Believe it or not, there will be fourteen other teams besides the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Rangers participating in the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and for the first time in three postseasons the make-up of the playoffs will be normal.
Recall (in case you forgot, ha) that COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the 2019-20 regular season, then delayed the playoffs until the following August with the two Canadian bubbles and qualifying rounds and all sorts of shenanigans. Last season was a little less shenanigans-y but there were still bubbles and the Eastern Conference’s Montreal Canadiens won the Clarence Campbell bowl, typically awarded to the Western Conference champion. At the end of it all les Habitants got smoked in five games by the Tampa Bay Lightning who repeated as Stanley Cup champions.
As with every year, the calculus for a champion to get back to the championship the following year gets more complicated. After the Penguins went back-to-back in 2016 and 2017, the team saw a number of key veterans leave in the offseason and, although they finished second in the Metropolitan Division, ultimately Pittsburgh fell in the second round of the 2017-18 playoffs. It will be interesting to see how the Lightning, finishing third in the Atlantic Division this season, survive their roster turnover and how far they go in the postseason. After all, they did not go through quite as radical a change as the Penguins did, and they’re heading into the postseason healthy and on a decent run of play.
I’ll get into the Penguins/Rangers series for the Game 1 Gameday. For now, let’s get to my previews and predictions for the other seven series in the First Round of the playoffs.
Metro #1 Carolina Hurricanes vs. Wild Card #1 Boston Bruins
(Carolina won season series 3-0)
It looked close for a minute there, but for the first time in the history of the franchise (going all the way back when they were Boston’s neighbors in Hartford), the Hurricanes won their division for the second consecutive season. In fact Carolina only dropped as low as fourth in the division once this season, back in mid-to-late January but, because of the polarity within the division, at no point were their playoff hopes in doubt. At the end of the season the Hurricanes finished with the second-best record in their history. The third-best saw them lifting the first Stanley Cup after the lockout in 2006, while their best was last season. Despite their best, they crashed into the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round and were disposed of in five games by the eventual champions.
The Hurricanes had the fourth-best goal differential in the League this year, led by their League-best 200 goals allowed, the fewest in the League. They have a very strong defensive corps led by Jaccob Slavin and Rangers cast-off Tony DeAngelo, and they had been backstopped by one of the best goaltenders in the League, Frederik Andersen. Andersen is in what I would call the second-tier of goaltenders this year, along with Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy in terms of goals saved above expected (GSAx, per Money Puck). But a late injury has kept Andersen sidelined since a 7-4 loss against the Colorado Avalanche on April 16. There has yet to be any word on his status, so Carolina may be pinning their hopes on Antti Raanta, who had one of his career best seasons backing up Andersen.
They’ll have a good test in the first round against the Boston Bruins. Carolina won all three games against Boston by a combined 16-1 score, but Andersen played in all three games and the last meeting between the two teams was February 10. Since then the Bruins went 25-10-2 as they faced little pressure from behind and seemingly no desire to catch up to rest of the Atlantic Division (although they did finish one point behind the third-place Lightning). Boston, as usual, has been a very good defensive team as well, finishing with the fourth-fewest goals against, and the tandem of Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman may as well be interchangeable in terms of quality, although Ullmark has had the better season.
It has the makings of a close series, as I wouldn’t ever completely count out the Bruins until Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand are retired. I’m going to say Hurricanes in 7, but if Andersen is available for Carolina it’ll probably be over sooner. Whichever team wins this game faces the winner of the Pittsburgh/New York series.
Atlantic #1 Florida Panthers vs. Wild Card #2 Washington Capitals
(Florida won season series 2-1)
What a difference 67 goals makes. Despite allowing as many goals as Washington (tied for 12th fewest in the League), Florida scored a League-leading 337 goals en route to ending up with the best record in the League (versus Washington’s 270, 10th-best in the League). Thus, a major factor in this series will be the goaltending. The Panthers’ Sergei Bobrovsky has once again been amongst the best in the League in GSAx and just in general. Meanwhile, the Capitals will probably lean on Vitek Vanacek, but neither he nor Ilya Samsonov have been particularly good this season. Washington will need one of them to distinguish themselves if they have any hopes of getting past a very deep Panthers team. They’ll also need Alex Ovechkin to be healthy and in form. It seems like a lot to ask, and I don’t expect it to work out for the Capitals. Panthers in 5.
Atlantic #2 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Atlantic #3 Tampa Bay Lightning
(season series split 2-2)
The Maple Leafs are hoping to break a five season streak of first round exits against a foe they have yet to face in the first round. If the playoffs had started before the All-Star break, at least Toronto could have gone into them with confidence in their goaltending, but Jack Campbell cooled off quite a bit from where he was in the first half of the season and the Maple Leafs have been close to a .500 team since. On the other end of the ice is the dependable Andrei Vasilevskiy, once again backstopping a Lightning team that allowed the sixth-fewest goals in the League. He’ll have his hands full against the second-best offense in the League. I’m expecting it to be a feisty showdown, as the last time these two teams met on April 21, Tampa won 8-1 that featured a combined 114 penalty minutes.
As for my prediction, I’m thinking Tampa Bay in 6, as a veteran Lightning team with strong goaltending will keep Toronto at bay.
#1 Central Colorado Avalanche vs. #2 Wild Card Nashville Predators
(Nashville won season series 3-1)
Colorado spent much of the second half of the season as the team with the best record in the League, only ceding that position to the Florida Panthers in the final week of the season. It’s probably for the best, as the Presidents’ Trophy can be something of a curse as only two teams since the lockout have won the Presidents’ Trophy and the Stanley Cup in the same season. In any event, the Avalanche had the fourth-best offense in the League and a very good defense as well, with goaltender Darcy Kuemper up towards the top of the League in GSAx. They had seven players scored 20+ goals this season, including likely Norris finalist Cale Makar, who finished the season second in the League amongst defensemen in points and led the League in goals scored by a blueliner.
But while Makar cooled off towards the end of the season, it was Predators defenseman Roman Josi who continued to pile up points for Nashville. Josi finished the season with 96 points, good for 11th in the League amongst all skaters and the most points by a defenseman since Phil Housley scored 97 points for the original Winnipeg Jets back in the 1992-93 season. The Predators were not a heavy-shooting team (ninth-fewest shots on goal in the League, and second-fewest among playoff teams), but they matched Colorado’s shooting percentage as both teams had the sixth-best shooting percentage in the League.
Looking at the season series, one might have though Nashville might have had a chance in this series, but the big problem for Nashville will be the absence of goaltender Juuse Saros, who suffered an ankle sprain in the third-to-last game of the season against the Calgary Flames. Saros was right there with Kuemper in GSAx, which would have made the goaltending matchup a wash; neither backup David Rittich nor third-stringer Connor Ingram are anywhere near Saros in terms of quality. If the Predators were facing any other team, they might have had a better chance, but Colorado’s depth would have been a lot to handle to begin with and now it might be…an avalanche. Colorado in 5.
Central #2 Minnesota Wild vs. Central #3 St. Louis Blues
(St. Louis won season series 3-0)
Two points in the standings separate these two teams, the closest of any first round matchup. Those extra two points may have come from the last two meetings between St. Louis and Minnesota on April 8 (a 4-3 St. Louis overtime win) and April 16 (a 6-5 St. Louis overtime win); the loser points helped to keep Minnesota ahead of St. Louis, despite the Blues winning both of these late-season meetings. Statistically the two teams are also very close in a lot of categories (example: the teams were first and second in the League in shooting percentage), but special teams is a huge advantage for the Blues as they had the second-best power play (Minnesota: 17th) and the fifth-best penalty kill (Minnesota: 26th).
I still see St. Louis holding the advantage in this series because of the goaltending matchup: Blues goaltender Ville Husso has been among the best in the League. While Cam Talbot has been good for Minnesota, the Wild still went out at the trade deadline and acquired Marc-Andre Fleury from the Chicago Blackhawks. Fleury played just as well as Talbot had all season statistically, but had a 9-2 record in his 11 appearances, and, of course, he has the championship background with the Penguins. Will Minnesota go with Fleury instead of Talbot? If they don’t, will they come to regret it? In either event, I’m thinking St. Louis in 7.
Pacific #1 Calgary Flames vs. Wild Card #1 Dallas Stars
(Calgary won season series 2-1)
This postseason could be a big one for the Flames, as they finished the season with the second-best record in franchise history, second only to the 1988-89 campaign that saw them win their only Stanley Cup. Offensively, they scored the sixth-most goals in the League despite being top heavy, but that top is awesome with four players scoring 35+ goals and two, Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk, going over 100 points. Their blueliners don’t contribute a lot offensively but they have made up for that by allowing the fifth-fewest shots against. Starting goaltender Jakob Markstrom may not get a lot of Vezina consideration but he very quietly put together a career year including backstopping the Flames to a League-leading nine shutouts.
Dallas comes into the playoffs as the only team with a negative goal differential on the season, partially due to having scored the 12th fewest goals in the League, the lowest of all the playoff teams. Their top two leading scorers are on opposite ends of the age spectrum: 37-year-old Joe Pavelski with a nearly-point-per-game season with 81 points in 82 games; and 22-year-old sophomore and Calder runner-up from last season Jason Robertson, with 79 points in 74 games, including a team-leading 41 goals, a League-leading 11 of those of the game-winning variety. In goal for the Stars will be Jake Oettinger, also in his second season and looking like a consistent option for Dallas.
It looks to me that the Stars won’t be too much trouble for a deep and serious Calgary team that will be hoping to advance to the second round of the playoffs for just the second time since they made the Stanley Cup Finals in 2003-04. Flames in 4.
Pacific #2 Edmonton Oilers vs. Pacific #3 Los Angeles Kings
(Edmonton won season series 3-1)
The new two-headed monster of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisatl, combining for 99 goals and 233 points, will be looking to advance past the first round since the 2016-17 season. They’ll have to do so against a Kings team that found its way into the playoffs late in the season thanks mostly to everyone else blowing it. Really LA’s only hope rests on the seemingly ageless wonder, goaltender Jonathan Quick. If he and the rest of the Kings can slow down Edmonton’s offense, they may stand a chance. I don’t see it being too likely though. Oilers in 5.