The playoffs are all about losing. Every year, 16 teams enter and 15 leave with their heads down, defeated and discarded. It's the cruel reality of the most unforgiving time of year.
But all losses are not created equal—some are far worse than others. And all teams aren't created equal. Some seem to take those bad losses a lot more often than the odds say they should. This year's opening round featured three of those teams in the Sharks, Capitals and Blues. All three have earned reputations for coming up small in big moments. All three saw the first round set them up to do it again, which, of course, also meant they had a chance to strike a blow against their demons.
The first team to stare down its past was San Jose, which finished off the Kings on Friday to become the first Western Conference team to punch a ticket to the second round. That doesn't exactly erase a reputation built over a decade-plus of postseason disappointment—remember, the Sharks had already been past the first round nine times since 2000, and that didn't stop anyone from deciding that they'd never gone far enough. But getting that win against Los Angeles certainly sends a message, and offers at least a small measure of payback for the epic 2014 collapse that saw San Jose blow a 3-0 series lead to the eventual Cup champion Kings. This year has always had a different vibe for the Sharks, with so many having written them off that they felt like plucky underdogs instead of pressure-weary favorites. They've still got a ways to go, but if knocking off the Kings doesn't count as getting it done when it matters, not much can.
Next up were the Capitals, facing down their history of taking big leads in playoff series and then watching them slip away. They'd never blown a 3-0 series lead, which is what they held heading into Game 4 against the Flyers. They lost that game, and then the next, outplaying the Flyers in both but being stoned by a red-hot Michal Neuvirth. That had Washington fans nearing panic mode for Sunday's Game 6, but the Capitals held on for a 1-0 nail-biter. They'll move on to face the Penguins, a team that factors heavily into that history of playoff misery, in a matchup that feels a lot like the unofficial Eastern Conference final.
And then you've got the Blues, a franchise with a nearly 50-year history of playing perfectly solid regular-season hockey, then fading out of the picture as soon as the playoffs get serious. They drew the worst-case scenario for their opening round matchup, facing the defending champion Blackhawks, and then responded with three wins in the opening four games. But everything changed once Game 5 arrived and Chicago's late-series super powers activated, and now we're headed to a Game 7 tonight.
Much like the Sharks and Capitals, the Blues can quiet all the history talk at least temporarily with a win. But heading into the game, they look an awful lot like a team in disarray. Ken Hitchcock is coaching for his job, and he's apparently decided to do it by picking a fight with his best player. Vladimir Tarasenko isn't playing anywhere near the minutes you'd expect, and he doesn't seem happy about it.
This all feels like the last thing the Blues need heading into a make-or-break game. And again, if they manage to earn a win, then we will forget all about the drama and start figuring out how well they match up against the Stars. But if not... well, sorry, Blues fan. The postseason narrative beast needs to be fed. And with only one team left to feed on, it won't be pretty.
Conn Smythe Watch
Celebrating those who are making the strongest case for postseason MVP honors.
5. Guys you've never heard of—It happens every year, and it's one of the best parts of the playoffs: The guy who gets to play the hero on the game's biggest stage, forcing the rest of us to pretend we have any clue who he is.
We saw it Friday in Florida, where the double-overtime marathon between the Islanders and Panthers was ended not by John Tavares or Jaromir Jagr or even Aleksander Barkov on the third sudden death penalty shot in playoff history. Instead, it was rookie Alan Quine, a former sixth-round pick who was playing in his seventh career NHL game. At around the same time Quine was playing the hero, it was San Jose rookie Joonas Donskoi who was scoring twice, including the winner, in the deciding game in Los Angeles. Many fans may not have even known Donskoi's name; now they even know his weird nickname.
Donskoi and Quine join other not-so-big names from this year's postseason spotlight like Jeff Zatkoff and Bryan Rust. Here's hoping a few can keep it up, and join the ranks of legendary unlikely playoff heroes like Steve Penney, Chris Kontos and Fernando Pisani.