2022 NHL Playoffs: B/R Staff Conference Finals Predictions

Bleacher Report NHL StaffFeatured ColumnistMay 31, 2022

2022 NHL Playoffs: B/R Staff Conference Finals Predictions

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    We're down to four teams.

    Both the Eastern and Western Conference Finals will be loaded with star power as the New York Rangers take on the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Colorado Avalanche tussle with the Edmonton Oilers.

    Two of the NHL's top goalies meet in the East, with presumptive Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin facing countryman Andrei Vasilevskiy. Can the Rangers' netminder lead the Blueshirts to an upset over the two-time defending champions?

    Out West, the Oilers will ride the skills of Connor McDavid as far as he can take them. But will it be enough to take out the Avalanche, the best team in the Western Conference during the regular season?

    The B/R NHL Staff got together to provide their picks for both the Eastern and Western Conference Finals.

    Disagree with our team's picks? Share thoughts on both series in the comments below!

Eastern Conference Final: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New York Rangers

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    Lyle Richardson: It was 2015 when the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers met in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Lightning had a roster filled with promising talent while the Rangers were an established playoff club that skated in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.

    Back then, the Lightning upset the Rangers, and now it's an upstart Blueshirts squad hoping to unseat the back-to-back defending champions.

    The Rangers possess veteran stars such as Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider, an All-Star defenseman in Adam Fox, a budding star in Alexis Lafreniere and a young Vezina Trophy finalist in goaltender Igor Shesterkin. Thanks to the latter, they overcame two series deficits to upset the Pittsburgh Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes.

    Facing them is a well-rested Lightning club that knows what it takes to win. Led by forwards Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, defenseman Victor Hedman and 2021 playoff MVP Andrei Vasilevskiy, the Bolts eliminated two high-scoring opponents in the Toronto Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers.

    The Rangers are on the rise, but they won't overcome the Lightning's depth and championship experience. Vasilevskiy's big-game background gives him the edge in a goalie duel with Shesterkin.

    Prediction: Lightning in 6.

                       

    Lyle Fitzsimmons: As much as anything, it's a matchup of mindsets.

    Those who believe in momentum or mojo might side with the New York Rangers.

    After all, coach Gerard Gallant's plucky bunch rallied from 3-1 down against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round, then came back from 3-2 against the Carolina Hurricanes—including a Game 7 win in Raleigh against a team that hadn't lost at the PNC Arena since April 14.

    Meanwhile, those who side with proven commodities lean toward the Tampa Bay Lightning.

    For those unaware, the Lightning haven't lost a playoff series since the spring of 2019, winning 10 in a row while capturing a pair of Stanley Cups and getting themselves halfway to the first NHL threepeat since the New York Islanders of the early 1980s.

    The Rangers boast the favorite to win the Vezina Trophy in Shesterkin and a cadre of skilled skaters including center Zibanejad and reigning Norris Trophy winner Fox—who've respectively produced 19 and 18 points in 14 playoff games—alongside Andrew Copp (12) and Panarin (11).

    But on the flip side is Tampa Bay's consistently heroic trio of Kucherov, Hedman and Stamkos, who've combined for point-per-game production through two series, while Ross Colton and Nick Paul—alongside ageless Cup-chaser Corey Perry—chipped in with the sorts of money plays that had been the bailiwick of offseason departees Yanni Gourde and Blake Coleman.

    And the Lightning of course have the shiniest star of them all in Vasilevskiy, who's been up to familiar tricks in winning six straight games since a Game 5 first-round loss to Toronto. He's stopped 211 of 218 shots in his direction for a .968 save percentage.

    Put it all together and it means, until proved otherwise, they are the best team in the NHL.

    Prediction: Lightning in 7

                       

    Abbey Mastracco: It's tough to go against a team that won two Game 7s and has won their last five straight elimination games. It's even tougher to pick against a team that has the second-best power play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and one of the best goalies in the world.

    But the Rangers don't have the best goalie in the world. That honor goes to Vasilevskiy, which is why I'm choosing the back-to-back Stanley Cup champs to defeat the Rangers and advance to a third straight final.

    The Blueshirts excel on the power play and rely on Shesterkin to bail them out when needed. But he has been needed too much. All season, the Rangers have struggled to generate chances at five-on-five and it's been no different in the postseason, as New York has allowed more scoring chances than it has created. Bleeding chances with a world-class goalie is fine, I guess, but no one will tell you it's a recipe for success.

    The power play is the Rangers' calling card, and Tampa Bay has the best penalty kill of the four conference final teams, killing off 87.8 percent of chances.

    This version of the Lightning may not look like the one that won the last two Stanley Cup Finals, but they have in-house talent like Ross Colton, who was ready to take over for some of the departed players, and the additions of Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel helped fill in the gaps.

    Tampa Bay also might have one of the best blue lines in hockey in front of Vasilevskiy. Former Ranger Ryan McDonagh remains an elite defender.

    But this is a team that understands how to exert their energy and manage their emotions in important games. Credit to the Rangers, who stayed disciplined under coach Gerard Gallant in the second round when notorious pests like Tony DeAngelo tried to goad them into taking bad penalties, but the Lightning are pretty good at that too.

    Jon Cooper is a fantastic Xs and Os coach, and he may well be creating a dynasty.

    Prediction: Lightning in 6

Western Conference Final: Edmonton Oilers vs. Colorado Avalanche

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    Lyle Richardson: The 2022 Western Conference Final features two teams that haven't been this far in some time. The Colorado Avalanche were defending Stanley Cup champions when they reached the 2002 Western Conference Final. For the Edmonton Oilers, this is their first appearance since 2006, when their underdog squad made a run to the Stanley Cup Final.

    It's the first Conference Finals for Oilers captain Connor McDavid and Avalanche superstar Nathan MacKinnon. Most of the hype will understandably be upon the clash between McDavid and linemates Leon Draisaitl and Evander Kane against MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and their linemate Artturi Lehkonen.

    Both clubs also enter this series with inconsistent performances from their starting goaltenders. Colorado's Darcy Kuemper and Edmonton's Mike Smith have given up some questionable goals through the first two rounds. However, they've also come up with key saves when it mattered most.

    Ultimately, however, it will come down to depth. In that regard, the Avalanche have a couple of aces in superstar defenseman Cale Makar and high-scoring second-line center Nazem Kadri that the Oilers cannot match. Those two should tilt the series in the Avs' favor.

    Prediction: Avalanche in 6.

                   

    Lyle Fitzsimmons: In 2015, when the Oilers plucked McDavid with the first pick in the draft, executives at NHL headquarters surely sat back in comfy chairs and dreamed how long it'd take McDavid and the guy picked at No. 1 two years earlier—MacKinnon—to get their teams back to playoff relevance.

    Well, let's just say some dreams take a bit longer to manifest than others.

    Though MacKinnon and the Avalanche have been among the league's best for the last few seasons, it's taken more patience for McDavid to get a group around him capable of contending.

    But at long last, here we are:

    Edmonton and Colorado. Winner plays for the Stanley Cup.

    Though they finished well behind Calgary in the Pacific Division, the Oilers dispatched their provincial rivals in such a fashion that they appear to be something more than a Cinderella.

    Both McDavid and running mate Draisaitl have torn up the postseason with 26 points each in 12 games. Evander Kane has a league-best 12 goals in the same stretch, and 40-year-old Smith somehow has the third-best save percentage (.927) albeit with some notable mistakes.

    Meanwhile, the Avs topped B/R's power rankings for more weeks than any team, won more games than any team still alive and boast a roster with seven of ESPN's top 50 players whose teams reached the playoffs—including three of the top 15 in Makar (2), MacKinnon (3) and Mikko Rantanen (14).

    Colorado is favored for good reason. Edmonton's confidence is based on results.

    Close your eyes. Flip a coin. And in case of a tie, go with the world's best player.

    Prediction: Oilers in 6

                         

    Abbey Mastracco: The viewers are the big winners in the matchup between the Avalanche and the Oilers. Hockey is best when its most elite players are on display, and we get four of them in this series with McDavid and Draisaitl going against MacKinnon and Makar.

    These are two teams that have had title aspirations for a few years but haven't been able to get over the hump. For a few months of the season, it looked as though Edmonton was in danger of missing the playoffs entirely, with the train careening off the tracks. But the Oilers signed Evander Kane and fired coach Dave Tippett, who was replaced by interim coach Jay Woodcroft, and look where they are now.

    A year ago, MacKinnon gave a very sullen press conference after the Avs were ousted in the second round. There will be no sullen speeches this year, at least not yet, as Colorado will take the series to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.

    The key is depth, and the Avs have a whole lot more of it than the Oilers do, especially since Draisaitl has a suspected ankle injury. Nazem Kadri has 10 points in 10 games and netted a hat trick in Game 4 of the second-round series against the St. Louis Blues. His 10 points in 10 games is second to his linemate, Rantanen, who has 11 points.

    The Colorado blueline is anchored by Makar and linemate Devon Toews, but trade-deadline acquisition Josh Manson has been been beneficial as well and Bowen Byram, who has struggled with concussions throughout his young NHL career, is having a breakout playoff campaign.

    Goaltending is shaky on both ends, but Colorado's Kuemper has the benefit of playing in front of a team that plays more in the offensive zone than the defensive zone.

    McDavid might be the best player in the world, but there may not be enough around him to combat one of the deepest teams in the NHL.

    Prediction: Avalanche in 6.

                            

    Adam Herman: There is no need to overthink this one. The Avalanche vs. the Oilers represents a “best of” series in different ways.

    The Colorado Avalanche are, from top to bottom, the best team in the NHL. It's not particularly close, and although they didn't exactly have to run through a gauntlet to get here, their quick disposals of the Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues made that much clear. They have the star power, led by MacKinnon—or is it Makar?—and have nearly flawless depth down the lineup. Already with a stacked defense, the Avalanche added a healthy Byram, who has been brilliant in the playoffs, and Kuemper has done his part in goal. There are no holes on this team, and it's arguably the most stacked roster in the Salary Cap era.

    And yet that might not be enough against the Edmonton Oilers, who have holes all over the roster but feature McDavid, who has reached levels that are absurd even by his standards. The back-to-back Art Ross Trophy winner is putting up video game numbers, with seven goals and 19 assists through 12 playoff games. He's getting help from the Oilers' other top players, such as Draisaitl, Kane and the blossoming Evan Bouchard on defense, but McDavid has dragged a team that has otherwise struggled, largely in goal, to the Western Conference Final.

    For the Avalanche, it's simple: Stop McDavid, and it's an easy series win. But stopping McDavid isn't so simple, especially given his current form. Still, MacKinnon has the speed to keep up, and the Avalanche's depth trumps the Oilers. There's only so much No. 97 can do alone.

    Prediction: Avalanche in 5.

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