ST. LOUIS, Mo. – Talk about a bracket buster.
Count me among the many who struggled mightily in the prediction game during the opening round of the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs.
It’s natural to endure some difficulty when the top seed in both the Eastern Conference (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Western Conference (Calgary Flames) were bounced in the opening round and won a combined one game between them.
No, that was not a misprint.
The Lightning, the same team that lapped the field during the regular season, was swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets — despite jumping out to a 3-0 lead in Game 1.
Tampa never recovered and the Blue Jackets cruised to the first series victory in franchise history.
Meanwhile, Mike Smith made sure that goaltending was the least of the Flames issues but their offence was nowhere to be found and there were plenty of cracks in the defensive structure — thanks to a dominant performance from Nathan MacKinnon.
Meanwhile, my pick to represent the West (the Winnipeg Jets) was bounced in the first round in six games by the pesky St. Louis Blues — who won four one-goal games, which included a pair of third period comebacks (in Games 1 and 5).
Oh, and the fourth division winner — and defending Stanley Cup champion was eliminated on Wednesday night when Mr. Game 7 set up the double overtime winner from Brock McGinn, sending the Carolina Hurricanes on to Round 2 and sending the 2018 Stanley Cup champions home.
Is this a good time to mention I finished the opening round with a brutal record of 2-6?
The only picks I chose correctly were the Boston Bruins and what I thought was my upset special of Round 1, the Stars.
It can only get better from here, right?
And that’s the beauty of predictions, there are almost always more to make, so I’ll do my best to pick it up during the rest of these playoffs.
The Blues are going to be a tough out, thanks to a balanced attack and a calm young goalie in Jordan Binnington.
The Nashville Predators were also eliminated, bowing out in six games to the Dallas Stars.
And the most exciting series of them all saw the San Jose Sharks rally from a 3-1 series deficit and a remarkable 3-0 hole in Game 7 to advance off an overtime goal from Barclay Goodrow.
The Vegas Golden Knights were on the short end of a five-minute cross-checking major to Cody Eakin that completely changed the complexion of the game.
While it was obviously unfortunate that Sharks captain Joe Pavelski hit his head on the ice, that didn’t look like a major penalty to me and the impact on the outcome was undeniable, as San Jose scored four times during the man-advantage to take the lead.
The Golden Knights scored with the goalie out in favour of an extra attacker, but the Sharks ousted the defending Western Conference champs when Goodrow scored on a power move.
So that leaves three Central Division teams left in the post-season party.
There have been question marks about Martin Jones throughout this season and into these playoffs, but the Sharks don’t come back to win the series without him.
Over in the East, the New York Islanders quickly dispatched the Pittsburgh Penguins and they’ll be up against the they-just-won’t-go-away Hurricanes in Round 2.
How did the Hurricanes do it?
All they had to do was go on the road in Game 7 and overcome a pair of two-goal deficits before Williams helped make McGinn a hero.
To the outsiders, the Hurricanes had already enjoyed a storybook season and it seemed like they could be applauded for even pushing the series the distance and giving a valiant effort.
But for Rod Brind’Amour’s group, they weren’t ready to go home yet.
And now, they won’t have to.
Instead, it’s the Capitals dealing with some questions about their inability to get the job done this spring.
This just in: winning is hard.
The Blue Jackets, who got great goaltending from pending UFA Sergei Bobrosvky, are playing with a lot of confidence and are looking forward to avenging last season’s ouster.
For those who have forgotten, the Blue Jackets won the first two games of their series with the eventual champion Capitals and were a Matt Calvert shot off the iron in overtime away from taking a 3-0 series edge.
Now the Blue Jackets will look to build on their first-round success after getting an extended break between rounds.
The Hurricanes are now up against the Islanders and head coach Barry Trotz – who guided Washington to the first Stanley Cup in franchise history last spring and then became a hot commodity as a free agent.
The Islanders were the best team in the NHL in goals against and quickly adapted to Trotz’s system.
They also more than survived the departure of captain and face of the franchise John Tavares, who joined his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs as a free agent.
Well, Tavares and the Maple Leafs had an early exit of their own after dropping Game 7 to the Boston Bruins for the second consecutive spring.
And with the first round in the books, here’s a closer look at the second round match-ups:
St. Louis Blues (third in Central Division, 99 points, defeated Winnipeg Jets in six games) vs Dallas Stars (first wild card, 93 Points, defeated Nashville Predators in six games)
The skinny: Goals could be at a premium in this series and not because there’s any shortage of skill or talent. But both clubs feature strong defensive structure and great goaltending. This is a coin flip series and a slight edge in the depth department up front gives the Blues the edge. Blues in seven.
San Jose Sharks (second in Pacific Division, defeated Vegas Golden Knights in seven games) vs Colorado Avalanche (second wild card, 90 points, defeated Calgary Flames in five games)
The skinny: The Avalanche look nothing like the team that accrued the fewest number of points of any team to qualify for the playoffs. They look like the team that was leading the Central Division at one point in December. MacKinnon is playing at another level and goalie Philipp Grubauer is getting the job done. The Sharks probably feel like a team of destiny after what they did against the Golden Knights, but they went seven games and needed double overtime in two of those games. That’s why I’m taking the Avalanche to pull off the upset in six.
Boston Bruins (second in Atlantic Division, 107 points, defeated Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games) vs Columbus Blues Jackets (second wild card, 98 points, defeated Tampa Bay Lightning in four games)
The skinny: The Blue Jackets will be refreshed and hungry to get going after sending the Lightning packing earlier than anyone thought was possible. Sergei Bobrovsky took a big step to shaking the label as a guy who can’t get the job done when the lights are brightest. The Blue Jackets have depth and play hard. They’ll give the Bruins everything they can handle, but after a Game 7 triumph over the Maple Leafs, Boston’s skill players like Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak are ready for the next challenge. Take the Bruins in six.
New York Islanders (second in Metropolitan Division, 103 points, defeated Pittsburgh Penguins in four games) vs Carolina Hurricanes (first wild card, 99 points, defeated Washington Capitals in seven games)
The skinny: It’s not that I didn’t think the Islanders could defeat the Penguins in the opening round, I just don’t like betting against Sidney Crosby. I’ve learned my lesson. Robin Lehner keeps getting the job done between the pipes and the Islanders score enough and have the requisite depth to go on a deep run. The Hurricanes won’t be an easy out, but the toll of knocking out the Capitals is going to be a factor as this series moves along. The Hurricanes push the series to six games, but the dream season ends on home ice. Take the Islanders.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019