The Real Winners and Losers from Day 1 of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistAugust 1, 2020

The Real Winners and Losers from Day 1 of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The road to the 2020 Stanley Cup got underway Saturday as the puck dropped for the opening games of the best-of-five qualifying round.

    It's a remarkable achievement for the NHL. After the COVID-19 pandemic derailed the regular season in mid-March, the league and the NHL Players' Association negotiated a return-to-play plan to ensure the crowning of a champion.

    Opening day saw five qualifying-round games. Saturday afternoon began with the New York Rangers facing off against the Carolina Hurricanes, the Chicago Blackhawks taking on the Edmonton Oilers and the Florida Panthers tangling with the New York Islanders. Saturday evening featured the Pittsburgh Penguins facing the Montreal Canadiens, with the Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames as the nightcap.

    We can see by the box scores which teams were victorious and how the players performed, but numbers don't always tell the full story. Here's a look at the real winners and losers from opening day of the 2020 Stanley Cup qualifiers.

Winners: Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr

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    NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman
    NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr and NHL Commissioner Gary BettmanAssociated Press

    The NHL and the NHL Players' Association have long had a contentious labor history. There have been three lockouts since Gary Bettman took over as league commissioner in 1993, including one that killed the entire 2004-05 season. Fehr became NHLPA executive director in 2010, leading the players during the 2012-13 lockout that cost half the season.

    Expecting the league and the NHLPA to find a way to save this season after COVID-19 derailed the schedule seemed impossible. Led by Bettman and Fehr, however, both sides were able to negotiate a workable return-to-play plan. They also hammered out an extension to the collective bargaining agreement to ensure economic stability over the next six years.

    As a result, a 24-team playoff tournament in two hub cities that originally seemed like a pipe dream has come to pass. There's a good chance a Stanley Cup champion will be crowned this season, and there is no concern about another lockout in the immediate future.

    Without the efforts of Bettman and Fehr, there would be no NHL playoff hockey right now.

Loser: Artemi Panarin

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The New York Rangers' 3-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 1 of their best-of-five qualifying-round series wasn't as close as the score suggested. Almost invisible in this contest was Artemi Panarin, their most valuable player during the regular season.

    Their leading scorer with 95 points in the regular season, the 28-year-old left winger is a finalist for the Hart Memorial Trophy. The game-breaking star was the biggest factor in the Rangers' improvement this season, but while he logged 20 minutes and 35 seconds of time on ice on Saturday, he was held to just one assist.

    Panarin wasn't the sole reason for the Rangers' defeat. They got off to a slow start, their power play went scoreless in seven attempts and sloppy defensive play spoiled a solid effort by goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.

    It's crucial for a team's biggest star to show up in playoff action, especially in a short series like this. The Rangers certainly need Panarin at his best to prevent the Hurricanes from running away with the series.

Winner: Carolina Hurricanes' Team Effort

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    The Carolina Hurricanes put in a strong performance in the opening game of their qualifying series with a 3-2 win over the New York Rangers. But the final score flattered the Rangers, who were dominated throughout most of this contest.

    Carolina defenseman Jaccob Slavin opened the scoring, assisted on Martin Necas' game-winner and led his teammates with 24 minutes and 40 seconds of time on ice and 7:28 in shorthanded ice time.

    Center Sebastian Aho had a goal and an assist while leading all Hurricanes forwards with time on ice of 21:33. Right winger Andrei Svechnikov collected an assist, three shots on goal and three hits, and he was a near-constant scoring threat. Meanwhile, veteran winger Justin Williams fought Rangers forward Ryan Strome and created the screen that led to Aho's goal.

    The Hurricanes will look to take a commanding 2-0 lead over the Rangers in Game 2 on Monday.

Winner: Dominik Kubalik's Record-Setting Debut

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    Chicago Blackhawks winger Dominik Kubalik entered the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs coming off a strong rookie campaign. He led this season's rookie scorers with 30 goals and is a finalist for the Calder Memorial Trophy. He also made quite an impression in his first Stanley Cup playoff game. 

    The 24-year-old winger tallied two goals and three assists (two of those setting up captain Jonathan Toews) as the Blackhawks thumped the Edmonton Oilers 6-4 in the opening game of their qualifying-round series. According to NHL Public Relations, Kubalik is the first player to tally five points in his playoff debut.

    Thanks to Kubalik's efforts, the underdog Blackhawks collected a big series-opening win over the Oilers. They now have a decent shot at pulling off the upset.

Loser: The Edmonton Oilers Defense

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    The Oilers got off to a lousy start against the Blackhawks. Despite captain Connor McDavid's four-point performance, the Oilers dropped a 6-4 decision in Game 1.

    Even with a vaunted offense led by McDavid and Art Ross Trophy winner Leon Draisaitl, shaky goaltending and a sloppy defense was their undoing.

    Starting netminder Mike Smith gave up five goals on 23 shots before being replaced in the second period by Mikko Koskinen. Smith wasn't helped by his teammates, as the Blackhawks feasted on the Oilers' defensive breakdowns, which included 17 giveaways.

    Edmonton entered this series as the favorite, finishing in fifth place in the Western Conference, over the 12th-place Blackhawks. Koskinen could get the start in Game 2 on Monday, but if his teammates don't do a better job in their zone, the Oilers could be in big trouble.

Winner: Scoring Stars Light the Lamp

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    The nearly five-month layoff between the premature end of the regular season and the opening day of the return-to-play tournament had no adverse effects on some of the NHL's best scorers.

    Chicago Blackhawks rookie Dominik Kubalik stole the headlines with his two-goal, five-point effort in a 6-4 win over the Edmonton Oilers, but teammate Jonathan Toews also scored twice and collected an assist. The Oilers were lousy defensively, but captain Connor McDavid and teammates Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins each had a goal and two assists in a losing cause.

    Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby tallied a goal in a 3-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens. Florida Panthers winger Jonathan Huberdeau collected his club's only goal in a 2-1 defeat at the hands of the New York Islanders. And Calgary Flames winger Johnny Gaudreau tallied a power-play marker in a 4-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets.

    Carolina Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho had a goal and an assist to lead his club over the New York Rangers, and Rangers center Mika Zibanejad scored one of his club's goals and set up the other.

Loser: Consistent Officiating

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    Officiating in the NHL is never easy, especially in postseason play. Nevertheless, the opening day of the qualifying round was notable for an unusually high number of penalty calls in some games and some questionable ones in others.

    Eighteen penalties were called during Game 1 of the Carolina Hurricanes-New York Rangers series. The Edmonton Oilers and Chicago Blackhawks game saw both clubs combine for 10 infractions, resulting in six power-play goals.

    The Pittsburgh Penguins-Montreal Canadiens matchup saw 11 penalties whistled, with the Habs getting eight of them. Each club received one penalty each in the overtime frame, but Penguins winger Conor Sheary and Canadiens winger Jonathan Drouin failed to capitalize on penalty-shot opportunities.

    Only six penalties were called during the New York Islanders-Florida Panthers game, with five in the first period. After Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson earned a two-minute minor for an illegal check to the head of Isles blueliner Johnny Boychuk, the officials swallowed their whistles for the rest of the game.

    In the final game of the day, the Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets received a combined nine penalties. The Flames were able to cash in with the man advantage, as Johnny Gaudreau and Mikael Backlund tallied power-play goals.

    Maybe the officials were trying to shake off the rust following a long layoff. Perhaps the players were a little over-eager to get things going after being sidelined for nearly five months. It could have been a combination of both. Whatever the reason, it'll be interesting to see whether this trend continues through the qualifiers.

Winner: Standout Goaltending

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Strong goaltending is always crucial, but it's even more so during the playoffs. There were several examples of that in the opening day of the qualifiers, with several netminders putting in strong efforts. 

    Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price had to be at his best as his underdog club faced off against the powerful Pittsburgh Penguins. He rose to the challenge with a .951 save percentage and 39 saves, backstopping the Habs to a 3-2 overtime victory. 

    The New York Rangers fell 3-2 to the Carolina Hurricanes, but that was no fault of Henrik Lundqvist. Pressed into service after Igor Shesterkin was a last-minute scratch, the 38-year-old looked like King Henrik of old, kicking out 34 shots and keeping his teammates in the game. Hurricanes netminder Petr Mrazek also acquitted himself well, picking up the win with 24 saves and a .923 save percentage.

    Signed by the Florida Panthers last summer, Sergei Bobrovsky struggled in his first season with his new club. While the Panthers dropped a 2-1 decision to the New York Islanders on Saturday, Bobrovsky regained the form that made him a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, finishing the game with a .929 save percentage and 26 saves.

    Semyon Varlamov also played well, backstopping the Islanders to victory over the Panthers. He finished the day with 27 saves and a .964 save percentage.

Loser: Staying Healthy

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    Injuries are an unwanted part of NHL hockey, especially in postseason play when the games take on greater importance. Unfortunately, the injury bug made its unwanted presence felt during the opening day.

    Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele suffered an apparent injury to his left leg during a collision with Calgary Flames winger Matthew Tkachuk in the first period. Scheifele was helped from the ice and couldn't put any weight on his leg. His absence threw his teammates off-balance, and they fell to the Flames 4-1.

    New York Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk left Saturday's game against the Florida Panthers with a possible head injury following an illegal hit from Panthers blueliner Mike Matheson. NBC Sports' Sean Leahy reported Islanders coach Barry Trotz had yet to provide an update on Boychuk's condition.

    New York Rangers winger Jesper Fast left the game in the first period against the Carolina Hurricanes following a big hit by former teammate Brady Skjei. The Rangers were also without goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who was a last-minute scratch.

    The game undoubtedly suffers whenever a player is sidelined.

Winner: Overtime Magic

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    This may be a qualifying round, but playoff sudden-death overtime rules apply. It's only fitting that one of Saturday's five games needed an extra frame to decide a winner.

    Jeff Petry scored at 13:57 of overtime to give the Montreal Canadiens a 3-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins, completing opening day's biggest upset.

    The Penguins entered this series as the heavy favorites. They finished fifth overall in the Eastern Conference with 86 points, well ahead of the 12th-place Canadiens. The Pens, led by superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, possess a deep roster with championship experience.

    However, the Habs jumped to a 2-0 lead on goals by rookies Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki. The  Penguins stormed back when Crosby and Bryan Rust tied the game in the second period. The game also saw failed penalty-shot attempts by Pittsburgh's Conor Sheary and Montreal's Jonathan Drouin.

    Canadiens goaltender Carey Price had to be at his best for his club to have a chance against the powerful Penguins. He was the star of this game, kicking out 39 shots and backstopping the Habs to an early lead in the series.