NHL Playoffs 2022: What Top Stars Are Saying Ahead of Stanley Cup Race

Jake RillFeatured Columnist IIMay 1, 2022

NHL Playoffs 2022: What Top Stars Are Saying Ahead of Stanley Cup Race

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    The best time on the NHL calendar has arrived: the Stanley Cup playoffs. The postseason gets underway Monday, and 16 teams will battle it out, trying to earn the title of champion. But by the time it's over in June, only one team will be celebrating with the Cup.

    During the 2021-22 regular season, the Florida Panthers were the best team, finishing with 122 points to capture the first Presidents' Trophy in franchise history. But there are plenty of other strong teams in the playoff field that are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.

    What surprises will be in store? Which players will emerge as postseason heroes? And most importantly, who will capture the Stanley Cup?

    Here's a look at several top storylines to watch for in the first round of the playoffs, along with the latest comments from some of the league's top stars.

Can Maple Leafs Get Past Experienced Lightning Squad?

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The Toronto Maple Leafs have lost in the first round of the playoffs each of the past five years. Not only that, but they've lost seven consecutive postseason series, a stretch that dates back to 2004. But if Toronto is going to end that drought this year, it will need to get past the Tampa Bay Lightning, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.

    "Everybody on the team, and everybody in this organization, is confident in one another and extremely motivated to change the narrative and have success come postseason time," Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews said, per Larry Lage of the Associated Press. "It’s about doing—not talking about it—and I know that this group feels ready."

    Matthews scored an NHL-high 60 goals during the regular season, so the Lightning may have trouble trying to slow the 24-year-old. But Tampa Bay has a group of talented players who know what it takes to win once the postseason arrives.

    "For sure, there's going to be a lot of hype coming into this round," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said, per NHL.com's Mike Zeisberger. "But this group is a mature group. We know how to handle a lot of different situations come playoff time. We'll have to lean on our experience here."

    Whichever team wins, this has the potential to be an exciting series that goes six or seven games. Either the Maple Leafs will finally end their recent postseason misery, or the Lightning will advance and begin their quest to become the first team to win three straight Stanley Cups since the New York Islanders won four in a row from 1980 to 1983.

Will Ovechkin Be on Ice to Lead Capitals Against Panthers?

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Alex Ovechkin is one of the greatest hockey players of all time, and he's put up impressive numbers throughout his 17-year NHL career. However, he's only won one Stanley Cup (2018), as the Washington Capitals have mostly endured playoff struggles during the Ovechkin era. They've also lost in the first round each of the past three years.

    This postseason, the Caps will look for better results, despite being the No. 8 seed in the East. However, there's at least a chance they may have to try to upset the top-seeded Panthers without Ovechkin, who missed the final three games of the regular season due to an upper-body injury.

    "I feel pretty good. We'll see," Ovechkin told NBC Sports Washington earlier this week (h/t NHL.com's Tom Gulitti).

    Washington could use all the help it can get, especially from Ovechkin, who scored 50 goals this season. Florida rolled for much of the regular season and is poised for a deep playoff run.

    However, the Panthers have lost their past six playoff series and haven't advanced in the postseason since 1996, when they made a run to the Stanley Cup Final in the franchise's first playoff appearance. But if Ovechkin isn't on the ice for Washington, Florida may have little trouble ending that drought.

Who Will the Wild Turn To at Goaltender This Postseason?

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    There are several teams dealing with goaltender injuries trying to figure out who they should put in the net this postseason. The Minnesota Wild are not among those teams. That's because they have two talented netminders who are capable of leading them to playoff success.

    Cam Talbot had a strong season for the Wild, recording a 2.76 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage in 49 games. But in March, Minnesota made a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks to acquire Marc-Andre Fleury, who went on to have a 2.74 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage in 11 games for the Wild.

    Now, who will start in the net for Minnesota this postseason, beginning with its first-round series against the St. Louis Blues? Fleury, a 13-year veteran and three-time Stanley Cup winner, or Talbot, a nine-year veteran with more history with the team?

    "Obviously we'll both respect the decision that they make," Talbot said, per Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune. "Both of us have been playing well. We're both probably deserving of it."

    Maybe the Wild will split playing time, or they could go with the hot hand. Either way, they're in a good position to have a strong showing this postseason thanks to their defensive prowess, starting in the net.