NHL Playoffs 2022: The Path for Each Remaining Team to Win the Stanley Cup

NHL Playoffs 2022. Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (29) moves the puck a head of Nashville Predators defenseman Dante Fabbro
Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (29) moves the puck a head of Nashville Predators defenseman Dante Fabbro (57).Mark Zaleski/AP / Shutterstock

The NHL Playoffs had a captivating start. Five of the eight first-round series went the full seven games, and another two lasted six games, with one of those (the Panthers’ win over the Capitals) finishing up in overtime. Apart from the Colorado Avalanche body-bagging the Predators in a four-game sweep, the first round of these playoffs was frenetic and competitive.

Eight teams remain, and outside of maybe one or two, they each have a strong chance of lifting the Stanley Cup this year. The second round of the NHL playoffs starts Tuesday, with games airing across ESPN, TNT, and TBS. Here’s a look at every club left in the fold, with a focus on how they might become the last team standing.

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NHL Playoffs 2022: The Path for Each Remaining Team to Win It All

Eastern Conference: Florida Panthers vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

The case for the Panthers: This franchise has never won a Cup, but there’s reason to think this year’s team is good enough to outskate history. That’s primarily because they can outskate their opponents with startling ease.

The Panthers are puck possession menaces. At even strength in the regular season, they controlled 56.6 percent of the shot attempts, the best margin in the league. They forecheck in relentless waves, and once they corral the puck, they put on an incredible skill show. Left winger Jonathan Huberdeau’s 85 assists were the fourth-most in any single season since the league’s 2004-05 lockout. The Panthers had two other players (centers Aleksander Barkov and Sam Reinhart) average better than a point per game.

They also get pretty effective goaltending from longtime netminder Sergei Bobrovsky, and defenseman Aaron Ekblad has turned in the best season of his career to anchor the back end. They’re going to have to figure out their power play, though: They went 0-for-18 against the Capitals in the first round of the NHL playoffs.

The case for the Lightning: It’s straightforward, isn’t it? They’ve won the Cup the last two years with the same formula they are deploying now: Goaltender Andrei Vasilievskiy gobbles up pucks like he’s Pac-Man, future Hall of Fame forwards Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov fill the net, mountainous defenseman Victor Hedman settles everything on the blue line, and the entire team plays committed two-way hockey.

The Lightning always find forward depth somewhere; lately, it’s been in the form of big winger Nick Paul, who had five goals in 21 regular season games and scored both of Tampa Bay’s goals in a Game 7 win over the Maple Leafs on Saturday. Arguing “the case for the Lightning” is silly. You already get the idea. One does wonder, though, if all the playoff games they’ve played over the last two years will catch up with them and result in a team that’s just tired enough to finally get caught.

Eastern Conference: Carolina Hurricanes vs. New York Rangers

The case for the Hurricanes: The Canes are just solid. They lack the high-end scoring power of most of the league’s best teams, but they make it work with depth and strong fundamentals. Their penalty kill was the best in the league in the regular season (88 percent), and while they didn’t have a player score more than Sebastian Aho’s 81 points, they had 12 players with 34 points or more. Nine of them were forwards, meaning the Canes have rolled out three full lines of players who are finding the scoresheet more than once every three games.

Even so, in a first-round win over Boston, the Canes did lean heavily on their top line of Aho, Andrei Svechnikov, and Seth Jarvis. As the NHL playoffs unfold, they’ll need more of their roster to show up.

The case for the Rangers: They’re outrageously resilient. They trailed the Pittsburgh Penguins three games to one in the first round. In Game 5, facing elimination at home, they trailed 2–0 and figured out a way to win. In Game 6, backs still to the wall, they trailed 2–0 and won again. And in Game 7, they were a goal down with six minutes left before exploiting a couple of Penguins mistakes to tie the game and win it in overtime.

The Rangers have already demonstrated that they can’t be counted out until they’re all the way out. They also have a game-changing goaltender (and likely Vezina Trophy winner) in Igor Shesterkin. In the first round,  the Penguins clearly bested the Rangers on offense. By expected goals, a measurement of teams’ scoring opportunities, the Rangers were dominated worse than any other team in the first round. Shesterkin was an equalizer against Pittsburgh, and he could play the same role against other teams this summer.

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Western Conference: Colorado Avalanche vs. St. Louis Blues

The case for the Avalanche: They are the best team in hockey, period. They’ll be favored against anyone they face from this point onward, and with good reason.

Defenseman Cale Makar (shown above, doing something very few defensemen have ever been able to pull off) is the most impressive young blueliner the NHL has had in years. Nathan MacKinnon remains one of the most well-rounded superstars in the league, and the Avs have also seen a breakthrough this year from 31-year-old former Toronto Maple Leaf Nazem Kadri, who has grown from a pretty good player to one of the best in the league. Neither MacKinnon nor Kadri led the team in points, though: That was winger Mikko Rantanen at 92. Together, those players and Makar bludgeoned the Predators in a four-game sweep.

The case for the Blues: According to conventional hockey wisdom, the Blues have one of the most important assets this time of year: Stanley Cup experience. St. Louis won it all in 2019, and several key contributors from that team remain.

But the roster has turned over a lot in three years. The best defenseman on this 2022 team, Justin Faulk, wasn’t here three years ago. Nor was goalie Ville Husso or winger Pavel Buchnevich, and center Jordan Kyrou (a point-a-game player this year) was just a minor league call-up at the time. Center Robert Thomas was just a bit player. The point is that the Blues have changed considerably, and this group is trying to write its own Cup story.

If it happens, it will have a lot to do with their deadly power play. The Blues scored on 27 percent of their man advantages in the regular season—second-best in the league behind the now-eliminated Leafs. They clicked at 30 percent (8-for-26) on the power play against the Wild in a six-game series win to start their journey into the NHL playoffs.

Western Conference: Edmonton Oilers vs. Dallas Stars or Calgary Flames

The case for the Oilers: Here’s another one to not overthink. The Oilers have the best player in the world, and there’s a pretty strong case that they have the second-best player, too.

Connor McDavid seems to get better each year. His dominance means that Leon Draisaitl can score 55 goals and add 55 assists this season and still be second fiddle. The only teams in recent NHL history that have had anything like the Oilers’ current center tandem were the Penguins when they had a peak Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin down the middle. Those Penguins won three Cups, and it seems likely that McDavid and Draisaitl are eventually going to bring the Oilers one of their own. Goalie Mike Smith also had an excellent first round: He leads the league in goals saved above expectation, a measurement of the difficulty of shots a netminder lets in and keeps out.

The case for the Flames: They don’t have McDavid and Draisaitl, but they have a pretty good alternative in Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk. Gaudreau is a 5’9” stick of dynamite who scored 115 points in the regular season and continued to pace Calgary through a seven-game slog against the Dallas Stars in the opening round. Tkachuk had 105 points himself and brings a physical edge to go with his scoring excellence. Center Elias Lindholm matched him with 42 goals. Goalie Jacob Markstrom has been sharp all year, too.

While McDavid and Draisaitl give the Oilers the biggest pair of guns in the Battle of Alberta, the Flames have respectable firepower to throw back at them.

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