We’re past the halfway point of each second-round series in the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs, and one conference semifinalist has already begun its offseason, as the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida Panthers were swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
What have the first four games of each series taught us? And how will those lessons impact the rest of the round and beyond?
If the Lightning weren’t favored to three-peat as Stanley Cup champs going into the playoffs, they might be now. Tampa Bay dismantled the Florida Panthers in a second-round series sweep that was impressive for how effortless it appeared. The Lightning are headed for their third straight Eastern Conference finals appearance and sixth in eight years. Few teams in this era can sustain that kind of success season over season. Tampa Bay is doing it before our eyes.
The real revelation in the series against Florida, though, was Lightning netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy. His stunning play (.981 save percentage, 0.75 goals against average, capped off by a shutout in Game 4) defied superlatives. The Panthers averaged more regular-season goals (4.11 per game) than anyone, and Vasilevskiy made them look feeble as Tampa Bay outscored them 13-3. That dominance by Vasilevskiy wasn’t guaranteed, either, after how he played in the first-round matchup against Toronto. His numbers there through six games (.885 SV%, 3.37 GAA) were average, but in Game 7, he rose to the occasion (30 saves, .968 SV%) and pushed Tampa Bay through.
The Lightning will face New York or Carolina next. It’s an unenviable assignment for either of them. The Lightning have only gotten stronger in this postseason. The limit to their potential might not exist. — Shilton
Igor! [clap clap]
Hey, remember the opening round of the Eastern Conference playoffs between the New York Rangers and the Pittsburgh Penguins? Remember when Igor Shesterkin, the favorite to win the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender, was pulled twice? Remember how he gave up three or more goals in six of the seven games they played?
If you don’t, that’s OK. The Rangers goalie has done everything he can against Carolina to make you forget those opening-round struggles ever happened.
Shesterkin has stopped 117 of 122 shots he has faced against the Hurricanes, good for a .959 save percentage. That included his 73 saves on 75 shots in two home victories at Madison Square Garden, to the delight of Rangers fans who chanted his name after saves (and opposing goals) for encouragement. He hasn’t been perfect — no doubt he’d like that Nino Niederreiter backhand goal from Game 3 back — but he has been good enough that the Hurricanes are still trying to convince themselves they can beat him.
“I’m confident that eventually they’re going to find the back of the net. Maybe as a forward group we can do a little better to be in his eyes and get to loose pucks out there,” Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho said after Game 4. “Dirty goals. You get one of those, you get confidence — and all of a sudden, you get all kinds of goals.” — Wyshynski
Carolina is playing with fire
The Hurricanes are a great team (obviously). But they’re trending into dangerous territory against the Rangers. Winning the series’ first two games at home was a strong start, and Carolina did it thanks to key goals from depth contributors Ian Cole (with the Game 1 overtime winner) and Brendan Smith (with the opening salvo in a 2-0 Game 2 victory).
Unlikely heroes are a hallmark of successful postseason teams. But Carolina will need more out of its top guys too, as evidenced by their too-quiet sticks when the series shifted to New York. The Hurricanes blew into Manhattan and dropped consecutive games, moving to 0-5 on the road in this postseason and heading home to Raleigh with the series knotted 2-2. Carolina was outscored 7-2 on aggregate in Games 3 and 4, and their misfiring power play (0-for-12 in the team’s past five games) remains an issue. Aho and Teuvo Teravainen combined for one goal in Games 3 and 4; Niederreiter had the other. But the Hurricanes never seemed to fire on all cylinders.
Given Carolina hasn’t yet lost at home in the postseason (6-0) and it still owns home-ice advantage in this series, it would be easy for the Canes to get complacent. Carolina held the Rangers to only one goal in Games 1 and 2 and could potentially shut them down again. But the heat is rising in this second-round matchup after the nastiness of Game 3. It’s all proper fodder for the Rangers to steal one on the road now and put Carolina on the ropes. — Shilton
The goals continue to flow
Don’t let the defensive grind of the Rangers vs. Hurricanes series fool you: The 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs continue to mimic the regular season’s extraordinary offensive pace.
The Stanley Cup playoffs are now averaging 6.27 goals through 67 games. That puts the postseason on pace to be the highest-scoring one since the 1995 tournament (6.36 goals per game), which was played after a lockout-shortened season.
An average of 6.3 goals per game were scored this regular season, the highest since 1995-96 (also 6.3).
All of that scoring has come at the expense of close finishes; there have been only 10 overtime games through the first two rounds. Last postseason, there were 16 overtime games in just the first round. — Wyshynski
St. Louis’ supposed goaltender of the future is dangerously close to a freefall. After taking over the Blues’ starting job from Jordan Binnington and posting terrific stats to end the regular season (9-1-2, .913 SV%, 2.88 GAA), Husso has been awful since a Game 1 win over the Minnesota Wild in the Blues’ first-round series. He followed that performance by allowing nine goals combined in St. Louis’ next two games (.847 SV%) and was replaced by Binnington in Game 4.
St. Louis rallied around Binnington and pulled through to the second round against Colorado. Then Binnington was injured in Game 3 and won’t be back for this series. Husso has the Blues’ crease again, and the results since he stepped in have been poor: 0-2, .847 SV%, 4.99 GAA. Ouch.
The Avalanche are up 3-1 on the Blues in the series. It would take the best of everything St. Louis has to beat the Western Conference’s top team three straight times and advance. And what Husso is showing doesn’t reach that level. For the Blues to have a chance, their rookie netminder must channel whatever made him so spectacular for large swathes of the regular season. — Shilton
Avalanche more than MacKinnon, Makar
The Colorado Avalanche have managed to push the St. Louis Blues to the brink of elimination without a goal from Nathan MacKinnon and just two points from Cale Makar. That should scare the daylights out of the remaining teams in the Western Conference.
Consider how the Avs steamrolled the Nashville Predators in the opening round of the playoffs. MacKinnon had six goals. Makar had 10 points, the most in NHL history by a defenseman through four games in a postseason. But against the Blues, it has been a different story. MacKinnon has seen copious amounts of St. Louis defensive ace Ryan O’Reilly. He has managed to pick up assists in three of the four games but hasn’t been able to tally a goal despite taking 17 shots. Makar had nine shots in the first two games in Denver but managed only two in the past two games in St. Louis. Still, he picked up assists in both of those games.
Again, the fact that Colorado hasn’t really needed them is absolutely frightening. They had a hat trick and an assist from Nazem Kadri in Game 4. They had two goals from deadline pickup Artturi Lehkonen in Game 3. In their Game 1 overtime win, it was defenseman Josh Manson getting the game winner in overtime.
The mark of a championship-caliber team is the ability to win even if its stars aren’t shining the brightest. In Round 2, the Avalanche have that mark. — Wyshynski
The Battle of Alberta needs some bite
The best thing about an Edmonton-Calgary matchup is the torrid history between their teams. That was on full display in Games 1 and 2. The Flames asserted themselves physically, drawing Edmonton into an uncomfortable position and reaping the benefits. Something shifted for Calgary after its loss in Game 2, though. Edmonton came back from a 2-0 deficit, scored late in the third while short-handed to break a 3-3 tie and wound up winning 5-3.
The Flames haven’t looked quite the same since. There’s less edge to their game, like they are trying to match the Oilers’ skill instead of challenging it. Edmonton looks comfortable, and that’s not going to help the Flames attempt to overcome a 3-1 hole in the series.
And then there’s Calgary’s goaltending. Jacob Markstrom has been inexplicably inconsistent, producing periods of brilliance (like a 21-save effort in the opening 20 minutes of Game 3, or a clean sheet in the second frame of Game 4) followed by costly mistakes uncharacteristic of a Vezina Trophy finalist. Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Evander Kane combined for 16 points in Games 3 and 4 at home. The entire Oilers offense is rolling. Markstrom has been getting beaten cleanly, and he’s occasionally hurting his cause by trying to play the puck (including a gaffe that directly resulted in a goal 21 seconds into Game 4).
The Flames battled back to tie Game 4 but couldn’t keep the momentum going to get the win. That’s twice in the series they’ve been knotted in the third and come up short.
The parades to the penalty box that marked this series early on are gone, but with them has gone too much of the physicality that makes Calgary great. The Flames will need to flex some muscle if they want to extend this series any longer. — Shilton
The floppy cats
Can we blame the “Presidents’ Trophy Curse” for the Florida Panthers’ second-round exit, as they were swept away by the Tampa Bay Lightning?
In the past decade, there has been only one team that had the regular season’s best record and won the Stanley Cup: the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks. Since the salary cap was instituted after the 2005 lockout, only the Blackhawks and the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings won both the Presidents’ Trophy and the Stanley Cup in the same season. In fact, those two teams and the 2014-15 New York Rangers are the only Presidents’ Trophy winners to play in a conference final — everyone else bowed out earlier.
But if we’re not citing the supernatural for the Cats’ demise, what then? Obviously, the offense is to blame. Florida averaged 2.3 goals per game in the playoffs, down from 4.11 goals per game in the regular season, which was the highest for any team since the 1995-96 season. The source of much of that frustration was the power play, which went from fifth in the league (24.4%) to last in the playoffs (a miserable 3.2%), with one goal in 31 power-play opportunities.
It looked like interim coach Andrew Brunette was headed toward a multiyear extension before the playoffs started. Was winning a playoff round before getting swept by a two-time Stanley Cup champion enough to earn him that? Meanwhile, the Panthers will have to take stock of what worked and what didn’t in the playoffs. Are the changes they have to make personnel-oriented, or were their goal-scoring woes an indication that something stylistically doesn’t translate from the regular season to the playoffs? — Wyshynski