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Sports Wild cards running rampant in this year’s NHL playoffs

Columbus Blue Jackets' Oliver Bjorkstrand scores against Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy during the second period of Game 4 of their first-round series, in Columbus, Ohio on April 16, 2019.

Jay LaPrete/The Associated Press

Wild-card winners are the story of this season’s NHL playoffs.

The Columbus Blue Jackets, Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars upended the NHL’s No. 1, No. 2 and No. 8 teams respectively in the post-season’s first round.

The Carolina Hurricanes pushed the No. 4 Washington Capitals to a seventh game Wednesday.

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“There is nothing to pick between the teams,” Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock observed. “It’s exciting to be a fan because your team has a chance.”

Parity may be exciting for hockey fans, but it left the Tampa Bay Lightning and Calgary Flames feeling bereft.

The Lightning ran away with the President’s Trophy that goes to the team with the best regular-season record, only to be swept in four straight games by Columbus, the eighth and final playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Flames topped the Western Conference with their best season since winning the Stanley Cup in 1989, but went down in five games to the Avalanche, the eighth seed in the West.

Upon his team’s elimination, Calgary head coach Bill Peters indicated he would reach out to Lightning counterpart Jon Cooper to compare notes.

Peters did that, but emotions were still so raw, they postponed their “what the heck went wrong?” conversation to a later date.

“It’s a bitter pill,” Peters said. “He needs more time. I want more time. We’ll bump into each other twice this summer. We’ll do it then.

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“It’ll be a long summer, I’ll tell you that.”

Dallas didn’t stay in its underdog lane. The Stars knocked off the Predators, who topped the Central Division, in six games.

The Hurricanes are giving the defending Stanley Cup champion Capitals all they can handle.

So what’s with the wild cards in 2019?

“People don’t realize how close the league is,” Flames captain Mark Giordano said. “First to eight seed, there’s maybe a difference of five to 10 wins.

“It just shows you it is so important to get in (the playoffs) because literally every team that gets in has a chance at winning it.”

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The salary cap is an equalizer, but as in most things, timing is everything.

The playoffs were simply an extension of a regular season in which wild-card teams sprinted down the stretch to make playoffs.

The top seeds could gear down somewhat the last week of the season and rest players.

The challenge, however, was gearing back up to match the level of an opposing team already at full gallop.

“You look at Colorado, you know they were buzzing going into the playoffs and playing their best hockey with a month left in the season,” Flames goaltender Mike Smith said. “They get in and they kept that going in the playoffs.

“We played our best hockey not with a week left in the season. We were resting guys and didn’t really play a meaningful game for quite some time before the playoffs.

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“They were better at this time of the year. It’s pretty simple.”

Finishing with 99 points apiece in the Central Division, the Winnipeg Jets and St. Louis Blues were an equitable matchup with the Blues advancing in six games.

Jets captain Blake Wheeler believes economics and playoff format contributed to upsets elsewhere, although he calls Tampa Bay’s ouster “a pretty considerable anomaly.”

“It’s the salary cap that gives every team a fighting chance,” Wheeler explained. “Maybe the way it’s structured now, the playoff format, it gives those lower seeds a bit more of an opportunity as well.

“Anyone can beat anyone. That’s a fact nowadays. I don’t think teams go into a series feeling like a heavy favourite or underdog anymore. It’s right there for anyone.”

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