Right about the time the Boston Bruins made a “C” change by naming Patrice Bergeron captain, the Vegas Golden Knights decided to have a captain for the first time and knew Mark Stone was the only man for the job.
“It became clear that he is the leader of the team,” Vegas general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. “Him wearing the ‘C’ allowed him to take another step both as a player, as a teammate and then of course as a leader on our team.”
The next step is the second round, and every team to advance did so in large part because of a captain leading the way. Bergeron scored twice in Boston’s first-round series clincher, Stone had five points to help the Golden Knights survive Minnesota in seven games, Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog put up eight points in a sweep of St. Louis and Carolina’s Jordan Staal scored an overtime winner in a hard-fought series against Nashville.
After the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup last year despite Steven Stamkos playing just one playoff game — and scoring a memorable goal in the final — this NHL postseason is showing the value of captains at the most important time of the year.
“There’s obviously a lot of responsibility that comes with being a captain,” said Stamkos, who had two points in Tampa Bay’s clinching game against Florida to give him eight in the series. “You want to go out there and do whatever it takes to win, and the teams that are advancing, usually their leadership group and the guys that need to step up have stepped up.”
Every healthy captain of a team that won in the first round recorded at least four points, and those who couldn’t take the ice became rallying points. The New York Islanders see captain Anders Lee around the rink rehabbing his season-ending knee injury and get his thoughts on games and developments, while the Toronto Maple Leafs rebounded from John Tavares’ scary Game 1 injury with a focus on playing for him.
“We’re playing for each other and he’s obviously a key part,” Islanders forward Mathew Barzal said of Lee. “He’s been doing everything he can on the sidelines to be a great teammate and great captain on the outside.”
Stamkos knows all about that after becoming the first captain in more than 50 years to hoist the Cup after not playing in the final game. Lee could join that rare company if New York wins its first title since 1983, though Toronto hopes to get Tavares back at some point from a concussion and knee injury.
The rest of the captains who are playing are making good on the sports cliché of leading by example.
Nowhere is that more true than Colorado. At 19 years and 286 days, Landeskog became the youngest captain in NHL history in 2012, and in his ninth season with the “C,” he took exception to a hit from Blues forward Brayden Schenn on linemate Mikko Rantanen in the Avalanche’s playoff opener and set the tone for the series with a Gordie Howe Hat Trick: a goal, an assist and a fight.
“The way he played, the way he showed up for every game, that’s a sign of a real true leader,” teammate Andre Burakovsky said. “He’s huge for this team.”
Staal was huge for the Hurricanes beyond his OT heroics against the Predators. After a weird co-captain situation a few years ago in Carolina, Staal is showing the same leadership tendencies of brother Eric, who was the franchise’s captain from 2009-2016.
“When you have a guy like that as your leader who does it each and every shift, doesn’t take any shifts off, it’s easy for the other guys to look at that and react the same way,” GM Don Waddell said. “Jordan, he’s maybe not the vocal guy that some captains are. But certainly how he approaches the game, prepares for each game, each shift is something that reflects upon the entire team.”
That’s Bergeron, too. He succeeded Zdeno Chara as captain when the big defensemen left for Washington, and it’s easy to forget Bergeron didn’t have the “C” on his chest the entire time.
The Bruins want to make sure Bergeron is appreciated not just for his scoring but for his penalty killing, work ethic and more.
“He plays a game that you need to play to win,” linemate Brad Marchand said. “We love when he scores some big goals and he does it a lot, but his game is measured a lot more by the way he plays and his defensive game and two-way game and his responsibility, so don’t let that get lost with the goals that he scores. But we love when he does that, too.”
Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler probably loved tying for the team lead in scoring in a surprising sweep of Edmonton more than taking a puck to the midsection in the series clincher. Wheeler joked that he and his wife have three beautiful kids and don’t plan on having more, and acknowledged that come playoff time, “you’ll put anything in front of” a shot to keep it out of the net.
Wheeler paid a painful price, but that’s just what captains do.
“This is a guy that’s a point-per-game player — a top, top player in the league and for him to eat a shot like that, it just rallies everybody,” Jets defenseman Dylan DeMelo said. “That’s as important as scoring a goal. When you see your captain do that, it’s a trickle-down effect that everybody in the lineup’s going to play that hard and do the right things like that.”
AP Sports Writers Pat Graham and Aaron Beard contributed to this report.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno