Blues Rants’ Super 16: Part 4

While no team seeded 13-16 has ever won the Stanley Cup in its current format, captains of the four wild card teams, including Justin Williams of the Carolina Hurricanes, Nick Foligno of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars, and Gabriel Landeskog of the Colorado Avalanche will try to prevent prophecy from becoming history.

As any sports fan could tell you, there’s nothing quite like the playoffs.

The 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs will kick off on April 10th and millions of avid hockey fanatics 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 final segment 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 close this assessment with the four wild card teams: The Carolina Hurricanes, the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Dallas Stars, and the Colorado Avalanche.

1. CAROLINA HURRICANES (45-29-7), METROPOLITAN DIVISION

The Carolina Hurricanes officially ended the longest current NHL playoff drought in game no. 80: for the first time in ten seasons, the 2006 Stanley Cup Champions are headed back to the postseason. With one of the best rosters the club has seen, including young superstar Sebastian Aho, the ‘Canes have a definite shot of going far in their first appearance in the playoffs in ten years.

Pro – The Storm Surge

The storyline for the Hurricanes this season (one of them, anyway) has been the both popular and controversial “Storm Surge”. The home game victories would be celebrated by a unique team performance, be it a baseball game on ice, an adaptation of “Duck Hunt”, or a simple game of Duck, Duck, Goose. While some fans and analysts aren’t the biggest endorsers of the postgame celebrations (what a “Bunch of Jerks”), it’s gotten both local and national attention, which is a plus for Carolina and their 4th-worst attendance rate in the league.

However, this isn’t the only surge we’re talking about. The Hurricanes are 1st in the league in shots taken, and 3rd in shot attempts this season. Over the last ten years (when they weren’t in the playoffs) the ‘Canes have been 2nd in the league in both those stats as well. Maybe the goals aren’t all going in, but they’re at least staying out: The Hurricanes are 6th in goals against and 8th on the penalty kill.

Finally, we look to the superstars. Sebastian Aho leads the team in goals and points with 30-53-83 in just his third season. The Rauma, Finland native has almost 200 career points before the age of 22. Let’s not forget the efforts of Brett Pesce and Teuvo Teravainen, who are 4th and 9th in the league in plus/minus, respectively. Don’t forget their captain, three-time Cup winner Justin Williams: they don’t call him “Mr. Game Seven” for nothing.

Con – “The Guy”?

While the defense has been stellar for Carolina, the goaltending in round one against Washington will be the big X-factor. Petr Mrazek has had his moments of brilliance this season, finishing with a 23-14-3 and a .914 save percentage. However, the key word there is “moments”. After Washington’s Cup run last year, one thing became clear: Brayden Holtby is the Guy for the Caps. Ovechkin can score like a machine as he has for 14 years straight, but the goaltending of Holtby last year was what put them over the top (you all remember “The Save”, right?).

While backup Curtis McElhinney was a big contribution to the ‘Canes making the postseason with a 20-11-2 record, backups are used very rarely in the playoffs. That said, if you flip a coin on who starts and end up 0-2, your chances of playoff contention fall very flat. It is up, then, to Mrazek to find the fifth gear between the pipes to keep his squad above water in a powerhouse Eastern Conference.

2. COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS (46-31-4), METROPOLITAN DIVISION

The Blue Jackets have been slowly, but surely, rebuilding their young franchise. Since their addition in 2000, Columbus’ closest taste to playoff success came in 2009 after losing in the second round. However, with the electric John Tortorella commanding a high-powered roster, the Blue Jackets have qualified for the third straight season and look to take on anyone to bring the Cup to Ohio.

Pro – “The All-In”

Anyone remember the ’94 Rangers? They hired the explosive coach Mike Keenan and grabbed four-time Cup Champion Mark Messier, Adam Graves, and several other former Oilers. They traded Tony Amonte for Brian Noonan and Stephane Matteau (who scored the game 7 overtime winner in the Conference Final) and rallied all the way to a magical Stanley Cup run. Now, in Columbus, Ohio, we may be seeing the exact same thing.

Artemi Panarin (their top scorer at 28-59-87) and Sergei Bobrovsky (2x Vezina winner with Columbus) have both explicitly stated they don’t want to be in Columbus any more. The Blueshirts had already lost three of their seven picks in the 2019 NHL draft. Their cap hit was running high at nearly $76 million and they were on the precipice of missing the postseason. What do they do? Go for broke, just like the ’94 Rangers did, for one powerhouse Stanley Cup run, with a coach just crazy enough to get his team fired up.

The Blue Jackets got Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel from Ottawa for their first-round picks in 2019 and 2020, second-round picks in 2020 and 2021, and three players. Duchene and Dzingel alone combined for 57 goals and 126 points this season. That now leads to six players on Columbus’ active roster with 25+ goals and eleven with 30+ points. With a teeth-chattering finish to the regular season, Columbus clinched their spot after game no. 81. Now lies what is (or should be) the biggest four to seven games in their franchise history: Round 1 against Tampa Bay.

Con – Round 1, FIGHT

As just mentioned, the Blue Jackets got into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth. Securing the final wild card berth seeded at no. 8, they’ll play no. 1 in the Eastern Conference: The merciless Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning had top spots in the league for just about everything: Goals For, wins (which tied an NHL record at 62), top point scorer, two individual Trophy winners, and a goaltender with the most wins in the league.

Of course, as the cliché goes, “your best players have to be your best players”. However, if Columbus is to stand a chance against the most dominant team this season, they’ll need all hands on deck. Players like David Savard (3-7-10 in his last 10) or captain Nick Foligno will need to buy into their roster and coach in order to beat the odds.

3. DALLAS STARS (42-32-7), CENTRAL DIVISION

After missing a step the last two seasons finishing almost dead-last, the Dallas Stars look to shine bright again in Texas. With their seasoned veterans training their rookie draft picks from last year and this year, the Stars also found their strength with Ben Bishop returning to fine form again.

Pro – Big Ben(n)

Ben Bishop has quietly been one of the league’s best goaltenders this season. Going 27-15-2 this season, he posted a whopping career-best (and league-best) .934 save percentage. He’s a big part of why the Stars are second in Goals-Against and fifth on the penalty kill this season.

He’s not the only reason the Stars got to the playoffs, either: Stars CEO Jim Lites publicly ripped his superstars Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn (33-47-80 and 27-26-53, respectively) for not playing up to standards when they sat at 19-16-3. It clearly struck a nerve: Benn, Big Ben, and the Stars went 24-16-4 after those comments and earned themselves the first wild card spot.

Con – Texas Drought

While the defense and goaltending has returned to the Lone Star State, one thing has not: Scoring. The Stars are 3rd-last in the league in goals-for at 2.55 goals per game. Only three players have more than 15 goals this season: Benn, Seguin and Alexander Radulov. Only eight players who have played 20+ games have a positive plus/minus rating. While rookie Miro Heiskanen had a decent introductory season as a defenseman with 12-21-33, the Stars will need more from anyone who’s not on the top line to go far in the playoffs.

4. COLORADO AVALANCHE (38-29-14), CENTRAL DIVISION

The Colorado Avalanche were down to the wire yet again after clinching playoffs in the final game of 2018 against the St. Louis Blues. This year, game no. 81 was the clincher in an overtime victory in the Mile-High City as Erik Johnson punched their ticket against the Jets. Now, the Avs head to a red-hot Calgary Flames for round one, with a former Cup champion behind the pipes.

Pro – Grubauer’s Resurgence

After losing his starting spot in Washington’s run to the Cup Final last year, the German goaltender Philipp Grubauer brought his game back to peak levels late in the season. Down the final stretch, Grubauer went 7-0-2 in his final nine starts, winning six straight. His final record was a 18-9-5 with that streak and propelled the Avalanche into the final playoff spot in the West.

The top scorers for Colorado are in fine form and ready for the postseason as well. Captain Gabriel Landeskog is having a career year in his 8th year in Colorado, scoring 34 goals and 75 points. Finnish native Mikko Rantanen had a career-best as well, scoring 31 goals and 87 points in his fourth season. Finally, 2013’s first overall pick Nathan Mackinnon came just one short of joining the six players with a 100-point season, with a career-high 41-58-99.

Con – Depth Perception

With the top line being scoring machines for the Avs, the depth scoring from the bottom 9 has been lacking. Carl Soderberg is the only player not on the top line with over twenty goals on the Avalanche roster. When any of their top line was on the ice, Colorado scored 80 goals this season. Without them, they scored 76. Only one player aside from the top line had 50+ points this season, defenseman Tyson Barrie.

When comparing them to their first-round opponent Calgary Flames, 11 players on the Flames’ roster have 30+ points to the Avs’ seven. Defensively, the Flames clearly outmatch the Avalanche. Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie have a +39 and +29, respectively, for some of the highest plus/minus ratings among defensemen in the league. Colorado’s highest plus/minus by any player is only a +20. The Avalanche’s depth will need to contribute in the postseason if they wish to make their first Stanley Cup since 2001.

While the wild cards of the playoffs aren’t the odds-on favorite, the teams will use their successful playoff races to fuel their postseason goals. From superstar captains to hot goaltenders, the wild cards will give it their all in the playoffs regardless of standings. Tune in to the round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs on April 10th to follow all 16 teams in their Quest for the Cup!

For more local Blues stories, insights and more, visit bluesrants.com!

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