Sidney Crosby and the Penguins became the first repeat champions since the Detroit Red Wings of 1997 and 1998.
The end of the 2016-17 season looked awfully familiar, as the Pittsburgh Penguins were once again crowned Stanley Cup champions. The déjà vu didn’t end there: Captain Sidney Crosby won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP for the second consecutive season, becoming the first player to do so since his boss — Penguins owner Mario Lemieux — repeated in 1992.
Overall, the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs proved to be an outstanding spectacle. Every series after the first round lasted at least six games, with three of those seven going the distance. The postseason also featured outstanding performances from some of the game’s biggest stars, including Crosby, Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews and Erik Karlsson.
Plenty of winners emerged from these playoffs. But a few others were ultimately hurt by what was otherwise an entertaining two months for the NHL.
Sidney Crosby: It’s official. The past two seasons have cemented Crosby’s legacy among the greatest players of all time. Thanks to his previous Cup victory, two Olympic gold medals and numerous individual honors, he had already established himself as the face of the league some two years ago. But with consecutive titles and playoff MVPs during a salary-cap era that was intended to emphasize greater league parity, he is gradually inching toward the Wayne Gretzky Zone. Crosby also has a chance to capture his third Hart Trophy as league MVP later this month. The argument could certainly be made that the NHL has not had an undisputed top dog of this magnitude since Gretzky and Lemieux were in their respective primes.
Nashville: The Nashville Predators ultimately fell short in their quest to capture the franchise’s first championship. But the Southern hospitality served up by Music City over the course of the team’s exciting playoff run caught the attention of the hockey world. The atmosphere in and around Bridgestone Arena was electric throughout the Cup Final, and the surrounding community came together to embrace the Predators. The NHL has an excellent opportunity to further build the game in a unique and dynamic Southern market that appears to love the game and this team. Arizona native Matthews has emerged as an NHL star; could we see a top prospect come out of Tennessee in the coming years?
The NHL: The Stanley Cup playoffs secured its reputation for high drama among sports fans. Basketball Hall of Famer Charles Barkley even crashed the party before Game 4 in Nashville to praise the NHL’s postseason action, which he compared favorably to the NBA’s lopsided playoff performances. Add exceptional national and local television ratings, the enthusiastic celebration all around Nashville and impressive performances from the NHL’s next generation of stars — including McDavid and Matthews — and the league office is thrilled about how this postseason played out.
Marc-Andre Fleury: Even as he skated around the ice with the Stanley Cup in his hands, it was difficult not to sympathize with veteran goaltender. After years of serving as the Penguins’ franchise goalie, Fleury sat last spring after suffering a concussion and rookie Matt Murray took over the crease. The novice netminder went on to backstop the Penguins to their first title in seven years. When Murray got hurt before Game 1 of the 2017 playoffs, Fleury stepped in and was outstanding during the first two rounds, even inspiring some discussion that the 32-year-old was a potential Conn Smythe candidate.
Fleury was exceptional through the first two rounds of the playoffs, posting a 29-save shutout in Pittsburgh’s Game 7 victory over the Washington Capitals. But Murray earned the starting nod again after Fleury allowed four goals on nine shots in a 5-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators, a setback that put the Penguins in a 2-1 hole in the Eastern Conference final. If the Penguins persuade Fleury to waive his no-movement clause, he’ll be left exposed in the upcoming expansion draft, which would be a serious change (both geographically and competitively) for the three-time champion.
Washington Capitals: This was supposed to be the year for a team that posted the league’s best regular-season record, a feat that earned the squad its second straight Presidents’ Trophy. But the Caps were also eliminated by the eventual-champion Penguins for the second consecutive year. This year’s second-round Game 7 loss was especially devastating for a club that appeared poised to get over the hump, especially after acquiring defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk from the St. Louis Blues at the trade deadline.
With so much talent across their roster, the Capitals could conceivably lose a star player to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft. Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan also has a number of key free agents to contend with this offseason, including Shattenkirk, T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams and Karl Alzner. Restricted free agent Evgeny Kuznetsov is also owed a considerable raise.
With Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Matt Niskanen and Braden Holtby locked in to expensive long-term contracts and top defenseman John Carlson due a raise next summer, it seems unlikely that Washington could retain its current roster — which will inspire some to wonder if its championship window has closed.
Bruce Boudreau: No coach in the league has a greater disparity between his teams’ results in the regular season compared with the playoffs. During Boudreau’s four full seasons behind the Anaheim Ducks‘ bench, his teams won more games during the regular season than any other squad. That success was ultimately overshadowed, however, by the team’s four consecutive losses in Game 7s during that span — all of which were played on home ice.
Boudreau’s inability to take his teams the distance in Anaheim echoed his preceding tenure with the Capitals, where he failed to reach a conference final. In his first season coaching the Minnesota Wild, Boudreau’s club appeared unstoppable at times this season, establishing a franchise record with 106 points. Despite talent and depth across its roster, Minnesota bowed out in five games in a first-round series against the St. Louis Blues. With trade deadline pickup Martin Hanzal entering free agency and the expansion draft looming, the Wild could lose some key roster components in the coming months. The pressure will no doubt be on Boudreau and his team to rebound next season.