The Highly-Anticipated NHL Playoffs are Underway
As the NHL concludes its annual 2021-2022 regular season, fans are left on the edge of their seats as playoff hockey is finally underway. Since the beginning of time, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are known to bring out the best in each player and showcase a lot of physicality. Arenas become jam-packed with fans who are ready to go to war for their team, as they watch a 60-minute battle barring overtime. Many questions arise for spectators as the playoffs go on, but there is no time for them to be answered, as every last second matters from May to June for these players.
Going into this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, the big question is, “Can the Tampa Bay Lightning three-peat?” Their center duo in Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point alongside wingers Nikita Kucherov and Pat Maroon give them an electric offense that can put up goals anytime any of them take the ice. Despite their depth and offensive firepower, they have one of the hardest paths to the cup. In round one, they would have to take down the second-best team in the East, the Toronto Maple Leafs featuring the leading goal scorer in the NHL in Auston Matthews and an elite facilitator in Mitch Marner. After that, they would be set to face this year’s Presidents’ Trophy winner in the Florida Panthers or the Washington Capitals who have been a team known to win games with their back against the wall. Is it impossible? No. But their path to hoisting the Stanley Cup for the third time in a row is very hard compared to years prior.
The Capitals are set to travel to Florida to face the Panthers for games one and two of their series. While the Panthers are known to be arguably one of the best teams in the NHL, the Capitals do whatever they can to get as many wins as possible. The Capitals, led by wingers Alexander Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie, have the veterans along with the young talent to get to the promise land. However, the Panthers feature the Art Ross trophy runnerup Jonathan Huberdeau alongside the shift left-wing in Aleksander Barkov. Right before the trade deadline, they acquired right-wing Claude Giroux to add to their offensive ability that had already seemed to be top of the line. The Panthers have the talent and all statistics favor them, but the Capitals will never go down without fighting and this series could be one of the longer ones fans see in the first round.
Looking further into the Eastern side of the bracket, The Boston Bruins are looking to upset the Carolina Hurricanes as they begin the series on the road. The Bruins are known as one of the most physical hockey teams in the NHL and the Stanley Cup Playoffs are known to intensify physicality and bring the best out of all players. Their defense is stellar and they use it to fuel their offense on the rush. But teams like the Hurricanes don’t give up puck possession often, limiting the opposing team’s ability to go to work on the rush. The Hurricanes finished third in the entire NHL. Fueled by centerman Sebastian Aho next to left-wing Andrei Svechnikov, this team can put up goals in a hurry. While they have a star-studded roster from top to bottom, the Bruins don’t give anything for free. Winger duo Brad Marchand and David Pastrňák get things done on both ends of the ice and make teams work for every last bit of ground they gain. The Hurricanes have what it takes to make a run at the Stanley Cup, but this first-round opponent can give them a good run for their money if they put it all together.
In the last Eastern Conference matchup, the New York Rangers take on the Pittsburgh Penguins in what is anticipated to be a long, entertaining series for all. The Rangers are led by Vezina Trophy frontrunner and Hart Trophy Finalist Igor Sheshterkin alongside their star-studded wingers in Chris Kreider and Artemi Panarin. This team has always been known to rely heavily on the ability of their goalkeeper for years now. However, they made a move before the trade deadline to bring in the versatile right-wing, Andrew Copp, which has seemingly unified this team and elevated their game to a level they had never reached up to this point. But the young guns face a team filled with veterans who capitalize on every mistake they see. Centerman and longtime captain Sidney Crosby leads the team alongside his teammates Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel. The Penguins have reached the players in 16 consecutive seasons and this trio has over 500 playoff wins. There is nothing they have never seen and they know what they’re in for, going up against this physical, defensive-minded Ranger team. The series is going to be gritty, as these teams are longtime rivals, but someone has to come out a winner in this 7-game series set for these teams.
Looking toward the Western Conference, two of the league’s best goalies matchup as the Calgary Flames are set to duke it out with the Dallas Stars. Towards the end of the season, the Flames caught fire as they seemed unstoppable until the Colorado Avalanche took them off their 10-game winning streak. Looking past that, star goalie Jacob Markström looks to fend off the three-headed monster in Joe Pavelski, Jason Robertson, and Tyler Seguin. The Stars are backed by goalie Jake Oettinger who finished the regular season with a .914 save percentage and only allowed 2.53 goals on average. While his numbers look like nothing compared to Markström’s, the Stars' ability to win games when it seems like they have no hope has fueled them from the opening game of the season. But for that to continue, not only would they have to get past Markström, but the Flames feature starstudded winger duo Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau. The path won’t be easy for either team, but once they get past this round, they would have rather easy matchups on their way to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The winner of the previous series will have to face whoever comes out of the series between the St. Louis Blues and the Minnesota Wild. The Blues finished the regular season on a winning streak, allowing them to find their way into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They are led by center and captain Ryan O’Reilly along with winger Vladimir Taresanko. On the other side of the ice, Kirill Kaprizov, Jared Spurgeon, and Marcus Foligno man the front side of the ice for the Wild. Right before the trade deadline, the Wild were able to acquire goaltender Marc-André Fleury for their upcoming playoff push. However, Blues’ netminder Jordan Binnington is up for the challenge, as he looks to fend off the Wild as they averaged just over three goals per game in the regular season. But the Blues can put pucks in the net too, as they averaged close to four goals per game while only letting up under three on average.
For the other half of the bracket, the Colorado Avalanche are set to face the Nashville Predators. The Avalanche are widely regarded as the most talented team in the NHL with three players nominated as all-stars this season. While they have all the talent in the world, the Predators have what it takes to skate with this team however, they’re without their number one goalie and Vezina Trophy Finalist Juuse Saros. The Avalanche finished second in the entire NHL and averaged 3.76 goals per game this year. The Predators look to fend off the team that no one wants to face throughout the playoffs because they can put up goals in a hurry and have teams down big within minutes. Hart Trophy Finalist Roman Josi looks to rally his team past one of the scariest opponents in the playoffs.
Last but certainly not least, the Edmonton Oilers host the Los Angeles Kings in their respective best of seven series. The Oilers have two players who are widely regarded as the best players on the planet, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, as they have won the Hart Trophy in the years 2020 and 2021. Regardless of their talent, they stand across from the veteran goalie Jonathan Quick who has a team full of experienced players in front of him. The Kings are known to make magic happen once they reach the playoffs, as the majority of their leaders have playoff experience. But the young core the Oilers have may give the Kings trouble as their young skaters can turn just about anything into a scoring opportunity. But the two veteran goalies that stand in the crease for each team know how to kill momentum for teams that can get going fast. This series looks to have everything an NHL fan could possibly want to see.
With the bracket set and the teams ready, it has now become a race to 16 wins before recording four consecutive losses for the 16 participating teams. Each team has their work cut out for them, and while their paths may be different, they’re heading for the same thing. The chance to hoist the Stanley Cup over their head.