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.
Boston Bruins (1) vs. Florida Panthers (WC2)
The Boston Bruins and new coach Jim Montgomery have a nice mix of older players left from their Cup runs of the past decade and youngsters who have come into their own. Two-way extraordinaire Patrice Bergeron, super-pest Brad Marchand and David Krejci remain from the old guard while 60-goal scorer David Pastrnak, Charlie McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk and Brandon Carlo have provided a shot in the arm over the years. Veteran imports like former Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall, Pavel Zacha, Dimitry Orlov and Hampus Lindholm have not only helped keep the Bruins’ window for contention open, but led to the best regular season any NHL team has ever had. The tandem of Linus Ullmark (who is enjoying a career year) and Jeremy Swayman has stepped in for the retiring Tuukka Rask.
Florida has reached the postseason in four straight years for the first time in franchise history, and the appointment of the well-traveled Paul Maurice to replace the tandem of Andrew Brunette and future Hall of Fame coach Joel Quenneville has given the Panthers some much-needed guidance behind the bench. Maurice inherited a team bolstered at forward by Selke Trophy-winner Alex Barkov and gritty Matthew Tkachuk, supplemented by quality depth in Sam Reinhart, Anthony Duclair, Carter Verhaeghe and Anton Lundell and steady pros in Patric Hornqvist and Sam Bennett (both currently injured). Defensively the Panthers are paced by Aaron Ekblad, Gustav Forsling and Brandon Montour. In goal the aging Sergei Bobrovsky has continued to struggle in net and has missed time due to injury while understudy Spencer Knight has been in the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program since February – leading to the recent emergence of rookie Alex Lyon.
Bruins in six. The Panthers have gained playoff experience over the last couple of years and are explosive, but Boston has been hands-down the best outfit in the NHL this season.
Toronto Maple Leafs (2) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (3)
The Leafs have reached the postseason seven years in a row and are trying to win their first playoff series since 2004 – the longest active drought in the NHL. Led by their core group of John Tavares, Auston Matthews, 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 Calle Jarnkrok, Alex Kerfooot and trade deadline acquisitions Ryan O’Reilly, Noel Acciari and Sam Lafferty. Defensively, the Leafs have been good and are paced by Morgan Rielly, Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie, Tim Liljegren, Justin Holl and Jake McCabe. Coach Sheldon Keefe and general manager Kyle Dubas have a three-headed goaltending monster to sort through between rookie Joseph Woll and veterans Ilya Samsonov and Matt Murray.
A powerhouse in the Eastern Conference over the last decade (and former back-to-back Cup winners), the Lightning are deeper than they have ever been. From top to bottom, Tampa has few weaknesses.
Over the years homegrown faces like Brayden Point, Mikhail Sergachev, Ross Colton, Yanni Gourde and Anthony Cirelli and imports like Barclay Goodrow, Blake Coleman and Ryan McDonagh 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.
One criticism of the Bolts in recent years was that they were pretty but not gritty – meaning they were long on talent, but short on toughness. Thanks to moves by general manager Julien BriseBois and coach Jon Cooper to bring in some sandpaper in the form of Goodrow, Coleman, and Pat Maroon, Tampa Bay now has a much more complete roster than in years past. The losses of Palat, Johnson, Gourde, Coleman, Goodrow and McDonagh over the last few offseasons were made up by BriseBois bringing in veterans with Cup Final experience like Corey Perry and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and younger pieces in Brandon Hagel, Nick Paul and Tanner Jeannot – resulting in Cooper’s bunch not missing a beat.
Lightning in seven. The Leafs will put up a fight, but Tampa remains one of the league’s elite. The Leafs’ run-and-gun style won’t work against a complete team like the Bolts – however, one wonders when all their deep playoff runs over the last few years will finally take their toll.
Carolina Hurricanes (1) vs. New York Islanders (WC1)
For the first time since the team moved to Raleigh from Hartford, the Carolina Hurricanes have reached the postseason for a fifth consecutive year. General manager Don Waddell and coach Rod Brind’Amour lead a team characterized by a combination of young (Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Jaccob Slavin, Brady Skjei and Andrei Svechnikov – currently injured) and old (Brent Burns, Jordan Staal and Max Pacioretty – also on the mend from injuries). That mix has churned out positive results, and the goaltending duo of Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta have brought stability to the Canes’ crease.
After a one-year absence from the postseason, New York is back in the tournament for the fourth time in the last five years. Talents like Matthew Barzal, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Josh Bailey, Anders Lee and Brock Nelson have helped lead the Islanders through deep playoff runs in the past and are supplemented by strong defensive talents in Ryan Pulock, Adam Pelech, Scott Mayfield and Noah Dobson. Veterans like Pierre Engvall, Zach Parise and Kyle Palmieri were brought in by general manager Lou Lamoriello to help Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck play in new coach Lane Lambert’s smothering defensive system and Ilya Sorokin has become one of hockey’s best goalies.
Islanders in seven. Both squads are mirror images of one another – each are stingy in their own end and provide just enough offense to win games – and while the Hurricanes do have a bit more offensive talent, I have a feeling that the losses of Svechnikov and Pacioretty may loom large in this series. That, plus Sorokin’s play, will favor New York.
New Jersey Devils (2) vs. New York Rangers (3)
It’s been five years since the New Jersey Devils reached the playoffs but these aren’t your older brother’s Devils. No longer defined by plodding defensive play and goaltending, the balanced Devils – led by one of the NHL’s elite coaches in Lindy Ruff – have been paced by explosive young talents in Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier (both were high draft picks by New Jersey after some dismal seasons), Jesper Bratt and Dawson Mercer. Trade deadline acquisition Timo Meier is another scoring threat while Tomas Tatar, Erik Haula, Ondrej Palat and Curtis Lazar provide experienced depth. Dougie Hamilton is one of pro hockey’s best scoring threats from the blueline and he, along with Damon Severson, Ryan Graves and John Marino are counted on for good defensive play. Ex-Washington Capital Vitek Vanecek and Mackenzie Blackwood hold down the fort in goal.
Five years ago, then-general manager Jeff Gorton announced the New York Rangers’ intention to begin a rebuild. Now, after the importation of Artemi Panarin, Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrick Kane plus young defensemen like Jacob Trouba and Adam Fox, the Blueshirts have become one of the best teams in hockey. The names previously mentioned have been supported by Chris Krieder, Mika Zibanejad and Vincent Trocheck, who continue to shine on Broadway. Youngsters Kaapo Kakko, Alexis Lafreniere and Filip Chytil have shown flashes of brilliance while veteran pickups Barclay Goodrow and Tyler Motte have been brought in by current GM Chris Drury and head coach Gerard Gallant to provide grit. Igor Shesterkin has been a worthy successor to Henrik Lundqvist in between New York’s pipes.
Rangers in six. The resurgence of the Devils is impressive but not only is New York deeper amongst their skaters, they also have the edge in goal.
Vegas Golden Knights (1) vs. Winnipeg Jets (WC2)
The Golden Knights are back in the playoffs after a one-year absence and are again one of the better outfits in the Western Conference. Led by William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, the Golden Knights have augmented their core group with experienced pros like Mark Stone, Alex Pietrangelo, Jack Eichel, Phil Kessel, Shea Theodore and Chandler Stephenson and are a team that relies on speed and a strong forechecking game. Coach Bruce Cassidy has kept this team on course while former King Jonathan Quick, Laurent Brossoit, Logan Thompson and Adin Hill have taken turns trying to fill the hole left by Robin Lehner, who has missed all of 2022-23 due to a hip injury.
Also back in postseason play after missing the tournament a year ago (and for the sixth time in the last nine years), Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and new coach Rick Bowness have gotten the most out of Winnipeg this season. Most of the Jets’ core – Pierre-Luc Dubois, Kyle Connor, Connor Hellebuyck, Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers and Blake Wheeler – remain and are still productive. Josh Morrissey has developed into one of the NHL’s better defensemen.
Jets in seven. While Vegas has a ton of big names and talent, Winnipeg has the edge in goal and Hellebuyck could prove to be the difference.
Edmonton Oilers (2) vs. Los Angeles Kings (3)
Edmonton has made it to the postseason for the fifth time in the Connor McDavid/Leon Draisaitl era, and this time the all-world duo (who finished 1-2 in league scoring this year – McDavid had the best point total that anyone has had since Mario Lemieux in 1995-96) has the best supporting cast they’ve ever had. With Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Kailer Yamamoto, Zach Hyman, Evander Kane and Warren Foegele in tow, the Oilers have some secondary scoring threats. The team is held down on the rear by defenders Darnell Nurse, Codi Ceci, Evan Bouchard and Mattias Ekholm, who was brought in from Nashville at the deadline. The Oilers’ goaltending is split between Jack Campbell and Stuart Skinner, and Jay Woodcroft has done a sound job behind the bench since general manager Ken Holland replaced Dave Tippett with him – as evidenced by reaching the Western Conference Final last season for the first time since 2006.
Back in the playoffs for a second straight year, the Los Angeles Kings (guided by general manager Rob Blake and coach Todd McClellan) have rebuilt themselves into a younger outfit following their two Cups in three years from 2012-14. While veterans like Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty remain from the old guard, newer faces such as Adrian Kempe – who notched 41 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 Kevin Fiala have been important contributors and Pheonix Copley and Joonas Korpisalo have replaced longtime stalwart Jonathan Quick in net.
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.
Colorado Avalanche (1) vs. Seattle Kraken (WC1)
Few teams in the NHL had such a dichotomy on their team between their offensive and defensive talent for years like the Colorado Avalanche did. Blessed with studs at forward like Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and captain Gabriel Landeskog (who has missed this season with numerous injuries), the Avs certainly lit up scoreboards. But Colorado didn’t have much on defense, nor much depth up front.
That has changed in recent times with Cale Makar, Devon Toews and Samuel Girard arriving, allowing coach Jared Bednar to push rearguards like Erik Johnson, Jack Johnson and Bowen Byram into ideal roles on the back end – resulting in the Avalanche winning their first Cup in 21 years. Valeri Nichushkin, Artturi Lehkonen, Darren Helm, Andrew Cogliano, J.T. Compher, Lars Eller, Evan Rodrigues and Josh Manson have become reliable supporting characters and the underrated duo of Alexander Georgiev (replacing Darcy Kuemper) and Pavel Francouz are the Avs’ starters in net.
Like another previous expansion team in the Vegas Golden Knights, the Seattle Kraken have reached the playoffs for the first time much faster than most anticipated. General manager Ron Francis and Dave Hakstol have done an impressive job guiding this franchise, as they have identified players such as Jared McCann (scoring a career-high 40 goals), Vince Dunn and Jordan Eberle, plus recent high draft picks Matthew Beniers and Shane Wright, as their on-ice core. Supported by veterans like Yanni Gourde, Daniel Sprong, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Jaden Schwartz, Andre Burakovsky and Carson Soucy, Seattle has done a fine job through two seasons of building a winner. Helping them out in goal are former Avs goalie Philipp Grubauer and veteran Martin Jones.
Avalanche in five. Seattle’s had a nice run so far, but it won’t be enough to conquer the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Dallas Stars (2) vs. Minnesota Wild (3)
The Dallas Stars have continued their strong play by reaching the postseason for the sixth time in the last 10 years. Older forwards like 38-year-old Joe Pavelski and Tyler Seguin (31) are still steady point producers as they age, and captain Jamie Benn has had his highest-scoring season in five years. Roope Hintz and Jason Robertson each put up career-bests in multiple scoring categories and defensemen Miro Heiskanen, Ryan Suter and Esa Lindell have continued to perform well on the back end. 24-year-old Jake Oettinger has been stellar in goal for coach Peter DeBoer and general manager Jim Nill, however recent pickups Mason Marchment, Max Domi and Evgenii Dadonov have left a bit to be desired.
The hiring of Bill Guerin as general manager, the release of Bruce Boudreau as head coach and the contract buyouts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter a few 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 10th time in the last 11 years. Kirill Kaprizov led the team in scoring while surrounded by many veterans, including Mats Zuccarello, Ryan Hartman, Joel Eriksson Ek, Marcus Foligno and Matt Boldy. Guerin has supplemented this group with trade acquisitions in Ryan Reaves, Marcus Johansson, Gustav Nyquist and Oskar Sundqvist. On defense the Wild are still anchored by Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin (John Klingberg has provided valuable depth) and future Hall of Famer Marc-Andre Fleury has split time with Filip Gustavsson in goal.
Stars in six. The Wild haven’t reached the second round of the postseason since 2015, and Dallas was very close to reaching there last season before falling in overtime of a Game Seven to Calgary. Dallas will prevail.