The Stanley Cup Playoffs will begin the Round of 16 on Tuesday and, in a normal year where everything isn't the absolute weirdest, that would indicate the very beginning of the NHL's postseason. But COVID-19 and a four-and-a-half-month shutdown forced the NHL to expand the postseason to 24 teams by adding a preliminary play-in stage ahead of the Round of 16 -- a playoff to officially get into the playoffs, essentially.
Over the past 10 days we watched 16 teams battle it out in a best-of-five series in order to grab the final eight playoff seeds (the final four each conference) and eight teams emerged as deserving challengers in the NHL's brutal postseason gauntlet. That also means that eight teams were sent home from the league's two regional bubbles before the playoffs even truly got underway. Some of those early exits were quite surprising.
There was a lot to take in with this unprecedented format but it's important to spend some time looking at why those eight teams saw their season come crashing to an end just a little over a week after the restart. Let's highlight the biggest reason for each eliminated team.
Edmonton Oilers: Not enough forward depth (or team defense)
These two things being the cause of the Oilers' demise are certainly not surprising whatsoever, but it is surprising that their exit came so quickly. The Edmonton-Chicago series was a total circus of entertaining, end-to-end hockey... but it wasn't necessarily "good" hockey. Almost no defense was played whatsoever and, ultimately, the Oilers let a young Blackhawks produce way too much offensive thanks to awful gap control and defensive zone coverage.
On their own offensive end of the ice, Edmonton got offensive outbursts from the usual suspects. Connor McDavid (9 points), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (8 points) and Leon Draisaitl (6 points) led the charge, but they didn't get enough secondary support -- something that has plagued the Oilers all season long.
Florida Panthers: Not enough 5-on-5 offense
The Panthers continue to be one of the most frustrating franchises in the sport. Looking at what they've got on paper (and now what they've got behind the bench in Joel Quenneville) you'd think they'd be a lot better. But, once again, it's a disappointing and rather fruitless end to the season for the cats.
Against the Islanders -- a structured, defensive team that doesn't make a lot of mistakes -- the Panthers needed to lean on their explosive offense to win a battle of strength-vs-strength. After finishing with the sixth-best offense in the league this season, Florida scored more than two goals just once in the four-game series, and they scored a total of three goals at 5-on-5. I know the Islanders are good defensively but... come on.
Florida also played too undisciplined, giving the Isles ample opportunity to strike at key moments. The Panthers went shorthanded 14 times in the series and surrendered four power play goals to a team that often struggles to score at 5v5.
Minnesota Wild: Didn't take advantage of opponent's weaknesses
Things looked promising for the Wild out of the gate: Their solid defensive unit frustrated the Canucks and gave up pretty much nothing in the danger areas, blanking a Vancouver team that relies on a talented (but largely inexperienced) young core up front. But that didn't hold for very long.
What really killed the Wild was their inability to take advantage of the areas where Vancouver leaves some to be desired. The Canucks have questionable depth and a beatable blue line, and they played really undisciplined in this series. The Wild went on the power play 22 times over the course of four games and converted just three times (13.6 percent). At even strength, they really missed a lack of dynamic offensive playmakers and most of their offensive opportunities seemed to be channeled through one player -- Kevin Fiala. It was clear that Minnesota isn't well-rounded enough to beat even a flawed Vancouver club.
Okay, it's probably a little unfair to pin a team's failures on one player -- especially when it's a team that had as many frustrating issues as the Nashville Predators did this season. But make no mistake about it: Duchene had a terrible series against the Coyotes and he didn't deliver the kind of impact Nashville signed up for when they inked him to a big contract last offseason.
He was supposed to come in and be a dynamic force down the middle for a Preds team that has desperately needed one over the past few years, but Duchene failed to provide the sort of contributions that might've helped Nashville sneak past Arizona. He was fourth among forwards in ice time, had two points (a goal and assist) and was a minus-4. The Preds were outscored 0-3 when he was on the ice at 5-on-5. That's not what you want from your highest-paid forward.
There's also some irony in the fact that he had a costly offside gaff that overturned what might've been a crucial goal for Nashville in a swing Game 3. Remember, Duchene is the guy who got away with an egregious offside that burned the Preds when he was with Colorado during the 2013 postseason -- an incident that ultimately led to offside reviews being implemented the following season.
New York Rangers: Simply weren't ready
It's impossible to pinpoint one reason why the Rangers were swept by the Hurricanes because, simply put, they got steamrolled in almost all areas. New York overachieved this year and they were fortunate to get into the playoffs under the expanded format, but it quickly became apparent that they were totally outmatched against a really good Hurricanes team.
The Rangers failed to generate much offensively because they rarely had the puck (and they failed to convert on most of the chances they did generate) and they failed to contain Carolina's top-end forwards. They just looked like a team that didn't quite belong just yet.
And while it was a disappointing (and slightly embarrassing) finish to the season, it shouldn't really change the outlook of this season for the Rangers. Their rebuild is taking shape (and quickly) and the momentum they established this year isn't erased. They got some of their younger pieces some postseason experience. Even if it didn't go well, experiencing postseason failure can be valuable and motivating for a young team. Plus, the early exit also means they've got a shot at the top pick in the 2020 draft, which would certainly help further expedite their rebuild.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Out-coached
This is not something I saw coming. Mike Sullivan has been so good at getting the most from his players in Pittsburgh and if it weren't for a late season slide, I think he would have been in the discussion for Jack Adams as coach of the year. That would've been the reward for helping navigate his team to success through so many key injuries this year.
But Claude Julien coached circles around Sullivan in this series, and it's a big reason why Montreal pulled off a stunning upset of a far superior Pittsburgh team. There were so many questionable decisions made from the Penguins' bench. One of the most notable came before the series even started, as the Pens went with Matt Murray in net despite Tristan Jarry being the far better goalie this season. But the most egregious (and most painful) came via the continued deployment of Jack Johnson and Justin Schultz, who were both absolutely awful in this series.
There's plenty of blame to place on the players too, but it's on the coaching staff to help make the necessary adjustments to help shift the tide over the course of a series. The Penguins never did that and it's maybe the worst Sullivan has ever looked.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Lack of finish
There are two things we knew coming into this series: 1) Toronto was better on paper, but 2) Columbus was a nightmare matchup because of their grit and strong team defense. The Blue Jackets did a very good job showcasing both of those strengths and it's a big reason they came out on top, but the Leafs also didn't do themselves many favors. The finish just wasn't there.
Toronto looked like the better team for a lot of this series. They frequently controlled play and generated good opportunities but simply could not seem to finish, whether it was due to great goaltending from Columbus or because the Leafs were snakebit. In over 274 minutes of 5-on-5 play in the series, Toronto shot 1.7 percent as a team. That is absolutely stunning, especially for a team that has as much top-tier offensive talent as the Leafs.
Winnipeg Jets: Bad luck (and bad defense)
The defense failing to hold up against a potent (at time) Flames team isn't surprising. The Jets' blue line was a mess nearly all year and Winnipeg was only in the playoff picture because Connor Hellebuyck played out of his mind all season. But he can only do so much.
And it certainly didn't help that the Jets, who were going to need to score a ton to come out on top on the series, lost two of their most dangerous forwards in the first game of the series. Mark Scheifele went down with a lower body injury in the first period of Game 1 and wasn't seen again. Patrik Laine was lost in the third period of Game 1 and wasn't seen again. That's just absolutely brutal luck for a flawed team that couldn't afford the misfortune. It's a tough pill to swallow after a long season but it is what it is.