With full arenas around North America buzzing for the NHL playoffs for the first time in three years, the first round overflowed with energy that sometimes amounted to blowouts and full penalty boxes.
By the time almost every series reached Game 6 – and five got to Game 7 – signs were already starting to emerge that made it look like a more traditional postseason.
Penalties were on the decline, comebacks and drama on the rise and with the eight teams making up some of the league’s best, the second round and beyond will likely resemble more of the old-school playoff hockey fans and players are accustomed to this time of year.
”The deeper you go, the more intense it gets,” Colorado defenseman Cale Makar said. ”That’s why playoff hockey is a lot of fun.”
It wasn’t a lot of fun early on, when the team that scored first won 26 times out of 32. The first week also had 14 games decided by two or more goals, not counting empty-netters, and there was just one multigoal comeback.
Then there were nine come-from-behind victories in the final 19 games of the first round, including Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida erasing a three-goal deficit against Washington. Four games went to overtime in the final four days – more than the first eight combined.
As games got tighter with bigger momentum swings and series went down to the wire, penalty calls followed suit. It was still the most penalties called in the first round in almost a decade – just over 10 a game, the highest since 2014 and an average of more than two above the regular-season pace.
”The standard is the standard: It’s not a regular-season standard, it’s not a playoff standard,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said at the start of the playoffs. ”We continue to reinforce to the officials, `We want you to call the NHL standard.’ And that standard is to reinforce speed and skill and the officials are doing that.”
The officiating at times dominated the conversation during and after games because there were more penalties and power plays each night than in the regular season.
”I’ve never seen it like this,” said Tampa Bay winger Pat Maroon, the only player to win the Stanley Cup each of the past three years. ”It’s killed a lot of momentum 5 on 5. It’s been a weird playoff for me. I’ve never seen this amount of penalties before in a playoff. It seems like it’s preseason again with all the calls on both sides.”
Retired defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo said the lack of flow rendered some games ”unwatchable.
”I’ve always been the guy that has encouraged referees to call the obvious because I think that’s why they’re on the ice, but there also has to be an understanding of the intensity that gets played with come playoff time,” Colaiacovo said. ”What really people should be proud about (in) the game of hockey is that there is a pride, an intensity and a toughness that is played at this time of year, and it’s just been taken away.”
Retired referee Tim Peel said officials are told by the league office to call the regular-season standard. They’re especially careful to uphold that because 20 work the first round, with eight sent home before the second begins.
”If you’re not calling the NHL standard, there’s a good possibility that you won’t be moving on to the second round,” Peel said.
But he and others think the penalties will continue to go down and become less of a factor in games. Having eight of the top 11 teams in the standings left vying for the Cup could also play a major role with players concentrating on staying more disciplined.
”I don’t know what to expect,” Panthers coach Andrew Brunette said. ”A lot of times you see less penalties (because) teams get smarter. They understand what they’re calling and what they’re maybe not letting go a little bit. Players and teams understand the standard that’s set and they work it to the best of their advantage.”
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham in Denver contributed.
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