With their season-concluding loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday, the Seattle Kraken officially cap their inaugural season in the NHL with a 27-49-6 record, good for 30th overall. A disappointing campaign aside, the Kraken have nowhere to go but up from here, and the 2022-23 season should bring a much-improved roster built upon the foundation of Matty Beniers and the team’s 2022 first-round pick. Luckily for Kraken fans, the NHL playoffs are set to kick off Monday night, and the entire two-month journey promises to be an entertaining spectacle advertising the best the league has to offer. With that, here are my brief previews and undoubtedly correct predictions for the first round and beyond.
NHL First Round Series
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
(A1) Florida Panthers vs. (WC2) Washington Capitals – Panthers win series 4-1
(A2) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (A3) Tampa Bay Lightning – Maple Leafs win series 4-3
(M1) Carolina Hurricanes vs. (WC1) Boston Bruins – Hurricanes win series 4-2
(M2) New York Rangers vs. (M3) Pittsburgh Penguins – Rangers win series 4-2
Western Conference Quarterfinals
(C1) Colorado Avalanche vs. (WC2) Nashville Predators – Avalanche win series 4-1
(C2) Minnesota Wild vs. (C3) St. Louis Blues – Wild win series 4-2
(P1) Calgary Flames vs. (WC1) Dallas Stars – Flames win series 4-1
(P2) Edmonton Oilers vs. (P3) Los Angeles Kings – Oilers win series 4-2
For fans of wild upsets, you won’t find any here, as my first-round picks all see the higher seed advance. The high-octane Florida Panthers and Colorado Avalanche (first and third in goals-per-game) should dismantle their meek opposition and embark on what should be (spoiler) long postseason runs.
My most notable prediction from this round sees the cursed Toronto Maple Leafs defeat the defending Stanley Cup champions in the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven highly-contested contests. That outcome would mark the first time that the Maple Leafs advance to the second round since 2004, with the Panthers the only franchise with a longer active streak.
Other notable predictions include the potential end of the Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang era in Pittsburgh, with the latter two heading into the summer without a contract for next season. Elsewhere, the heir apparent to Crosby in terms of the league’s best player – Connor McDavid – should lead the Edmonton Oilers to their second appearance in the second round since his debut in 2015-16.
NHL Second Round Series
Eastern Conference Semifinals
Florida Panthers vs. Toronto Maple Leafs – Panthers win series 4-3
Carolina Hurricanes vs. New York Rangers – Hurricanes win series 4-2
Western Conference Semifinals
Colorado Avalanche vs. Minnesota Wild – Avalanche win series 4-2
Calgary Flames vs. Edmonton Oilers – Flames win series 4-2
With all of the favorites advancing past the first round, the NHL’s second-round should house a number of momentous matchups between the league’s best teams.
In a heavyweight battle between the NHL’s two highest-scoring teams, the Panthers edge out the Maple Leafs in seven games. In doing so, they advance to their first conference final since 1996, coincidentally the same season in which they featured in their first, and only, Stanley Cup Final.
The two teams played three times in the regular season, with the Panthers winning two of those matchups to the tune of a 13-12 margin in goals in favor of the Maple Leafs. In what was arguably the best game of the regular season, the Panthers erased a 5-1 deficit to come back and win 7-6 in overtime. If the league hopes to expand their commercial reach, the head executives should be praying for these two high-powered offenses to face off in a battle of who blinks first.
While the Rangers have done well to accelerate their rebuild, it seems a bit soon for them to make a deep run in the postseason. The play of Igor Shesterkin makes them a Stanley Cup sleeper, with the Vezina Trophy favorite able to steal a series on his own. His .935 save percentage (SV%) and 37.2 goals-saved above expected (GSAx) both lead the league and could be enough to overcome the Hurricanes’ five-on-five dominance. I think Carolina’s gameplan and stellar goaltending of their own should see one of the NHL’s ascendant squads (second in points since 2020-21) make their fifth conference final appearance in franchise history.
The Avalanche and the Wild have a storied playoff history, with the Wild beating the Avalanche in Game 7 in each of their two most recent encounters in the 2003 and 2014 Playoffs. Unlike those first two occasions, the Wild have changed the perception of their organization by shifting to a more attacking focus in recent seasons. Led by their Russian dynamo in Kirill Kaprizov, who finished fifth in league scoring with 108 points, Minnesota has a legitimate chance to unseat the presumed Stanley Cup favorites out of the West. If deadline acquisition Marc-Andre Fleury can rediscover the form which garnered him the 2018-19 Vezina Trophy, the Wild could be looking at their second-ever berth in the conference final.
The other Western Conference matchup sees the Flames and Oilers clashing in the first playoff edition of the Battle of Alberta since 1991. Despite possessing two of the NHL’s biggest offensive superstars in McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the Flames’ disciplined approach and deeper collection of forwards should be enough to triumph over their provincial rivals.
NHL Third Round Series
Eastern Conference Final
Florida Panthers vs. Carolina Hurricanes – Panthers win series 4-2
Western Conference Final
Colorado Avalanche vs. Calgary Flames – Avalanche win series 4-2
Then there were four. Of the remaining quartet, the Panthers and the Avalanche were the highest seeds in their respective conferences and common picks to advance this far in the postseason. After their failure to make the playoffs last season, few expect the Flames to win their division, let alone reach the third round. Carolina’s young core has made some noise in the playoffs but have yet to break through the third-round ceiling.
Unsurprisingly, I’ve tapped the Panthers to win their series and advance to the Stanley Cup Final. Their collection of attacking talent and blitzing offensive style are too much for most teams, and the Hurricanes should be no different. By this point, Florida’s racehorse in defenseman Aaron Ekblad should have recovered from surgery and set to add more brawn and two-way prowess to an otherwise light Panthers blueline.
The one x-factor is goaltending, where Carolina’s Frederik Andersen has been stellar this season. His .922 SV% (third) and +28.1 GSAx (second) both rank within the top three among goaltenders this season. In comparison, Florida’s Sergei Bobrovsky (.913 SV%; +11.45 GSAx) has been dependable but far from impeccable. If he struggles, Florida’s 13th ranked defense (3 GA/GP) becomes an even more exploitable weakness.
In the West, I have the Avalanche and Flames reconvening for a rematch of their 2019 first-round series, with this Avalanche core making their first appearance in the Stanley Cup Final. Despite Calgary’s even-strength success (fifth in 5v5 expected goals share) and a flamethrower of a top forward line with Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, and Elias Lindholm, it won’t be enough. Colorado paced the Western Conference despite a plethora of injuries to key players, and a full-strength Avalanche squad can roll out an insurmountable barrage of skill on a nightly basis.
Stanley Cup Final
Florida Panthers vs. Colorado Avalanche – Avalanche win series 4-3
My 2022 Stanley Cup Final prediction is a rematch of the aforementioned 1996 Final, where the surprise finalists in the Panthers were swept by a team filled with future Hall-of-Famers in Colorado. Fortunately for viewers, the Panthers are one of the few teams that can go toe-to-toe with the livewire Avalanche. The league’s two best teams should put on a show capable of converting skeptics into diehard NHL fans, with this series potentially being one of the highest-scoring since the 1980s. It would host seven of the top-30 point producers on a per-game basis, two of the three highest-scoring clubs, and two top-seven power plays.
If either one of these two heavyweights is to emerge victoriously, their defensive play must stand out. The Avalanche were better during the regular season in terms of conceding goals, and their goalie Darcy Kuemper (.921 SV%; +16.2 GSAx) posted better results than his prospective opposite number in this series. Both teams had nearly identical penalty-kill success (79.7 vs. 79.5 percent), so having one of those units suddenly discover how to neutralize the other’s power play could be the difference.
In the end, I expect the Avalanche to win the Stanley Cup after a tight seven-game series. They should have an easier path to the Final (six of the NHL’s top 10 reside in the East; three of the top five) and presumably less wear and tear on their bodies. I also find Florida’s style more difficult to replicate in the playoffs – as much as I enjoy it – and Colorado seems better suited to adjust to the rigors of playoff hockey. Book it – the Avalanche win the third Stanley Cup in franchise history.
NHL Playoff Award Predictions and Superlatives
Conn Smythe (Playoff MVP) – Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
Leading goal scorer – Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche
Leading points leader – Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers
Best goalie – Darcy Kuemper, Colorado Avalanche
Dark-horse Stanley Cup contender – Minnesota Wild
Avalanche Should Win 2022 Stanley Cup…and more!
Of the major sports, hockey is perhaps the most driven by luck. It’s random, unpredictable, and ripe for unexpected upsets and Cinderella runs. Even so, my championship pick – the Colorado Avalanche – have been considered Stanley Cup favorites all season long. If they manage to climb the mountain, their victory represents the culmination of an organizational focus on accumulating as much skill as possible and letting it run loose. The Avalanche are middle of the pack in terms of the average age of their roster, with most of their key contributors in the midst of or approaching their prime years. Their Stanley Cup window is wide open, and 2022 should be the first of many titles for this talented core. Enjoy the postseason, everyone!