No sweeps and only one five-game series made for a compelling first round of the NHL playoffs, where both first-round teams were eliminated, but neither was too surprising.
When I wrote the Colorado Avalanche vs. Seattle Kraken series preview, my gut instincts told me Kraken in seven. I almost wrote it, but I only wanted to make one prediction, and I already mentioned how it wouldn’t be surprising if the Kraken won. As usual, my gut was right. The Avalanche spent a lot of energy to win the Stanley Cup last season, but their biggest problem was this team is very different. They lost Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky in free agency, Gabriel Landeskog was injured, Cale Makar was suspended one game, and Valeri Nichushkin didn’t play for unknown reasons. That’s an All-Star lineup of missing people. That gives the Avalanche significantly less depth, meaning the top line must produce every game. That’s hard to do, especially against a deep Kraken team. This wasn’t surprising. The Kraken beating last year’s Avalanche team would be shocking.
As for the Boston Bruins, I really didn’t know what to make of them. I didn’t think they could sustain such a high level of play for so long. Their closest comparison was the 2019 Lightning couldn’t, but I never got Lightning vibes from the Bruins. The Lightning were already battling, blowing 3-1 series leads in back-to-back conference finals. The fact that the Panthers were one of only two teams to beat the Bruins twice in the regular season should have been highlighted more in my column as I did with the Kraken’s regular season record against the Avalanche. I just didn’t buy the Panthers as much of a threat. The Bruins were up 3-1 and should have closed the series in Game 5. But then Linus Ullmark happened. I always preach goalies should never leave their crease, and Ullmark showed why. That was the turning point in the series. Late series overtime losses are tough to overcome. They didn’t win after that. It reminded me of Marc-Andre Fleury misplaying the puck against the Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens tied the game and then won in overtime. While the Golden Knights won the next game, that was their last win, and they were never the same again. I would have started Jeremy Swayman in Game 6. Jim Montgomery also had strange power play line combinations in Game 7. Not the ones that got them there. He was out-coached and will regret most of his decisions. The last time the Bruins were up 3-1 in a series and even 3-1 in that Game 7 and lost was against the Philadelphia Flyers in 2011. They came back and won it all the next season. Assuming their core stays intact, they should be fine.
Personally, I desperately wanted a Maple Leafs vs Bruins series because of its historical significance. I have zero interest in Maple Leafs vs Panthers.
The most stunning series result to me was the Devils beating the Rangers, despite not being an upset. The Rangers won the first two games 5-1, and that’s how I expected it to go. The Devils made a goalie change, and the Rangers forgot how to play hockey. They rebounded in Game 6, and you figured they would come back again in Game 7, but nope.
On a side note, I hate brackets. Once again, the team I picked to win it all was eliminated from the first round. I picked the Bruins even though I didn’t want to. Of my four favorites, I was least confident of their chances since the president’s trophy winner never wins. I originally had the Oilers, but it was a fifty-fifty split with the Stars, and I didn’t like that. I wanted to pick the Maple Leafs, but I did that last season, and they burned me. Plus, they’d have to beat the Lightning and the Bruins. Despite liking their chances the least, I thought they were the safest bet. I should have just gone with Oilers vs Maple Leafs. Oh well, it’s just a bracket.
A2 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. W2 Florida Panthers
Season Series: 3-1 Maple Leafs
Playoff Series History: None
What We Learned: The Maple Leafs finally won a series for the first time in 19 years. The Panthers scrapped and clawed to topple the Presidents’ Trophy winner a year after they won it and returned as the last seed.
Stars to Watch: The big four, Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander, came through, while the two Riellys (Morgan Rielly, Ryan O’Reilly) contributed big time too. Michael Bunting’s suspension unearthed Matthew Knies, who gave them a spark. Matthew Tkachuk and Carter Verhaeghe brought it for the Panthers. Brandon Montour had the series of his life. Aleksander Barkov, Sam Reinhart, and Sam Bennett also contributed against the Bruins.
Goalie Problem: Ilya Samsonov performance against the Lightning was impressive. Sergei Bobrovsky didn’t start the series, but he finished it. He wasn’t anything special but made vital saves when necessary.
X-Factor: I worry about the depth of the Maple Leafs. Knies was a good find, but they’ll need more than him and the big four. The Panthers had nine players with four or more points; the Maple Leafs only had six.
Fun Fact: The Maple Leafs won three overtime games in the first round, the Panthers two. You know what that means, overtimes galore in this series. Prediction: I always said the Maple Leafs were a stuck ketchup bottle. Once they leave the first round, there’s a great chance they’ll go all the way. I highly doubt the Panthers will stop them. The Panthers needed turnovers in Game 2 and a goalie blunder in Game 5 to beat the Bruins. While the Maple Leafs aren’t a well-oiled machine, I don’t foresee the Panthers getting the needed breaks to win. Maple Leafs in six.
M1 Carolina Hurricanes vs. M2 New Jersey Devils
Season Series: 2-2
Playoff Series History: 3-1 Hurricanes
What We Learned: The Hurricanes lost their home ice mojo while the Devils found a goalie.
Stars to Watch: The Hurricanes got a team effort in round one, led by Sebastian Aho and Brent Burns. Seth Jarvis, Stefan Noesen, and Martin Necas had good games as well. I still don’t know how Paul Stastny scored the series winner. Erik Haula had the series of his life, while Jack Hughes, Ondrej Palat, Nico Hischier, and Jesper Bratt all had a great first round too. A healthy and contributing Palat means good things for the Devils.
Goalie Problem: The Hurricanes plan to split time between Antti Raanta and Frederik Andersen. Good luck with that. I would start with Andersen. Akira Schmid is the answer for the Devils in goal. How long he stays hot will determine the Devil’s fate.
X-Factor: The regular season games were surprisingly high scoring, but I imagine goals will be hard to come by. Both teams turned it over quite often in round one, and a turnover might make the difference in a few games.
Fun Fact: The Hurricanes only allowed one goal on 18 Islanders’ power plays.
Prediction: Both teams are hard to figure out. Considering the Hurricanes lost a game at home, and the Devils have a hot goalie, I will say, Devils. Yes, the Hurricanes lost to the Rangers in Game 7 last season, but there were several key injuries, so it didn’t count. I’ll lean Devils in seven.
C2 Dallas Stars vs. W1 Seattle Kraken
Season Series: 2-1 Stars
Playoff Series History: None
What We Learned: The Stars cruised past the Wild while the Kraken gave it their all to beat the champs. Stars to Watch: Roope Hintz brought his game up a notch again in the playoffs. The only positive about Joe Pavelski’s injury was Tyler Seguin’s playing time increased, and he regained some of his old magic. Pavelski should return in this series. Jason Robertson and Miro Heiskanen were their usual selves. Jamie Benn and Evgenii Dadonov rounded out the top Stars’ scorers. I also loved Max Domi’s hustle. Yanni Gourde, Jaden Schwartz, Justin Schultz, and Oliver Bjorkstrand led the Krane in scoring against the Avalanche. Bjorkstrand had two goals in Game 7 and hit the post four other times. Matty Beniers only had one series point. Yikes.
Goalie Problem: Jake Oettinger led the NHL in SV% in the first round. There’s not much else to say. Philipp Grubauer does not post good numbers, but he was great in Game 7 when it mattered most. However, this is a huge advantage for the Stars.
X-Factor: The Kraken had the second-best penalty kill and turned it over the fewest but were third worst on the penalty kill and second worst in faceoffs. The second two won’t be sustainable if they expect to beat the Stars.
Fun Fact: 18 of the 20 Kraken that played in round one scored a point. Only three players had more than four points, and 14 Kraken players had a negative or zero plus-minus. What a weird team.
Prediction: What the Kraken has done so far is impressive, but I have a feeling it took everything they had to beat Colorado. While it’s great you play as a team, eventually, you’ll need someone you can count on when playing a better team. They don’t have that yet. The Stars have way more experience and firepower, not to mention a better goalie. Stars in six.
P1 Vegas Golden Knights vs. P2 Edmonton Oilers
Season Series: 3-1 Oilers
Playoff Series History: None
What We Learned: The Golden Knights played a bad first game but rebounded to win four straight. The Oilers dominated most of the Kings’ series but had bad stretches of mental errors.
Stars to Watch: Mark Stone returned to lead the Golden Knights in scoring with Chandler Stephenson. Jack Eichel played fairly well in his first playoff appearance, but he’s tied for the lowest team plus-minus at -2. Eichel, William Karlsson, and Alex Pietrangelo all chipped in five points. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl did their thing, and they were joined by Evan Bouchard, who led all defensemen in first-round scoring. Klim Kostin is emerging as a playoff threat. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Zach Hyman, Evander Kane, and Mattias Ekholm all had four points. Kane was mostly invisible to me, and I will need to do more.
Goalie Problem: Laurent Brossoit played well in his first playoff series and was second in SV% in the first round. He will be challenged against the Oilers, though. Stuart Skinner was a mixed bag, but the good outweighed the bad. He battled back from adversity several times in the Kings’ series.
X-Factor: Vegas still didn’t take many penalties in the first round, but their penalty kill was only 58%. Edmonton almost doubled their power play at 56%. Vegas better hope they stay out of the penalty box, or they’ll get murdered. Conversely, the Oilers will need to score more at even strength because they probably won’t get as many power plays in this series. Over a third of their goals were on the power play against the Kings.
Fun Fact: The top two picks in the 2015 draft (McDavid and Eichel) will face each other. Just like the Buffalo Sabres envisioned.
Prediction: This series should be a dandy. It’s hard to know what to make of the Golden Knights since the Jets were so bad. I expect this to be a high-scoring series. The Oilers led most of their series against the Kings and looked dominant even when they were outshot. The Oilers have more firepower up top, which should be enough to get them the win in seven.