The first round of the NHL playoffs

Bizarro’s rise during NHL’s first round

Modest certainty never came to fruition on a Tuesday night when-and-where three of Canada’s entrants into the NHL’s playoff derby walked into the spotlight.

With no Auston Matthews and his eight-gazillion goals, the Toronto Maple Leafs were done like a Tiger Williams dinner, correct?

After the Honky-Tonk Highway Miracle, the Vancouver Canucks were set to end the game but less-talented Predators year. No problem?

And there’s not a chance Winnipeg and its Jets bows out with a shockingly struggling Connor Hellebuyck so rapidly to zippy Colorado, right?

If I’d put it all on a PROLINE, it’d be a penniless Wednesday morning of mourning.

Let’s start with the Buds.

It’s almost as if Toronto’s team focus was out of focus until it absolutely needed to focus after losing its’ main focal point (Matthews), if you get my focus. Interesting to note that the Leafs’ record without Auston stands at 36-19-2. As with all things Toronto, it’s a head-scratcher.

But full credit, the lads stepped up. Max Domi, Jake McCabe, a composed, calm Joe Woll, Matthew Knies, Tyler Bertuzzi and even picked-apart, picked-on Mitch Marner led a grit-based, smart attack. To be frank, the Leafs deserved this one big-time. They were the much, much better team.

Boston looked tentative, nervous and out-of-sorts. And as much as Toronto gets swarmed with (accurate) accusations that the team sucks-diddily-ucks (Ned Flanders) come playoff time, the Bruins are hearing likewise after back-to-back upset first-round exits in 2023 and 2022.

This all sets up for a very intriguing Thursday night in Toronto. Unfortunately for the home side – in this Bizarro World Cup – the Leafs play dreadfully in their barn; the Bruins thrive. You’ll want to lay all your eggs in the B’s basket if Toronto’s Achilles heel (Matthews) suits up . . . that’s how peculiar and curious this Leafs’ team is.

Now to the West.

NHL ’94 on Sega Genesis was a keeper and go-to in my home back in the day. I liked setting it to ‘easy mode’ to see how many goals I could pot. Lots. More fun was observing my little skaters swarm the opposition and blow by the defence.

That’s kind of how Vancouver looked Tuesday for the first bit against Nashville.


The Preds though gave new meaning to hanging-in-there, and eventually did, thanks mainly to Juuse Saros.

Now the game no one in Vancouver wanted to happen – Game 6 – goes back in Nashville Friday night after a long travel day across the country.

So, what do you think of that one Ian Cole?

“Whether we want to get on the plane or not? That’s just kind of a prima-donna attitude. That’s bulls***. Just go and win the freakin’ game,” the two-time Cup winning Canuck said.

“Of course, no one wants to fly back across the country, but this is the matchup that we have. If we need to win in six games, you win in six games. If we win in seven games, we win in seven games. We just need to win the series. That’s all that matters.”

In Winnipeg, my heart bleeds for Rick Bowness, a guy I’ve never met but comes across as pure class and character.

The Jets-Avalanche series wasn’t supposed to go just five games. No way. Winnipeg, of all the Canadian teams, seemed best suited for a tough playoff run. Great netminder, scoring, grit . . . it was all there.

Until it wasn’t. Poof. Boom goes the dynamite.

Colorado might not be the deepest of the remaining clubs in contention (that’d be Dallas, Vegas and Florida) but when you have the game’s best player in Nathan MacKinnon and best defenceman in Cole Makar, it’s all-aboard.

Bowness, who might or may not return as the Jets head coach, saw it this way.

“It’s the intensity. The playoff intensity goes way up, and you can talk about it all you want . . . The teams that have won know how to get there. They got there tonight; they got there this series. They flipped the switch.”

Winnipeg’s season ends as last year’s did – out quickly in five games.

The off-season will be busy. Tyler Toffoli, Sean Monahan, Brenden Dillon and Dylan DeMelo (rumours regarding Ottawa) are all set to explore free agency.

Meantime the team’s biggest star, Connor Hellebuyck, was not good. To be polite.

Twenty-four goals surrendered in just five games. Not Vezina-type numbers.


THOUGHT, SEEN AND HEARD: Is anyone else who doesn’t reside on Long Island or in the U.S. capital remotely disturbed (or surprised) that both the Islanders and Capitals were quickly placed on the sidelines? . . . Hockey never sleeps, even when you’re out of the playoffs: The 2024 NHL draft lottery happens next Tuesday . . . Ottawa’s odds to nail down the top pick sit at 6.5 per cent . . . The San Jose Sharks own the best odds to land the No. 1 pick at 18.5 per cent . . . The draft itself goes at the end of June from Las Vegas . . . Can’t help it. Every time I spot yet another ‘Senators and NCC close in on arena deal’ headline, the yawn sets in. Get on with it or don’t . . . Wash-rinse-repeat . . . Oddsmakers have Craig Berube slated as No. 2 on Ottawa’s next-coach parade. I’ll take that on my next PROLINE . . . “The above column, brought to you by PROLINE” . . . Expect the ‘new’ Utah franchise to be competitive in a hurry. The organization drafted 22 players in the past two drafts alone (while in Arizona). Word is owner Ryan Smith will spend freely on any top-end free agents he can get his hands on . . . That free agent pool looks to be deep and rich with scorers like Sam Reinhart, Jake Guentzel and Steven Stamkos available, at this point . . . Can’t see a future though where Florida doesn’t find a way to sign Reinhart . . . Former Senator and current Edmonton Oiler Cody Ceci gets this write-up from Sportsnet’s Mark Spector: “. . . that rare player today whose numbers and style set him up as a target for those who see the game through a computer screen, while at the same time being one of the favourite teammates of every player who has sat alongside him in an NHL dressing room” . . . In other terms, Ceci, the Ottawa native and former 67’s blueliner, carried the label of ‘whipping boy’ all the way from Bytown to Alberta . . . More thoughts on Ceci from teammate Darnell Nurse: “A lot of time when he’s out there, it’s not an easy matchup. He’s a guy who, most nights, plays a full, clean 60 minutes. You don’t really notice him because of how well he reads the game. When you’re out there against top competition, sometimes . . . it ends up in the back of your net. Sometimes that’s all that’s highlighted.”

Photos: Courtesy TSN