The Pittsburgh Penguins’ second consecutive Stanley Cup win brings what has been a remarkable 2016–2017 NHL season to an exciting finish.
The excitement surrounding the season started with an action-packed offseason that saw the Toronto Maple Leafs draft Auston Matthews first overall, Montreal Canadiens fan-favourite P.K. Subban traded to the Nashville Predators for powerhouse defenceman Shea Weber, and former Edmonton Oilers number one overall pick Taylor Hall sent to New Jersey in return for defenceman Adam Larsson.
Amongst other memorable moments in the 2016-2017 NHL season, the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets secured lengthy winning streaks, Connor McDavid had his 100-point breakout season, and a once mediocre Toronto Maple Leafs squad found its way into a wild-card spot, and subsequently a playoff spot.
In spite of all the excitement that came before it, nothing can compare to the excitement of this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. The playoffs, a gruelling two-month test of endurance and willpower, began with a series of enticing first-round matchups.
The Nashville Predators stunned the hockey world when they swept the Chicago Blackhawks, winners of three Stanley Cups in the last seven years, in the first round of the playoffs. Meanwhile, the young, scrappy Maple Leafs unexpectedly pushed the Washington Capitals to six games before losing. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets squared off in a matchup of the league’s second and fourth best teams, a highly anticipated battle that the Penguins took in five games.
The second round saw the revitalized Edmonton Oilers — a team that had just eliminated an experienced San Jose Sharks squad — beat the Anaheim Ducks in a lengthy, seven game series. The sixteenth seeded Nashville Predators were surprisingly successful, dismantling the St. Louis Blues in six. The Ottawa Senators, the lone Canadian team left standing, took down the New York Rangers on the heels of an impressive performance by captain Erik Karlsson. Finally, the most anticipated second-round series, and perhaps the most anticipated series of the whole playoffs, saw the Pittsburgh Penguins once again eliminate Alexander Ovechkin’s Capitals in seven games.
The Senators continued their improbable run by taking the Penguins to seven games in the Eastern Conference Final, but in the end fell to the defending champions. The Predators and Ducks battled in a scrappy series that ended in the former making it to their first Stanley Cup final in franchise history.
At first glance, the cup final seems like it was an underwhelming one. The scores of all six games were as follows — Game 1: 5–3 Penguins; Game 2: 4–1 Penguins; Game 3: 5–1 Predators; Game 4: 4–1 Predators; Game 5: 6–0 Penguins; and Game 6: 2–0 Penguins.
The issue with scores and statistics, however, is that they don’t tell the full story. Stats may tell us that Penguins goalies Matt Murray won his second Stanley Cup, but they won’t tell us that Murray is still a rookie. They also don’t show us the raucous crowd at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena reaching ear-bleeding noise levels, chanting “Ref you suck!” after a number of questionable calls.
The cup final put a cap on an intense, high-octane playoffs. To put it all in perspective, there were a total of 87 games played in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs — 50 of those games were won by one goal, and 27 of those 50 one-goal games needed overtime to decide a winner. That is a staggering amount of close competition compared to recent seasons.
The playoffs have been a testament to the growth and betterment of competitive balance in the league. The progression of the game towards an absolutely insane, unpredictable mess is something that we, as fans, have the chance to sit back and continue to enjoy.