And then there were four. This has definitely been a wide-open playoff, and I haven’t been so wrong in some time. Only one of my favorites made it, but I like it this way. It was fairly obvious the Colorado Avalanche would win last season, which didn’t make a compelling playoff. But it’s starting to feel like the Florida Panthers will win it. Something I’d never thought I’d type.
The Eastern Conference second round was nonsensical. I didn’t pick the New Jersey Devils to beat the New York Rangers because they were an inconsistent young team with bad goaltending. But they managed to overcome both, so why not do it again? Nope. They were as advertised. The Carolina Hurricanes are a great team, but this is about the Devils. They lost the first two games to the Rangers 10-2, and they liked that so much they lost to the Hurricanes 11-2 in their first two games. They bounced back only to lay an egg in Game 4, where they admitted to giving up. So athletes who get paid millions to play a sport decided they didn’t feel like playing that day. They played better in Game 5, but it was too late. Akira Schmid lost some luster, but he should be the long-term answer. Young teams are inconsistent but not this much. It seems like they learned nothing from the first round.
I really don’t understand the Toronto Maple Leafs. They finally won a first-round series, and the big boys stepped up, but they followed it up with a ginormous letdown. The first three games were close, but they were still hungover from their series win. Auston Matthews was nowhere to be found. Game 5S was one of the better playoff games they played, and they might have won in regulation. We’ll never know if Morgan Reilly scored a goal. But the overtime winner was the most Maple Leafs play ever. Two Maple Leafs collided to give the Panthers a 3 on 2 the other way. Then Radko Gudas blatantly holds Calle Jarnkrok’s stick for three seconds, and no penalty was called. You call a chippy over the glass penalty but not on the game’s most important play. It’s possible the refs didn’t see it in real time. I didn’t but come on. The ref had to. Not to mention all the high sticks to Auston Matthews’ face that weren’t called. The series should be 3-2.
Now we get the highly anticipated all-Southeast match-up of traditional hockey hotbeds. It’s good that the NHL is growing, but this wasn’t the match-up I ever wanted. But there is talent on both sides, and you can pretend the Panthers were the number-one seed this year. It’s funny how both the Miami Heat and Florida Panthers were number one seeds last year but were eight seeds this year and still made it to the conference finals. The odds of that are quite slim.
The Golden Knights are a great team, but I figured the current group would need more time to gel. But I’m wondering if the refs have it out for Canadian teams. After missing all the calls in the Maple Leafs’ games, the calls all went the Golden Knights’ way in this series. Suspending Darnell Nurse for a game after wanting to fight because Alex Pietrangelo tried to injure Leon Draisaitl in Game 4, but he only received a one-game suspension too. Missing two too many men penalties on the ice on the Golden Knights several times in Game 6. Not calling the high stick that drew blood on Mattias Ekholm. That’s the weirdest follow-through I’ve ever seen on a shot.
M1 Carolina Hurricanes vs. W2 Florida Panthers
Season Series: 2-1 Hurricanes
Playoff Series History: None
What We Learned: The Panthers are the hottest team winning seven of their last eight. The Hurricanes have played the fewest playoff games of the remaining teams.
Stars to Watch: Sebastian Aho continues to lead the Hurricanes, but Jordan Martinook had a great second round. All ten points came in that round. Jesper Fast, Brent Burns, Seth Jarvis, and Jordan Staal round out the scoring leaders. Teuvo Teravainen is set to come back. He will give them a boost. I still don’t know how Paul Stastny scored the series winner. Matthew Tkachuk and Carter Verhaeghe are far ahead of everyone else on the Panthers. But I truly marvel at Brandon Montour’s play. I remember him on the Anaheim Ducks, and I thought he was older and out of the NHL. Boy, was I wrong. Aleksander Barkov, Sam Reinhart, and Sam Bennett round out the scoring.
Goalie Problem: Frederik Andersen continues to impress and has been the best goalie numbers-wise. But this Panthers team is more scrappy than his previous opponents, and he’ll get a lot of work up close. Sergei Bobrovsky is a very strange goalie. He had two seasons where he won the Vezina Trophy, while the rest were fairly average. He’s only had two good postseasons, this being one, and the others were below average. He wouldn’t have been on the team if it wasn’t for his salary. But here he is.
X-Factor: My knock on the Hurricanes has always been, is there a player that will take the team on their back and score when necessary? The Panthers have two in Verhaeghe and Tkachuk. The Hurricanes had several key goals from Aho and Necas during the season, and Aho and Fast have done it a little in this postseason. These games should be close, so having that player will be key.
Fun Fact: The Hurricanes still boast the best penalty kill at 90%. Neither team blocks shots as they are last and second to last in the playoffs.
Prediction: The Carolina Hurricanes should win, but I bet the Florida Panthers will. The Hurricanes are the higher seed with momentum from building something in the last few seasons. But the Panthers remind me of the St. Louis Blues a few seasons ago. They got hot at the right time, made the playoffs, and now can’t be stopped. NHL teams usually peak a few seasons after they should. The Panthers have it right now, but the Hurricanes are as dominant as any team in the playoffs. However, the Panthers took down the Bruins in seven, and they should do that again here. Panthers in seven.
P1 Vegas Golden Knights vs. C2 Dallas Stars
Season Series: 3-0 Stars
Playoff Series History: 1-0 Stars
What We Learned: The Golden Knights outlasted the Oilers in a series that could have gone the other way. The Stars outlasted the Kraken, who were more than game.
Stars to Watch: Jonathan Marchessault had quite a second round. Mark Stone, Chandler Stephenson, and Jack Eichel did their thing. Eichel has the quietest 14 points in memory. Ivan Barbashev, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith round out the very balanced scoring at the top. Roope Hintz continues his playoff magic and is second in playoff scoring. Max Domi had quite a second round. Joe Pavelski returned with a bang. Jamie Benn and Jason Robertson round out the top five. Rookie Thomas Harley and Wyatt Johnston were impressive in the second round.
Goalie Problem: With all the goalie’s injuries, Adin Hill is now the starter, assuming he stays healthy. That’s a big if, but he sure looked sharp against the Edmonton Oilers. He’s one of the reasons their power play struggled at the end. Jake Oettinger had a few bad stretches, but he mostly showed why he’s the best goalie left. He’s still got his Game 7 magic, just like his coach.
X-Factor: Jason Robertson has done almost nothing in the playoffs. He has three goals in 20 playoff games over two postseasons. But he’s scored 87 goals in two seasons, so he should have about ten. It’ll be quite challenging for the Stars to win if he sustains this level of play.
Fun Fact: This is a rematch of the 2020 Western Conference Finals, which the Stars won. It also features Peter DeBoer facing his former team. The Golden Knights have had several great coaches during their short history, and none deserved to be fired, and they’ve all had success since then. It would be great for DeBoer to get the last laugh since the Golden Knights fired him for barely missing the playoffs with a team that was half-injured all season long.
Prediction: This isn’t quite the match-up I wanted, but it’ll be just as good. These teams are fairly evenly matched, but the Stars are more disciplined and slightly better defensively. I won’t abandon the Stars now, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the Golden Knights won. But they do not want this to go seven games. Too bad for them. Stars in seven.