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Ten early takeaways from the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs

The 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs have rolled into their second round. There have been some expected results and some shocking surprises — and the Toronto Maple Leafs losing in the first round, which probably fits into both categories, if we’re being honest.

Here are 10 takeaways from the playoffs so far, from the upsets to the controversies to the incredible cacophony of fans in the stands again.

A year ago, I wondered if Nathan MacKinnon might be the best player in the world. (Before wondering the same thing about Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman, to be fair.) Connor McDavid‘s regular season quelled any uprisings to take his throne; but while he’s sitting at home, MacKinnon is once again trying to snatch the crown.

It’s just six games, but MacKinnon’s 2.17 points-per-game rate in the 2021 playoffs currently ranks seventh in single-season NHL history dating back to the 1967 expansion. Five of the names ahead of him are either “Gretzky” or “Lemieux.” Even when he’s not scoring goals, he’s creating them. For example, when he called for the puck in overtime on the power play:

Freeze it at 17:55. You’ll see MacKinnon skating in circles as three Vegas penalty killers bunch up to defend what comes next. Except what comes next is MacKinnon finding a wide-open Mikko Rantanen, now with a shooting line thanks to MacKinnon drawing away the defenders. There’s a reason why he’s a -175 betting favorite for the Conn Smythe.

I haven’t been all that deferential to the legend of Carey Price. He won Olympic and World Cup gold behind Canadian all-star teams. His regular-season numbers were never all that impressive, especially in the deeper world of advanced stats. Yet he finished third in our positional ranking (as voted on by GMs, coaches and players), and wins the greatest goalie accolades in the annual NHLPA players poll — 41% of the respondents in 2019-20 called him the best goalie in the world.

After watching Price in these playoffs … mea culpa. He’s fantastic.

It’s one thing to have his peers say Price is the guy they want starting a Game 7. It’s another thing to witness his absolute mastery in a Game 7, where he was the best player on the ice vs Toronto. And his reputation was a factor in that series: Mitchell Marner talked about the Leafs’ lack of patience on offensive chances, presumably because Price was that locked in.

From this day forward, I vow never to mock the NHLPA for its unwavering admiration of Carey Price. Even if I think those Team Canada teams were so good that I could have landed at least a bronze behind them.

3. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner are the problems

The worst thing about the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Game 7 loss was how dreary and inevitable the whole thing felt. They played not to make the kind of mistake that cost them the previous two overtimes; and when they made a couple of them on Brendan Gallagher‘s goal, the game could have ended there. They couldn’t handle the weight of history nor the disquietude of the moment — not without Jake Muzzin or a healthy Nick Foligno or John Tavares, whose Game 1 injury seemed surmountable after three straight Toronto wins, but whose absence was felt emphatically in Games 6 and 7.

Listening to Leafs management give its postmortem is as much of a postseason tradition as seeing Toronto eliminated. Team president Brendan Shanahan said “there’s a killer instinct that’s missing that we need to address.” He also said, “I don’t think that our depth was an issue.”

Put them together and you’ve got an indictment of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.

One goal in seven games between the two is unacceptable. Marner failing to score a goal in 18 straight playoff games is unacceptable. In the regular season, the Leafs averaged 4.69 goals scored per 60 minutes when they were on the ice together. In the playoffs, that dropped to 2.05 goals per 60. Those overtime games may not have been overtime games if Toronto’s best players were worthy of the moniker in this series, and Shanahan knows this, saying the Leafs need to continue “developing them to play in those situations.”

But he also knows it would be idiotic to trade Marner — Matthews is untouchable — because he knows his history.

“There are lots of players who are in the Hall of Fame and have their names etched on the Stanley Cup multiple times that went through this same experience early in their careers with their teams. And the teams that were wise enough to hang onto them and continue to surround them and develop them benefited eventually. History will tell you that it can be done,” he said.

But it needs to be done. Tweak the lineup. Change the personnel. None of it matters if the team’s top line doesn’t play like it, when it matters most.

The Leafs can’t win until Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner figure out how to lead them to victories. Full stop.

4. I did not miss stretchers

With the advent of Rule 48 and some general changes in how the game is played and who is playing it, the NHL has seen a decrease in appearances from stretchers over the past decade. To have seen two of them already his postseason was absolutely jarring.

The John Tavares injury in Game 1 against the Canadiens was one of the most horrific sights I can recall in some time in the NHL. The Jake Evans injury for Montreal in Game 1 against the Jets was disturbing in a different way.

I hate the hit from Mark Scheifele. It’s a distant cousin to the hit that Dale Hunter put on Pierre Turgeon in 1993. Evans was scoring into an empty net. Scheifele trucked him on a textbook charging play. It was a petulant play and a hit that didn’t need to be delivered.

Many stood up to say that Scheifele is a great guy and far from a dirty player. That he delivered his check in the manner in which he did speaks volumes about his mindset in the moment, as does the regret that hung on his face as he left the ice.

In summary: The next stretcher I see in this postseason will already be too many of them.

5. The Lightning are professional assassins

I picked the Tampa Bay Lightning to defeat the Florida Panthers in the first round for two reasons: goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, and because their lineup is dotted with guys who simply make plays when it matters.

The Lightning now have six playoff wins. They have five different players with game-winning goals. They have 11 different players with at least a goal in the postseason. A different hero every night, a different path to victory.

In a tournament that’s seen its share of teams that couldn’t make that singular play when they needed it — COUGH Toronto COUGH — the Lightning’s efficient effectiveness through the lineup is the stuff championships are made of, as we saw last postseason.

6. Somehow Charlie McAvoy is now underrated

When Boston Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy entered the league, the hype was off the charts. He finished fifth in the Calder Trophy voting in 2017-18, and was seen as the next great Boston Bruins defenseman. That respect hasn’t waned, but it also hasn’t snowballed. Due to injuries and some middling offensive numbers, McAvoy isn’t always top of mind in the discussions about elite defensemen. The highest he’s ever finished for the Norris Trophy is 10th.

Perhaps that changes this postseason. He has seven points in his first seven games and is skating 26:48 per game.

Brad Marchand said it best: “He’s always been a great player. He was able to play at a young age, which obviously takes a lot of talent and ability. But I think each year that goes by, he gets more confident. He understands the game a lot easier, a lot better, where the space and the time is. He’s a big, strong kid, has a lot of skill, and a great skater. … I think all of that has just allowed him to continue to build into a dominant player in this league, and he will be for a long time.”

7. Garth Snow doesn’t get enough credit

The Lou Lamoriello-Barry Trotz regime has turned the New York Islanders into an annual contender, albeit one with a high floor and a low ceiling. But the majority of players on this roster joined the Islanders under the leadership of a nearly forgotten figure from the recent past: general manager Garth Snow.

Among the players acquired by Snow: Jordan Eberle (in a steal), Nick Leddy, Cal Clutterbuck, Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas, Josh Bailey, Anders Lee, Scott Mayfield, Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock, Ilya Sorokin, Mathew Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier.

If the Islanders go all the way, does he get his name on the Cup?

8. Rookie goalie chants rule

The Islanders adopted a KHL chant for rookie goalie Ilya Sorokin, and it rules.

But I’m also partial to this chant from Carolina:

Most goalie chants are multi-syllable singsongs that echo through the arena. The Hurricanes fans’ “NED! NED! NED!” chant for Alex Nedeljkovic is different and wonderful.

9. Playoff hockey is unmatched at its apex

One of hockey’s problems in trying to retain new fans is that its best form isn’t its typical form. If you hook a fan with the Olympics, they aren’t necessarily going to like the Stanley Cup playoffs. Hook them with the playoffs, and they’ll wonder why the 82 games that precede them lack the passion and intensity of the postseason.

That established: Game 1 of the Panthers vs. Lightning and Game 2 of the Avalanche vs. Golden Knights are the kinds of games that mint new fans. They may not happen every series or every postseason, but there’s nothing in professional sports that can replicate their addictive brand of chaos. I wish I could bottle it and put it on a shelf so I could consume it during Game 44 on a Tuesday night in the regular season.

10. Finally, fans make a difference

Hearing crowds roaring again during the Stanley Cup playoffs offers a sense of long-desired normalcy. This is what hockey is supposed to sound like, and this is what life is supposed to look like. We’re not out of this mess yet — especially north of the border — but it certainly feels like we’re getting there. After playing in cavernous arenas with piped-in sound, you can see the players finding another gear while entertaining the live audiences again.

It’s glorious to hear the cheers, jeers and spontaneity of a crowd again. They take the best postseason tournament in sports and make it that much more compelling.

Welcome back. Please never leave again.

Three things about the Nazem Kadri appeal

1. I truly don’t understand the outcry from some that Nazem Kadri’s eight-game suspension was too lengthy.

It was a hit an NHL player simply shouldn’t still be delivering 10 years into the Rule 48 era, the league bylaw that specifically prohibits checks “where the head was the main point of contact and such contact to the head was avoidable.”

This was his sixth suspension, all of them involving some kind of contact with an opponent’s head. This would seem like a moment where those who urge the Department of Player Safety to issue harsher punishments would high-five those who wish the league would take concussion prevention more seriously and then they group-hug those who want the book to be thrown at repeat-repeat offenders.

I don’t know if it’s Kadri’s popularity. I don’t know if it’s because the NHL chose not to punish others — “others” being a euphemism for Tom Wilson — in a satisfactory way, and hence this punishment can’t be satisfactory because of it. I don’t know if it’s the general anti-DoPS vibe in NHL fandom. Whatever the case, the backlash on social media against what seemed like a factually supported slam dunk of a ruling was bizarre.

2. I’ve written before about the NHLPA’s role in fostering and supporting repeat offenders, as the organization that feels it has to represent Kadri’s interests while purporting to represent those of the player he concussed, St. Louis defenseman Justin Faulk. Faulk missed two games after the hit. The NHLPA argued that the Rule 48 suspension — after Kadri himself acknowledged he violated the rule — should last only two games beyond Faulk’s absence in the series.

The NHLPA argued that Kadri should serve only four games for the hit, despite having been suspended for three and five playoff games in his two most recent suspensions. All three involved contact with an opponent’s head. He was banned for boarding Tommy Wingels in 2018 and cross-checking Jake DeBrusk in 2019, both times when Kadri’s Maple Leafs were facing the Boston Bruins. Eight games is a logical escalation of punishments. The NHLPA argued that the other two were intentional and malicious, while this one was just a hit that “missed by inches” — you know, despite him lifting his shoulder into Faulk’s head.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, in rubber-stamping the suspension ahead of Kadri’s appeal to a neutral arbitrator on Friday, wrote: “Even assuming that Mr. Kadri did not intend to injure Mr. Faulk, the check itself was intentional, involved excessive and unnecessary force, and showed a reckless disregard for the safety of an opposing player.”

The fact that Kadri’s three most recent suspensions were all in the playoffs is what really worked against him here. The NHLPA argued that playoff games “count more” than regular-season games, which is the generally accepted (though ill-defined) math on these things. But since his last two escalating suspensions were both in the playoffs, it rendered that argument moot.

3. Where I agree with the NHLPA’s argument: The NHL needs to better define its repeat offender status.

As it stands, a player is a “repeat offender” for 18 months following his most recent incident that resulted in a suspension. But that’s just a designation used to increase the financial penalties if they’re suspended again in that 18-month window. Otherwise, the violations follow repeat offenders in perpetuity. The CBA spells it out this way: “Players who repeatedly violate League Playing Rules will be more severely punished for each new violation.”

Kadri hadn’t been suspended in 124 games, or over a 25-month period. There’s no provision in the CBA that the passage of time should reduce the impact of a player’s prior disciplinary record when imposing a suspension.

“Assuming that there may indeed be occasions when a lengthy gap in time between disciplinary suspensions justifies some amount of leniency, this is not one of those occasions,” wrote Bettman, and it’s hard to argue with that. But perhaps leniency due to a lengthy gap in time between disciplinary suspensions shouldn’t be an assumption. Perhaps it should be a policy.

It is, like many things in the supplemental discipline process, a gray area that could use some refinement.

Winners and losers of the week

Winners: Seattle Kraken

They didn’t get the first overall pick, which went to Buffalo, but the Kraken snagged the No. 2 pick in the 2021 draft by winning the second draw. The Golden Knights got the sixth overall pick in 2017.

Hopefully whoever the Kraken select will get one of those sweet jerseys to wear on Zoom.

Losers: Anaheim Ducks

Look, in the history of draft lottery losses, this one doesn’t sting quite as much as losing out on Sidney Crosby in 2005. But they still had to watch an expansion team leap over them in the lottery, meaning they still haven’t drafted first or second since taking Bobby Ryan as a consolation prize in the Crosby draft 16 years ago.

Winner: Jim Nill

The Dallas Stars general manager, after his team didn’t move up. The single greatest reaction to the draft lottery since Connor McDavid‘s thousand-yard stare when the Oilers won it.

Losers: Player of the year candidates

McDavid, Auston Matthews and Sidney Crosby were nominated for the Ted Lindsay Award, voted on by the NHLPA and given to the player of the year. Given that their teams were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs, the trio is available to attend the ceremony now, should there be one.

Winner: Jack Campbell

He was emotionally devastated after the Leafs’ Game 7 loss, calling the soft goal he surrendered to Brendan Gallagher the “worst goal” of his career, and generally regretting having let his team down. Dude, you went 17-3-2 in the regular season, bailed out the team’s goaltending crisis and posted a .934 save percentage in the postseason. You were not the reason this happened.

Losers: Fans who take it too far

Sports are an emotional outlet. If you want to boo and taunt a player in the arena, that’s fine. That’s part of the gig. Players understand that. But if you feel the need to go to their social media feeds — or God forbid those of their loved ones — to express your hatred or generally make their lives miserable because they put the puck over the glass in overtime or some such, then please log off, learn some boundaries and try to have the emotional maturity necessary to separate your reaction to an entertainment expenditure from real-life decorum. Don’t be toxic.

Winner: Mark Borowiecki

Kudos to the Nashville Predators defenseman for being candid and up front in discussing his mental health. Borowiecki said he’s suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder throughout most of his career, and that he took time away from the NHL this season to deal with it.

“It is my hope that I can speak publicly and encourage other athletes to get the help they may need, and to not feel like they are alone or unable to seek help,” he said on Instagram. It’s a reminder that these athletes aren’t just role models for scoring a big goal or winning a championship, but for using their platform to be a leader in other arenas of life.

Puck headlines

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

Great piece here from Emily Kaplan on the KHL, from busting myths about the league to what the future holds for it.

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