Puck-er Up: Hockey’s Back

The Spectator breaks down the thrilling first round of the NHL Playoffs!

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Historic comebacks. Riveting overtimes. Impossible upsets. The 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs have arrived with a bang. If the intense wild card races that closed the season didn’t give it away, the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs is shaping up to be among the most competitive playoffs in recent memory. 

While hockey has always been known for its playoff excitement––the intensity and physicality reach new levels, and the sport’s inherent unpredictability leads to upsets each year––this year has delivered something special. Fans have been treated to unending action in eight enthralling series, with superstars coming to play and whistles being put away. The games have begun, and we are ready.

As the first round comes to a close, let’s look at who remains and who is going home.

Colorado Avalanche (C1) vs. Seattle Kraken (WC1)

Like their predecessors from Vegas, the Seattle Kraken appeared in the playoffs earlier than any expansion franchise. Pitted against last year’s champions, most assumed the series would be a sweep for the Colorado Avalanche. Though they lost key pieces including left winger Gabriel Landeskog and right winger Valeri Nichushkin through the series, the Avs had history on their side. But the Kraken toed the line, taking the Avalanche to seven by scoring first in every game in the series. Heroics from winger Oliver Bjorkstrand and show-stopping play from goaltender Philipp Grubauer sent the Avalanche packing. Though Game 7 had a close scoreline, the Kraken were always a step ahead, and a silent Ball Arena witnessed this young crew head to the second round for the first time in franchise history.

Dallas Stars (C2) vs. Minnesota Wild (C3)

If you want to win the Cup, you have to kill penalties, and the Minnesota Wild failed to do so. They fell in six to the Dallas Stars, allowing nine goals across 24 power plays. Though center Joel Eriksson Ek suited up to play 19 seconds with a broken leg in Game 3, his absence greatly hurt the Wild’s performance. But that’s not to discredit the stars of the Stars, who played brilliantly throughout the series. Stalwart defensive play from Stars defenseman Miro Heiskanen and unexpected heroics from center Roope Hintz––who stimulated the Stars offense with twelve points––pushed the Stars over the top. However, this series was won on the back of superstar goaltender Jake Oettinger, whose impressive six-period long shutout streak allowed the Stars to easily cruise past a defeated Wild team.

Vegas Golden Knights (P1) vs. Winnipeg Jets (WC2)

This matchup was pretty much as expected: the Winnipeg Jets got hammered, former second overall pick Jack Eichel got his first postseason goal, and the Vegas Golden Knights moved on to Round 2. The Knights won this series in five games and were rewarded with six days of much-needed rest. The Knights had a stellar season, picking up 111 points en route to the top seed in the conference. On the other hand, the Jets barely scraped by, tumbling at the end of the season to land in the second wildcard spot. There wasn’t much to this series, though there was a double-overtime thriller in Game 3 that drew much attention. The Knights will be ready for anything in Round 2, while the Jets will be disappointed in their lackluster performance.

Edmonton Oilers (P2) vs. Los Angeles Kings (P3)

When you have two of the best players in the world––Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl––it’s hard not to win games––at least if your goalie’s stick doesn’t break. In the rematch of last year’s clash that went the distance, the Edmonton Oilers lay victory once again, this time defeating the Los Angeles Kings in six games. In what was predicted to be a very even matchup, the Oilers were a goal-scoring machine, producing a league-best 325 goals in the regular season, while the Kings were more of a well-rounded team throughout the season.

While McDavid’s contributions were obviously notable––three goals and seven assists in the series––it was Draisaitl that shone brighter throughout, popping in seven goals and dishing four assists. The Oilers would have probably steamrolled the Kings had it not been for some shady goaltending from rookie Stuart Skinner. With a save percentage of .890 and a goals against average of 3.43, it was evident that Skinner struggled in his first playoff series. That being said, the Kings didn’t have much firepower, with stars Anze Kopitar and Kevin Fiala mustering seven and six points, respectively.

It’s easy to see that this series is becoming a classic, with star forwards and top-tier defensemen lining the sides of both teams. The Oilers are preparing to face the Knights in Round 2, while the Kings will look to strengthen their roster for next year’s almost-certain rematch.

Boston Bruins (A1) vs. Florida Panthers (WC2)

This didn’t go to script, did it? The question coming into this series wasn’t if the Boston Bruins would win, but more when they would win. The Bruins came into this match as heavy favorites, breaking the NHL single-season points record and win record, and winning the Presidents Trophy, given to the team with the most points in the regular season. The Florida Panthers, on the other hand, were the huge underdogs, hanging on to the last wildcard spot by a mere one point.

Nevertheless, with under a minute to go in Game 7, the Panthers found a way to send the game to overtime thanks to a Brandon Montour slapshot from the hash marks. Then, with 11:25 remaining in the first period of overtime, Carter Verhaeghe ripped one top-shelf on goaltender Jeremy Swayman, sending the Bruins packing and doing what many thought to be impossible just a few weeks before. Swayman wasn’t supposed to be in that situation, filling in for a dreadful Linus Ullmark in Game 6 that shipped seven goals in a 7-5 loss.

It’s hard to put into words how incredible this achievement was from the Panthers, so it’s best to let the statistics do the talking. The Panthers trailed 3-1 in a best-of-seven series, but then went on to win the next three do-or-die games. The Bruins had the best regular season goal-differential with +128, far above the second-placed team that had a mere +67. The Bruins even had home-ice advantage, though that is something that has let teams down this playoffs. The insanity of this achievement can go on forever. This series exemplified why fans love hockey: it’s fast, it’s thrilling, and there’s never such a thing as an underdog in playoff hockey.

Toronto Maple Leafs (A2) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (A3)

Among all the series in the playoffs, none had higher stakes than this one. The Toronto Maple Leafs entered desperate for a taste of playoff success after six straight heartbreaking first-round losses. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Lightning sought to extend possibly the most dominant dynasty in NHL history. Since practically December, fans have been anticipating this heated rematch from last year, where the Lightning emerged victorious in Game 7. Before the puck even dropped, this series was set to be must-watch television.

Each team established their offensive prowess by trading seven-goal feats in the first two games, but both sides brought their best to the remainder of the series. Miraculous comebacks led by Toronto’s top players in both Game 3 and Game 4 saw the Maple Leafs take a 3-1 series lead back home. Though Tampa Bay’s playoff experience allowed them to hang on for a Game 6, the Lightning were outmatched by Toronto’s skill, desperation, and belief.

The Maple Leafs entered Game 6 determined to get the monkey off their back––and, with the help of Auston Matthews and an overtime winner by captain John Tavares, they were able to do so. After years of heartbreak for Maple Leafs fans, they had finally advanced to the second round for the first time since 2004. 

This series came down to who wanted it––needed it––most, and that was the Toronto Maple Leafs. Their superstars, who management had believed in from the beginning, came through––Mitch Marner shined with 11 points, while Auston Matthews notched five goals. However, shrewd deadline acquisitions by general manager Kyle Dubas proved invaluable in this series, adding an element of heart to the team that had previously been lacking. With that said, this series would not have been won without Ilya Samsonov, who outplayed his countryman Andrei Vasilevskiy, often regarded as the best goalie come the playoffs. 

In a series that delivered riveting comebacks and unending action, the Maple Leafs have finally emerged victorious, riding on the back of their unwavering belief.

Carolina Hurricanes (M1) vs. New York Islanders (WC1)

Since the beginning of the season, the Carolina Hurricanes have been a force to be reckoned with. Their system-first approach has worked beautifully, as general manager Don Waddell has crafted his team to perfectly align with coach Rod Brind’Amour’s approach to the game.

However, amid their best season yet, Carolina soon found themselves riddled with injuries. Max Pacioretty was unable to return from an injury sustained last season, and superstar winger Andrei Svechnikov was ruled out for the playoffs with a torn ACL. Soon into the playoffs, the Hurricanes lost another key forward in Tuevo Teravainen and were left without three of their best forwards.

Meanwhile, the New York Islanders, who have historically struggled offensively, caught arguably the biggest fish in the market in center Bo Horvat. Immediately, Horvat developed chemistry with star forward Mat Barzal, giving many fans hope that the duo would carry their dominance into the playoffs. Both players went ice-cold in the playoffs, each delivering a paltry two points in six games, as the Islanders looked offensively depleted during the series. Unfortunately, New York left Vezina-candidate Ilya Sorokin hanging, but the Russian goaltender still managed to put up a .929 save percentage and a 5.39 GSAx––single-handedly keeping the Islanders in the series.

The Islanders’ shutdown approach stifled the Hurricanes in Games 3 and 5, but the Hurricanes showed that they were still a force to be reckoned with. Carolina center Sebastian Aho silenced any doubt that he was a legitimate superstar, as he put the Hurricanes on his back, driving their offense throughout the series. The Hurricanes’ team-first approach allowed them to fill the spots vacated by injuries, and they won crucial games on the backs of clutch goals from depth players like Jesper Fast, Stefan Noesen, and Paul Stastny. The Hurricanes simply outpowered the Islanders in a series that, without Ilya Sorokin, would’ve been over in four games.

At the end of the day, goals win games. The Hurricanes got goals; the Islanders did not.

New Jersey Devils (M2) vs. New York Rangers (M3)

This year’s New York Rangers probably could have gone the distance. But before them stood a New Jersey Devils team which, like the 1994-1995 Devils, were a young, up-and-coming squad with much to prove. The Rangers mocked the Devils in the first two games of the series, taking both games at “The Rock” by identical 5-1 scores, powered by clutch performances from goaltender Igor Shesterkin and winger Chris Kreider. But in a pair of scrappy games at Madison Square Garden, the Devils leveled the series with two tight wins to head home with the momentum in hand. And then in Game 5, the Rangers fell silent to Devils winger Erik Haula. Goaltender Akira Schmid only had to make 23 saves, while his Devils put 43 shots and four goals on the Rangers, forcing a must-win at the Garden.

Yet after Game 6 at the Garden, everything seemed to return to the Rangers, with winger Barclay Goodrow, center Mika Zibanejad, and defenseman Braden Schneider snapping goal streaks to send the series to a deciding Game 7 at the Rock. But in Game 7, Schmid stole the show, once again halting a lethargic Rangers attack as the Devils cruised to their first playoff series win since 2012.

However, for these Devils to survive the second round, they need to find consistency, especially in the net and on the attack. The Rangers were relatively successful in suppressing star forward Jack Hughes, and a dedicated defense awaits him in Carolina. But should these young Devils find discipline and consistency, they could be a dark horse to watch for the rest of the playoffs.

As the climax of hockey nears, these playoffs are set to become even more exciting. Each of the remaining teams is chasing history––most teams have not won the Cup in over 15 years, and some are still searching for their first. If the first round wasn’t compelling enough, the second round is shaping up to be even better.

In the West, the Kraken will seek to surpass history once set by the Golden Knights, while the Stars hope to give their veterans one last shot at glory. The Oilers will hope that their superstars can propel them past the Golden Knights, who are searching for revenge after recent down years.

In the East, the Maple Leafs will hope their good fortune and belief can bring Lord Stanley home for the first time in over 50 years, while the Panthers seek to continue the ever-exciting underdog story. Meanwhile, the Devils and Hurricanes, the two Metropolitan division powerhouses, will meet in a fast-paced, action-filled series that will test either team’s skill, stamina, and resolve.

Eight worthy candidates, but only one will remain standing. From here onward, the competition will only get stiffer, and the stakes will only get higher. Gear up, hockey fans, as we get one step closer to crowning a new champion.