Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: Who will be left standing in a hard to predict postseason?

They say that stories write themselves. In some cases, that’s true.

Take for example the Canadiens last year. They were left for dead after going down three games to one in the first round against the rival Maple Leafs. Then, they flipped the script to stun the Leafs, who again were eliminated early.

It turned into a great run before the Lightning stopped the Canadiens to win a second consecutive Stanley Cup. The first repeat champion since the Penguins (’16 & ’17). They earned it by getting past the Islanders in a tough seven-game rematch where Yanni Gourde’s shorthanded goal was the difference along with Conn Smythe winner Andrei Vasilevskiy.

But really, the Bolts are the ultimate team. Stars roll off the tongue. Led by captain Steven Stamkos, who went over 100 points and is red hot entering the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs that begin tonight, they have the championship pedigree. The ever clutch Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman are part of a deeper core with high character players Anthony Cirelli, Ryan McDonagh, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, Corey Perry, Pat Maroon and Erik Cernak.

After losing their entire third line of Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, who’s had a similar impact on the Rangers, the Bolts are hoping key additions Brandon Hagel and Nick Paul can play a part in becoming the first team to three-peat since the Islanders Dynasty (1980-83).

Ross Colton could be a breakout player if they can get past the Leafs in an electrifying first round match-up. Is this the year Toronto finally advances to the second round for the first time since ’04? League-leading goal scorer Auston Matthews (60 goals) and sidekick Mitch Marner know the time is now.

They won’t have Michael Bunting at the start of the series. A still eligible candidate for the Calder who they stole from the mindless Coyotes. There’s plenty of pressure on captain John Tavares and William Nylander to perform. But it’s Hart candidate Matthews and Marner who must erase last year by performing up to expectations.

Jack Campbell is going to be asked to make the big saves. If he isn’t up to it, virtual unknown Erik Kallgren is the only option for Sheldon Keefe. It could hinge on veteran defenseman Mark Giordano, who has stabilized a back end that features Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin.

There are other exciting series to keep an eye on. The Bruins challenge the Hurricanes, who’ll be without Freddie Andersen. His status still isn’t known. They play the same aggressive system in front of Antti Raanta, who is injury prone himself. Will Pyotr Kochetkov wind up in net?

The Canes are strong due to their puck possession skating style highlighted by Sebastian Aho, who is one of the game’s best overall centers. He, Andrei Svechnikov and blossoming rookie Seth Jarvis form a potent top line.

They’ll be tested by dynamic duo Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. Split up from David Pastrnak, who still got 40 goals playing with Erik Haula and Taylor Hall, Bergeron and The Rat now have chemistry with Jake DeBrusk. By creating more balance, it makes Boston more formidable.

If you like contrast in styles, it’s the speed of the Canes versus the physicality of the Bruins. Look at the difference between Jaccob Slavin and Charlie McAvoy. Slavin is a shutdown first pair D who does it with superb skating and positioning. McAvoy is a meat and potatoes guy who will throw the big hit or make the key block. Both can contribute offensively.

If there’s one advantage for the Canes, it might be with Tony DeAngelo and Brady Skjei. Part of the Rangers South (Raanta, Stepan, Fast, Smith), they each can create offense in transition. DeAngelo is the bigger weapon who can do damage at both five-on-five and on the power play.

Skjei has rediscovered his offense by matching the 39 points he put up as a rookie. Partner Brett Pesce keeps opponents honest. The Bruins will lean on Matt Grzelcyk and Brandon Carlo to match up when McAvoy and veteran Hampus Lindholm can’t do the heavy lifting.

If you prefer depth, the Canes boast it with Nino Niederreiter and Vincent Trocheck two key scorers. Teuvo Teravainen plays on the second line. He’s a great passer who can be dangerous in transition. Marty Necas, Jesper Fast, Jordan Staal and Jesperi Kotkaniemi are solid secondary scorers with Staal, Fast and Niederreiter the reliable checking line.

The Bruins don’t have that. Craig Smith is a decent secondary scorer. But Charlie Coyle could be vital. Trent Frederic adds the grit factor.

It makes for an intriguing match-up. Are the Canes good enough to overcome the question in net? The Bruins counter with unproven duo Linus Ullmark and promising first-year man Jeremy Swayman. It should be a good series.

If ever a team has pressure, it’s the Panthers. They won the President’s Trophy for the first time. Boasting a plethora of scoring talent led by MVP candidate Jonathan Huberdeau and the tremendous Aleksander Barkov, this is a scary offense.

Nobody scored more goals. The Cats had 338. A remarkable amount thanks to their high flying style that not only emphasizes speed and skill, but physicality as well. Watch Mason Marchment, Sam Bennett and Patric Hornqvist.

Boasting four 30-goal scorers including Duclair and Sam Reinhart (82 points), they are never out of a game. However, it’s advisable not to fall behind at this time of year.

If Aaron Ekblad is ready, that’s a huge difference from last year when they fell in six hard fought games to the Lightning. They activate their D which include MacKenzie Weegar, Brandon Montour and Gustav Forsling. Radko Gudas provides all the nuts and bolts.

Anton Lundell is a good two-way rookie forward already. He centers the third line. Adding proven performer Claude Giroux makes them even more lethal. Especially on the man-advantage. He will find open teammates.

There’s some pressure on Sergei Bobrovsky to make the key stops. He bounced back by winning 39 games. But his numbers aren’t overly impressive. Partially due to how the Panthers play. There’ll be moments where Bobrovsky must come through. If not, then it’s on the young shoulders of Spencer Knight.

Florida has never advanced past the first round since their unbelievable run to the ’96 Stanley Cup Finals. They are the favorites to come out of an ultra competitive Eastern Conference.

The Capitals are limping in. Alex Ovechkin is expected to be ready for Game One. If he isn’t or not close to himself after that hard crash into the boards, forget about it. They need 50-goal Ovi to be a threat against the Panthers. He is the biggest reason they’re still a playoff team.

John Carlson and Evgeny Kuznetsov had strong seasons. They’ll both need to produce along with everyone’s favorite Tom Wilson. What are they getting from Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie? They can’t pull the upset without both being factors.

The Caps don’t really have a clear cut number one goalie. It says here Vitek Vanecek should be the guy over Ilya Samsonov, who hasn’t taken the leap just yet. If it becomes musical goalies, warm up the clubs for the golf course.

Can Anthony Mantha or Garnet Hathaway be key performers? Mantha is a streaky scorer while Hathaway is that unique combination of energy and strength that can thrive in this environment.

On paper, it looks like a mismatch. It’s the Panthers’ series to win or lose.

Perhaps the most intriguing first round series is the Rangers taking on the Penguins. They had a remarkable year to finish second in the Metro Division.

Highlighted by Vezina lock Igor Shesterkin, they have the edge in net. The Pens will not have Tristan Jarry for the start of the series. So, it’s up to Casey DeSmith. How much stock do you put into Shesterkin’s dominance versus the Pens? It depends on how he performs in his first NHL postseason.

Sidney Crosby can’t ever be considered an underdog. He’s still quite remarkable. Sidekick Jake Guentzel is the top finisher. Of course, Evgeni Malkin is part of the equation. He was kept quiet during the season series except for a power play goal that decided one game.

Kris Letang is expected to log the heavy minutes and bring offense. Brian Dumoulin does the defensive work. They’re quite similar to Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren. Fox being the constant offensive threat who makes terrific outlets and runs the power play. Lindgren the stay at home type who doesn’t mind getting the jersey dirty.

The Pens are banking on Rickard Rakell to provide key scoring along with Bryan Rust. A player who didn’t have a good finish, but must be accounted for. Malkin is particularly dangerous on the power play. Twenty of his 42 points came on it. He’s a trigger man.

The Rangers are a much improved club. Since the additions of Andrew Copp and Frank Vatrano, they now boast two scoring lines that have better balance. Copp fits in well with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome. Both Panarin and Copp practiced and will be ready tomorrow. But the injuries make it interesting.

Chris Kreider led the Rangers with 52 goals and 26 power play goals. He’s become the consistent net front presence that opponents have to plan for. He’s so good around the net at tipping and deflecting shots that he’s turned it into an art. Any rebound and the defacto captain will pounce. Obviously, he must continue to perform along with sidekick Mika Zibanejad if they’re to make a run.

Perhaps the one notable difference is the Rangers’ physicality. Jacob Trouba not only can supply additional offense from the blue line. But he’s a locomotive. Trouba delivers hard hits and blocks shots. He could become a target during scrums due to his no-nonsense approach.

Partner K’Andre Miller has grown as a second-year player. He is the better skater with the long reach. But he’s added a physical element. Maybe playing with Trouba has rubbed off. Miller also is capable of using his skill to lead the rush. He could be the key to the series. There are moments he can get caught out of position, but recover. Look for the Pens to test him.

If you’re looking for a wildcard, it’s Alexis Lafreniere and Barclay Goodrow on the Manhattan side. Lafreniere has gotten better as the season has gone on. He’s a finisher at this stage. All 19 of his goals have come at even strength. Goodrow is the do everything intangibles player who can play third or fourth line. He will wind up taking key face-offs and be moved up and down as Gerard Gallant sees fit. He’s also an excellent penalty killer.

From a Pittsburgh perspective, they’ll look to Jeff Carter and Brian Boyle. They bring lots of experience. Carter anchors the third line. He still is a good skater. Boyle plays fourth line yet still can contribute. He doesn’t shy away from the net front.

The Pens will look to Mike Matheson for extra offense on the back end. He can get his shot through. John Marino, Chad Ruhwedel and Marcus Pettersson mostly concentrate on defense.

If you want to make a case for the Pens, aside from the obvious, it might be secondary guys like Kasperi Kapanen, Danton Heinen, Teddy Blueger, Brock McGinn and Jason Zucker (if he plays). Even Evan Rodrigues isn’t shy about shooting the puck.

The Rangers will look to grind the Penguins down. While Ryan Reaves might not see action early, he can always be inserted to provide a spark. The fourth line will likely be Goodrow, Kevin Rooney and Dryden Hunt, who Gerard Gallant prefers over Jonny Brodzinski.

If they get anything out of Filip Chytil or Kaapo Kakko, that bodes well. Ditto for Braden Schneider, whose poise could be overlooked.

If I went a bit longer on the Rangers, it’s because that’s who I cover and root for. Plus the Pens won’t be easy. Anyone who thinks that is delusional. I expect it to be hard fought and close.

The Western Conference might be easier to predict. It’s not as strong. Though that first round between the Blues and Wild promises to deliver. I can’t wait to see that when the Rangers aren’t on.

I feel like the Predators can give the Avalanche a series. I don’t like how Colorado looked coming in. They were sloppy. Maybe it’s due to getting Nazem Kadri back along with Devon Toews. Two key players if they’re to go far. Not just the second round.

The Preds are a bit top heavy. Roman Josi led them with 96 points. He basically carried them into the final wildcard. He is my Norris winner. Along with forty-goal scorers Filip Forsberg and Matt Duchene, that star trio can be a handful on the power play. Ryan Johansen also had a good year. They will count on production from their upper echelon players.

The Avalanche boast the soon to be reunited line of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and the explosive Mikko Rantanen. It could depend on Landeskog, who’s the same kind of emotional leader Kreider is in NYC. Except Landeskog is more proven. How healthy is he?

If you’re looking for a young defenseman who’ll take your breath away, that’s Cale Makar. He scored 28 goals. He is always a shooting threat. Makar is the polar opposite of Fox, who thinks pass first. They’re both great players. But Makar can find the openings for his dangerous shot. He is also a great skater and can play a little bit in his end.

When you can have both Josi and Makar going head to head in a Norris battle, that’s exciting. Duchene will be hearing the boos as he’s a former Av who they traded to speed up their rebuild. I’m sure he’d love nothing better than to silence that crowd.

For the Predators to have a chance, they need Juuse Saros (out for Games 1 and 2) to return at some point. He is that important. If not, then the net is likely left to David Rittich. The Avalanche are counting on Darcy Kuemper to deliver. He was shaky down the stretch, which coincided with their losing streak.

If Kadri plays to form, he gives Colorado a huge edge at center. As long as he avoids another suspension, he should be a factor. So too will secondary scorers Andre Burakovsky, Val Nichushkin, Artturi Lehkonen and J.T. Compher.

The Preds will rely on the physical Tanner Jeannot. He hits everything. Jeannot can also finish and play shorthanded. He has the perfect style for the postseason. It’s his brand of hockey along with Luke Kunin and Yakov Trenin that make Nashville fun to watch. Think smash mouth hockey.

Give the Avs the edge on defense with Toews one of the best at the position. Think the Islanders wish they could’ve kept him? Adding Josh Manson to a blue line anchored by Makar and Toews helps. Sam Girard and Erik Johnson are healthy too.

After Josi, the Preds have Mattias Ekholm, Alexandre Carrier and Dante Fabbro to round out the top four. They’ll log big minutes.

Mikael Granlund and Phiip Tomasino are keys offensively for Nashville. But all bets are off if Saros can’t return.

The Wild and Blues are evenly matched. You also could see all four goalies. Minnesota boasts the proven Marc-Andre Fleury and Cam Talbot. St. Louis counters with former 2019 Cup champ Jordan Binnington and unproven Ville Husso. I would guess Fleury for the Wild. I don’t know know who the Blues will go with.

Who do you prefer? A Wild offense led by Hart candidate Kirill Kaprizov, Kevin Fiala and Mats Zuccarello. Or a more balanced Blues attack highlighted by Vladimir Tarasenko, Pavel Buchnevich, Robert Thomas, Jordan Kyrou and Ivan Barbashev.

It’s not that Minnesota doesn’t have secondary scoring. Fiala plays on the second line. He’s been on fire. Ryan Hartman anchors the top line which is magic due to Kaprizov, whose chemistry with Zuccarello is undeniable.

It could hinge on Joel Eriksson Ek, Jordan Greenway and Marcus Foligno, who somehow is available despite limping off with a knee injury against Colorado. Frederick Gaudreau is a key player along with rookie Matt Boldy.

The Blues also boast playoff proven winners Ryan O’Reilly and Brayden Schenn. There’s also David Perron and Brandon Saad. They have a bit more depth. That’s why they’re explosive. But the Wild can score too and love to finish checks. Expect this series to be nasty.

Both teams have solid blue lines. Although I’d give the edge to St. Louis due to the battle tested Colton Parayko, who anchors it with Justin Faulk. Torey Krug is also proven along with veteran pickup Nick Leddy and Marco Scandella.

The Wild are led by captain Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin. There’s also Matt Dumba and Alex Goligoski. Plus Dmitry Kulikov.

This has all the makings of a classic series. I think it goes the distance. Flip a coin.

If there’s a series I think that won’t go as far, it’s the Flames against the Stars. No disrespect to Dallas. But they probably can’t match the firepower of Calgary.

Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk all scored 40 or more goals and went a combined plus-182. Gaudreau should be up for the Hart. They are the best scoring line at five-on-five entering the tournament. The unique combination of skating, skill and tenacity make this cohesive trio a nightmare.

Who can the Stars use to match up? Miro Heiskanen is a good enough skater who’s had success against Connor McDavid. He will be asked to line up against them. Maybe it’ll be a job assigned to both Heiskanen and vet Ryan Suter. Esa Lindell is also a defensive defenseman. Perhaps he too.

The Stars will need Jason Robertson (41 goals), Roope Hintz and Joe Pavelski to deliver offensively. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin are big keys along with Denis Gurianov, who didn’t have the best season scoring. Maybe Jacob Peterson can provide a lift.

John Klingberg is still the Stars’ top offensive defenseman and power play quarterback. He also can be exploited in his end. Think about the heavy forecheck the Flames play. It could be disastrous.

In order to have any shot, they’ll need great goaltending from Jake Oettinger. He won 30 games to get them into the postseason. He’s a bit streaky. But has a good glove. Oettinger will face a lot of pressure.

Jacob Markstrom should be up for the Vezina. He had a brilliant year for Calgary. The thing is they also play well in front of him. That’s due to how Darryl Suter coaches. He should be up for the Jack Adams along with Gallant.

As dynamic as the top line is for Calgary, Andrew Mangiapane can finish and Coleman is a pest as we saw with the Bolts. Mikael Backlund is a key contributor along with Dillon Dube. Tyler Toffoli is a good addition who can be trusted in any role.

The blue line is underrated. With both Rasmus Andersson and Noah Hanifin delivering big seasons along with Oliver Kylington, it’s a new era for Calgary. They have enough offense from an active back end to keep opponents pinned in. Chris Tanev, Nikita Zadorov and Erik Gudbranson supply the grit.

The Stars will need to get one of the first two in a crazy environment in Alberta. If not, it’ll be a short stay.

In the other Western match-up, it pits the high flying Oilers against the stingy Kings. Obviously, Edmonton boasts the ridiculous scoring duo in McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. They are playing well since the addition of the polarizing Evander Kane.

At one point, the playoffs look like a stretch for Edmonton. They struggled mightily. That forced GM Ken Holland to make a coaching change. Since Jay Woodcroft replaced Dave Tippett, they’ve been on a roll. The turnaround coincided with Kane, who has been a major factor. He’ll need to be for the Oilers to go far.

As much pressure as Matthews and Marner have in Toronto, it might be even more scrutinized for McDavid and Draisaitl who are the game’s best duo. They have to win this series. If they do, it could set up a Battle Of Alberta.

One thing Woodcroft will do is double shift his best players. That means they’ll see a lot of Phillip Danault. He was instrumental in the Habs’ run a year ago. The checking center will be a key factor if the Kings advance. Trevor Moore and Viktor Arvidsson (missed Game One) are part of that equation.

Anze Kopitar remains one of the game’s true gems. The LA captain is still centering the top line playing significant minutes. He and top finisher Adrian Kempe must find offense. Especially against the explosive Oilers who also feature Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Zach Hyman, Kailer Yamamoto, Tyson Barrie, Darnell Nurse and Evan Bouchard.

Keep an eye on Arthur Kaliyev and Alex Iafallo. Two Kings who can help in a supporting role. Kaliyev has a great shot that can be unleashed on the power play. Iafallo is a solid role player.

Without ace defenseman Drew Doughty, the Kings have gotten a lot out of Matt Roy and veteran Alex Edler. They do it by committee with Mikey Anderson and Jordan Spence logging key minutes along with Olli Maatta.

Ryan McLeod and Zack Kassian provide energy for Edmonton. It’s mostly going to hinge on McDavid, Draisaitl and Kane. There’s a dynamic since Kane arrived that’s made them harder to play against. He provides a lot of the grit that they lacked.

At the moment, it’s Mike Smith versus Jonathan Quick in net. Advantage Kings. Quick has won two Cups and a Conn Smythe. He hasn’t been in this position in a while. He got hot down the stretch to get Los Angeles in. As for Smith, one screw-up and Mikko Koskinen could replace him.

It is the final hurrah for Dustin Brown. A proud veteran of both Kings’ Cups who’s been through the playoff wars, he has lasted two decades as a hard-nosed physical player who lasted this long due to his work ethic. He’ll give it everything he has. That could be some extra incentive for the Kings.

You can’t always account for experience. Maybe LA has the edge in that department due to Brown, Kopitar and Quick. Three holdovers from both Cups along with the injured Doughty.

If I’m Edmonton, I want a short series. Don’t give LA any hope. The longer it goes, the worse it could be. But they do have a home Game Seven at Rogers Place if it comes to that. The crowd will be rocking.

Breaking down the 16 participants isn’t easy. There’s a lot of competitive balance. It’ll be hard to predict the playoffs. That’s where the game is. You can make several cases for teams going deep.

Not just Cup favorites Florida and Colorado. A lot can happen. It probably will.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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