NHL: Insights on first 17 games of 2024 Stanley Cup playoffs

ByESPN staff ESPN logo
Sunday, April 28, 2024

The 2024 Stanley Cup playoffs have delivered all the requisite thrills that fans have come to expect from the greatest postseason in sports.

But through the first 17 games -- three for Boston Bruins-Toronto Maple Leafs, and two for every other series -- we've also learned some lessons about each club, whether it's new information coming to light or confirmation of our pre-playoff thoughts.

To help sort through all of that new data -- and identify which trends will continue to influence the rest of the first round and beyond -- ESPN reporters Ryan S. Clark, Kristen Shilton and Greg Wyshynski present their takeaways from the first wave of first-round games.

The Rangers' variety of victories

In order to win the Stanley Cup, a team needs to be able to win in a variety of ways. Some nights are tough defensive battles. Some nights are shootouts. Some nights are going to be disjointed, penalty-filled affairs where physicality reigns. What's been impressive about the New York Rangers so far against the Washington Capitals is, well, the range.

Their Game 1 win saw them dominate in 5-on-5 play, which felt like a 60-minute response to analytic skepticism about their even-strength play. Their Game 2 win was a grueling, nasty affair in which the teams both scored twice on the power play but the Rangers' penalty kill -- third best in the league this season -- scored the game-winner.

Eleven different Rangers have notched a point in the first two games, including all three members of their checking line -- Matt Rempe, Jimmy Vesey and Barclay Goodrow -- that could become one of those cult hero trios for a championship team.

"All year it's been that way," coach Peter Laviolette said of his depth. "We've relied on a lot of people. I think it's helpful in the course of the playoffs that when the bump and grind comes into it, and hopefully the longevity of the playoffs, it's good to have it." -- Wyshynski

What's next for the Stars, down 0-2?

How much have the Dallas Stars struggled against the Vegas Golden Knights recently? Game 2's defeat makes six straight losses, and they've also lost nine of their last 11 combined regular-season and playoff games to Vegas.

Last year's Western Conference finals saw the Stars fall into an 0-2 series after two overtime games. They'd fall into a 0-3 hole before winning two games to force Game 6, then suffering a season-ending loss to the Golden Knights.

They face another 0-2 deficit, and must figure out how to recover quickly against the defending Stanley Cup champions. Stars coach Peter DeBoer said after the Game 2 loss that he felt like the Golden Knights carried the play last season, whereas he believes both teams now "are a lot more evenly matched."

This season saw the Stars finish tied for a league-high 26 road wins. Stars forward Tyler Seguin said the goal is to now parlay that success on the road into something that could help them climb back into the series.

"I don't know if you can be too physical in playoffs, but maybe we're almost being frustrated by last year by knowing how good of a team we are," Seguin said, while referencing how the Stars finished with 53 hits. "Especially 5-on-5. We'll take a day tomorrow and reset and get excited for this challenge ahead of us." -- Clark

Playoff Bob's save of the year

Sergei Bobrovsky is an accomplished regular-season goalie, with two Vezina Trophies to his credit and great stats this season for the Florida Panthers (36-17-4, .915 save percentage, six shutouts). But in the postseason, he becomes Playoff Bob. And Playoff Bob can do magical things.

Against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 2, Bobrovsky made one of the most remarkable saves of this or any postseason: Robbing Matt Dumba with his back facing the Lightning defenseman, his left arm extended to allow the puck to bounce off his forearm and keep the game tied. The Panthers would eventually win in overtime to take a 2-0 series lead, with Playoff Bob making 21 saves.

"It was desperation, I tried to throw as much body as possible and was able to make the save," he said.

It was the kind of save that instantly goes viral. The kind of save that's already inspired a T-shirt featuring Bobrovsky stretching across the crease with the words "The Bobbery" above it. The kind of save that coach Paul Maurice believed could inspire young fans in South Florida to take up the crease.

"There's probably a number of kids in the driveway this weekend, they all want to play goal for the first time, right? For me, that's how it happens. They see something kind of magical, and they all go and try it," he said.

The Lightning have their hands full with their state rivals for a lot of reasons, and one of them is Playoff Bob, who is second in the postseason with a 1.95 goals-against average, playing behind the Panthers' league-best team defense. -- Wyshynski

The curious case of William Nylander

There's been no official word on what ails William Nylander. But there's no doubt his absence is having an effect on the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Leafs' winger tends to come alive in the postseason, with consistent production (he's tallied 40 points in 50 playoff games to date) and Toronto's usually potent offensive attack has been dulled without Nylander in the mix. Credit to Boston there too, of course; the Bruins have been stingy offering up scoring opportunities.

And then there's a trickle-down effect through the rest of Toronto's top nine without Nylander available, from slotting rookie Matthew Knies onto the second line to keeping Nick Robertson -- a healthy scratch on a number of occasions during the season -- on the third line. Their lack of experience doesn't give Toronto the same obvious advantage having Nylander on the ice would offer (although Knies did score Toronto's opening marker in Game 3, off a pretty pass from Mitch Marner).

Plus, the Leafs' listless power play would benefit from a Nylander boost -- Toronto entered Game 3 having gone 1-6 with the extra man, and the Leafs immediately added to their own disappointment with five scoreless power plays in Wednesday's outing. Timothy Liljegren is no replacement there for what Nylander does. The Leafs need their 40-goal scorer back, badly. -- Shilton

Was the Avs' performance in Game 2 a breakthrough or a blip?

A first-period deficit overcome. A second period in which the Colorado Avalanche scored four goals from four different players. A solid performance from Alexandar Georgiev, stopping 28 of the 30 shots he faced just days after he allowed seven goals in a Game 1 loss.

All of that led to a 5-2 Avs win, tying their series against the Winnipeg Jets. Could those trends play a role in the Avs reversing their fortunes against a Jets team that's given them significant problems throughout the season?

Part of the narrative entering this series was how the Jets were 3-0 against the Avs in the regular season, outscoring them by a 17-4 margin. That includes a 7-0 loss back on April 13, an acute cause for concern in Colorado.

That's what made Game 1 so fascinating. On one hand, the Avs scored more goals in one game against the Jets than they did in three games in the regular season. On the other hand, the Jets scored seven goals for a second straight game against Colorado.

So does Game 2 mean the Avs have found an answer -- or are at least closer to finding an answer against the Jets? Or was Game 2 an outlier against a Jets team that might strike back with an offensive outburst in Game 3? -- Clark

The Lightning's depth is due to shine

If there's one thing that's helped drive the Tampa Bay Lightning's success in recent seasons, it's depth. The Lightning have prioritized adding players at the deadline who enhance -- and complement -- their core stars, and GM Julien BriseBois did that again grabbing Anthony Duclair and Matt Dumba in March.

But Tampa Bay isn't repeating the rewards of a deep roster yet in their series against the Florida Panthers ... yet. The Lightning are in an 0-2 hole after scoring only four goals (and only two at 5-on-5) through two games -- a pair from Steven Stamkos, one from Brandon Hagel and another from Brayden Point.

The Lightning have looked top-heavy, and that's not necessarily a recipe for success when the Panthers have three lines that can do damage (and Florida has already shown a killer instinct when it comes to scoring timely goals).

Now, if it weren't for The Save by Sergei Bobrovsky on Dumba in Game 2, this could be an entirely different conversation. But as it is the Lightning will be desperate for offense going into Game 3 of a series where they have yet to hold a lead. That in itself is a tough pill to swallow. -- Shilton

Oilers keep faith in Stuart Skinner

Edmonton Oilers goalie Stuart Skinner and Los Angeles Kings goalie Cam Talbot were both not very good in Game 2. But Talbot made a few key saves in the Kings' win, including a breakaway stop on Ryan McLeod and two huge saves on Leon Draisaitl on a late second-period power play, while Skinner did not.

"They're getting some good puck luck right now. And the puck luck wasn't on my side tonight," Skinner said after the 5-4 overtime loss on Wednesday night. "Every shot that they take seemed to go off a guy's stick or a guy's skate."

No one expects Skinner to dominate in the postseason. He had an .883 save percentage and a 3.68 goals-against average in 12 starts last postseason. He's the classic "you don't have to win us a series, but you can't lose us a series" goaltender behind a strong contending team.

Through two games against Los Angeles, he has an .857 save percentage, having given up nine goals on 63 shots. Both games had their share of funky deflections and defensive breakdowns in front of Skinner, but Game 2 was close to that "don't lose us the series" concern.

"Any time he's had an off game, he's been able to play very well for us," Oilers coach Kris Knoblauch said.

The coach noted a game back in Dec. 2023 when Skinner gave up five goals on 22 shots to the Lightning. He would go on to win 12 of his next 13 games, giving up only one goal in six of those victories.

After the Kings tied the series 1-1 on Anze Kopitar's overtime goal, Skinner sounded like someone confident that he can rebound for the Oilers.

"Games like this, where you feel like the universe is against you and the puck's not working well for you, it's part of life. It's part of playoffs too. I'm sure I'll feel this again at some point," he said. "The takeaway from tonight is to just wash it out. I know my game and I know who I am." -- Wyshynski

The Predators' new playoff identity

Blocking 30 shots in their series-tying 4-1 win Tuesday against the Vancouver Canucks is just the latest example of the defensive identity the Nashville Predators have established during Andrew Brunette's first season in charge.

His time as the interim coach of the Panthers and as an assistant with the New Jersey Devils saw those teams score goals at a furious rate with Brunette behind the bench. While the Preds finished 10th in goals per game this season (3.24), there was also an emphasis on defense that Brunette preached throughout the season. The message he relayed to the Predators' players was to operate as a five-player unit that could eventually thrive in situations that saw them play without the puck.

Game 2 might have been the strongest example of how the Preds found success without needing the puck. Natural Stat Trick's metrics show the Canucks had a 74.42 shot share percentage, which meant they controlled the puck for nearly three-fourths of the game but struggled to score due in part to the Preds blocking 30 shots.

Getting in the way of all of those shots allowed them to create less work for Juuse Saros, who saved 17 of the 18 that got through. It's also the first time all season that Saros finished a game with fewer than 20 saves that didn't involve him getting pulled. -- Clark

Have the Islanders learned their lesson?

There are some positives the New York Islanders can take from their two games against the Carolina Hurricanes. They played the Canes evenly through two periods in Game 1. They built a 3-0 lead in the first 23:54 of Game 2. But they lost both games in the third period -- and in an extremely painful manner in that Game 2 loss, as the Hurricanes scored the game-tying and winning goals just nine seconds apart.

"This one's long from over, but right now, this one hurts the gut," Islanders captain Anders Lee said after the 5-3 loss in Raleigh in Game 2. Coach Patrick Roy said the team stopped winning one-on-one battles. Defenseman Noah Dobson said the Islanders tried to sit on a lead rather than continue pushing. That manifested in a 110-to-28 shot attempt advantage for Carolina in the game.

So it becomes gut-check time for the Islanders in Game 3 on Thursday night. They'll swap out goalie Semyon Varlamov in favor of Ilya Sorokin. They'll try to feed off their home fans like Carolina did theirs. And as star forward Mathew Barzal said a few times on Wednesday, they'll try and stay in the right mindset for a rally.

"We were pissed off. There's no hiding that. There wasn't a ton of smiles after that," Barzal said. "But this is the playoffs. We're in good spirits here, regardless of the [series] score. We have a chance now at an epic comeback." -- Wyshynski

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