After more than two years of uncertainty that blanketed the sports landscape, the NHL returned to its first full season since 2018-19 and is set to drop the puck for the Stanley Cup playoffs on May 2.
In accordance with its “return to normal,” the league restored its prepandemic playoff alignment, as the top three teams from each division along with two wild-card teams from each conference claimed bids to the spring tournament.
Four new teams make up this year’s final 16, as the Calgary Flames, New York Rangers, and Dallas Stars return to the playoffs for the first time since 2019-20, and the Los Angeles Kings rejoin the postseason for the first time since 2017-18.
Only three of seven Canadian teams hold spots in the playoffs – Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton – after the Canucks came up short by five points; Winnipeg’s unexpectedly disappointing season; and Ottawa and Montreal’s continued rebuilds.
Toronto Maple Leafs vs. the First Round
The Leafs enter the playoffs with maybe the heaviest expectations of all following a historic regular season that ranks as the best in franchise history. Toronto finished 54-21-7 (115 points), securing the third-best record in the Eastern Conference and its sixth consecutive postseason appearance.
Few players had a better showing this year than Auston Matthews, Toronto’s best player and the league’s top goal scorer. The 24-year-old filled the net, but also solidified his stature as one of the game’s great two-way centremen. Matthews’s 60 goals set a franchise record for the most markers in a season, passing Rick Vaive’s 54 goals (1981-82), while his 106 points were also good to tie for sixth over all in the NHL.
But the issue raised by many Leafs fans in recent years is what the team has done when it’s mattered most. Toronto has been bounced in the first round of the Stanley Cup race in each of the past five seasons, sometimes in heart-breaking fashion. The last time the Maple Leafs won a playoff series was 2004.
Their first-round match up is against two-time reigning Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. The two clubs split the regular-season series 2-2, scoring 28 goals across those games.
The most recent matchup between the two sides came Apr. 21, when the Lightning humiliated the Leafs 8-1 at Amalie Arena.
The reinvigorated Calgary Flames
Following an underwhelming 2020-21, the Flames entered this season in a peculiar spot leadership-wise, enjoying the familiarity of having head coach Darryl Sutter back for his second stint with the club, but without long-time captain Mark Giordano, who was lost in last summer’s expansion draft.
The key for the Flames this season has been a rejuvenated Johnny Gaudreau, a breakout year from the scrappy Matthew Tkachuk and stellar goaltending, courtesy of Jacob Markstrom.
After a serviceable first year with the Flames, Markstrom took a giant leap forward in 2021-22, leading the NHL in shutouts (9) while ranking top-five in goals against average (2.21) and save percentage (.922).
Offensively, Gaudreau has reclaimed status as one of the premier playmakers in the game, boasting a career-high 115-point and plus-64 plus-minus output. The pending unrestricted free agent has, presumably, raised his price tag entering this summer.
The club’s biggest surprise, however, came from Tkachuk. Best-known for his edgy playing style, the 24-year-old exploded for 42 goals, 104 points in 2021-22.
The Flames will lean on their “big-three” in a first-round matchup against the Dallas Stars, against whom they won the season series 2-1.
Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers
The futures of Connor McDavid, the best player on the planet, and Leon Draisaitl, arguably a close second-best, with the Edmonton Oilers were in question after the club was swept by the Winnipeg Jets in the first round of last year’s playoffs.
But the Oilers stuck with the game plan, bolstering a defensive corps that’s struggled in recent years with the additions of veterans Duncan Keith and Cody Ceci. They also injected their forward group with more size and skill by poaching Zach Hyman from the Leafs in the off-season and scooping the troubled, yet offensively gifted, Evander Kane mid-season.
The club found its stride in recent months, soaring near the top of standings and securing the second seed in the Pacific Division.
The Oilers will once again lean heavily on their one-two punch down the middle with McDavid and Draisaitl, while hoping to receive secondary scoring and defensive help along the way. Their first-round matchup against the Los Angeles Kings, who finished third in the Pacific Division, is an intriguing one, given the Oilers’ 3-1 record in the regular season.
The Kings have surprised many fans this year, with remnants of the early 2010s dynasty still kicking around a franchise that was thought to be in rebuilding mode.
The Oilers’ offensive firepower could prove to be too much for the Kings without defenceman Drew Doughty, who continues to recover from a wrist injury, but the Kings have held McDavid and Co. to three-or-less goals in three of their four meetings this season.
Lightning dynasty? Florida Panthers Cup bound?
You’d have to rewind 40 years to see the last time a franchise won three straight Stanley Cups. The Islanders’ dynasty of the eighties wound up winning four in a row, matching the Canadiens’ run of four straight to end the seventies.
Since that time, several dynasties have graced the NHL but none have won three in a row. The Lightning will have a chance to etch their name alongside the great dynasties in hockey history this spring, led by the same explosive core that helped them win the last two championships.
Meanwhile, across the state, the Panthers, who became an NHL franchise in 1993, made the playoffs in a third consecutive season for the first time in franchise history. It’s also the first time the Panthers hold a top seed and Presidents’ Trophy honours.
Furthermore, the Panthers scored 340 goals this season – the most in a single season in the salary cap-era. They also potted five or more goals in 32 of 82 games.
The Panthers have yet to add their name to Lord Stanley’s trophy but look primed to do so this postseason.
The Globe’s Marty Klinkenberg recently wrote all about hockey’s rise in Florida, and the intrastate rivalry that fuelled both team’s success.
Will Leafs’ goaltending hold them back?
Heartbreak and disappointment have epitomized the feelings of many Leafs fans this time of year the past half-decade. This season, the club has a 60-goal scorer and a bolstered defensive corps, but a large question mark in the crease.
Jack Campbell entered this season the unquestioned starter after a breakout 2020-21 campaign. The 30-year-old struggled at times down the stretch, allowing four or more goals in six of 16 starts since the all-star break.
Despite finishing April 7-0-2, Campbell’s consistency has still wavered at times. A best-of-seven-game series against the high-octane Lightning offence will be a great test for Campbell and the Leafs.
Playoffs with full buildings is ‘return to normalcy’ for NHL
When the Maple Leafs play host to the Lightning and the Oilers welcome the Los Angeles Kings to town on Monday night, they will be the first playoff games in Canada with full arenas since 2019. Matthews called the return of fans at full capacity “something that we’re all looking forward to.”
Perhaps it’s fitting Toronto and Edmonton are ushering back sellout crowds after those cities hosted the 2020 bubble playoffs. The 2022 postseason should be the furthest thing from those dark days, though the league is keeping an eye on potential border and virus issues that could crop up without warning.
Getting in a full 82-game season for all 32 teams now after the addition of the Seattle Kraken is cause for celebration around the NHL, which is on track to finish the playoffs before July 1.
“All of that says we’re back,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. “And it’s great to have our fans back. It’s great to have our game on a more normal schedule. A little bit later than usual, but we’ll fix that next year.”
- Florida Panthers (Atlantic Division 1) vs. Washington Capitals (Wild card 2)
- Toronto Maple Leafs (Atlantic Division 2) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (Atlantic Division 3)
- Carolina Hurricanes (Metropolitan Division 1) vs. Boston Bruins (Wild card 1)
- New York Rangers (Metropolitan Division 2) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (Metropolitan Division 3)
- Colorado Avalanche (Central Division 1) vs. Nashville Predators (Wild card 2)
- Minnesota Wild (Central Division 2) vs. St. Louis Blues (Central Division 3)
- Calgary Flames (Pacific Division 1) vs. Dallas Stars (Wild card 1)
- Edmonton Oilers (Pacific Division 2) vs. Los Angeles Kings (Pacific Division 3)
With files from The Associated Press