Blake’s Takes: The Playoffs Are Set

Sunday night marked the end of the Qualifying round and the beginning of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The most important takeaway of that sentence is that the NHL has succeeded in building a bubble to protect players and staff from COVID-19. Because of that, the odds that a Stanley Cup champion will be crowned in 2020 look higher than ever.

The Qualifying Round was exciting and upsets were plentiful. In this week’s column, I’ll revisit some of the most notable matchups of the Qualifying Round and a few other interesting tidbits from the last week.

Keep staying safe everyone.

1. Blue Jackets Edge Maple Leafs

Perhaps the best series of the Qualifying Round was the Columbus Blue Jackets versus the Toronto Maple Leafs. As usual, the eight-seeded Maple Leafs were the favorite over the ninth-seeded Blue Jackets. Like last year, the Blue Jackets played the underdog role and knocked off the big, bad Tampa Bay Lightning.

This series was a whirlwind. Columbus used both of their talented, young goalies throughout the series to mixed results. Both teams went on crazy goal-scoring runs that captivated audiences. None perhaps more notable than the Leafs season-saving run in game four. Down 3-0 late in the third period, the Leafs scored three straight goals with their goalie pulled to push the game to OT. Auston Matthews scored the OT winner, forcing the series to five games.

The Leafs would not have the same luck in game five. Columbus jumped out to an early lead thanks to a Zach Werenski shot from the blue-line. The Leafs looked flat in the first period and went to the locker room down 1-0. However, they came out with guns blazing in the second period but could not beat Joonas Korpisalo. John Tavares missed a few chances from point-blank range that surely would have tied the game.

The third period was more of the same until rookie Liam Foudy took a dump-in pass from Gustav Nyquist. The Leafs went for a change and left Foudy one-on-one with Martin Marincin. Foudy beat Marincin and goalie Frederik Andersen from a tough angle, pushing the dagger further into the heart of the Maple Leafs.

The Leafs couldn’t muster the same magic in game five as they could in game four and Columbus advances to face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs. They have Korpisalo to thank for that. He stopped 33 shots for the shutout. He was ultimately the difference in this game and was the best player on the ice. He earned the right to be Columbus’ starting goalie for the rest of the playoffs. If he keeps playing like this it may be the Jackets can upset the Lightning for the second year in a row.

I know the Leafs had a rough first part of the season and had to play their way back into the playoffs. But a team with this much expensive talent shouldn’t have this tough of a time making it to or out of the first round. Brendan Shanahan has to take a long, hard look in the mirror this offseason and figure out what the hell he plans to do to get this team to the promised land. A team with Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Morgan Reilly, and others should be playing deep into the playoffs.

As much as I did want to see the Leafs advance, I’m happy for Columbus. They played their asses off and the city deserves to root for a winner. Hopefully, they give Tampa another run for their money and allow the rest of us to forget about Coronavirus and just watch some playoff hockey.

2. Blackhawks Upset Oilers 

The Maple Leafs weren’t the only other uber-talented team to get upset in the Qualifying Round. Connor McDavid and company also fell 3-1 against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Side note, it’s very odd to root against the home team when you live in that city. I was walking around Chicago (safely) during game four and passed a few bars. I saw Blackhawks fans celebrating the win and I was upset. It’s an odd feeling.

Nevertheless, this is a shameful loss for Edmonton for a few reasons.

First, they were playing on their home ice, just like the Leafs. Yes, there are no fans in the crowd and they didn’t get to sleep in their own beds. But, it’s still worth noting.

Second, unlike the Leafs, they were the fifth seed — the highest seed to not secure a spot in the seeding games. So, they lost to the worst team that qualified for the postseason. The Penguins had the same fate, so the Oilers can feel a bit better.

Third, they have the two best players on planet Earth right now, McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Draisaitl will most likely win the Hart Trophy and McDavid had another tremendous season. They shouldn’t be losing to bad teams like Chicago with those two guys. Yes, the Blackhawks still have great talent like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. But, they’re not nearly as deep as Edmonton.

You still have to give props to Chicago because they beat Edmonton. There’s no doubt about that. It just shouldn’t have happened. We’ll have to wait another year to see if McDavid and Draisaitl can make a run in the playoffs.

3. General Qualifying Round Thoughts

The Qualifying Round was undoubtedly successful. The NHL announced that after their last round of tests, no player had tested positive for COVID-19. That’s a win in itself. Beyond that, we made it through the Qualifying Round with no COVID-related issues and the playoffs will begin tomorrow. This is a massive victory for the NHL and they should be damn proud of themselves.

Here are a few other things I took away from the Qualifying Round and hockey post-COVID-19:

Fake Crowd Noise is Weird

After watching a bunch of English Premier League games over the last month or so, I was a fan of fake crowd noise. I heard stadiums or NBC  used sounds from the FIFA video games. (I’m not sure if the crowd noise was in the stadiums or just included in the broadcast.) I play a ton of FIFA so I’m very used to those sounds. The crowd noise was very natural and made the broadcast feel normal.

The fake crowd noise for the NHL games was much different. It sounded very out of place and fake. During EPL matches, the crowd noise blended into the broadcast and didn’t take anything away. It wasn’t the same for hockey. It’s not something the NHL should do away with, but it is something they should work to improve for the rest of the playoffs.

Good Hockey

Before you say anything, I know there were a ton of upsets that would not have happened if not for the suspension in play. But, the hockey was great. It did not look like the players were sluggish or out of shape. That was the aspect of the restart I was most worried about. All the games were competitive and entertaining. I give props to the players for staying in shape over quarantine and being ready to play come August.

Hat Tricks

This was awesome. During the Oilers vs. Blackhawks series, McDavid scored a hat-trick. Obviously, when a player scores a hat-trick, fans throw their hats onto the ice after the third goal. With no fans, this didn’t seem like a possibility.

The NHL arena staff made sure it would happen..

I was watching this game live when I saw this woman run down the steps and start throwing Oilers hats onto the ice. This was awesome and I commend the NHL and this woman for doing the little things. If anything, it got NHL Twitter firing on all cylinders.

4. Stars and Golden Knights Players Take a Knee

The last few months have been an emotional roller coaster for everyone. Many of those emotions were the results of the senseless murder of George Floyd in Minnesota. That incident supercharged the conversation in regard to race across the world. The hockey community was affected by it, too.

One of those topics of discussion was ex-NFL QB Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem. Last week, members of the Las Vegas Golden Knights and Dallas Stars knelt during the national anthem, becoming the first NHL players to kneel, along with Minnesota’s Matt Dumba. Dumba is a member of the Hockey Diversity Alliance and gave a speech about race during one of the first Qualifying Round Games. The players that kneeled were: Ryan Reaves, Robin Lehner, Jason Dickinson, and Tyler Seguin.

There are a couple of things I took away from these players kneeling.

First, the Vegas players asked for permission from their coach, GM, and President before kneeling according to this article in The Athletic. Many might say they shouldn’t have to ask. While I agree, this is a huge step in the right direction because it means that a bunch of old, white men empowered their players to express themselves and speak up against racism. Over the last few months, we’ve heard a lot about how the hockey community has not done enough to prevent racism at all levels. Also, the NHL is made up of predominately white players and front office members. So, seeing three major, white decision-makers empower their players to kneel is a big step in the right direction.

Second, players on each team collaborated with each other when deciding on their decision to kneel. This is important because it shows everyone that these issues are bigger than the game. Preventing and combating racism is more important than what happens on the ice.

Lastly, Seguin was one of the players who decided to take a knee. Seguin is one of the best and most well-known players in the NHL. If he is going to kneel during the national anthem, it’s going to make headlines. It also might empower other players to do so. Just like in the NBA, when LeBron James does something, it paves the way for other players to follow. Hopefully, players follow in Seguin’s footsteps and do the same.

5. Matthews Claps Back at Reporter

One of the most interesting bits of the last week was a press conference featuring Auston Matthews.

Matthews was upset over this article Simmons wrote for the Toronto Sun. In the article, Simmons breaks the news that Matthews had tested positive for COVID-19. Of all the players that tested positive for the virus, Matthews was the only player publicly identified when Simmons broke the news.

I’m not sure what the rules are on reporters breaking news regarding players’ health when it’s not something a team wouldn’t announce themselves, but it doesn’t sit right with me. I’m happy Matthews called out Simmons. It only makes me like him more. He’s going to be the face of the NHL because he commands attention with his personality on and off the ice. He also has the game to match.

It’s unfortunate Matthews was identified by Simmons and its unfortunate we won’t be able to see him suit up again until next season. I would have loved to see Simmons continue trying to ask Matthews questions for the remainder of the season. ■

Blake Isaacs is a die-hard Red Wings fan that doesn’t go to as many games as he should. He is also a big fan of 7-Eleven Slurpeees, Chipotle, and all things Michigan State. Follow him on Twitter @bisaacs1995.

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