It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
Typically that’s a phrase one would hear around Christmas. But for hockey fans, there’s no better time of year to enjoy the game than the playoffs. With storylines galore and the intensity at an all-time high, witnessing 16 teams battling for the right to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup is a sight to behold.
Throughout the postseason, Buffalo Sports Page will provide you with series previews and predictions from the start of round one – which begins this weekend – through the finals. Previews will become more in-depth as the playoffs roll along, but for now here is our analysis of the first round.
Florida Panthers (1) vs. Washington Capitals (WC2)
Florida has reached the postseason in three straight years for the first time in franchise history, and the promotion of Andrew Brunette to replace future Hall of Fame coach Joel Quenneville has given the Panthers some much-needed guidance behind the bench. Brunette didn’t take over a roster that was devoid of talent either, as he inherited a team bolstered at forward by Jonathan Huberdeau and Alex Barkov, bolstered by emerging youngsters like Sam Reinhart, Anthony Duclair and Carter Verhaeghe and steady pros in Patric Hornqvist, Mason Marchment, Claude Giroux, Joe Thornton and Sam Bennett. Defensively the Panthers are normally paced by Aaron Ekblad but he has missed time throughout the year – allowing others like MacKenzie Weegar, Radko Gudas, Gustav Forsling Ben Chiarot and Brandon Montour to step up. The aging Sergei Bobrovsky has continued to struggle in net, which has allowed understudy Spencer Knight to breathe down his neck.
Despite winning the Cup four years ago, the weight of expectations is back on the Washington Capitals’ backs. Led by the usual suspects – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie and Tom Wilson – the Capitals have rarely struggled for offense, and pickups like Anthony Mantha and Conor Sheary have bolstered their depth. Defensively they are still led by John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov, and Justin Schultz, Marcus Johansson and Johan Larsson have been nice additions throughout the lineup. Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek have held down the fort in goal after the departure of Braden Holtby. But after three straight first round flameouts, Peter Laviolette and company have to be feeling the heat.
Panthers in six. Florida’s scoring depth will be too much for Ovechkin and company to overcome.
Toronto Maple Leafs (2) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (3)
The Leafs have reached the postseason the last five years in a row and are trying to win their first playoff series since 2004. Led by their core group of John Tavares, Auston Matthews (who had a league-high 60 goals), Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Michael Bunting, this roster is a high-flying group that can score in bunches and is augmented by grizzled warhorses in Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds. Defensively, the Leafs have been good, and are paced by Morgan Reilly, Jake Muzzin, Mark Giordano, Rasmus Sandin and T.J. Brodie, while starting goaltender Jack Campbell has proven that last year’s stretch of good play was no fluke.
The two-time defending champions and a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference over the last decade, the Lightning are deeper than they have ever been. Youngsters like Brayden Point, Mikhail Sergachev, Ross Colton and Anthony Cirelli and imports like Barclay Goodrow, Blake Coleman and Ryan McDonagh have joined Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn to build a juggernaut. Andrei Vasilevskiy is widely regarded as the best goaltender in the NHL and Victor Hedman remains one of the league’s best rearguards. The losses of Tyler Johnson, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow have been made up in the forms of Corey Perry, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Nick Paul.
Lightning in seven. The Leafs will put up a fight, but Tampa is still the class of the Atlantic Division. The Leafs’ high flying style won’t work against a complete team like the Bolts.
Carolina Hurricanes (1) vs. Boston Bruins (WC1)
For the first time since the team moved to Raleigh from Hartford, the Carolina Hurricanes have reached the postseason for a fourth consecutive year. General manager Don Waddel and coach Rod Brind’Amour lead a team characterized by a combination of youth (Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Jaccob Slavin and Andrei Svechnikov) and players acquired from the outside (Tony D’Angelo, Brett Pesce, Vincent Trocheck and Jordan Staal). So far that mix, plus trades for Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Max Domi have churned out positive results. The goaltending duo of Petr Mrazek and James Reimer, however, was so-so historically – leading to them being replaced by Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta, who have brought stability to the Canes’ crease.
The Boston Bruins have a nice mix of veterans left from their Cup runs of the past decade and youngsters who have come into their own. Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak remain from the old guard while Charlie McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk and Brandon Carlo have provided a shot in the arm. Veteran imports like former Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall, Craig Smith, Nick Foligno and Hampus Lindholm have helped keep the Bruins’ window for contention open. The tandem of Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman has stepped in for the retiring Tuukka Rask.
Hurricanes in six. The Bruins’ inability to rely on a consistent starting option in net will be their downfall.
New York Rangers (2) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (3)
One of the biggest surprises of this season has been the play of the New York Rangers. Four years ago, then-general manager Jeff Gorton announced the franchise’s intention to begin a rebuild. Now, after the importation of Artemi Panarin and young defensemen like Jacob Trouba and Adam Fox, the Blueshirts have improbably reached the postseason. Those three players have been supported by Chris Krieder, Mika Zibanejad and Ryan Strome, who have enjoyed career years. Youngsters Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere have shown flashes of brilliance and veteran importations Barclay Goodrow, Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano and Ryan Reaves have been brought in by current GM Chris Drury and head coach Gerard Gallant. Igor Shesterkin is the new man in New York’s crease following the retirement of Henrik Lundqvist.
Not much has changed for the Penguins in 2021-22. They’re still led by a superb group in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel and Kris Letang, and they remain one of the better offensive outfits in hockey. The acquisitions of Rickard Rakell, Jeff Carter and Mike Matheson over the last few years and the continued improvement of Bryan Rust, Kasperi Kapanen and John Marino have also fortified their depth, but one issue to keep an eye on is the talented but inconsistent goaltending tandem of Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith.
Rangers in six. Not only is New York deeper amongst their skaters but they also have the edge in goal. Jarry dealing with an injury also doesn’t help Pittsburgh’s chances.
Colorado Avalanche (1) vs. Nashville Predators (WC2)
Few teams in the NHL had such a dichotomy on their team between their offensive and defensive talent over the last few years like the Colorado Avalanche did. Blessed with studs at forward like Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Andre Burakovsky, Nazem Kadri and the injured Gabriel Landeskog, the Avs certainly lit up scoreboards. But Colorado didn’t have much on defense, nor much depth up front. That has changed with Cale Makar, Samuel Girard and Devon Toews arriving, pushing rearguards like Erik Johnson, Bowen Byram and Jack Johnson into ideal roles on defense. Valeri Nichushkin, Artturi Lehkonen and Josh Manson have become reliable supporting characters and the underrated Darcy Kuemper is the Avs’ starter in net.
Nashville has been in transition since their two-year peak of 2016-17 and 2017-18. The signing of Matt Duchene and the hiring of former Devils coach John Hynes two years ago has bolstered a group of forwards led by Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, Mikael Granlund and rookie Tanner Jeannot, but beyond that group – albeit one with Duchene and Forsberg setting career-highs in goals and points – they are top-heavy. Luckily for the Predators they still boast one of the deepest defense corps in hockey and stalwarts like Roman Josi – who had the highest scoring season by a defenseman since Phil Housley in 1992-93 – Dante Fabbro and Mattias Ekholm have elevated their play to get their team back on track. Longtime goaltender Pekka Rinne has retired and ceded the Preds’ starting job to Juuse Saros.
Avalanche in five. Nashville has better goaltending but the Avs have the best depth of anyone in the Western Conference.
Minnesota Wild (2) vs. St. Louis Blues (3)
The hiring of Bill Guerin as general manager and the release of Bruce Boudreau as head coach two years ago seemed to indicate that the Minnesota Wild wanted to go in the direction of a rebuild after years of reaching the playoffs but never having success once they got there. Defiantly, Dean Evason’s roster has gotten into the dance anyways for the third straight season. Kirill Kaprizov led the team in scoring while surrounded by many veterans, including Mats Zuccarello, Ryan Hartman, Joel Eriksson Ek, Marcus Foligno, Matt Boldy and Kevin Fiala. On defense the Wild are still anchored by Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin, and Cam Talbot has been supplanted by deadline acquisition Marc-Andre Fleury as Minnesota’s starter in goal.
Cup champions three years ago, the Blues fell in the opening round of the playoffs in each of the last two years and are looking to advance. Led by Ryan O’Reilly, Vladimir Tarasenko, David Perron, Torey Krug and Colton Parayko, the Blues still have a deep roster and now have reinforcements, as numerous young players – most notably Robert Thomas, Pavel Buchnevich, Jordan Kyrou and Ivan Barbashev – have stepped their games up. A question mark has formed in goal after Jordan Binnington, who turned in two solid follow-up seasons after a marvelous rookie campaign led to their championship win, struggled – leading to backup Ville Husso getting more playing time.
Blues in six. While the Wild have enough talent to win and the advantage in goal, St. Louis is a bit deeper.
Calgary Flames (1) vs. Dallas Stars (WC1)
The patient rebuilding process that GM Brad Treliving undertook over the last few years has finally bore fruit. After mostly making and missing the playoffs in alternating seasons since 2014-15, the acquisitions of Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin, Blake Coleman, Tyler Toffoli and Chris Tanev in recent times have supplemented a core made up of Johnny Gaudreau, the injured Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk, and it’s resulted in the second-best regular season in franchise annals. Breakout seasons by Andrew Mangiapane, Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington have given Calgary some reliable depth pieces and the Flames have gotten consistent goaltending with Jacob Markstrom providing their best play in net since Miikka Kiprusoff retired.
Two years after reaching the Stanley Cup Final, the Stars have gotten back into the playoffs after a very up-and-down season. Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov all saw their statistical outputs continue to drop off as they age, but 37-year-old Joe Pavelski recorded a career-high 54 assists and 81 points. Roope Hintz and Jason Robertson each put up career-bests in multiple scoring categories and defensemen Miro Heiskanen, John Klingberg and Ryan Suter have continued to perform well (Klingberg, however, has struggled in his own end). Goaltenders Anton Khubodin and Braden Holtby have given way to 23-year-old Jake Oettinger, who has been stellar.
Flames in five. This is the best roster the Flames have iced since their Cup-winning season in 1988-89, and they’re arguably one of the two best teams the Western Conference has to offer. Dallas, meanwhile, is too inconsistent, and Darryl Sutter is the better coach between he and Rick Bowness.
Edmonton Oilers (2) vs. Los Angeles Kings (3)
Edmonton has made it to the postseason for the fourth time in the Connor McDavid/Leon Draisaitl era, and this time around the all-world duo has a better supporting cast. With Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Kailer Yamamoto, Zach Hyman, Evander Kane, Warren Foegele and Jesse Puljujarvi in tow, the Oilers do have some secondary scoring threats. The team is held down on the rear by defenders Darnell Nurse, Duncan Keith, Tyson Barrie, Kris Russell, Codi Ceci and Evan Bouchard, but this team is missing Oscar Klefbom who has sat out a second straight season with shoulder troubles. The Oilers’ goaltending is split between Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen.
Back in the playoffs for the first time since 2018, the Los Angeles Kings have rebuilt themselves into a younger outfit following their two Cups in three years from 2012-14. While veterans like Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Dustin Brown and Jonathan Quick remain from the old guard, newer faces such as Adrian Kempe – who notched 35 goals in a career year – Quinton Byfield, Trevor Moore and Alex Iafallo have begun to assert themselves. Acquisitions like Philip Danault, Viktor Arvidsson, Alexander Edler and Olli Matta have been important contributors and Quick now shares the crease with Cal Petersen.
Oilers in seven. It’s a contrast in styles – the Oilers’ run-and-gun, all-offensive pace against the Kings’ physical, heavy brand of hockey – but McDavid, Draisaitl and company will emerge triumphant.