The 2021-22 NHL season produced more than its fair share of offensive highlights and dramatic moments. Facing the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, border crossings, and quarantines, the league managed to put on an eventful regular season even if the playoff races lacked their usual drama.
Florida and Colorado stood out as the top teams on both sides of the conference ledger, dominating the East and West respectively for most of the season. Behind them, especially in the East, a slew of contenders essentially cemented their playoff positions in the early going.
The season’s biggest surprise was Vegas missing out on the postseason for the first time in franchise history, opening the door for a team like the Avalanche, Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues, or Calgary Flames to make a deep run.
With a cleaner path to the finals, I see the champion emerging from the Western Conference this spring, finally dethroning the two-time defending Stanley Cup winners, the Tampa Bay Lightning. However, with so much parity throughout the league, many teams could emerge as champions. I like Colorado to capture the 2022 Stanley Cup, but there are numerous contenders standing in their way.
On to the predictions for the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs:
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Preview
Atlantic Division Semifinals
1. Florida Panthers (58-18-6—122 points) vs. 2WC. Washington Capitals (44-26-12—100 points)
With the departure of coach Joel Quenneville just seven games into the season, it could have been a tumultuous season in South Florida. Instead, 2021-22 turned out to be Florida’s official coming-out party. The Panthers, who have been assembling talented prospects for years, are an electric offensive squad that is scoring at the inconceivable pace of 4.14 goals per game. Led by the dynamic trio of Jonathan Huberdeau (Eastern Conference-leading 85 assists and 115 points), Aleksander Barkov (team-leading 39 goals), and Sam Reinhart (82 points), Florida can score at will. Add veteran Claude Giroux to the mix, and the Panthers are just about unstoppable on offense. Florida is solid on defense, and have an enviable top four of Aaron Ekblad, MacKenzie Weegar, Gustav Forsling, and Brandon Montour. In goal, Sergei Bobrovsky (NHL-leading 39 wins, and a record of 39-7-3, 2.67 GAA, and a .913 SP) had a strong comeback year for the Panthers. If he falters, Spencer Knight is an up-and-coming backup who can step in.
Another year, and another 50-goal campaign for 36-year-old Alex Ovechkin (team-leading 90 points), who put the aging Capitals on his back and led them back to the postseason in the competitive East. While Washington lacks the firepower of the Panthers, they still have elite offensive weapons like Evgeny Kuznetsov (78 points), Tom Wilson, and Nicklas Backstrom. While the Capitals aren’t a shutdown defensive team, they do feature four excellent two-way blue liners in John Carlson (team-leading 54 assists), Dmitry Orlov, Justin Schultz, and Nick Jensen. The big question mark for Washington is in goal. Young starter Ilya Samsonov (23-11-5, 3.02 GAA, and .896 SP), has been shaky at times, allowing Vitek Vaněček to see plenty of action all season. For the Capitals to pull a dramatic first-round upset, at least one of these two must be fantastic.
Florida has emerged as one of the NHL’s top teams, while Washington is on the back end of its contending years. The Caps are experienced and only a few years removed from winning a title themselves (2018). That makes Washington a dangerous first-round foe, but the Panthers are not an ideal opponent. The Capitals can rival Florida’s offensive talent but lack the goaltending and defense to slow down the Panthers. A quick five-game series win by Florida over Washington could propel the Panthers to a lengthy postseason run.
2. Toronto Maple Leafs (54-21-7—115 points) vs. 3. Tampa Bay Lightning (51-23-8—110 points)
With an NHL-leading 60-goal campaign, Auston Matthews (team-leading 106 points) cemented his status as the most dangerous scorer in the league. He leads an electric Toronto offense that has scored at will this season. Matthews, Mitch Marner (team-leading 62 assists), William Nylander, and John Tavares are arguably the best group of four offensive players in the league. Meanwhile, some surprises like rookie Michael Bunting and Ilya Mikheyev, provide the Maple Leafs with more complimentary offense than they’ve had in previous years. The Leafs’ much-maligned defense has been banged up for much of the year, but they should feel pretty comfortable with the group of Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie, Jake Muzzin, and trade-deadline acquisition Mark Giordano on their blue line. In goal, Jack Campbell is unrivaled as the team starter. When healthy, Campbell has been terrific, but that’s been a rare occurrence. Toronto will need him to carry the load to finally make a long postseason run.
Gunning for their third straight Stanley Cup, Tampa Bay essentially waltzed through the regular season while dealing with some significant injuries to forwards Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point. With both players missing time, captain Steven Stamkos (team-leading 39 goals and 103 points) and top defenseman Victor Hedman (team-leading 64 assists) stepped up and carried this team. Salary cap casualties robbed Tampa Bay of a bit of depth, but there are still many offensive weapons on the Lightning. Where Tampa Bay has a clear edge in this series is on defense and in goal. The Lightning feature Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev, Ryan McDonagh, Jan Rutta, and Erik Černák on their stout defense. Andrei Vasilevskiy (38-18-5, 2.46 GAA, .917 SP), is the best goalie in the world.This should be an awesome series as the two-time defending champions take on the explosive Maple Leafs, who are still looking for their first series victory with this current core group (their last was in 2004). Tampa Bay hasn’t lost a series in three years, and they have the defense to slow down and punish Toronto’s explosive forwards. Neither team is overly deep offensively. Therefore, Tampa Bay’s weakness in its bottom two lines won’t likely be exposed by Toronto. While I don’t think Tampa Bay will win their third straight title this spring, I think the Lightning are poised to upset the Maple Leafs in six games.
Metropolitan Division Semifinals
1. Carolina Hurricanes (54-20-8—116 points) vs. WC1. Boston Bruins (51-26-5—107 points)
While the Atlantic stole the headlines this year as the toughest division in hockey, Carolina was the clear top team in the very underrated Metropolitan Division. Sebastian Aho (team-leading 37 goals and 81 points) remains the focal point of the offense, but Andrei Svechnikov (69 points), Teuvo Teravainen, Vincent Trocheck, and Nino Niederreiter are all talented scorers. While Carolina’s offense isn’t likely to scare anyone, its defense is among the league’s best. Jaccob Slavin is one of the best shutdown defenders in the league. He’s joined by Brady Skjei, Tony DeAngelo, and Brett Pesce on the Hurricanes’ stellar blue line. Frederik Andersen (35-14-3, 2.17 GAA, .922 SP) was terrific all season for the Hurricanes but got injured late in the year. His status, as well as the status of his backup Antti Raanta, is unknown going into the postseason.
When Boston earned the top wild card spot, the Bruins avoided the gauntlet of Florida, Toronto, and Tampa Bay in the first two rounds of the playoffs. That makes the Bruins a very dangerous postseason squad, with the potential for a long playoff run. While Tuukka Rask and Zdeno Chara have moved on from Boston’s core, the Bruins’ top line of Brad Marchand (team-leading 80 points), David Pastrnak (team-leading 40 goals) and Patrice Bergeron continue to play at an elite level. Some savvy additions like Taylor Hall and Erik Haula provide Boston with much more depth. While defense is no longer a strength of the Bruins, Charlie McAvoy is one of the best two-way defensemen in the NHL. Brandon Carlo is one of the league’s better shutdown defenders. With two solid options in goal, rookie Jeremy Swayman (26-10-2, 2.45 GAA, and .917 SP) and veteran Linus Ullmark (23-14-3, 2.41 GAA, and .914 SP, the Bruins can afford to allow some chances against here and there.
In 2019, Boston walked all over Carolina for a convincing sweep in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Hurricanes are vastly improved since then but have big concerns in goal this spring. Even if Andersen plays, Boston has a track record of success against him, especially when he played for Toronto. Carolina also lacks the offensive horses to expose the Bruins’ defensive depth issues. This will be a terrific series, but I like the Bruins to advance in seven hard-fought games over Carolina.
2. New York Rangers (52-24-6—110 points) vs. 3. Pittsburgh Penguins (46-25-11—103 points)
The New York Rangers made the impressive leap this season from a bubble team to one of the league’s best squads. A big reason for that step forward was the play of likely Vezina trophy winner Igor Shesterkin (36-13-4, 2.07 GAA, .935 SP) in goal. Shesterkin was dominant all season and looks to be a rival of Andrei Vasilevskiy for the title of the best goalie in the world. The young Russian netminder gets plenty of help from a solid defense, anchored by last year’s Norris Trophy winner, Adam Fox (73 points), and Jacob Trouba. Much like Carolina, New York lacks the offensive depth of its rivals in the Atlantic Division. But the Rangers’ big three forwards, Artemi Panarin (team-leading 96 points), Chris Kreider (team-leading 52 goals), and Mika Zibanejad, are all dangerous scoring threats.
Though many predicted this season would end the Penguins’ long string of playoff berths, those doubters were grossly mistaken. Veteran stars Sidney Crosby (team-leading 84 points in 69 games), Kris Letang (team-leading 58 assists), and Evgeni Malkin (42 points in 41 games), willed Pittsburgh to another postseason. While the Penguins are not among the NHL’s elite teams at this point, they are a dangerous foe with a ton of postseason experience on their roster. In addition to the big three, forwards Jake Guentzel (team-leading 40 goals), Bryan Rust, and Jeff Carter are all proven playoff performers. Behind Letang, Pittsburgh’s defense is a bit of a question mark, but the group of Mike Matheson, John Marino, and Brian Dumoulin are steady if not spectacular. Starting goaltender Tristan Jarry (34-18-6, 2.42 GAA, and .919 SP), proved his doubters wrong with a great season. Unfortunately, he is injured going into the playoffs, meaning that Casey DeSmith or Louis Domingue will be called upon to hold down the fort early on in the playoffs.
The margins should be extremely close between the Rangers and Penguins in this series. While New York might have the better team with a huge advantage in goal, Pittsburgh is battle-tested and the Penguins know how to win playoff games. Pittsburgh will try to up the tempo against the Rangers and if they can get to Shesterkin early in the series, the upset could be on against inexperienced New York. I like Pittsburgh over the Rangers in a series that goes all seven games.
Western Conference Quarterfinals Previews
Central Division Semifinals
1. Colorado Avalanche (56-19-7—119 points) vs. 2WC. Nashville Predators (45-30-7—95 points)
After a slow start to the season, Colorado ran away with the best record in the Western Conference. As usual, the Avalanche are explosive on offense, with Mikko Rantanen (team-leading 36 goals and 91 points), Nathan MacKinnon (88 points in 65 games), and captain Gabriel Landeskog leading the way. However, unlike past years Colorado has some scoring help for its incredible top line in the form of forwards Nazem Kadri (team-leading 59 assists), Andre Burakovsky, and Valeri Nichushkin. The Avalanche might lack shutdown blue liners, but Colorado’s quartet of Cale Makar (86 points), Devon Toews, Samuel Girard, and Erik Johnson are all solid two-way threats. Off-season acquisition Darcy Kuemper (37-12-4, 2.54 GAA, and .921 SP) hasn’t been the lights-out goaltender Colorado was hoping for in net. However, he is a netminder capable of backstopping a long playoff run for an elite team.
Many predicted Nashville’s downfall this season, and yet the Predators surprised and were one of the league’s best teams for much of the year. Roman Josi (team-leading 73 assists and 96 points) has staked his claim as the best blueliner in the world with an unbelievable season. Josi, and goaltender Juuse Saros (38-25-3, 2.64 GAA, and .918 SP), are a big reason why Nashville is competitive in every game they play. Over the years the Predators struggled to score, but Matt Duchene (team-leading 43 goals) and Filip Forsberg (42 goals) changed that narrative with great seasons. Mikael Granlund, Ryan Johansen, and undrafted rookie sensation Tanner Jeannot are also offensive threats. Led by Josi, Nashville’s defense remains among the NHL’s best, and features solid blue liners like Mattias Ekholm, Alexandre Carrier, and Dante Fabbro.
A late season Saros’ injury looms large for the Predators, who lost out on key points late in season which could have prevented a first round series against Colorado. If Saros is unable to play, the Avalanche might score early and often in this series and make it impossible for Nashville to counter. The Predators may be able to slow down the awesome Avalanche top line, but Colorado will keep coming in waves. For that reason, I like the Avalanche to take this series over Nashville in five games.
2. Minnesota Wild (53-22-7—113 points) vs. 3. St. Louis Blues (49-22-11—109 points)
Next season Minnesota will be dealing with a significant salary cap crunch, but that certainly didn’t hold back the Wild in 2021-22. Kirill Kaprizov (team-leading 47 goals and 108 points) has taken his place as a top-five player in the NHL. He’s joined by a solid core of forwards, including Kevin Fiala (85 points), Mats Zuccarello, Ryan Hartman, and Joel Eriksson Ek. The Wild don’t have a true number one defenseman anymore, but their top six of Jared Spurgeon, Alex Goligoski, Jonas Brodin, Matt Dumba, Dimitry Kulikov, and Jon Merril are terrific. Minnesota had some concerns that they couldn’t win games in the playoffs with their goaltenders. Therefore, the Wild shored up their net by adding last year’s Vezina Trophy winner Marc-Andre Fleury at the trade deadline. Both Fleury, and veteran Cam Talbot may play in the first round.
After winning the Stanley Cup in 2019, St. Louis struggled to recapture the magic from that unforgettable season. However, this season the Blues successfully made themselves over from a stout physical and defensive team to an elite offensive squad that still packs a physical punch. St. Louis features eight forwards who scored 20 or more goals this season, led by Vladimir Tarasenko (team-leading 34 goals and 82 points) and Pavel Buchnevich (30 goals). Young forwards Robert Thomas (team-leading 57 assists) and Jordan Kyrou are the next generation of Blues stars and are emerging as game-breaking talents. St. Louis’ defense has been suspect at times this season, but the Blues still roll out a more-than-capable veteran top four of Justin Faulk, Colton Parayko, Torey Krug, and Marco Scandella. In goal, young talent Ville Husso (25-6-6, 2.47 GAA, and .921 SP) has usurped Cup winner Jordan Binnington as the team’s go-to option. Both may play in the first round as coach Craig Berube searches for a hot hand.
While I don’t see either of these teams winning the Stanley Cup, Minnesota and St. Louis will likely produce the best series of the first round. These are both electric offensive teams who play a physical brand of hockey, and that should make for some must-watch fireworks. I like the Wild to prevail over the Blues in seven games, if only because of their small advantages on defense and in goal.
Pacific Division Semifinals
1. Calgary Flames (50-21-11—111 points) vs. 1WC. Dallas Stars (46-30-6—98 points)
Calgary seemed like a franchise stuck in the mud over the past few years, due to plenty upheaval in its coaching ranks and uneven play from its top scorers. Under the guidance of veteran coach Daryl Sutter, everything came together this season for the Flames. They cruised to the top spot in the Pacific. They dethroned Vegas. Calgary is not a team that will scare you offensively, but the Flames feature three 40-goal scorers in Elias Lindholm (team-leading 42 goals), Johnny Gaudreau (team-leading 115 points), and Matthew Tkachuk (104 points). Calgary is anchored by one of the NHL’s best goaltenders, Jacob Markstrom (37-15-9, 2.22 GAA, and .922 SP), who thrived under Sutter. While the Flames lack big name defensemen, the crew of Rasmus Andersson, Noah Hanifin, Oliver Kylington, Chris Tanev, and Nikita Zadorov are all very dependable.
Dallas is a team in transition this season. Leadership of the squad has been turned over to the capable young trio of Jason Robertson (team-leading 41 goals), Roope Hintz (37 goals), and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. Talented goaltender Jake Oettinger (30-15-1, 2.53 GAA, and .914 SP) is also a big part of Stars’ future and is already one league’s best at that position. Even with its youth movement, the veteran trio of Joe Pavelski (team-leading 54 assists and 81 points), Tyler Seguin, and Jamie Benn are still important pieces of the puzzle in Dallas. The Stars aren’t a scary squad in any facet of the game. Yet they don’t really have any real weaknesses, either. That makes Dallas, a team that made it to the 2020 Stanley Cup finals, a dangerous playoff foe.
While Calgary might be a bit overrated going into the playoffs, missing out on a Predators team that could give them a battle physically was a huge break for the first round. Dallas is certainly a tough team, but the Stars won’t able to punish the Flames like Nashville could. With its experience Dallas will push this series longer than expected, but Calgary should take this matchup in six games.
2. Edmonton Oilers (49-27-6—104 points) vs. 3. Los Angeles Kings (44-27-11—99 points)
The Oilers’ rollercoaster season would fit right in at any Six Flags Theme Park. Edmonton got off to a fast start, then fell off a cliff around the all-star break. After a making a coaching change, the Oilers got hot under the guidance of new bench boss Jay Woodcroft. Edmonton is led by the best one-two punch of forwards in the league — Connor McDavid (NHL-leading 79 assists and 123 points) and Leon Draisaitl (team-leading 55 goals). While the Oilers lack scoring depth, adding talented forwards Zach Hyman and Evander Kane (39 points in 43 games) helped finally balance Edmonton’s offense a little bit. The Oilers’ defense, a sore spot for years, is much improved. Defensemen Evan Bouchard, Darnell Nurse, Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci, and Duncan Keith are all solid on the blue line. The weakness for the team is clearly in goal. All three of the team’s netminders (40-year-old Mike Smith, Mikko Koskinen, and Stuart Skinner) might see action in the playoffs, and that’s never a good thing. At least Smith was hot down the stretch.
Several seasons removed from its glory years of the early 2010s, Los Angeles is making a triumphant return to the playoffs. The Kings have a lot of young talent, but their veteran core of Anze Kopitar (team-leading 67 points), Drew Doughty, Dustin Brown, and goaltender Jonathan Quick are still the team leaders. Adrian Kempe (team-leading 35 goals) fronts the team’s next generation, and the Kings have made savvy additions like Phillip Danault and Viktor Arvidsson to accelerate the team’s growth. Cal Petersen was expected to surpass Quick as the Kings’ top netminder, but Quick (23-13-9, 2.59, and .910 SP) continued his resurgence and will likely start Game 1 against the Oilers. Doughty’s wrist injury looms large. The superb defenseman won’t be available at least early on in the playoffs.
Anything can happen in this sleeper series in the first round. While this is the isn’t the late 1980s when these teams routinely battled for playoff supremacy, Edmonton and Los Angeles will likely produce a tight, low-scoring series. The Oilers are still flawed, and that will likely be exposed in the later rounds of playoffs, but I think McDavid and Draisaitl will to be too much for the Kings to handle. I see Edmonton taking this series in six games over Los Angeles.
The Rest of the Playoffs
Florida defeats Tampa Bay in six games
Boston defeats Pittsburgh in six games
Colorado defeats Minnesota in seven games
Edmonton defeats Calgary in seven games
Florida defeats Boston in five games.
Colorado sweeps Edmonton.
2022 Stanley Cup Final Prediction
Colorado defeats Florida in six games.