The NHL playoffs begin Monday evening after the first complete season since 2018-19. What stories will unfold over the coming weeks?
The Florida Panthers aren’t there yet
In the NHL’s post-lockout era, the Presidents’ Trophy winner – the best team through the regular season – has rarely gone on to win the Stanley Cup. It happened just twice – to the 2008 Detroit Red Wings and the 2013 Chicago Blackhawks, both of which were arguably near or at the height of their powers when they did it. The Florida Panthers, this year’s Presidents ’Trophy winners, are a very good team. But they’re not the ’08 Wings or the ’13 Blackhawks. On paper, the Panthers cruised through the season – their longest losing streak was just four games – not just routinely out-scoring other teams, but trouncing them. But all that hid some issues. They leave seams defensively. They’re middling on the penalty kill. They get scored on short-handed. As for goaltending? Sergei Bobrovsky can shine, but his season goals-against average (GAA) was a 2.67, putting him behind some of his playoff peers. And he’s struggled in previous postseasons, posting a 3.24 GAA and just a .899 save percentage over his playoff career. The Panthers can be beaten.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have a lot to prove
The Leafs dropped out of the playoffs in the first round last year in brutal fashion, losing four 4-3 to the Montreal Canadiens after fumbling a 3-1 series lead. The embarrassing finish was made worse by the fact that the Canadiens solved Auston Matthews and his line-mate Mitch Marner, holding them both to only one goal and nine points total over seven games. Things feel different this regular season, but will there be a different outcome? Matthews made Leaf history by becoming the first to notch 60 goals in a season, all while improving his play at both ends of the ice. Marner’s skating has become mesmerizing, his passing often unrivaled. But can they – and rookie line-mate Michael Bunting – lead the Leafs into the second round… or further? It feels like now or never for this Leafs team and its management.
Can Connor McDavid lift the race?
On the other side of the league, another superstar waits for playoff success. Back in January, amid their second six-game losing streak in just 35 games, the Oilers were declared to be “just too easy to play against.” Why? “They aren’t deep enough, their goaltending is lousy” and they had “too many phonies.” Now? The phonies are gone – or maybe just fired. Since ditching head coach Dave Tippett in February, replacing him with Jay Woodcroft, the Oilers have looked much different. Between 1 March and 29 April, the Oilers went 20-6–3. McDavid will finish the year as the NHL’s top points-getter by a decent margin, with his linemate Leon Draisaitl not far behind. Goaltending has improved, led by 40-year-old Mike Smith. But the playoffs have been tough for Smith in the past. And how ready are the rest of the Oilers for the likes of Colorado, Calgary, St. Louis or Minnesota?
Tampa Bay: Still great or just good?
The Lightning are already in rare company as back-to-back Stanley Cup winners. Only seven other teams have managed to do it. But, fittingly, only three teams have managed a three-peat: the Montreal Canadiens, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and most recently, the New York Islanders – 39 years ago. The Lightning had a good season, but not a great one. Against top challengers like Florida and Toronto results were mixed, with the Lightning winning and losing in equal parts, often by large margins in both cases. Andrei Vasilevskiy, the best goalie in the league for years, was mostly just good enough (his title may now belong to the New York Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin). They won – enough. They were deep enough. A few weeks ago, the feeling was that Tampa might be spent. But heading into the playoffs, they’re looking better. They went 7-3 to close the season (although their final loss was to, uh, Columbus…). Vasilevskiy looks (mostly) back on form. Steve Stamkos posted 106 points this season. They could do it, but the road is tough, via not only the Panthers, but perhaps the Carolina Hurricanes or the Rangers, too.
Watch the West
As has been typical in the post-lockout era, the Western Conference playoff race will be a series of knife fights – exhausting, close-range combat where nobody will get out clean. With the Las Vegas Golden Knights out of the postseason this year, there are four teams capable of filling the void they’ve left open.
The St. Louis Blues were the last team to win the Stanley Cup before the Lightning’s double. The Blues had a mixed season prior to the all-star break and were rocky through most of March, raising questions about playoff viability. April changed that. From March 28 through April 26, the Blues lost only three games. Two of those were in overtime and the other was to the Colorado Avalanche, the best team in the West. With three lines scoring and defense looking good, St. Louis are rolling.
Speaking of the Avalanche, despite losing four straight in mid-April, the rest of Colorado’s season has been near-perfect, including a January in which they lost only one game – in overtime. They might not be the strongest team hitting the playoffs, but as one of only two with more than 55 wins in the NHL this year (the other being Florida), to discount them would be a serious mistake. As Flames coach Darryl Sutter put itplaying the Avalanche in the postseason might just be “a waste of eight days.”
Sutter’s Calgary Flames have to be pleased with a season of consistent positive play. The Flames had three 40+ goalscorers (Lindholm, Tkachuk, and Gaudreau), solid goalkeeping led by Jacob Markström, and are a significant threat in the postseason. If it weren’t for a couple other western teams like Colorado and Minnesota, the Flames might be seriously considered to take it all – the probability simulator at MoneyPuck.com figures they stand a good chance, anyway. Hardly a dark horse.
The Minnesota Wild struggled through February and the first half of March (including losses to the likes of lowly Ottawa and Buffalo) but they hit a stride in the final weeks of the season, not long after they picked up veteran goaltender (and three-time Cup winner) Marc-Andre Fleury. Coincidence? Maybe. Or perhaps that success has something to do with the fact that the Wild can score – a lot. They’re in tough against the Blues in round one, but if they can squeeze through, they may see a path open up.
West: My gut says we’ll see a Calgary-St Louis matchup in the Western Conference final, but my brain says it’s more likely to be a Calgary-Colorado one, with Colorado likely to make it through, though not undamaged.
East: I think Tampa will have another visit to the conference final, where they could meet the Carolina Hurricanes. The teams met three times this season and Carolina won twice, but the Tampa Bay playoffs are different – they might still have the edge.
Final: I guess the Avalanche could play Tampa Bay? In which case, it feels like the Avalanche are due.