern Conference. The Blue Jackets aren’t in their inaugural season, however they are led by ex-Blackhawk Aretmi Panarin, who proved to the world that he can be a superstar, and one of the best goaltenders in the game in Sergei Bobrovsky. The Blue Jackets have the excitement surrounding them that the Blackhawks did in 2009-2010, when you could physically feel that the Hawks were going to win. It will be exciting to see how the Blue Jackets fair as the playoffs heat up.
The biggest story of last seasons offseason was the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have a chance to get a third cup in as many years. The last time a team won at least three cups in a row was 1980-1983, when the New York Islanders won four straight. It would be quite the feat for the Penguins, as they have also had the extra strain of dealing with salary cap issues in todays NHL. The Pens have made it work with some brilliant roster moves and long-term signings, and they’ve had a great farm system and scouting to bring in complimentary players to keep themselves competitive every year.
Maybe the most amazing part of this potential three-peat is the goaltending, where an unknown and unproven Matt Murray came into the NHL playoffs in 2016 and won with the Penguins as a rookie. In year two, due to the NHL's odd rookie rules, Murray was considered a rookie again. He led the Penguins to another Stanley Cup win, becoming the first player in NHL history to win back to back Stanley cups as a starting rookie goaltender. Now in his first official non-rookie season, Matt Murray is back into the playoffs and the Pens are determined to make it three in a row.
With so many different stories surrounding this years NHL playoffs, it makes for a truly different experience than in prior years. A lot of younger, faster teams are making it to the playoffs as the NHL shifts to smaller, shiftier squads with higher scoring potential. Although the Blackhawks aren’t in it, there are still plenty of exciting games to watch and a reason to be excited for this year’s playoffs. Who will come away with the cup this year? Only time will tell.