The first round of the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs lasted 51 games — including a pair of Game 7 overtime thrillers in games No. 50 and 51 — and now we’re on to Round 2.
To help digest what we saw from each of the eight surviving teams, as well as preview the all the matchups for the next round, we’re here to serve up our top takeaways for each remaining club.
Panthers rewriting their winning script
The Presidents’ Trophy winners didn’t dominate the eighth-seed Washington Capitals in their first-round victory.
At times, those Cardiac Cats looked practically on life support.
Down 3-0 in Game 5. Blown lead to allow for overtime in Game 6. Suffice it to say, there were hiccups along the way to Florida’s first playoff series win since 1996.
Florida did get there, though. And not primarily because of top-end talents like Jonathan Huberdeau (three points) or Sam Reinhart (three points) or even Aleksander Barkov (six points). It was more the unsung stylings of Carter Verhaeghe‘s playoff-leading six goals (including the OT game winner in that series-deciding Game 6) and the playoff mojo of Claude Giroux (three goals, seven points).
The Panthers’ reward for their hard work is a meeting with the reigning Stanley Cup champion Lightning. Any recent bad blood there? You bet. Tampa Bay sent Florida packing in the first round last season, scrambling Sergei Bobrovsky into such a tailspin that the two-time Vezina Trophy winner was replaced by rookie Spencer Knight before the Panthers fell in six games.
To avoid another letdown, and prevent a Lightning three-peat, the Panthers have to get introspective about what went wrong against Washington.
Florida led the NHL in wins when trailing after two periods this season (14). That may have given the Panthers an inflated sense of ability to overcome any obstacle, a toxic positivity that could — and nearly has already — come back to bite them.
Florida averaged a league-high 4.11 goals-per-game this regular season but watched that dip to 3.33 goals per game in the postseason. And after allowing fewer than three goals against per game in the regular season, Florida averaged more than three per game against the Capitals.
The Panthers have gotten solid goaltending from Bobrovsky (.906 SV%), who will have to outduel Andrei Vasilevskiy at the other end. Another bonus for Florida is that while it sent Washington home in six, Tampa Bay battled with Toronto into last Saturday’s Game 7. The Lightning will enter Game 1 of the second round with less rest than their in-state rivals, something on which the Panthers should try to capitalize immediately.
The bottom line for Florida, though: It’s imperative that it key on team defense. The goals will come; with a depth of talent like Florida’s, someone is going to light the lamp. The Panthers just have to balance that with the type of tight-checking defensive effort they know Tampa Bay can bring.
That hasn’t been a strong suit for Florida, but it could be the difference between a conference finals berth and a late-May locker clean-out. — Shilton
Lightning possess a champion’s tenacity
What did we learn about Tampa Bay in a first-round series victory over Toronto?
Back-to-back Stanley Cup wins hasn’t satisfied them. The Lightning are hungry for a third.
What we learned from the rest of this postseason field is that getting there won’t be easy for the defending champs.
Toronto pushed Tampa Bay to the brink. The Lightning came out of those games averaging (slightly) more goals against (3.43) than for (3.29). Vasilevskiy was more ordinary than outstanding (.897 SV%). Tampa Bay’s power play was middle-of-the-pack (21.2%). They didn’t dominate in the faceoff dot (43.4%).
In the end, none of that mattered. Tampa Bay was elite in the Game 7. Every player put his body on the line to keep pucks out. Nick Paul rose up to have the two-goal game of his life. Vasilevskiy flipped the switch to full-throttle Beast Mode. That’s what the Lightning can do. Just when you think they’re too tired, too outmatched, too over it, they get you with a left hook. Lights out.
Where will that momentum lead them next? Tampa Bay split its regular-season series with Florida 2-2. Both teams have high-end scorers. Both teams have great goaltenders. Both teams have terrific top-pairing defensemen (how did we get this far without mentioning Victor Hedman, the Lightning’s best player in the first round?)
Tampa Bay’s edge is in its resolve. It has played more hockey than anyone the past two years. If it has slowed the team down at all physically, it hasn’t appeared to have had an effect mentally. The Lightning know how hard the mountain is to climb. Yet here they are having made it past base camp. The opportunity ahead is historic. Tampa Bay has embraced the necessary sacrifices to reach its goals before, and that will be a superpower to lean on against the big, bad Cats.
There aren’t numbers and stats to measure all that. It’s just a feeling — a belief — that teams like Tampa Bay have. You can’t qualify for it until you earn it. — Shilton
Home ice matters in Raleigh
The Hurricanes looked like a different team in their four wins in Raleigh. They averaged 4.50 goals scored and 1.50 goals allowed in their four home wins. They averaged 2.00 goals per game and 4.67 goals allowed in three losses in Boston. The Hurricanes were the best defensive team on home ice (2.12 GAA) in the regular season as well.
But to get granular about it in the win over the Bruins, it’s how coach Rod Brind’Amour was able to get his top line with Sebastian Aho away from their Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron line and get his terrific checking line with Jordan Staal against Boston’s top line. Check out how Staal’s 5-on-5 ice time against Bergeron fluctuated from venue to venue:
Game 1 (CAR): 9:19
Game 2 (CAR): 7:21
Game 3 (BOS): 1:42
Game 4 (BOS): 1:45
Game 5 (CAR): 9:21
Game 6 (BOS): 3:13
Game 7 (CAR): 9:34
If Bergeron was playing Staal, he wasn’t playing Aho. So Aho had no points in three games in Boston, and four even-strength points in four games in Raleigh. With the Hurricanes again having home-ice advantage in the second round, one imagines we’ll see more of the same from Brind’Amour: Deploying his great checking line and his dynamic top scoring line efficiently and effectively. — Wyshynski
For all his regular-season greatness, New York Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin had yet to prove his postseason worth. Before this postseason, the likely Vezina Trophy winner had one game of playoff experience, giving up three goals in Game 3 of the Rangers’ qualification round sweep loss to the Hurricanes in the 2020 Toronto bubble.
Did he prove it against the Penguins? He did when it mattered most.
It wasn’t a great series for Shesterkin. He played to a below replacement level in three games against the Pittsburgh Penguins, including their Game 6 win. But he bookended that series with two remarkable performances: His 79-save effort in their Game 1 triple-overtime loss and then his 42-save effort in their Game 7 overtime win.
For the most part, it was the Rangers’ effort in front of him that led to some of his rockier nights. That’s reflected in the traditional stats: His 3.66 goals-against average is the highest for any goalie that played at least six games in the first round, but his .911 save percentage is the third best among postseason goalies. Coach Gerard Gallant rightfully called out his team for being “soft” in front of their goalie, and gradually they got the message.
But if the Rangers were looking for proof of concept on Shesterkin, they found it in that Game 7. Artemi Panarin had the series-winning goal. Mika Zibanejad had the huge offensive night. But none of it matters without the Garden crowd chanting “Igor!” as the Rangers goalie made save after save.
“He’s Mr. Reliable back there,” said Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba. “I think everybody knows, not just our team, that he’s going to show up in big games and play well and make saves that he’s probably not supposed to make.” — Wyshynski
Dominance won’t come as easy in Round 2
Colorado made such quick work of Nashville in a first-round series sweep it’s almost hard to remember how it all happened. To refresh: The Predators were without their best player in goaltender Juuse Saros and the Avalanche showed no mercy. Colorado put up seven goals twice in four games. Nathan MacKinnon had five goals in the series. Cale Makar tallied 10 (!) points.
Nashville’s rookie netminder Connor Ingram never stood a chance.
And even when the Avalanche lost their own starting goaltender, Darcy Kuemper, to an eye injury early in Game 3, no one skipped a beat playing in front of Pavel Francouz. The series just wasn’t a fair fight, even if it did showcase exactly what makes Colorado so dangerous (spoiler: basically everything about their game).
That’s what makes the second-round matchup against St. Louis so delicious. Colorado is at its best. The Blues, as seen in the final three games of their first-round win over Minnesota, are thriving. This heavyweight bout is why we love playoff hockey.
Both Colorado and St. Louis have had some downtime since wrapping up their last series on May 9 and May 12, respectively. That has also provided plenty of time for preparation.
The Avalanche will be looking across the ice at a deep Blues team brimming with hard-earned confidence and a goaltender in Jordan Binnington who basically has ice in his veins. This is not the same as a plucky Predators team just hoping to stay competitive.
The Avs can’t afford to underestimate the Blues’ abilities — or overestimate their own, either. St. Louis shut down the Wild’s offensive depth and frustrated both Marc-Andre Fleury and Cam Talbot in net with strong forechecking and a good cycle game. That’ll be a recipe they will bring to Colorado, too.
The Avalanche haven’t been steadily challenged yet in the postseason. St. Louis will march in to change that. — Shilton
The return of ‘Jordan Winnington’
The St. Louis Blues are full of surprises.
David Perron leading the team with five goals and nine points in a six-game first-round series win over Minnesota? Eye-popping.
Ville Husso stumbling to open the door for a Jordan Binnington resurgence (3-0-0, .943 SV%) when the Blues trailed their best-of-seven series 2-1? Unexpected.
If St. Louis didn’t start the playoffs with much confidence, it’s rolling in it now — for good reason.
The scoring is there, from Perron, Ryan O’Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko (five goals each). The defensive play is drastically improved (St. Louis allowed the fewest goals against — 1.67 per game — of any playoff team in their final three first-round series games).
And well, we’ve already covered the goaltending. Once Binnington stepped in, St. Louis shut the door on Minnesota by a combined score of 15-5. The team just clicked in, much like we saw the Blues do during their Stanley Cup run in 2019.
The next great hurdle in repeating that feat will be getting through a second-round meeting with the intimidatingly powerful Avalanche, who just happen to be back at full strength to boot.
After missing the end of Colorado’s first-round sweep over Nashville, Darcy Kuemper will be back for Game 1 against St. Louis. He had a sensational regular season, and was on point again until early in Game 3 of that Predators’ series when Ryan Johansen hit him in the eye with a stick.
Kuemper’s presence helps set up what should be a highly competitive situation in the crease. The Blues will be defined by how well they can battle through. St. Louis’ depth of scoring has been impressive throughout the season, but really began to shine late in the first round. That’s what it will take again to challenge Kuemper and a talented Avalanche defense that boasts walking highlight reel Cale Makar and a deep offensive group that is equally capable of scoring in bunches.
St. Louis will have to go toe-to-toe with Colorado in every respect — and just hope it has a few more tricks up its sleeve. — Shilton
It’s easy to be overshadowed as a playoff goaltender when the guy on the other side of the ice is putting on one of the greatest performances in recent NHL history. Watching Jacob Markstrom in Game 7 for the Calgary Flames while Dallas Stars goalie Jake Oettinger was doing what he did was like hearing a singer trying to put on a concert with Adele within earshot next door.
But the Otter went back to Texas, which means now the focus can be squarely on the playoffs’ best goaltender so far. Thanks to his solid play and the Stars’ offensive challenges, Markstrom posted a league-best .943 save percentage in the first round, which set a new Flames franchise record for the highest save percentage in a single playoff series, passing Miikka Kiprusoff‘s .929 in 2007.
Markstrom had 14 games of playoff experience prior to the Dallas series, with the Vancouver Canucks in their 2020 postseason bubble run. That season was enough proof of concept for the Flames to sign him to a six-year, $36 million free-agent deal, trying to stabilize a position on their roster that hadn’t been sufficiently filled since Kiprusoff retired in 2013.
The Battle of Alberta features an interesting goaltending duel. Mike Smith actually leads the NHL playoffs in goals saved above expected (10.4) while Markstrom (4.8) is third, per Money Puck. Smith has played better than the Oilers have played in front of him by a wide margin, while Markstrom’s acumen seems to be a critical piece of the way the Flames defended the Stars.
Perhaps that’s why there are headlines like “Does Markstrom deserve more credit for Flames’ success against the Stars?” in Canadian media. The Flames goalie has been phenomenal, although perhaps underappreciated. A series win against Connor McDavid could change that. — Wyshynski
Watching McDavid in the Oilers’ seven-game series win over the Los Angeles Kings was watching a player who refused to let his team squander another year of his life. In a league full of players labeled “difference-makers,” he’s the one that actually makes one.
Consider that McDavid was on the ice for 19 of the Oilers’ 27 goals in the series, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. He was on the ice for each of the six goals they scored in Games 6 and 7 to rally for the series win. Consider that, for the series, the Oilers out-chanced the Kings 68-24 with McDavid on the ice, according to Stathletes.
Game 7 was his sixth multi-point game of the series, the most by any skater in a single playoff round in nearly 40 years. His 14 points in the series are the third most in an opening-round series by an Art Ross Trophy winner. The other two? Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. Heard of them?
The only game since April 20 in which McDavid didn’t register a point was Game 4 in Los Angeles, when Jonathan Quick pitched his shutout. It’s not a matter of if McDavid will score against the Flames, but when. The trick is trying to minimize the damage he causes, while maximizing the disparity when he’s not on the ice for Edmonton. — Wyshynski