More: Playoff schedule
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Are the Stanley Cup playoffs finally back to normal?
As normal as a two-month battle of attrition that can be upended by a hot goaltender can be.
It was a full 82-game season in the NHL for the first time since 2018-19. No neutral-site "bubble" cities for the playoffs. Fans at full capacity in buildings. All four divisions back to their traditional configurations after last season's COVID-necessitated realignment. Although we miss that all-Canadian division, this means we're back to the wild-card conference playoff format the NHL has used since 2014. The only thing abnormal about the 2022 playoffs is that they're starting on May 2, because of the Olympic break this season.
NHL players didn't go to the Olympics, did they?
Sadly, they did not, although our loss was Slovakia's gain. Although the NHL and its players collectively bargained to allow them to play in the 2022 Beijing Olympics, there was an out clause if the 2021-22 season was materially impacted by the COVID pandemic.
Which it was: 131 games were postponed and rescheduled this season. Hundreds of players and coaches entered the league's COVID protocols after positive tests, especially when the omicron variant arrived. By the end of the season there were 1,004 skaters and an NHL-record 119 goalies who played at least a game this season. Which is one reason (of many) why goal scoring went so cuckoo-bananas.
How much was scoring up this season?
Way up. Like, "some games looked like low-scoring NFL games" up.
With an average of 6.3 goals per game, this was the highest-scoring NHL season in 26 years. The NHL saw eight players break 100 points, the most since 1995-96, and 51 players score 30 or more goals, the highest total since 1993-94. There were historic individual performances, like Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews becoming the first 60-goal scorer since Steven Stamkos in 2011-12 and Nashville Predators defenseman Roman Josi scoring 96 points to become the highest-scoring defenseman in 29 years.
There were historic team performances, too, like the Florida Panthers scoring 340 goals to become the highest-scoring NHL team since the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins.
Wait, are the Florida Panthers good? The same Florida Panthers that haven't won a playoff series in 26 years?
One and the same. The Panthers won the Presidents' Trophy for having the NHL's best record (122 points), just the second time in franchise history they crossed 100 points in a season. Left wing Jonathan Huberdeau set a team record with 115 points. The rich got richer at the NHL trade deadline, as the Panthers acquired Philadelphia Flyers star (and pending free agent) Claude Giroux.
Incredibly, this success comes with a first-time head coach behind the bench: Andrew Brunette, who took over on an interim basis after head coach Joel Quenneville's resignation following the release of an investigation into how the Chicago Blackhawks handled allegations by Kyle Beach that former video coach Brad Aldrich sexually assaulted him in 2010. Under Brunette, the Panthers won the Atlantic Division in a walk. But then again, it was a walk for the entire Eastern Conference playoff field this season.
What happened to parity?
It had no home in the East. For the first time in NHL history, all eight teams in the Eastern Conference playoffs cracked 100 points in the standings. There was a 16-point gap between the final wild-card team (the Washington Capitals) and the highest-placing non-playoff team (the New York Islanders). This made for a playoff race that was "over at Halloween," as one NHL coach sarcastically told me. But it was a different story in the West.
What was the West playoff race like?
Intense! The Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars held down the final two wild-card spots as the Vegas Golden Knights and Vancouver Canucks mounted challenges in the last month of the season, only to fall short. Dallas secured its playoff spot in the last week of the season. Nashville did too, but fell to the last seed in the West after blowing a lead in its final game at the Arizona Coyotes.
Wait, the Golden Knights didn't make the playoffs?
Nope. For the first time in their long, storied history (five years) the Golden Knights did not qualify for the postseason. They lost a de facto playoff game in Dallas on April 26 that all but ended their season.
They were one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup this season, even before a blockbuster trade for disgruntled Buffalo Sabres star Jack Eichel in November. But a slew of injuries to key players like winger Mark Stone and goaltender Robin Lehner-- and salary-cap headaches of their own making -- led to their demise.
Fans around the NHL relished in the schadenfreude, particularly because of the way Vegas unceremoniously parted ways with goalie Marc-Andre Fleury last offseason, trading him to the Blackhawks. In the end, he's in the playoffs, and the Golden Knights are not.
Where is Marc-Andre Fleury playing now?
The Minnesota Wild, who acquired him at the trade deadline from Chicago. He's gone 9-2-0 since then. Other significant additions to playoff teams include Giroux and defenseman Ben Chiarot (Panthers), defenseman Mark Giordano (Maple Leafs), forward Brandon Hagel (Lightning), center Max Domi (Hurricanes), winger Rickard Rakell (Penguins), defenseman Hampus Lindholm (Bruins), defenseman Josh Manson and wingerArtturi Lehkonen (Avalanche), defenseman Nick Leddy (Blues) and defensemanBrett Kulak (Oilers).
Who is the favorite to win the Stanley Cup?
According to Caesars Sportsbook, the Colorado Avalanche are the top choice to win the Cup (+330), after finishing second to the Panthers (+550) in the Presidents' Trophy race (119 points). They won the Central Division and will face the Predators, the second wild-card team, in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. The Avalanche caught a break as Predators standout goalie Juuse Saros suffered a late-season ankle injury that could impact his status for the series. Not that they needed a break, given that the Avalanche had 80-point seasons from Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, Nazem Kadri and Cale Makar. Plus, goalie Darcy Kuemper has been one of the NHL's best in 2022. The Avs are ready to break through.
Here are the rest of the Cup future odds, per Caesars:
- Calgary Flames: +750
- Toronto Maple Leafs: +1000
- Carolina Hurricanes: +1100
- Tampa Bay Lightning: +1100
- Minnesota Wild: +1600
- Boston Bruins: +1600
- New York Rangers: +1600
- Edmonton Oilers: +1800
- St. Louis Blues: +2000
- Pittsburgh Penguins: +2000
- Washington Capitals: +4000
- Dallas Stars: +5000
- Nashville Predators: +5000
- Los Angeles Kings: +5000
What are the other first-round series in the West?
Minnesota Wild (No. 2, Central Division) vs. St. Louis Blues (No. 3, Central Division). The Wild had their best offensive season in franchise history, powered by a 47-goal season from star winger Kirill Kaprizov. The Blues had their best offensive season since the 1990-91 season, powered by star winger Vladimir Tarasenko (82 points), who went from requesting a trade last offseason to leading the Blues in scoring. This could be a beautifully bruising series.
Calgary Flames (No. 1, Pacific Division) vs. Dallas Stars (first wild card). The Flames had three 40-goal scorers in Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau, a pending free agent who tallied 115 points. They also had one of the league's top goalies in Jacob Markstrom. The Stars could be a considered a one-line team, but it was an extraordinary line: Joe Pavelski (81 points), Roope Hintz (37 goals) and 22-year-old breakout star Jason Robertson, who had 41 goals.
Edmonton Oilers (No. 2, Pacific Division) vs. Los Angeles Kings (No. 3, Pacific Division). The Connor and Leon show was in full effect, as McDavid (123 points) and Draisaitl (110) carried the Oilers to the postseason. Another big factor in their success: Swapping out coach Dave Tippett with interim coach Jay Woodcroft in February, which turned around several metrics for Edmonton.
The Kings were one of the surprises of the NHL, making the playoffs for the first time since 2018. It was the veterans who led the way, including centers Anze Kopitar and Phillip Danault as well as a resurgent season from goalie Jonathan Quick. One bummer for this matchup: Kings star defenseman Drew Doughty is out for the season with a wrist injury. They could use him here.
What's the best matchup in the East?
The Toronto Maple Leafs, No. 2 in the Atlantic, vs. the Tampa Bay Lightning, the division's No. 3 team. There are enough storylines here for 10 series.
The Leafs haven't won a playoff series since 2004 -- including last season's stunning first-round loss to Montreal -- and are searching for their first Stanley Cup win since 1967. They have MVP favorite Auston Matthewscentering a dominant line with Mitch Marner and 26-year-old rookie Michael Bunting. They also have questions about their goaltending and postseason fortitude.
The Lightning, meanwhile, are trying to become the NHL's first team to win three straight Stanley Cup championships since 1982. You'll remember many of the names: Steven Stamkos (106 points), Victor Hedman (85 points), Brayden Point, goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and winger Nikita Kucherov, whom you may remember from his boisterous (and shirtless) post-victory news conference last summer.
This is the most compelling playoff series of the first round, full stop. Especially when you consider what the fallout in Toronto could be if the Leafs go out in the opening round for the sixth straight season.
What are the other matchups in the East?
Florida Panthers (No. 1, Atlantic Division) vs. Washington Capitals (second wild card). The high-octane Panthers take on the Capitals, who watched superstar Alex Ovechkin miss the last few games of the regular season after injuring his shoulder on a slide into the boards. If he's not 100 percent, Washington is in trouble; then again, given the state of their goaltending and the Panthers' offense, they're in trouble anyway.
Carolina Hurricanes (No. 1, Metro Division) vs. Boston Bruins (first wild card). The Hurricanes had their most successful season as a franchise (116 points) thanks to a balanced offensive attack and outstanding goaltending from Frederik Andersen, who unfortunately suffered a late-season injury that could impact his status for this series. The Bruins no longer have playoff mainstays in goalie Tuukka Rask (who retired) and center David Krejci (who left to play in the Czech Republic). But they still have a core of Patrice Bergeron (a pending free agent), Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and Charlie McAvoy, supported by a cast that includes Taylor Hall and Hampus Lindholm. The Bruins have eliminated the Hurricanes in two of the past three postseasons.
New York Rangers (No. 2, Metro Division) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (No. 3, Metro Division). The Rangers are in a first-round series for the first time since 2017 thanks in large part to Igor Shesterkin, the 26-year-old goalie who should win the Vezina Trophy in a walk and could get serious MVP consideration as well. But it's not a one-man show; the Rangers have also gotten tremendous seasons from forwards Artemi Panarin (96 points), Mika Zibanejad (81 points), Chris Kreider (52 goals) and last year's Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox. Their window to win is just opening.
The Penguins, meanwhile, are trying to keep theirs propped open. Sidney Crosby (84 points in 69 games) was their MVP, in a season that could be the last ride for the Pittsburgh core: Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Bryan Rust are among the team's pending free agents. One point of concern: Goalie Tristan Jarry, outstanding in the regular season, has a broken foot, and his availability for this series could be impacted. Casey DeSmith would have the crease in his absence.
So who wins the Stanley Cup?
Better question: How will the Stanley Cup be won? If the playoffs continue the offensive bonanza of the regular season, that will favor teams like the Panthers and the Leafs. (And keep in mind that if Florida wins, that means 24-year veteran Joe Thornton lifts the Cup for the first time.)
If the postseason reverts back to tight-checking, low-event hockey as is playoff tradition, perhaps it favors teams like the Flames and Hurricanes. Then you have a team like the Lightning, who have shown in the past two seasons that they can win in either manner.
No one knows what to expect, which is the unique charm of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Well, that and a championship trophy that can be used as both a champagne glass and a beer mug. Take that, Larry O'Brien Trophy!
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