At approximately 8:00pm local time in Denver on Tuesday and 7:00pm pacific time in Seattle on Saturday, history will be made again.
The Seattle Kraken, in a position not many expected eight months ago, will drop the puck in their first ever Stanley Cup Playoff game in Game 1 against the Colorado Avalanche, then open Game 3 six days from now for the first home playoff game in Kraken history on Saturday, a night that is already driving the secondary ticket pricing market through the roof.
What the Kraken hope is the old phrase coming true, “the sky’s the limit.” They nearly got to 50 wins. They became the fastest team to reach 100 points in NHL post-expansion history. They did all of this in season two, ahead of projected schedule, but just one season shy of matching what the Vegas Golden Knights did five years ago in an expansion year – make the postseason.
Even minus Andre Burakovsky, they still have Cup winning experience: Grubauer (Washington), Vince Dunn (St. Louis), Jaden Schwartz (St. Louis), and Justin Schultz (Pittsburgh) have all won the race. Jordan Eberle nearly dragged his Islanders over Tampa Bay twice into the Stanley Cup Final, which included one game 7 heartbreak. They are a wild card team, facing a division winner. But they finished only nine points apart from their first round date in Colorado,
They are not your typical Cinderella “just happy to be here” team.
“We were written off by a lot of people at the beginning of the season, and used that as motivation,” forward Jared McCann told 93.3 KJR-FM.
“We’re still hungry and we still want more.”
They boast imposing depth, with six players hitting 20 goals this season. No other team scored more five-on-five goals in the NHL this season. Their fourth line has a 21-goal scorer in Daniel Sprong. They are confident that likely game 1 starter, Philipp Grubauer, has turned the corner in the last two months, despite an erratic .895 save percentage this season.
Admittedly, they are also facing a loaded, hungry, and experienced division winner who beat Nashville on the final day of the season to set up this matchup. It means signing up for a date with the defending Stanley Cup champion, who have missed captain Gabriel Landeskog all season, bruising defenseman Josh Manson for all but 27 games with a lower body ailment, defenseman Cale Makar for the last two weeks, and had to hit the reset button on their goaltending job with Alexandar Georgiev when Darcy Kuemper left after hoisting the Cup for free agency.
The Avalanche still won the division amidst all the injuries, went 8-1-1 in the final ten games, and have a healthy “MJ like” Nathan MacKinnon (42 goals and 111 points) and a moose in Mikko Rantanen (55 goals).
The Kraken are unequivocally an underdog in this seven-game series. It will be a big rocky mountain hill to climb.
Meet seven players, hopping over the boards, who could be instrumental for the Kraken to pull an upset:
1. PHILIPP GRUBAUER, GOALTENDER: The buck, and puck, stops here. For years, playoff success has lived and died with who’s in net. It’s useful for a team loaded with superstars. It’s imperative for a team who relies on depth. Though head coach Dave Hakstol declined to name a game 1 starter on the weekend, all signs point to Grubauer taking the reins.
Grubauer’s overall numbers to the outside world aren’t mind-blowing: his .895 save percentage was below league overage. But a 9-3 record since the start of March came with all nine victories allowing two goals or less. All but two wins came with a save percentage of over .910. The familiarity is less than two years ago with Colorado, but enough motivation to strike a proverbial dagger into his former teammates, such as MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Makar.
Then, there’s the hunger for more, and why playing on after one Cup victory matters.
“Hoisting the Cup,” said Grubauer, a part of the Washington Capitals Cup squad five years ago.
“Lifting that thing. We have a couple of guys who got to experience that and go through a season, battling with guys on the ice, having fun, and lifting the trophy is a dream come true and why we play.”
2. YANNI GOURDE, FORWARD: One year ago, Gourde left the Kraken dressing room vowing to take notes on the Stanley Cup Playoffs and help get the Kraken, the following season, into the dance.
“How do you create offense in the playoffs?” said Gourde, 11 months ago.
“Even though I know the answer because I’ve been there, it’s something I look at because I want to get to the next level. I want this team to be working for a playoff spot next year. That’s where my head’s at.”
He fulfilled that pledge. A sparkplug to back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in Tampa Bay, Gourde was a stinging loss for the Lightning at expansion draft time, and a celebrated victory in Seattle. Long considered a “glue guy” for a fearless, physical, and abrasive approach while playing an authoritative role at center, Gourde owns five game winning goals among the 16 he’s scored in 69 career Stanley Cup Playoff games.
Don’t forget the last time the Kraken faced Colorado, in early March: he buried an overtime winner in Denver to help put the Kraken playoff push into fifth gear.
3. JADEN SCHWARTZ, FORWARD: Grit, leadership, poise, clutch. You can put all of those core values into one human who won a Stanley Cup with the St. Louis Blues four years ago, ago, a catalyst to the famous run from last place before Christmas, to making “Gloria” by Laura Branigan a glorified Missouri state song.
When the Blues won the Cup, Schwartz led them with 12 goals. In the regular season, he only had 11 that year. He buried two hat tricks in the postseason: a “natural” version to eliminate the Jets in the first round, then victimizing the Sharks in game 5 of the Conference Final. Then, there’s game 7 of the Cup Final at Boston: two assists.
“Anytime you get in the playoffs, you get a chance to win,” Schwartz told 93.3 KJR-FM. “That’s something you don’t want to take lightly. Just getting into the playoffs is hard.”
“I’m excited about this group.”
4. VINCE DUNN, DEFENSEMAN: Like Schwartz, it’s easy to glance on his Cup winning experience and stop there. But Vince Dunn of now is different than Vince Dunn of four years ago, now with new and improved play driving, puck moving, and minutes-eating approach that blueliners with names such as Hedman, Doughty, and Makar take on.
This year’s team MVP took the next big step with a top end role vacated last year by Mark Giordano. Dunn and Larsson were nearly inseparable, chomping on top end minutes and asked to keep vicious offensive top line threats in check, night after night. Dunn will shoulder that responsibility facing Nathan MacKinnon, while asked to engineer the Kraken attack and power play suiting his breakthrough, career-high, 14-goal and 64-point campaign.
“Minutes have been pretty high all year,” said Hakstol on Dunn’s paring.
“As a pair they’ve been together now, able to grow a little chemistry, know each other pretty well, communicate every other pretty well, and they’ve done a good job for us.”
5. JARED McCANN, FORWARD: What the Pittsburgh Penguins and Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t need, or even want, is the Seattle Kraken gained. They now have a 40-goal scorer, in year one of a five-year contract extension, that learned about leadership from the school of Sidney Crosby and three Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh.
McCann scored 13 of his final 40 goals when the Kraken needed it most, during the stretch drive starting in March that unlocked the playoffs. They will begin on the road for this playoff series, and yield home ice advantage to virtually any other team they may face. There’s also the fact McCann led the Kraken with 23 goals on the road this season, a recipe for needed production in a volatile atmosphere.
Not to mention, the lessons he learned from a Crosby locker room, with a twist of Ted Lasso:
“The biggest thing is trying to stay even keeled,” said McCann. “Keep your emotions in check. Don’t get too high, or don’t get down on yourselves when a goal does go in. When a play breaks down, you’ve got to have a memory of a gold fish. Just got to try to move on as quick as possible.”
6. JORDAN EBERLE, FORWARD: Leadership in the dressing room begins with the elder statesman at age 32, wearing an “A” on his jersey as alternate captain for a team who doesn’t have one – he’s essentially like a captain, and comes off his second straight 20-goal season along with the lessons of back-to-back trips to the Conference Final with the Islanders, along with 62 games of postseason experience.
Eberle pointed out the garden variety mix of teammates who have only been together for two seasons but are seasoned with Cup and deep postseason runs.
“Playoffs are fun,” said Eberle. “You come to the rink and feel that extra pressure, but that’s always the time guys show up to play, that makes it more fun.”
7. MATTY BENIERS, FORWARD: It’s incredibly demanding to place the weight of playoff success on the shoulders of a forward who just scored his first career NHL goal one year ago and was in a college classroom 13 months ago. But the facts of a 24-goal and 57-point season, while only taking one single penalty that will likely take home the Calder Trophy and potentially the Lady Byng Trophy in two months, is intertwined with a challenge that can begin to build a story of a legend, or hard lessons that will sharpen him for the future.
This will be Beniers’ first signature test of his NHL career. To go toe-to-toe with the defending Stanley Cup champion will offer a test of endurance and strength, asked to produce with McCann and Eberle while holding the weight top end defensive matchups and face-offs.
It's a good time to lean on leaders.
“We’ve talked about it,” said Beniers, in conversations with veterans such as Eberle and Gourde about the trait of intensity.
“Blocking a shot, isn’t just blocking a shot. It’s showing your teammates you’re committed and showing you’re all in, 100 percent. Everything means a little bit more.”