2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs Division Finals Preview

After an historic collapse of the record-breaking Boston Bruins, and the ouster of the defending champion Colorado Avalanche at the hands of the first-time playoff participants from Seattle, the Stanley Cup is officially up for grabs.

The favorite for me is now the New Jersey Devils, who surprised all season. However, the road to the Cup is wide open on both sides of the ledger. One of two teams littered with recent playoff disappointments, Toronto or Florida, will win the Atlantic Division and will be playing in the Eastern Conference Finals. In the Western Conference, the Kraken will see if Cinderella’s shoe will continue fit against a much-deeper Dallas Stars squad, while Vegas and Edmonton should prove to be a clash for the ages.

I like young New Jersey to win the title over the veteran Dallas Stars, but it would be easy to make arguments for the Stars, Maple Leafs, or Carolina Hurricanes.

Here are my predictions for the Division Finals round of the Stanley Cup playoffs:

Eastern Conference Preview

Atlantic Division Finals

2. Toronto Maple Leafs vs. 2WC. Florida Panthers

Despite a checkered postseason track record dating back to 2004, the last time Toronto advanced past the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Maple Leafs showed the most resiliency of any team in the opening round. Countless times they found themselves playing from behind against a powerhouse Tampa Bay squad. However, the Maple Leafs kept clawing back and won three games in overtime against Lightning, including the deciding Game 6. The stunning turnaround was led by the Maple Leafs’ top two players, Mitch Marner (team-leading 11 points) and Auston Matthews (team-leading five goals). Veterans John Tavares and Ryan O’Reilly also impressed against the Lightning, as did top defenseman Morgan Reilly. While Ilya Samsonov (4-2-0, 3.14 GAA, .900 SP) was far from perfect in goal, he gave the Maple Leafs big saves when they needed them. 

Down 3-1 in the series to the heavily favored Boston Bruins, Florida looked dead in the water. While goaltender Alex Lyon had played well, the Panthers turned to veteran Sergei Bobrovsky to try to turn around the series. Bobrovsky’s Game 5 performance gave Florida life as their offense and forecheck got cooking as well. The Panthers won in overtime and never looked back. Along with Bobrovsky, Matthew Tkachuk (team-leading five goals and 11 points) and Brandon Montour (eight points) were the stars of the upset, and both seemed to reach another level against the Bruins. Sam Bennett, Carter Verhaeghe, Aleksander Barkov, and Sam Reinhart were also big contributors for the Panthers, while Aaron Ekblad and Gustav Forsling played huge minutes on defense.

Few predicted this matchup would emerge from the first round, but the door is wide open for Florida or Toronto to make a deep run. Now that the elephant is lifted off of Toronto’s back, I expect the Maple Leafs to outscore and outgun the Panthers in a long series. I’ll take the Maple Leafs in six games.

Metropolitan Division Finals

1. Carolina Hurricanes vs. 2. New Jersey Devils

Attrition continues to plague Carolina, even as the Hurricanes knocked off the New York Islanders in six games. The good news is that the Hurricanes are one of the deepest teams in the NHL, and their whole roster contributed to advance past the Isles. While Carolina lacks much offense beyond Sebastian Aho (team-leading four goals and seven points), Seth Jarvis and Paul Stastny both played well against the Islanders. Where Carolina won the series over the Islanders was with their outstanding defense, led by two-way star Brent Burns, who continues to impress for the Hurricanes. Burns, Brett Pesce, Jaccob Slavin, and Brady Skjei, all looked good against New York, and will need to continue to carry the mail to defeat New Jersey. Carolina played both Antti Raanta and Frederik Andersen in the first round, and I would expect both goalies to again see starts in the Metropolitan Division Finals.

The Devils had a slow start to the postseason, but after two drubbings at the hands of the New York Rangers, New Jersey switched to goaltender Akira Schmid, found their skating legs, and never looked back. In the deciding Game 7, the Devils blasted the Rangers 4-0 as Schmid posted a shutout. While all of New Jersey’s top guns — Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, and Jesper Bratt —had excellent starts to the postseason, the Devils’ leading scorer so far is the surprising veteran Erik Haula (team-leading four goals and six points). Another reason why New Jersey is rolling right now is due to their blue line. After a tough start in the first two games, defensemen Dougie Hamilton, Damon Severson, Jonas Siegenthaler and John Marino were terrific for the Devils in shutting down New York’s talented forwards.

Carolina can match up with New Jersey’s speed much better than the Islanders could. I just think the Devils have too much young depth, and the Hurricanes are too shorthanded to advance. I’ll take the Devils in six games.

Western Conference Preview

Central Division Semifinals

2. Dallas Stars (47-21-14) vs. 1WC. Seattle Kraken (46-28-8)

In a physical, brutal series Dallas looked surprisingly dominant against the Minnesota Wild. The Stars’ stout defense, led by Miro Heiskanen, Ryan Suter, and Esa Lindell, stymied the Wild’s biggest star, Kirill Kaprizov, and didn’t allow Minnesota to generate much offensively. When the Wild did, standout goalie Jake Oettinger (4-2-0, 2.01 GAA, .929) did the rest, and he looks to be one of the early favorites for the playoff MVP. The Stars were without leader Joe Pavelski for most the series against Minnesota, but Roope Hintz, Jason Robertson, and Tyler Seguin all looked good in driving the Dallas offense. The Stars look ready for a deep run, and it showed against the Wild.

While it took seven games to knock out the defending champions, Seattle was clearly the better team throughout its first-round series against Colorado. Seattle’s offensive depth exposed Colorado’s top-heavy line up, and the Kraken frequently got up early against the Avalanche. Seattle’s top offensive players were Yanni Gourde (team-leading seven points), Jaden Schwartz, and Oliver Bjorkstrand, but the series win was a group effort. That helped the Kraken overcome the injury loss of top scorer Jared McCann in the first round. Seattle’s defense struggled to contain Colorado’s stars, but the crew of Justin Schultz, Jamie Oleksiak, Vince Dunn, and Adam Larsson, pretty much neutralized the rest of the Avalanche. The real leader of the upset-minded Kraken was goalie Philipp Grubauer (4-3-0, 2.44 GAA, .926 save percentage). His strong play so far bodes well for Seattle going forward.

Seattle’s storybook run will likely come to an end here against the deep and experienced Stars. Dallas is a much tougher matchup for the Kraken and will also bring a physical element to this series that Colorado did not in the first round. I’ll take the Stars in five games.

Pacific Division Finals

1. Vegas Golden Knights (51-22-9) vs. 2. Edmonton Oilers (50-23-9)

Despite a loss in Game 1 against Winnipeg, Vegas essentially cruised to a five-game series win over the injury-beset Jets. For an older Golden Knights squad, depleted themselves in goal and on defense, getting some extra days of rest was essential. Vegas exposed Winnipeg’s lack of depth, and the Golden Knights’ deep offense looked strong against one of the NHL’s best goalies in Conner Hellebucyk. The stand outs of the first round were forwards Chandler Stevenson (team-leading four goals and eight points), Mark Stone (eight points), Jack Eichel, and William Karlsson (five points). Defensive leaders Alex Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore looked especially strong for the Golden Knights, and their backchecking was much-needed in front of an inexperienced goalie, Laurent Brossoit (4-1-0, 2.42 GAA, .915 SP).

While it took six games to knock off a resilient Los Angeles Kings squad, no team looked better in the first round than Edmonton. The Oilers’ stars burned bright as Leon Draisaitl (team-leading seven goals and 11 points) and Connor McDavid (10 points) caused all sorts of matchup headaches. The pair lead Edmonton’s almost-unstoppable power play, and that should provide a huge advantage for the Oilers in the ensuing rounds. A big part of that power play is defenseman Evan Bouchard (team-leading eight assists), who had a coming-out party of his own in the first round. Beyond the stars, Edmonton’s depth players found their legs against Los Angeles, and that is a really good sign for the Oilers going forward.

Edmonton versus Vegas has all the makings of a terrific second-round series on paper, and I don’t think this will disappoint. The Oilers can outgun the Golden Knights offensively, but it will be interesting to see if Vegas can forecheck Edmonton into submission and take advantage of their superior depth. The matchups will be mesmerizing. Expect a chess match between the two coaches. I like Edmonton to advance in seven games, but they will need everything they can get from McDavid and Draisaitl to do so.

The Rest of the Playoffs

Conference Finals

New Jersey over Toronto in six games

Dallas over Edmonton in seven games

2023 Stanley Cup Finals Prediction

New Jersey over Dallas in seven games

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