With packed arenas in North America buzzing for the NHL playoffs for the first time in three years, the first round was overflowing with energy that sometimes amounted to blowouts and full penalties.
By the time nearly every series reached Game 6 and five reached Game 7, signs were already beginning to show that made it look like a more traditional postseason.
Penalties abated, comebacks and drama increased, and with the eight teams making up some of the top leagues, the second round and beyond will likely be more like the old-fashioned playoff hockey fans and players accustomed to this time of year.
The deeper you go, the more intense it gets, said Colorado defenseman Cale Makar. That’s why playoff hockey is so much fun.
It wasn’t much fun in the beginning, when the team that scored first won 26 out of 32 times. The first week also saw 14 games decided by two or more goals, not counting empty nets, and there was only one multi-goal comeback.
After that, there were nine come-from-behind wins in the last 19 games of the first round, including President Trophy-winning Florida, who brushed off a three-goal deficit against Washington. Four games went to overtime in the last four days more than the first eight combined.
As games tightened with bigger momentum swings and series moved to the wire, penalty calls followed. It was still the most first round penalties in nearly a decade, just over 10 per game, the highest since 2014 and averaging more than two above regular season pace.
The standard is the standard: It’s not a regular season standard, it’s not a playoff standard, said Commissioner Gary Bettman at the start of the playoffs. We continue to strengthen the officials, we want you to mention the NHL standard. And that standard is to boost speed and skill and that’s what the officials do.
The referee sometimes dominated the conversation during and after the games as there were more penalties and power plays every night than in the regular season.
I’ve never seen it like this, said Tampa Bay winger Pat Maroon, the only player to win the Stanley Cup in the past three years. It killed a lot of momentum 5 out of 5. It was a weird play-off for me. I have never seen so many penalties in a play-off. It’s like preseason again with all the calls on both sides.
Retired defender Carlo Colaiacovo said the lack of flow made some games cluttered.
I’ve always been the guy who has encouraged umpires to call it the obvious because I think that’s why they’re on the ice, but there also needs to be an understanding of the intensity played with the play- off time, said Colaiacovo. What people should really be proud of (in) the game of hockey is that there’s a pride, an intensity, and a toughness played at this time of year, and it’s just taken away.
Retired referee Tim Peel said officials have been told by the league office to name the standard for the regular season. They are especially careful to maintain that as 20 works the first round, with eight sent home before the second starts.
If you don’t call the NHL standard, there’s a good possibility you won’t advance to the second round, Peel said.
But he and others believe penalties will continue to fall and play a lesser role in matches. The fact that eight of the top 11 teams in the standings are still battling for the cup could also play an important role for players focusing on staying more disciplined.
I don’t know what to expect, said Panthers coach Andrew Brunette. You often see fewer penalties (because) teams get smarter. They understand what they call and what they may not let go a little bit. Players and teams understand the standard being set and work it out to their best advantage.
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham in Denver contributed.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
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