With another day off before Game 7 of the Nashville Predators vs. Winnipeg Jets series, we convened our Scribes of the Roundtable to answer all of the burning questions now that we know three out of four participants in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs conference finals.
Disagree with any of the takes? Let us know in the comments!
Who has been the breakout star of the 2018 playoffs?
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: How about Evgeny Kuznetsov of the Washington Capitals? In D.C., it often feels like the Alex Ovechkin show (rightfully so), though Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie get their fair share of attention. Kuznetsov, who inked an eight-year, $62.4 million extension last summer, is having a moment, with seven goals and seven assists in 12 games (a point shy of his linemate Ovechkin). Not only did the 25-year-old deliver the goal that freed Washington from second-round purgatory, but he began flexing his amazing personality: bringing back his bird walk celebration (cribbed from the FIFA video game) and casually dropping expletives in postgame interviews when gushing about teammates.
Chris Peters, hockey prospects writer: I’m going with Brayden Point of the Tampa Bay Lightning. In just his second NHL season and first trip to the playoffs, he has become a core player for the Bolts. Point has had one or two down games this postseason, but when he’s on, the Lightning are able to hit another gear. Point has 10 points in 10 games, tied for second on Tampa Bay’s postseason scoring list. He was also perhaps the driving force that helped the Lightning skate past the Bruins in a series that ended far sooner than any of us thought it would. His four-point Game 2 performance coming off of an awful Game 1 against Boston showed the kind of resolve that is coming to define this Lightning team.
Victoria Matiash, fantasy hockey analyst: I’m bending the rules in awarding this honor collectively to the Vegas Golden Knights‘ top forward line. Combining for 32 points in 10 games, Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith are proving the Knights’ explosive inaugural run was no regular-season accident. And they’re attracting new fans across all of North America along the way.
Ben Arledge, Insider NHL editor: For me, it’s Mark Scheifele. Nine goals and 14 points in 11 games so far to lead a team with no offensive shortcomings. Sure, the Winnipeg Jets forward has been a stud for a few seasons now, but he’s far from a household name. Just two seasons ago, he posted 82 points while going over 30 goals for the first and only time in his career, but an injury-shortened 2017-18 season saw him pot only 23. However, he still quietly produced as a point-per-game player behind Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler and even (depending on how you look at it) 31-goal-scorer rookie Kyle Connor. But now, Scheifele is hitting the net at a ridiculous rate, and he’s finding the scorecard in some fashion every time he hits the ice. No one is going to forget about the 25-year-old anymore, especially if the Jets are able to knock off the Predators on Thursday night.
What team disappointed you the most in the 2018 playoffs?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: The San Jose Sharks. Granted, the Golden Knights have made many a team look silly, but I was convinced the veteran savvy and defensive prowess of the Sharks was going to be enough to solve that Vegas magic. Especially after they decimated the Anaheim Ducks in a first-round sweep. Perhaps things would have been different if Joe Thornton was healthy. Perhaps they would have been different if Marc-Andre Fleury doesn’t rob Logan Couture in overtime of Game 3. Oh well … sign John Tavares, bring back Thornton and Evander Kane, and go all-in for 2018-19.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: The Los Angeles Kings. Look, they ran into the freight train that is the Vegas Golden Knights, but bowing out in four games was quite disappointing. I thought they had the right blend of solid goaltending, stingy defense and veteran been-there-done-that attitude to get it done. The defense was there, but they couldn’t muster anything offensively. The stats tell the story here: 0.75 goals per game, a 7.7 percent power-play efficiency, zero wins.
Chris Peters, hockey prospects writer: There’s no question that injuries played a significant role in their demise, but the Minnesota Wild could barely put up a fight against the Jets. Their early ouster led to the dismissal of GM Chuck Fletcher, and whoever replaces him will likely be looking for more changes. The Jets are an incredible team, but the Wild’s offense — which had averaged 3.05 goals per game in the regular season, 11th best in the NHL — went ice cold save for a Game 3 outburst. Getting shut out in back-to-back games to close out the series and end their season was quite a flop.
Victoria Matiash, fantasy hockey analyst: I thought the Kings would give the Golden Knights a much better run. Playoff experience, solid defense, league-best penalty kill aside, Los Angeles also matched up well — evenly, really — with Vegas through the regular season. Plus, forward Jeff Carter was in healthy form and on a roll. The Kings’ inability to score was a real letdown for me. I felt this series had much greater potential to entertain.
Ben Arledge, Insider NHL editor: With a hat tip to the Kings, the Ducks get my vote. Vegas’ we-are-for-real sweep of the Kings in the opening round largely overshadowed the Sharks’ equal dismissal of the Ducks in four games. While Anaheim hasn’t been overly dominant at any point this season, it dealt with a fair share of injuries. But with the health bar back in the green, I expected more. Sure, John Gibson probably wasn’t 100 percent after suffering an injury late to end his top-tier regular season early, and Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry can’t be relied on for the same production of years past. But zero playoff wins? In a relatively weak quadrant of the playoff bracket, I expected more, and even considered them likely to reach the conference final based on the teams they’d have to play. Not even close.
Which team remaining has the best home-ice advantage?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: The Tampa Bay Lightning’s fans might not get the same renown as the catfish hurlers in Nashville or the whited-out fanatics in Winnipeg, but that’s a loud building when the Bolts are rolling. Plus, the Lightning are quite good at home: 29-10-2 (the same record as Vegas) in the regular season. Tampa Bay has won 11 of its last 15 home playoff games, including a 5-1 record this postseason.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: The Golden Knights have lost just one home game these playoffs — a 4-3 double-overtime loss to the Sharks. By sheer atmosphere uniqueness alone, I’m tempted to go with everyone’s favorite expansion darlings here. The team clearly feels the power of community when playing on home ice (you’ve seen the visuals of standing-room-only practices at their suburban facility … on weekday mornings). I don’t think the “Vegas Flu” will have a role in these playoffs; I do think a dynamic home crowd can. Plus, you should see the way the fans get jacked up for that Medieval Times rip-off skit to begin the game. It’s really something.
Chris Peters, hockey prospects writer: I think we’re going to see one of the best home-ice environments in a big spot come Thursday night in Nashville. It may not have mattered much in Game 5, but we can just blame that one on the Lady Antebellum guy for messing up the national anthem. This is going to be the first Game 7 in the history of Bridgestone Arena. Hopefully the building supervisors made sure everything was tightened to keep the roof on. It’s going to get loud. The Preds were 28-9-4 at home during the regular season but only 3-3 so far this postseason — with one more loss at home than they had during last year’s playoff run. That doesn’t necessarily scare me off, though. Nashville is a hockey town and I can’t wait to see what Game 7 is going to look like.
Victoria Matiash, fantasy hockey analyst: Spectacle or no spectacle, Vegas is one double-OT loss removed from perfection at home this postseason. Ahead of Monday’s 4-0 loss to the Predators, the Winnipeg Whiteout may have felt most intimidating, but that unfolding seemed to suck a lot of air out of the building.
Ben Arledge, Insider NHL editor: I’m all-in with Greg here. Tampa’s Amalie Arena is rocking when the Bolts are on the ice. Greg outlined the home-ice efficiency of the Lightning, and a lot of that is due to the Bolts’ loud building. With pregame activities outside, the Tesla Coil lightning rods inside and owner Jeff Vinik’s overall emphasis on spreading hockey in the community, west Florida is now the real deal. Sure, Winnipeg, Vegas, Nashville — and on a slightly lesser level, Washington — are all intense environments, but Tampa Bay runs the show in this department.
What’s one particular matchup you want to see in the Stanley Cup Final?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: Vegas vs. anyone is going to be the money series, but give me the Washington Capitals vs. the Nashville Predators for the sheer drama of it all. Two franchises without a Stanley Cup. Barry Trotz against the team he coached forever. David Poile against the franchise he general-managed forever. Two disciples of goalie guru Mitch Korn battling, in Pekka Rinne and Braden Holtby. P.K. Subban vs. Alex Ovechkin, for all the glory. And, of course, the infamous Martin Erat trade that handed Filip Forsberg to the Predators. Honky-tonk vs. D.C. elites … we could go on for days here on what’s compelling about this amazing matchup.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: I love the idea of a Vegas Golden Knights vs. Washington Capitals Stanley Cup Final. The Knights are shocking everyone by making the treacherous road to the Stanley Cup Final look like a cinch. The Capitals are one of those teams who labored through the playoffs for so many ill-fated tries and are so close to exorcising those demons. It’s great juxtaposition, not to mention that GM George McPhee is in the spotlight of it all — the most celebrated GM in hockey this season gets to face off against the team that let him go.
Date: June 22-23
Host city: Dallas, Texas
Chris Peters, hockey prospects writer: The matchup I’ve been waiting to see all year is the Nashville Predators vs. the Tampa Bay Lightning. They’re fascinating teams for a lot of reasons, but I also think they’re pound-for-pound the two best teams in the NHL right now. They have a good amount of stars, play the game at a solid pace, boast exciting young talent and both are incredibly well-coached. Peter Laviolette and Jon Cooper matching wits, finding the right matchups, making the necessary adjustments. There aren’t a ton of storyline-driving factors. It’d just be great hockey by two of the most exciting teams the league has to offer.
Victoria Matiash, fantasy hockey analyst: For pure on-ice entertainment, I’m with Chris in rooting for the best in the East with the Lightning versus the Predators as the top squad in the West. Plus, we’ll get our fill of former North York Canadiens novice AAA stars Steven Stamkos vs. P.K. Subban in “Childhood friends pitted against each other for the greatest prize in hockey!” That narrative will be mined to no end — not a bad thing when a personality like Subban’s is involved.
Ben Arledge, Insider NHL editor: Seeing the Bolts and Jets tee off would be sheer excitement. A pair of young netminders, bona fide goal scorers running multiple lines deep, tons of speed and some offensive-minded blueliners make this an extremely satisfying Cup final, despite what TV executives might lament about the markets.
Which trade deadline move has paid off the most thus far?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: Tomas Tatar of the Golden Knights has (checks notes) no points in four games, having been a healthy scratch. So, not him. Let’s instead go with J.T. Miller of the Lightning, the other piece of that Ryan McDonagh trade with the New York Rangers. Miller’s north-south game and grit has augmented the work of stars Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. He’s got two goals and five assists, with three points coming on the power play. His physical presence is also an asset on an underrated physical team. This is the kind of player who helps you win the postseason.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: Paul Stastny is everything the Jets envisioned he’d be when they traded away a first-round pick (and then some) to get him at the deadline. The 32-year-old has four goals and seven assists through 11 games, is fifth among Winnipeg forwards in logging 17:20 per game (to keep up with linemate Patrik Laine’s 17:31) and has won 54.5 percent of his faceoffs. His goal in Game 3 sparked the Jets’ incredible comeback; in Game 5, his goal opened the gates for an offensive surge. Stastny is among the best trade deadline rentals over the past 10 seasons, joining Pascal Dupuis and Marian Hossa to the Penguins in 2008 and Marian Gaborik to the Los Angeles Kings in 2014.
Chris Peters, hockey prospects writer: Stastny is a great choice and certainly making a major impact. However, I’m going to go with Ryan McDonagh. If there was a trouble spot for the Lightning this season, it was blue-line depth. Adding McDonagh has given Tampa a player who can still handle himself against top matchups. His ice time at even strength during the past two series has seen him most frequently playing against teams’ top forward lines. Boston’s top line of Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand feasted on the Maple Leafs in their first-round series. The offense did not completely dry up for them against Tampa, but when McDonagh was out against them, Marchand and Bergeron finished with an even goal differential, and Pastrnak was minus-1 at 5-on-5 (via NaturalStatTrick). Keeping that line in check is a big reason Tampa Bay ended that series in five games.
Victoria Matiash, fantasy hockey analyst: Add a couple of game-winners to Stastny’s aforementioned playoff résumé and there’s little argument in my mind. Fitting seamlessly into the Jets’ lineup — while also improving it — the veteran center has made a clear and tangible impact. And to think back to how surprised we all were by this trade.
Ben Arledge, Insider NHL editor: I’m agreeing with Greg again! Miller is definitely the top dog here, registering 10 goals and 18 points in 19 regular-season games since joining the Bolts before adding another seven points thus far in the playoffs. He’s been a big part of the offense, especially in his time on the top line with Stamkos and Kucherov.