- Emily Kaplan is ESPN’s national NHL reporter.
The second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs is underway after a memorable — and frankly, wild — first two weeks. I’ve spent that time traversing the East Coast, spending hours at the rinks having conversations with players, coaches, front office executives and people around the game. Here’s some info I’ve gleaned:
• The Toronto Maple Leafs-Florida Panthers series will pit the two most electric American players against each other: Auston Matthews and Matthew Tkachuk. And they’re seemingly at full strength, which wasn’t the case all season. Matthews’ production dipped following his 2021-22 MVP campaign, but a large part of that was because of a hand injury he nursed and played through earlier in the season.
When I asked Sheldon Keefe about it last round, the Leafs coach admitted his star center had some discomfort in his wrist and hand, but said he also thought it put a mental block on Matthews. Once it healed, the coaching staff noticed Matthews’ skating became freer and faster. Entering the playoffs, Keefe said Matthews “looks like a guy who is ramping up, and perhaps knows that it was worth saving himself for now, which is the most important time for our team.”
There’s no doubt Tkachuk was getting under the skin of Bruins players in the first round — heck, goalie Linus Ullmark, who was on my ballot for the Lady Byng, almost got into a fight with him. But Tkachuk proved this season he is most effective when he dials it back. In his first 34 games with the Panthers, Tkachuk had 17 minor penalties (59 penalty minutes). As the team made its big push after the All-Star break, especially from March on, Tkachuk was dialed in. Over the past five weeks of the season, Tkachuk had just six penalties while scoring 28 points in 18 games.
Tkachuk has been everything the Panthers anticipated in terms of skill and physicality, and he’s provided an emotional boost to the room. Coach Paul Maurice and general manager Bill Zito both made a point to say how good of a teammate Tkachuk is. It’s the little things: If he’s walking across the room for a Gatorade, he’ll ask if he can get anyone else one. He holds doors open. He thanks the flight attendants. Tkachuk was the perfect player at the perfect time for Florida, as the team reshaped its identity from playground hockey to a new commitment to competitiveness and structure.
• The playoffs so far have been all about the upsets. From a TV ratings perspective the big markets — New York, Boston, Los Angeles — plus the defending champion Colorado Avalanche being eliminated isn’t ideal. However, it’s also a celebration of the smaller markets that have been quietly building up their fan bases.
The Canes’ organic growth has been noted for a few years, and this season they set a record with 33 regular-season sellouts. GM Don Waddell told me ahead of Game 5 he spent all morning on the phone apologizing to people because he didn’t have access to tickets. Meanwhile, Devils fans are celebrating their team’s rebuild being over. New Jersey set revenue records in ticketing, sponsorship, groups, entertainment and food and beverage. The Devils have a 99% retention rate on season tickets and have already sold 1,500-plus season tickets for next year, which is more than they sold all of last season. For context, 1,500 new season tickets would have been good for the seventh most in the NHL last season.
• It’s been a devastating season on the injury front for Carolina, which has continued to find a way to win despite its depth slowly being depleted. Max Pacioretty (Achilles) and Andrei Svechnikov (ACL) are not options this postseason. But Teuvo Teravainen might be. The veteran forward underwent surgery on a broken left hand suffered in Game 2 of the first round. Doctors told the team it requires a minimum four-week recovery. The team doesn’t want to put pressure on Teravainen, knowing all athletes heal differently and a variety of factors impact recovery. But by that timeline, he could return as soon as the conference finals, should the Canes advance.
• Will we see Luke Hughes in these playoffs? The No. 4 pick of the 2021 draft, who joined New Jersey late last month after his collegiate season in Michigan ended, has been putting in work with the Devils coaches and development staff. Hughes played only two games at the end of the regular season. The organization viewed the first game as just OK. The second was much better, but it was a different intensity level, against a team (Washington) that already had packed it in for the season. Jack Hughes’ little brother is viewed as a depth option this postseason, with New Jersey keeping an eye on the bigger picture and the impact he’ll make for the organization in the coming years.
At this point, the Devils believe the younger Hughes could get into a playoff game and fare well enough defensively and make a positive impact offensively. However, it would be unfair to thrust him into certain situations. He wasn’t going to start on the road at Madison Square Garden. He wasn’t going to be put into a Game 5 or Game 7. The biggest roadblock for Hughes is that someone would have to sit to make a spot available for him. The organization feels deference to the players who have been there all season.
• The Boston Bruins’ first-round exit is still unexplainable. Fans have scrutinized Jim Montgomery’s line changes — and lineup changes — during the Panthers series. Even the coach himself admitted he would have done some things differently, such as starting Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand together for Game 5. However, earlier in the series, he revealed why he shuffled his lines so often. “The reason I do it is because if we get to a third period of a Game 6 or a Game 7, the players are not thinking I’m panicking,” Montgomery said. “It’s just, I think it might give us an edge.”
• The New York Rangers’ moves this season backfired, and there will be fallout this summer. Coach Gerard Gallant is expected to be the fall guy, but a roster reshape is likely as well. It was especially hard to watch Patrick Kane, who so desperately wanted to make an impact after willing the trade out of Chicago once he found out the Blackhawks didn’t have interest in re-signing him.
Kane was available to members of the media nearly every day, sitting at his stall, fielding questions from a scrum of reporters, no matter how uncomfortable. Even though Kane downplayed his hip injury, people in Chicago told me how much treatment and prep he required just to get on the ice. I texted with a few of his former teammates during the playoffs, and one said it best: “That’s not Showtime out there. Don’t recognize him.” An offseason of rest — and potentially surgery — should help Kane regain his form, and he’ll be one of the more interesting free agency cases this summer.
• One of the coolest things I’ve noticed being at rinks is how supportive goalies have been to their partners, even after losing the starting job. When Alex Lyon started the series in Boston, Sergei Bobrovsky was the most animated player on Florida’s bench anytime Lyon had a big stop, standing up and banging on the boards. New Jersey’s Vitek Vanecek is often waiting for Akira Schmid when he gets off the ice, with the hugest smile before he gives him a hug. And we all saw how Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman supported each other in Boston throughout the season.
• The future of Patric Hornqvist in the NHL is unknown after the 36-year-old Florida winger was shut down in December due to concussions. However, he’s still making an impact on the Panthers. Hornqvist is on the ice early before practices, warming up the goalies — I hear he has been especially helpful with Lyon since his call-up. He then assists running the skaters for the extras. It would be easy for Hornqvist, at this point in his career to just take it easy. But when he’s on the ice, he’s really pushing the players, yelling, trying to light a fire under them — the exact same way he played.
• The Taylor Hall trade to Arizona in 2019 became extremely fruitful for the Devils. It landed them a draft pick they used on Dawson Mercer, a draft pick they used to acquire Jonas Siegenthaler, and Kevin Bahl. Coach Lindy Ruff said when he first inherited Bahl, he would have been on the lower end of a scale from 1 to 10. Bahl is 6-foot-6 and has offensive touch, handles and moves the puck well, and has quick feet. But the Devils believe he’s scratching the surface because now is he playing to his size. The physicality he has added to his game is a result of extra sessions with assistant coach Ryan McGill. As someone in the organization said to me: “Nobody wants to fight a 6-foot-8 guy.” If the Devils move on from Ryan Graves this summer, Bahl is set as their in-house replacement.
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