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The five most impressive debuts of the 2018 NHL playoffs

From long-awaited playoff opportunities to the first chance to shine for some talented youngsters, the opening couple of nights of NHL post-season action featured some tremendous debuts.

Post-season debuts can be a tricky thing, because you don’t need to be an NHL freshman or a relative newcomer to be stepping onto the big stage for the first time in your career. Just ask Evander Kane and Taylor Hall.

On Thursday night, both players made their playoff debuts — Kane with the Sharks, Hall with the Devils — and did so after waiting oh-so-long for a chance at post-season hockey. For Kane, the fourth overall selection in 2009, his first trip to the playoffs came after a nine-season NHL tenure that has taken him from Atlanta to Winnipeg to Buffalo and finally to San Jose, where he landed as a trade deadline acquisition, though one who saw his stock drop as the season wore on. Meanwhile, Hall, the first overall pick in 2010, finally stepped foot on playoff ice after eight seasons and in his second campaign in New Jersey following the shocking trade that made the former Edmonton Oilers’ top choice a Devil back in June 2016.

The long-awaited debuts paid off, too, as both players made an instant impact. They weren’t the only ones to do so, however. So, with all eight Game 1s of the first round in the books, here’s a look at the five best opening game debuts of the 2018 post-season:

EVANDER KANE, SAN JOSE SHARKS
Ahead of San Jose’s Game 1 tilt with the Anaheim Ducks, Kane said he believed he was a “playoff player,” speaking with regard to the way he plays — with skill, with speed and with a certain physicality that seems built for post-season hockey. The thing is no one really knew whether that was the case or not. Kane has been in the league for nine seasons, he has played nearly 600 games, but the closest he’s been to a playoff game is when he’s watched it on TV. If his play in his post-season debut is any indication, though, it turns out Kane couldn’t have been more on the money about being made for the NHL’s second season.

In his debut, Kane did a little bit of everything. He threw three hits. He blocked one shot. He won a faceoff. He fired six pucks on goal. He skated more than 18 minutes. Oh, and most importantly, he scored twice. Kane’s first goal was a power play marker, coming when he was left all alone in front with oodles of time to beat Ducks netminder John Gibson. Kane’s second was highlight reel-caliber, as he cut back across the ice after taking a pass from Joe Pavelski and buried a backhand past an outstretched Gibson. And thanks to the Sharks’ shutout, Kane’s two tallies meant he scored both the winner and the insurance marker as San Jose took a 1-0 series lead.

TAYLOR HALL, NEW JERSEY DEVILS
Hall has been waiting for this for a long time — 529 regular season games without a post-season appearance — and it was he who almost singlehandedly drove the Devils into the post-season. He was nothing short of dominant throughout the 2017-18 campaign, scoring 39 goals and 93 points in 76 games, and, on most nights, he basically was the New Jersey offense. He outscored his next highest-scoring teammate by an eye-popping 41 points and Hall wasn’t about to let the best offensive season of his career end once Game 82 was all said and done. So, in Game 1 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Hall went back to work.

It started after the midway point of the second frame. With the Devils trailing 3-0, Hall was in the right place at the right time to steal a misfired pass and notch his first career playoff goal. Then, midway through the second frame, Hall put his patience on display before notching an assist on a Travis Zajac power play goal. Unfortunately for Hall, though, he didn’t get near enough support on his two-point night and New Jersey came up short, losing 5-2 in Game 1.

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PIERRE-LUC DUBOIS, COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
The first quarter of the campaign wasn’t all that brilliant for Dubois, and there were some people who were surprised that the 19-year-old was sticking around in the NHL when it came time for the Blue Jackets to decide whether they wanted to burn a year of his entry-level deal or send him back to major junior. Dubois found his fit around the 20th game of the season, though, and did so not as a grinding forward but as a top-line, two-way pivot. Over the final 62 games of the season, Dubois scored 18 goals and 44 points, all the while averaging upwards of 18 minutes per night.

So, how did he follow that up in his playoff debut? First, he had the primary assist on the Blue Jackets’ second goal of the game, which was a game-tying tally, and once the game went to overtime, it was Dubois who started the play that led to Artemi Panarin’s game-winning goal six minutes into the extra frame. Dubois also went 14-12 on the dot, threw two hits, blocked one shot and came close to 24 minutes of ice time. Only three forwards saw more ice time in Game 1 action across the NHL.

PATRIK LAINE, WINNIPEG JETS
When the Minnesota Wild took a 2-1 lead on Zach Parise’s 2-on-1 tap-in early in the third period, the air was sucked out of Bell MTS Place in Winnipeg. A once-raucous crowd was reduced to whispers. But less than a minute after Parise’s tally, Patrik Laine lit the place up in an instant. Trailing the play, Laine scooped up a drop pass from Paul Stastny and fired an absolute laser over the glove of Devan Dubnyk to bring the game level. 

That was Laine’s only point of the game, so, statistically, his debut may not have been as impressive as that of Kane, Hall or Dubois in that regard, but Laine’s timing and the importance of his tally made it significant in its own way as it opened the door for Joe Morrow’s late game-winner. Of course, we shouldn’t have expected anything less than a goal from the 19-year-old. He’s had a nose for the net since he stepped foot on NHL ice, and Winnipeg is hoping his 44 goals during the regular season were only an appetizer before the post-season’s main course.

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
All right, so it’s not an individual, it’s a whole franchise. But if you’re talking about impressive debuts, how can you overlook the Golden Knights’ performance in Game 1 against the Los Angeles Kings? It took Vegas all of three-and-a-half minutes to register the franchise’s first playoff goal courtesy of Shea Theodore. It took them a single game to earn their first playoff shutout, and for that the hat tip goes to Marc-Andre Fleury. And while other expansion franchises in recent years took ages to get their first post-season win, the Golden Knights got No. 1 on their first attempt in their inaugural campaign.

For comparison’s sake, it took the Minnesota Wild three seasons to win a playoff game, the Nashville Predators got their first post-season win six seasons in, the Columbus Blue Jackets had to wait 13 years and it’s been 18 years since the Winnipeg Jets/Atlanta Thrashers franchise debuted. The 2.0 version of the Jets won their first playoff game on Wednesday. So, hats off to the Golden Knights, though we shouldn’t be surprised by anything this team accomplishes at this point.

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