The first round of this year's NHL playoffs has featured everything you want to see from a great opening round - excitement, drama, unpredictability, multiple overtimes, and plenty of nail-biting finishes. It's been a ton of fun to watch no matter who you're rooting for. As a Buffalo Sabres fan, I'm watching the playoffs with one eye towards our team, and what the Sabres need to do in order to compete in the playoffs next season.
After watching almost every game in the first round, here's what stands out to me, and how it relates to the Sabres.
1. Star players have to play like stars
No, not the Dallas Stars, we'll get to them later. Look at the top five playoff scorers as of this morning, and who do you see? Jamie Benn, John Tavares, Jason Spezza, Nikita Kucherov, and Sidney Crosby. Players like Vladimir Tarasenko and Alexander Ovechkin have been all over the ice, and the highlights, and old vets like Joe Pavelski are tied for the most playoff goals.
In contrast, look at the teams that have been knocked out. For Florida, Jaromir Jagr was held goalless, while Brian Campbell and Aaron Ekblad had just one point each. If it weren't for Reilly Smith scoring four goals in six games, Florida might have been swept. For the LA Kings, Drew Doughty, Milan Lucic, Dustin Brown, and Tyler Toffoli combined for zero goals and a collective -14 en route to their early exit.
It's great to do well in the regular season, but the playoffs are when you have to get production from the guys making the big bucks and getting the big ice time. Looking at the Sabres, their top scorers each had a drought this season, whether it was Eichel's holiday hangover or O'Reilly's spring break. Those guys, plus players like Sam Reinhart, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Evander Kane will need to be able to produce under the increased pressure of playoff hockey. Another year of growth, both in age and experience with Dan Bylsma's system, will hopefully even those inconsistencies out next season.
2. Good goaltending is necessary, but it only takes you so far
As fans of the Sabres, we've been bred to think that goaltending matters above all else, especially in the playoffs, thanks to years of being spoiled by Dominik Hasek and Ryan Miller. How many times have you had a conversation with someone that ends with, "Well, if their goalie gets hot, they could win it all!"
You know who has the highest save percentage in the playoffs this season, with an astonishing .981? Michael Neuvirth, who is currently on a beach somewhere after the Flyers were knocked out despite Neuvirth allowing just two goals in the three games he started. Peter Mrazek and Roberto Luongo are also among the top ten in save percentage this postseason, and will be watching the rest of the playoffs from home.
Unless you're Dallas, and you can score five goals a game in the playoffs, you need a solid presence in net. But you have to have enough pieces around that goaltender to get you through. Is Robin Lehner the A#1 goalie of the future for all times? I don't know, and Tim Murray doesn't either, but in the playoffs, good enough works as long as the rest of the team is strong. And if he isn't good enough? Castoffs like Brian Elliott and Neuvirth and even Chad Johnson have shown that you can find good second options every year.
Goalies in hockey are kind of like running backs in football. The best four or five stand out as difference makers, but for everyone else, it depends more on the team around them since they're all kinda the same. What you need to find is a guy who can be consistent from game to game, and who doesn't crumble in big moments. Is Lehner that guy? We'll find out more next year.
3. You don't need great defense as long as you have great offense
Defense wins championships, right? We've heard it for years, but let's take a look at some of the best defensemen in the NHL. Drew Doughty - out. Ryan Suter - out. Aaron Ekblad - out. Ghost Bear - out. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Shea Weber, Roman Josi? Could all be knocked out tonight.
Quick - name the best defenseman on the Washington Capitals. How about the Dallas Stars, or the Pittsburgh Penguins, or the New York Islanders? Those teams have all moved on despite their relative weakness, if you can call it that, on the blue line. Yeah, teams like Anaheim and St. Louis are still stacked on the back end, but this postseason is proving that rolling three strong scoring lines is better than two strong defensive pairings. The one thing those teams mentioned earlier do have is one stud defenseman who controls the game for them. John Carlson, Kris Letang, John Klingberg...Rasmus Ristolainen?
Tim Murray said earlier this offseason that he's still looking for a power play quarterback, which means he either thinks Ristolainen can't be that guy, or he doesn't think anyone else on the team can do that for the second unit. Risto had a nice season this year, but despite all the optimism, his production did tail off toward the end. Was that anything more than a 21-year old kid playing massive minutes who just didn't have anything left in the tank by the end of the year? The Sabres will need #55 to be a big player in the playoffs, both in ice time and production, so we'll hope another offseason of growth has him better equipped to handle the load if the playoffs come calling.
Behind Rasmus, the Sabres could definitely use one more reliable, young producer, but they're in pretty good shape as far as young defensemen go, especially if their forward lines can be even more dangerous next year. Right now, the team definitely has two pretty strong scoring lines, but most of the big-time playoff contenders have three lines you need to plan for. At the end of the year, the Foligno-Larsson-Gionta grouping showed just how much it can help a team when their third line is producing, helping the Sabres to a strong finish. Another free agent or two, as well as the growth of guys like Justin Bailey and Hudson Fasching should help upgrade the top-nine even more.
Those are my three takeaways from the first round of what's already been a fantastic playoffs. What else do the Sabres need to do to compete with these teams next year? Give us your thoughts in the comments.