The Stanley Cup Playoffs are fast approaching.
There is at least one Western Conference wild-card spot up for grabs, possibly even two. The Pacific Division has yet to be fully decided, and the Vegas Golden Knights are on the outside looking in for the first time in franchise history.
Things are significantly less exciting in the Eastern Conference, where we've known the playoff group for a few months already. The Tampa Bay Lightning look dominant again, though less so than its counterpart on the east coast of Florida, the Panthers. However, the Atlantic Division as a whole is a tough field, with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins also in the mix.
The Washington Capitals are the weak link in the Metropolitan Division with inconsistent goaltending, but that may not matter during the postseason when a player like Alexander Ovechkin can be a difference-maker. The Carolina Hurricanes look like a true contender, but the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers appear strong as well.
The postseason begins in three weeks. Let’s explore some of the early developing storylines as the regular season starts to wind down.
Legacies on the Line
Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews are two of the best players in the world, yet they have relatively little playoff success.
Whether or not the Maple Leafs make it out of the first round will likely be the biggest playoff storyline for a few reasons. There will naturally be a lot of pressure on a historic Original Six team playing in the hockey capital of the world. The media spotlight burns brightest in Toronto, and there is a level of prestige that comes with wearing the Maple Leaf.
It can be tough to play for the Leafs, and it's even tougher when the expectation is that the team is built for championships, but the narrative is that the team can't win when it matters.
The franchise hasn't made it out of the first round since 2004, and its epic collapse in last year's seven-game series against the Montreal Canadiens has not been forgotten.
In Edmonton, McDavid's legacy has been tarnished by mismanagement. The club has yet to truly build a contender around McDavid and Leon Draistaitl. Interim head coach Jay Woodcroft has had much better results behind the bench than Dave Tippett did, and his team is a near-lock to make the postseason.
But how far are they capable of going? All of those first-round picks have led to little more than first- and second-round exits.
Matthews, McDavid and Draisaitl will all be in the Hall of Fame someday, but anything less than a Cup Final would be considered a disappointment.
Will the Tampa Bay Lightning Create a Dynasty with a Third Straight Championship?
Here's the thing no one tells you about winning Cups: It can be exhausting. It's obviously worth it, but there is a reason you don't see teams winning three in a row anymore.
Playing four rounds of four to seven games is a lot. It's two months of injuries, adrenaline, long overtimes and travel with tight turnarounds. It can put a lot of mileage on the skaters and take a toll on the goalies.
Training staffs often adjust their offseason plans to give players an adequate amount of rest, but it's a tough balancing act because the players don't want to be behind physically to start the next season.
The Lightning have played a lot of playoff hockey over the last few years. This is a dominant team that knows how to win, but they also might be mentally and physically burnt out. The team is third in the Atlantic Division, and the quality of play has not slipped this year, though, so there is nothing to indicate that this is the case.
But this isn’t exactly unheard of.
The Los Angeles Kings won Cups in 2012 and 2014, with a trip to the Western Conference Final in between. In the latter championship run, the Kings won three series that went into seven games to become the first team to advance to a Final having won 21 games. They looked unbeatable and had nearly all of their top players returning in 2015.
And then Los Angeles failed to make the postseason in 2015. They admitted to being drained.
Tampa Bay has played in 45 playoff games over the past two seasons. If you add in the round-robin games from the bubble in 2020, that's 48 games.
Maybe this is the year we see Florida or Colorado take the crown from Tampa Bay. Those two teams have loaded up with the intent to knock out the Lightning. Or maybe the window is still open for Patrice Bergeron and the Boston Bruins.
Of course, the mental toughness may come into play here and the Lightning could become the first team to threepeat since the New York Islanders won four straight Stanley Cup championships from 1980-1984, and the first in the salary cap era.
With goalie Andrei Vaseilveskiy you have to like their chances, which brings us to the next storyline…
Do Teams Have Good Enough Goaltending?
Most of the top teams have questionable goaltending. The Lightning, the New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, Colorado Avalanche and Calgary Flames are pretty set in net with solid No. 1 goalies, which is quite a luxury in the postseason.
In Edmonton, Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen don't inspire much confidence. The Maple Leafs don't seem to trust Jack Campbell. The Washington Capitals have been hamstrung by bad goaltending all season.
Some teams could not address their goaltending needs at the trade deadline because of the high prices for goalies and salary cap issues. There wasn't enough Marc-Andre Fleury to go around.
Then, there are the teams with tandems. Tandem usage is effective in the regular season, but it can become a problem in the postseason if a No. 1 goalie is not named. It creates divisions and uncertainty, which isn't what you want for a locker room in win-or-go-home scenarios.
Jonathan Quick won the Conn Smythe a decade ago during Los Angeles' first run and outdueled Henrik Lundqvist during the second run two years later, but he's 36. Quick has been the preferred goalie over Cal Petersen this season, but they've split a lot of the workload.
The Minnesota Wild won the Fleury sweepstakes, so it would seem that they would prefer a three-time Stanley Cup winner, but Cam Talbot was signed to be the No. 1.
The Bruins have to choose between Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark.
You could maybe even say that Tristan Jarry—who struggled in the playoffs last year—is a question mark for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Goaltending can make or break a team in the postseason, so it’s fascinating to see so many good teams with question marks in net.
Is This the Last Stand for the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Veteran Core?
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang have accomplished a lot together. Even some of Pittsburgh's important role players like Bryan Rust, Jake Guentzel and Brian Dumoulin have helped the team stay exceptionally prosperous during Crosby and Malkin's prime years.
But Malkin is coming up on free agency this summer, as are Rust and Letang. There may be a changing of the guard of sorts since the club is tight on cap space and will have to start ramping up the planning for a post-Crosby and Malkin era. The prospect pool isn't exceptionally deep because, as a perennial contender, assets are consistently traded to maintain competitiveness.
As long as Crosby is around, the club will try and contend, and the Penguins will have to find ways to retool, reload and get younger in the coming years. But for now, the trip will get a shot to capture their fourth Stanley Cup.
How good are those chances? Their plus-38 goal differential would say they're somewhat good. Winger Rickard Rakell has been a fantastic addition to the lineup, working well with Crosby in limited action and even setting up the goal that gave Crosby his 1,400th NHL point. Coach Mike Sullivan said Rakell might see more time on Crosby's line since they know Rust can play with Malkin.
At the start of the season, people predicted a slide for the Penguins this season, myself included. But Pittsburgh has maintained a strong level of play with Sid and Geno still leading the way.
Will There Be a Surprise Team to Make a Run?
After two seasons of altered playoff formats, the NHL is back to using the same format before COVID-19: Three teams from each division and two wild-card winners from each conference.
In 2017, the Nashville Predators made it to the Stanley Cup Final as a wild-card team, and they're still the only team to have ever done so. In 2012, the Kings won the Stanley Cup as the No. 8 seed (pairings were reseeded after the first round, and the wild-card format had not been instituted).
The 2021 Montreal Canadiens may not have even made the playoffs had it not been for the all-Canadian North Division created because of border restrictions during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2019, John Tortorella guided the Columbus Blue Jackets to a sweep of the heavily favored Lightning in the first round, a team he previously led to a Stanley Cup back in 2004. Columbus failed to advance past the Eastern Conference semifinal round, but it was quite possibly the most memorable series of the entire postseason.
The Predators might be the wild-card team with the best chance to advance. Roman Josi has 87 points this season and has a chance to reach the century mark with 10 games left. Matt Duchene is having a career year at age 31, the club opted to keep Filip Forsberg at the deadline, and rookie Tanner Jeannot has proven to be quite the throwback of a power forward, providing offense and toughness.
Of course, it also helps to have an outstanding goalie, and Juuse Saros has been one of the best in the Western Conference this season.
The Preds are exceptionally tough to play against, which is exactly what coach John Hynes wants.
Of course, few would be surprised to see a team like the Boston Bruins run through the Eastern Conference bracket. They appeared in the Final in 2019 with much of the same core intact.
Everyone likes an underdog story, and it's no different in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Will COVID-19 Play a Role?
For the third season in a row, COVID-19 has impacted the NHL. Games were postponed and rescheduled at such a high frequency that the league prevented players from participating in the Winter Olympics.
The holiday break was extended. It took the New York Islanders months to catch up to other teams in games played, and it's probably one of the reasons a heavy favorite in the East will be sitting out this summer.
The NHL managed to get nearly every player in the NHL vaccinated, and things have calmed down considerably since the Omicron variant rapidly spread in December and January.
Canadian teams played in empty buildings once again. Protocols were tightened, and testing ramped up, but as the case numbers went down, the protocols were relaxed once again, and the league stopped testing asymptomatic players.
At the moment, transmission does not seem to be a problem. But it continues to be in the background as the season ends, and it will remain there during the postseason as well.