The Stanley Cup Playoffs, they’re a man’s game. That’s how the narrative goes, at least. It’s tough, it’s passion-fueled, and it’s no place for a kid (so they say.)
At 18-years-old, you are considered to be an adult, but lets face it, at that age you’re still very much a teenager. What were your greatest responsibilities at ages 18, 19, or 20? Making plans for Friday night? Remember to walk the dog and take out the trash? Calorie counting? This NHL postseason, many “kids” have made an impact playing on the game’s greatest stage, continuing the strong precedent first year players set in the regular season.
The popular pick for the NHL’s “next best thing”, Nate MacKinnon, has somehow found a way to not just be really, really good like he was for months, but to elevate his game to the point where for two weeks he might have been the greatest hockey player in the world. “Razor”, as he’s affectionately becoming known as in the Colorado Avalanche locker room, is tied for the NHL lead in points after the first round of the playoffs… at just 18 years of age.
If his production on the scoresheet and blinding speed wasn’t enough to impress, than maybe his knack for timely scoring will grab your attention. It sure as heck caught the eye of just about everyone watching Saturday’s Game 5 of the Avalanche’s first round series with the Minnesota Wild.
“And the legend grows…” as appropriately called by TSN’s Gord Miller. MacKinnon continues to provide Colorado with consistent excellence, now coming at the expense of the Wild.
Speaking of the Wild, the goaltender MacKinnon roofed on the game-winning goal is a rookie, too. Darcy Kuemper may have allowed that heartbreaking goal behind him, but if not for his services, Minnesota wouldn’t even have made it to Game 5. Kuemper, who was average at best during the regular season, came in to replace Ilya Bryzgalov as the Wild’s starter in Game 3 of the series. Since, he’s been close to lights out, posting a shutout in his first career playoff start and played the best he has in his entire career at the right time. He’s posted a miniscule 2.02 goals against average, and though he wasn’t the goalie of record for Minnesota’s game seven overtime triumph over Colorado, the Wild would have never even been in that position if not for Kuemper’s heroics in earlier contests.
This postseason’s rookie success isn’t just limited to the Colorado/Minnesota series. Oh, no, there were plenty other young guns making their presence felt in a positive way in round numero uno.
“What [MacKinnon] has done in the postseason is obviously incredible, but don’t sleep on what some of these other kids have done, too,” said Christian Hoppens, senior writer for The Post Sports. “It seems like experience hardly matters anymore, because a lot of other rookies are tearing it up.”
Drastically all trailing MacKinnon in the points department, but still a tie for second place were the Los Angeles Kings’ Tyler Toffoli and the San Jose Sharks’ Tomáš Hertl and Matt Nieto. All three players racked up five points in their series against each other, but Toffoli captured arguably the most important. Early in the third period, Toffoli put the dagger in San Jose’s season with a snipe from the low slot to put L.A. up 3-1 in the game and onward towards a 4-3 series win after trailing three game-to-none. There was still plenty of time for Nieto and Hertl to mount a comeback, but Toffoli’s goal absolutely deflated the entire Sharks squad.
The Penguins’ star defenseman Olli Määttä may have been on the ice for a lot of the Columbus Blue Jackets’ goals in their six game series, but film study reveals his role in any Columbus goal is minimal to nonexistent, so his plus/minus was a very misleading indication of how he actually played. Though the 19-year-old Finnish phenom was muscled off the puck several times by the Jackets’ heavy forecheckers, Maatta showed his signature puck-moving precision and poise in all six games, effectively led the rush at times, and directly factored into way more of Pittsburgh’s goals for than goals against.
In the same series, the Jackets’ Boone Jenner was a pest to the millionth degree, drawing four penalties and connecting on a team high 40 hits in the series, which allowed him to noticeably get under the skin of some of the Penguins’ seasoned veterans. Jenner also had five points (three goals, two assists) with two goals coming on the man advantage against one of the league’s most successful penalty kills in Pittsburgh.
On a team boasting young talent like Valeri Nichushkin and Alex Chiasson, it was a surprise to see fellow rookie Colton Sceviour perform as the Dallas Stars’ best rookie in their series with the West-leading Anaheim Ducks. Sceviour led the Stars’ rookies with three points (one goal, two assists,) a +2 rating, and posted a strong +32.9 GF%rel in his team’s six playoff games.
Unfortunately for Sceviour, Jenner, and even MacKinnon, their teams won’t be advancing to the second round of these Stanley Cup Playoffs, and we will no longer able to marvel at their abilities. In the case of Toffoli, Määttä, and Boston’s Torey Krug, the fun for hockey fans has just begun.