Bitter Rivalries and Superstar Dominance in the NHL Playoffs
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The 2022 NHL Playoffs have been many things––riveting, thrilling, and heartbreaking, just to mention a few––but they have never been boring. The first round, which alone has featured five game sevens, has been regarded as one of the best first rounds in NHL history. Now that eight out of the 16 teams have left for the golf courses, the second round looks to match the first in entertainment value.
The first round saw fans glued to their TVs daily for almost two weeks. Looking purely at the numbers, it was the most successful first round in NHL history, highlighted by a record-setting 2.3 million viewers for the Rangers-Penguins game seven, along with seven other compelling series. While Norris candidate Roman Josi tried to single-handedly maneuver the Nashville Predators past the Colorado Avalanche, the star-studded Avalanche overpowered them easily, completing their second consecutive first round sweep. The St. Louis Blues’ balance of youth and experience, amid spectacular performances from goaltender Jordan Binnington, overpowered the Minnesota Wild’s defense-first playstyle, while the Florida Panthers exposed the Washington Capitals rather easily, possibly kickstarting superstar forward Alexander Ovechkin’s swan song.
However, the thrill was most prominent in the five series decided in one game. The Boston Bruins rode the backs of their superstar line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak and challenged the favored Carolina Hurricanes in a riveting seven-game battle, while the Calgary Flames and Dallas Stars were deadlocked in a superb goaltending battle. Flames goaltender Jacob Markstrom ultimately prevailed behind a far stronger team, but 22-year-old Jake Oettinger put on a goaltending clinic and single-handedly took a top five team in the league to seven games, posting a 6.33 GSAx, an absurdly impressive number that only barely encapsulates his excellence. Outshining other dominant performances from Cale Makar, Auston Matthews, and Connor McDavid, the 22-year-old goaltender was easily the best player in the first round.
The Edmonton Oilers should have easily beaten the injury-riddled Los Angeles Kings, but Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick turned back the clock, pushing the Oilers to the brink of elimination. Meanwhile, the heavily favored New York Rangers saw their stars fade to oblivion and only barely defeated a depleted Pittsburgh Penguins team that lost their starting goaltender, a first line winger, and their superstar centre, Sidney Crosby, until the final game. In the few games that he was able to play, Crosby reminded fans across the country why he will go down as one of the greatest to ever play the game, while the Rangers demonstrated that they are not entirely ready to handle playoff hockey.
In arguably the most divisive and polarizing series of the first round, the two-time defending champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning, ousted the Toronto Maple Leafs, who now leave the playoffs with a first-round defeat for the sixth straight time. The Maple Leafs’ stars were far more dominant than previous years, but the Lightning’s cup-winning experience prevailed, though they were undoubtedly helped by several questionable calls from the referees. Marvelous goaltending and remarkable performances from superstars characterized a captivating first round. The only thing lacking was a true upset or underdog victory. This result worked out perfectly, however, to set up an even more competitive second round.
Many have the Hurricanes booked to move past the Rangers to the conference finals, but the Rangers could easily squeak through with better play from stars Adam Fox and Artemi Panarin, combined with a continuation of Igor Shesterkin’s Vezina-caliber performance. The Hurricanes, however, are among the most well-built, balanced teams in the league, boasting a taste of prior playoff victories, experience that many Rangers players lack. This series has already begun as a defensively-oriented one, which could end up benefiting the more defensively responsible Hurricanes. The deciding factor in this series will come down to how effectively each goaltender limits the other team’s offense, especially considering the star power present in both teams’ forward corps.
Further south, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s dream is coming true. Having long touted the expansion of the NHL to smaller, unconventional hockey markets, Bettman is sure to love the sight of two Floridian teams battling it out in the second round. The Tampa Bay Lightning is the slight favorite in this series, especially when one considers its cup-winning experience, as well as the momentum it carries forward from a well-fought battle against the Maple Leafs. The Panthers were the top team during the regular season, however, and added star forward Claude Giroux at the trade deadline, which could certainly pose a challenge for the two-time defending champions. The Battle of Florida will be a firework of starpower, and, as all series involving the Lightning do, it will eventually come down to whether or not Florida’s offense can overpower elite goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, an unlikely feat, considering his groundbreaking dominance throughout the Lightning’s last two cup victories. If Florida’s offense falters against Vasilevskiy, this series could be a swift victory for Tampa Bay––possibly in as little as four or five games.
The Colorado Avalanche, meanwhile, faces off against the St. Louis Blues in a series that flaunts some familiar faces, often for the wrong reasons. Last year, when Colorado swept St. Louis, tensions rose to a level of violence, including multiple suspensions being handed out on either side, animosity certain to carry over to this postseason. This year, both teams boast stronger rosters, between Avalanche forward Nazem Kadri playing the best hockey of his career and Nathan MacKinnon consistently delivering at a world-class level. The Blues will seek to capitalize on their unique balance of youth and experience, surrounding the veteran core that won them a cup in 2019 with elite young talents in Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas. However, this series is truly in the hands of 22-year-old Makar, who has already cemented himself as the undisputed best defenseman in the league and looks to build upon a record-setting first round. Makar dominates play in all three zones and is possibly the best skater in the entire league right now, with swift, remarkable edgework that has revolutionized the art of skating in hockey. Between Makar’s outstanding level of play and MacKinnon and Kadri continuing their dominant seasons, this should be a swift victory for the Avalanche en route to their first cup in over 20 years.
A lengthy, brutal history characterizes the final series that pits the two Albertan teams, the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames, against each other. The Battle of Alberta has a long history of animosity but has often featured one-sided battles as only one of the two teams was truly dominant. Over the past two years, however, both teams have entered the upper echelon of the league, and the animosity between the two teams has broiled over. The fierce rivalry began when Oilers enforcer Zack Kassian and Flames star forward Matthew Tkachuk ignited a rare goalie fight. Since then, the regular season matchups have been nothing short of electrifying, which is why a playoff series between the two rivals draws so much anticipation. In addition to the storyline of the teams’ hatred for one another, however, McDavid’s brilliance adds to the hype. The Oilers superstar center is on pace to set an NHL record for the most points in a single postseason. McDavid has, without a doubt, revolutionized the sport of hockey. His skating puts almost everyone else in the league to shame, and his understanding of the game supersedes arguably every player in the sport’s history. At barely 25, McDavid has given merit to the argument that he will retire as the greatest hockey player ever, passing the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Sidney Crosby. If this is the year the Oilers make it out of the second round, and possibly even hoist the cup, it will be on the back of McDavid.
The 2022 NHL Playoffs is filled with riveting storylines. Four of the five cup favorites remain, with even more compelling series yet to come. These playoffs are without a doubt one of the best the NHL has ever seen, filled with bitter rivalries and dazzling superstars in every series. The race to the cup is on, and it is as exhilarating as ever.