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 through the finals. Previews will become more in-depth as the playoffs roll along, but for now here is our analysis of the second round.
Florida Panthers (1) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (3)
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 paced by Aaron Ekblad yet his injury history has allowed others like MacKenzie Weegar, Radko Gudas, Gustav Forsling, Ben Chiarot and Brandon Montour to step up and develop their play further. The aging Sergei Bobrovsky has continued to struggle in net, which has allowed understudy Spencer Knight to breathe down his neck.
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.
Panthers in seven. It’s a tall task for anyone to knock off a back-to-back Stanley Cup champion, but the Panthers are complete enough of a team to do so (Tampa does have an advantage in goal, however). The Bolts looked gassed by the end of their series against Toronto, and one wonders when all their deep playoff runs over the last few years will finally take their toll.
Carolina Hurricanes (1) vs. New York Rangers (2)
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 (Raanta has seen most of the playing time in net due to an Andersen injury).
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 had one of the best seasons in franchise history. 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.
Hurricanes in six. Carolina’s depth will be too much for the young Broadway Blueshirts to overcome.
Colorado Avalanche (1) vs. St. Louis Blues (3)
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 captain 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.
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 back to the Final. 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.
Avalanche in six. The Avs have lost in the second round in each of the last three years and haven’t reached a Western Conference Final in 20 years, but their explosive offense will be too much for the Blues to contain.
Calgary Flames (1) vs. Edmonton Oilers (2)
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.
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, and Jay Woodcroft has done a sound job in replacing Dave Tippett.
Flames in seven. 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. Edmonton, meanwhile, was able to assert their run-and-gun, all-offensive pace against one physical, heavy team in Los Angeles, but the Flames are a deeper outfit than the Kings and Darryl Sutter is the better coach between he and Woodcroft.