The second round of the NHL playoffs are about to begin – and many teams expected to be there will not be.
The No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, record-breaking Tampa Bay, was unceremoniously dumped – swept, actually – by Columbus, a team that made the playoffs in the final days of the regular season.
Calgary, the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed, will be home watching the second round, as will Central Division-winning Nashville.
Legitimate Stanley Cup contenders Winnipeg and Pittsburgh are done for the season, too, contributing to a thoroughly unpredictable first round.
“Making the playoffs in this league is never easy,” Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler said. “You can’t take that for granted. It’s a hard trophy to win.
“You don’t just decide you want to win the Stanley Cup and it’s easy from there, that every year you’re going to have a chance at it.”
With defending Stanley Cup champion Washington playing in a Game 7 Wednesday night against Carolina to decide that series, it’s possible all four division winners could be eliminated in the first round.
What would be left is four wild-card teams that have been playing intense hockey for weeks just trying to get into the playoffs, some red-hot goaltenders, and elite difference-makers (Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon) who even the playing field.
Here’s a look at the two series beginning Thursday night:
(2) Boston vs. (4) Columbus
Records: Boston 49-24-9 (107 points); Columbus 47-31-4 (98 points).
First round: Boston beat Toronto in seven games; Columbus beat Tampa Bay in four games.
Season series: Boston won 2-1-0.
Storylines: Nobody expected Columbus to be here, but the Blue Jackets swept powerhouse Tampa in one of the NHL’s greatest upsets. Now the Blue Jackets are considered the most dangerous team remaining. The Bruins eliminated Toronto for the second consecutive year in a seventh game Tuesday – and now open the second round 48 hours later. Columbus has been off since April 16. Is rest better than to having kept playing?
Key player: Columbus G Sergei Bobrovsky had a 2.01 goals-against average and .932 save percentage while frustrating Tampa. If Bobrovsky continues his stellar play, the Jackets will be tough to beat. Bobrovsky against Boston's Tuukka Rask provides an intriguing matchup of two goalies capable of going on extended dominant stretches.
Prediction: Boston in 6.
(3) St. Louis vs. (4) Dallas
Records: St. Louis 45-28-9 (99 points); Dallas 43-32-7 (93 points).
First round: St. Louis beat Winnipeg in six games; Dallas beat Nashville in six games.
Season series: Dallas won 3-1-0.
Storylines: Both teams pulled off upsets, eliminating higher seeds in the first round. Both teams are relying on deep lineups, getting contributions from several lines. Which hot goaltender will continue carrying his team? Dallas’ Ben Bishop (1.90 GAA, 9.45 SVS) and St. Louis’ Jordan Binnington (2.63, .908 SVS) have been superb late in the season, with Bishop particularly strong in the first round. Binnington made timely saves with the series tied 2-2.
Key player: Dallas C Tyler Seguin had six points (two goals) in six games against Nashville and was a threat in every game. Seguin, LW Jamie Benn and RW Alex Radulov were three of the more impressive offensive players in Round 1.
Prediction: St. Louis in 7.