Damien Cox: Why the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs is as good as it gets

Finally, we’re here. Right now. The very best time of the NHL season.

Enjoy it. Savour it. It’s a frenzied two-week window of eye-catching activity, heightened rumours and real action on and off the ice that makes March Madness and all its phony hype look like a snoozy Sunday afternoon by comparison.

Brayden Point, heading for free agency, and the Lightning vs. Filip Forsberg’s Predators in the Stanley Cup final? There’s a good shot.  (John Russell / Getty Images file photo)

These playoffs come after what was certainly a massively encouraging regular season for those who believe the sport is about speed and skill, not scrums and faux demonstrations of passion. For the first time since they tried to fix an ailing game back in 2005, NHL teams averaged more than three goals per game this season.

Yes, it took that long.

Tampa Bay scored 325 goals and three other teams — Calgary, San Jose and Toronto — scored more than 285, compared to one club last season.

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Nikita Kucherov proved NHL forwards can put up big numbers again with 17 more points than last year’s scoring leader, Connor McDavid. Two players scored 50 goals and 11 others scored 40 or more. Last year, there were eight 40-goal scorers and no 50-goal men.

This is not the narrative some wish to hear, those who yearn for the days when teams carried two enforcers and worry themselves into a tizzy over the absence of “emotion” in the game. There’s only an absence of emotion in the NHL game today if you believe it can only be expressed through penalties, fights and chasing down any opposing player who dares bodycheck one of your teammates.

We hear this stuff endlessly and it’s just not true. Sadly, we’re going to hear more of it in the coming weeks.

But the NHL is not going back to the days when being able to “police” the game was enough to land you on an NHL roster, and this is a very good thing. Those who said fighting would never be diminished were wrong, just like they were wrong when they said players would never agree to compulsory visors. Hockey can be a dumb industry, but even hockey comes around to sensible thinking eventually.

Hopefully, the playoffs ahead will continue these exciting goal-scoring trends. But the NHL better be careful. If it continues to produce this type of high-paced, entertaining hockey, they’re going to have to build bigger buildings.

The eight first-round matchups are all intriguing. Before they even start, teams that didn’t make the post-season — including four Canadian teams — are already gearing up for next season. Ryan Poehling made the off-season a trifle easier in Montreal on the weekend, while Buffalo and Florida didn’t wait even a day to fire coaches Phil Housley and Bob Boughner, respectively. The ambitious Panthers made sure the Sabres didn’t get a chance to talk to Joel Quenneville by jumping all over the former Blackhawks coach.

Buffalo, who missed out on Mike Babcock four years ago, would be wise to stand by just in case, on the remote chance that speculation projecting that Babcock could be fired if he can’t get the Leafs past the first round turns out to be true. Producing the first-ever back-to-back 100-point seasons in Toronto with a team led by two 21-year-old star forwards and a 25-year-old defenceman is apparently not good enough.

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This market, needless to say, has never has been strong on perspective. There were those, remember, who wanted to seriously discuss whether the Leafs should trade the first overall pick before drafting Auston Matthews. The good news is nobody knows the white noise of this market better than Brendan Shanahan.

Other teams facing big coaching/management decisions include L.A., Minnesota and poor disorganized Edmonton. Those teams will be joined by eight first-round losers over the next fortnight, some of which will be even more upset than the clubs that didn’t make the playoffs at all and may embark upon significant change.

The draft lottery, meanwhile, goes Tuesday night with an impressive group of prospects that includes Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko. Any fair-minded person should be rooting for Vancouver, which has never had luck on its side in these things or the first overall pick in the NHL draft. The Canucks have only a five-per-cent shot at winning, but we can dream of both Hughes boys in B.C., can’t we?

Not so far away is an off-season that will undoubtedly be filled with intense, drawn-out negotiations, with the long list of unsigned restricted free agents looking to land massive contracts including Mitch Marner, Patrik Laine, Brayden Point, Kyle Connor, Kasperi Kapanen, Zach Werenski, Sebastian Aho and Matthew Tkachuk. How those players and others perform in these playoffs will have a significant impact on their financial futures.

So there’s all these moving parts, plus a title to defend for the Washington Capitals. Canada’s three playoff entrants — Calgary, Toronto and Winnipeg — will all be under intense pressure to deliver the goods at least in the first round. The Flames had a stunningly good season, but suspect goaltending will keep Calgary fans gnawing on their fingernails.

The guess from here is that we’ll ultimately be looking at a Tampa-Nashville final, although something tells me not to take my eye off St. Louis and hotshot young goalie Jordan Binnington.

The Leafs? Still too young. Still two years away from really taking a hard run at the Cup. Just beating Boston would be enough for many.

So enjoy the frenzy of the next two weeks. It gradually dies down as the playoffs progress, more teams are sent home and the weather gets nicer here in the Great White North.

But right now is the best time to love this game and all the intrigue that surrounds the NHL.

Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin

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