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.
Toronto Maple Leafs (2) vs. Florida Panthers (WC2)
The Leafs have reached the postseason seven years in a row and are fresh off winning 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 Kerfoot 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 had to sort through a three-headed goaltending monster in rookie Joseph Woll and veterans Ilya Samsonov and Matt Murray, but Samsonov has appeared to have taken hold of the job.
Florida is playoff-bound for the fourth straight year (the first time in franchise history that’s happened), and the appointment of the well-traveled Paul Maurice to replace the tandem of Andrew Brunette and future Hall of Famer 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, Anton Lundell and Sam Bennett. Defensively the Panthers are held down by Aaron Ekblad, Gustav Forsling and Brandon Montour. In goal the aging Sergei Bobrovsky has continued to struggle in net while understudy Spencer Knight has been in the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program since February and Alex Lyon has replaced Knight on the team’s roster.
Leafs in seven. While the Panthers – President’s Trophy winners a year ago – gutted their way through an emotional upset of the record-setting Boston Bruins, it’s dubious that they’ll be able to pull off a second consecutive stunner. Toronto, buoyed by finally getting over the first round hump against the Tampa Bay Lightning, is a bit deeper and more playoff-tested, and will emerge victorious.
Carolina Hurricanes (1) vs. New Jersey Devils (2)
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, Martin Necas, Jaccob Slavin and Brady Skjei) and old (Brent Burns, Jordan Staal). That mix has churned out positive results and the goaltending duo of Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta have brought stability to the Canes’ crease. However, injuries are starting to pile up as key contributors Teuvo Teravainen, Andre Svechnikov and Max Pacioretty are dealing with significant ailments.
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. Akira Schimd, Vitek Vanecek and Mackenzie Blackwood hold down the fort in goal (Schmid has been excellent in five playoff starts).
Hurricanes in six. The young, high-flying Devils (who would have ever thought of describing New Jersey with those adjectives under Lou Lamoriello?) are brimming with confidence after a hard-fought series win over the veteran-laden New York Rangers, but Carolina – winners over the New York Islanders in the prior round – knows how to play their system to a T and will stifle the Devils to reach their second Eastern Conference Final in five years.
Vegas Golden Knights (1) vs. Edmonton Oilers (2)
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. Brossoit has been fine in net so far this postseason.
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.
Oilers in six. While Vegas had their way with the Winnipeg Jets, trying to contain McDavid, Draisaitl and company is a completely different animal – just ask the Los Angeles Kings, who fell victim to them in the first round.
Dallas Stars (2) vs. Seattle Kraken (WC1)
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, and recent pickups Mason Marchment, Max Domi and Evgenii Dadonov have been rejuvenated in the playoffs after underwhelming performances in the regular season.
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 (currently out with an injury) and Carson Soucy, Seattle has done a fine job through two seasons of building a winner. Helping them out in goal are former Avalanche goalie Philipp Grubauer and veteran Martin Jones.
Dallas in five. The Kraken may have pulled off a stunner over the defending Cup champion Colorado Avalanche in the first round, but that Avs team is nowhere near what they were a year ago. It’s unlikely they’ll be the second straight expansion team to make a run to the Finals in their first playoff berth, and against a complete team like the Stars (fresh off a six-game thumping of the Minnesota Wild) they’ll meet their end.