Though Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby remains in the Steel City, several other teams found some new faces that were once part of a franchise for many years. These faces include John Tavares of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ryan O’Reilly of the St. Louis Blues, and Mark Stone of the Vegas Golden Knights.
As any sports fan could tell you, there’s nothing quite like the playoffs.
The 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs kick off on April 10th and millions of avid hockey fanatics around the world will be tuning in. Thirteen American and three Canadian teams will represent their city in what has been called the most exhilarating playoff tournament in all of sports.
In the third of this four-part article, we’ll break down some of the biggest hits and misses, NHL’s “Super 16” style, to look for in each playoff team. These assessments could be long-term points or just recently occurring towards the end of the regular season. We’ll open this third article with the teams finishing third in their respective divisions: the Toronto Maple Leafs, Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues, and Vegas Golden Knights.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS (46-28-8), Atlantic Division
The Toronto Maple Leafs are finally reaping the rewards of their longest rebuild in history, after failing to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs ten out of eleven seasons from 2005 to 2016. From young superstars like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to stoic veterans like Nazem Kadri and John Tavares, the NHL’s oldest franchise looks to produce many successful seasons.
Pro – Lots of Goals
The Maple Leafs were the talk of the league on July 1st last year when they announced Toronto native John Tavares signed a $77 million contract with the Leafs after spending 9 years as a New York Islander. He then proceeded to net a career-high 47 goals and 88 points in his debut season, with a four-goal game to boot.
Tavares isn’t the only sensation on the ice in southern Toronto, either. Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews are lighting up the league in their third year in the NHL, with a combined 167 points. Kasperi Kapanen, Morgan Rielly, and Andreas Johnsson are also having breakout seasons to get on the top scoring list on this lethal roster.
Combine them with the goaltending of Frederik Andersen, who is 36-16-7 with a .917 save percentage, and you have the most dangerous and high-scoring roster the Leafs have seen in over a decade. They prove it on the stat sheet, too: The Maple Leafs are fourth in goals-for with an average 3.49 goals per game.
Con – Lots of Goals…
The Maple Leafs, for all their offensive firepower, have a major issue on the blueline: they don’t have one. The Leafs allow 3.04 goals per game, which ranks 20th in the league. Their penalty kill is 18th, at 79.9%. From February to the end of the season, Toronto had eight games where they allowed 5+ goals from the opposition. In those games, they were 2-4-2. Despite Frederik Andersen being 3rd in the league in wins, he is 25th in GAA with 2.77. And their backup Garrett Sparks? Let’s just say he’s not playing in the playoffs unless absolutely necessary.
Bottom line: The Maple Leafs must find a way to bolster their defensive play. Their first round opponent will be the familiar foe Boston Bruins (cue 2013 and 2018) and a second round likely against Tampa Bay (who scores a lot). With that in mind, the Leafs must understand Freddy Andersen can only stop so much. Hopefully the addition of Jake Muzzin at the deadline will be the patch that they’re looking for.
2. PITTSBURGH PENGUINS (44-26-12), Metropolitan Division
The Pittsburgh Penguins have a shot at their third cup in four years, which is nearly unheard of in this era of the NHL, save for Chicago. The Penguins have been right there with New York and Washington in the Metro standings late in the season, and with Washington clinching the division, the fated second round matchup between the Caps and Pens could happen for the fourth year in a row (it’s worth mentioning that the winner of this series has won the Stanley Cup every year since 2016).
Pro – Production Lines in Steel City
The Penguins have had their fair share of scoring for the past few seasons. With superstar captain Sidney Crosby at the helm, the Penguins have been among the top 10 in Goals-for for four straight seasons and sit with a 3.30 this year. Crosby, in his 14th year with Pittsburgh, had his 6th 100-point season, and is one of seven players on this Pens’ roster with 30+. Despite the astonishing totals Sid the Kid, the leader in goals goes to Jake Guentzel, who finished with a career-high 40 goals in just his third year in the NHL.
While the Pens felt the loss of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury in the Vegas expansion draft, Penguins goaltender Matt Murray’s game has finally begun to reach the elite level needed in the postseason. Murray has posted an impressive 29-14-6 in 2019, with a .919 save percentage. When he hasn’t played well, undrafted goaltender Casey DeSmith has been a reliable backup, with a record of 15-11-5 and .916 percentage.
Con – Penguins on Ice
The Penguins, at the worst possible time, have suffered their own substantial amount of injuries. Since March 10, the Penguins delegated Evgeni Malkin (21-51-72), Kris Letang (16-40-56), Zach Aston-Reece (8-9-17) and Olli Maata (1-13-14) to the IR. While Aston-Reece and Maata have been more for depth production, “Geno” and Letang are core players to the team that have been around Pittsburgh just as long as Crosby. Those players have been vital to the Penguins’ last three Stanley Cups, and they’ll need them again if they are to get anywhere in this year’s postseason.
3. ST. LOUIS BLUES (45-28-9), Central Division
The St. Louis Blues, despite acquiring Ryan O’Reilly at the start of the new season, opened with one of the worst records in hockey. By the turn of the calendar year, they were in dead-last and rumors quickly spread of a massive rebuild. Then, they made franchise history under a new head coach and red-hot rookie goaltender, winning 11 straight games and punching their ticket to the playoffs.
Pro – Don’t Call it a Comeback
The Blues, adding longtime Buffalo Sabre Ryan O’Reilly for draft picks, players and prospects, started with one of the worst records in their history. At the start of the New Year, the Blues were 15-17-4. In response, head coach Mike Yeo was fired and the Blues faced questions on where to go from here.
Then, January 23rd and Jordan Binnington happened.
The Blues went 11-0-0 and set a franchise record for most consecutive wins. In that streak, they shut out Tampa Bay, beat rival Nashville twice, and got themselves into 3rd place in the Central Division. The records didn’t stop there, either: rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington went 24-5-1 and recorded 5 shutouts, the most by any Blues rookie in both categories. He finished with a 1.89 GAA (1st among qualified goaltenders) and a .927 save percentage (4th in the NHL).
Combine that with Vladimir Tarasenko’s resurgence (21-11-32 in his last 34 games) and career-highs in goals, assists, and points for new star forward Ryan O’Reilly, and you have a team streaking at the perfect moment.
Con – Exit Stage Left
The Blues, despite an impressive turnaround, still have some cleaning up to around their own O-Zone and blue line. The defensive exits have proved costly when trying to be too cute with the puck, and most of the time lead to faceoffs in their zones, icings, or goals for the opposition.
Five of the six defensive core are in the top spots for giveaways, and captain Alex Pietrangelo is the only blueliner with a +1 TA/GA rating. While they’ve made up for it with a league-high 46 goals from defensemen, St. Louis needs to clean up their play in their own zone to avoid top scorers making them pay for it. It’s also worth mentioning the Blues had a league-record 14 Too Many Men penalties after Craig Berube took over as interim head coach (thanks to John Hefner for the feedback).
4. VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS (43-32-7), Pacific Division
The Vegas Golden Knights had one of the most unlikely franchise debuts last season, making it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in their first year. The Knights shattered just about everything, from new franchise records to everyone’s expectations as they lit up the Western Conference in the postseason. Now, Sin City looks to trailblaze again after acquiring Mark Stone from the Ottawa Senators. They’ll need all their armor and arsenal, however; they’ll face the hungry San Jose Sharks in the first round, who also lost the Cup Finals two years before them.
Pro – Quiet Riot
The Golden Knights opened their franchise with a 2018 season fitting for their city: explosive and ostentatious. This season, the Knights have been anything but: they’re 13th in goals-for, 10th in goals-against, 25th on the power play and 14th on the penalty kill. The team’s scoring has calmed down significantly, as well. William Karlsson is 24-32-56 after his fluke season last year (yes, it was a fluke) that saw him finishing with 78 points. Forwards Jon Marchessault, Reilly Smith and Alex Tuch are all keeping a steady pace for points; they’ve all got 50+.
While the numbers cooled off, the Knights still held third in the Pacific Division for the majority of the season. They continued to play strong, smart hockey consistently this season, and never let any sort of injury get them down. Don’t forget about former Senator Mark Stone, either: he has five goals and 11 points in his 18 games with Vegas.
From a situational standpoint, the Knights won 11 games after trailing in the opening 20, and they’re 16-21-3 when their opponent scores first. They only allow 29.3 shots per game, good for 5th in the league. They also shoot 34.3 shots per game, good for 2nd. Should this roster be healthy for the postseason, don’t count out the Knights making another deep playoff run as they did last year.
Con – Blue on Black (& Gold)
The Golden Knights caught the injury bug at the worst possible time: the entirety of the season. For Vegas, it seems like every player from sniper to grinder seems to have sat out at some point this season with an injury. Fleury was day-to-day with the season closing. Erik Haula is likely out for the playoffs. In March alone, eight different players suffered injuries and a few are still listed as day-to-day. Down the final stretch, the Knights went 1-5-2 in their last eight games while trying to lick their wounds.
With no one other than Flower really standing out on this roster (35-21-5), the Knights will need all their depth players healthy and contributing to repeat the success of last season. They’ll definitely need Fleury as well; backup Malcolm Subban is 8-10-2 this season with a 2.93 GAA.
From former Cup winners to some brand new faces, don’t count out any of these teams having a successful postseason. The talent and goaltending is all there; it’s up to them now to translate that success in the playoffs. Next up: the wild cards in Colorado, Dallas, Carolina and Columbus will wrap up this playoff picture.
For more local Blues stories, insights and more, visit bluesrants.com!