2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs Preview

From start to finish, the 2022-23 NHL regular season belonged to the Boston Bruins. Despite lowered expectations due to some key injuries in the early going, and some key players reaching their mid-to-late 30s, Boston defied the odds and had a season for the ages.

In 2022-23 the Bruins shattered the NHL records for wins (65) and points (135). After 82 games Boston finished 22 points clear of their next closest challengers. With such a large cushion en route to the Presidents’ Trophy, it could be easy to infer that Boston’s road to the Stanley Cup will be a simple one.

It’s true that the Bruins are clearly the best team in the NHL, and are poised to race past their challengers on their way to their first title since 2011. However, history has not been kind to NHL record-setting regular season teams. Two of the teams that previously held the regular-season wins record, the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings and 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning, each failed to win a Cup. (For what it is worth, both teams won the Cup the following spring.)

Most of Boston’s top challengers reside in their own conference. In the Atlantic Division both Toronto (111 points) and three-time reigning Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay (98 points) stand in their way. In the Metropolitan Division, Carolina (113 points), New Jersey (112), and the New York Rangers (107 points) all have Cup dreams of their own.

Out west, there’s much more parity, but the headliner has to be Colorado looking to defend its title. Dallas, Vegas, Edmonton, and Los Angeles also seem dangerous. While I still like the Bruins to win it all, the road to their seventh title in franchise history will be far from easy. Here are my predictions for the 2022-23 Stanley Cup Playoffs:

Eastern Conference Preview

Atlantic Division Semifinals

  1. Boston Bruins (65-12-5) vs. 2WC. Florida Panthers (42-32-8)

    The historic Bruins have all the elements of a Cup winning team. Boston’s strength lies from the back end out. Starting goalie Linus Ullmark (40-6-1, 1.89 GAA, .938 SP) and Jeremy Swayman (23-6-4, 2.21 GAA, .922 SP) combined to allow the fewest goals of any unit. The Bruins feature a stout defense headlined by Hampus Lindholm (53 points), Charlie McAvoy, and deadline addition Dmitry Orlov. The Bruins have a standout star in David Pastrnak (team-leading 61 goals and 113 points), and veteran forwards like Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Krejci, along with former first-rounder Pavel Zacha.

    Last year the Florida Panthers ran away with the NHL’s best record. It was not easy street
    in Sunrise in 2022-23. New addition Matthew Tkachuk (team-leading 109 points) took the reins as the team leader, but much of the rest of the Florida roster underperformed. The Panthers have dangerous talents (Aleksander Barkov, Carter Verhaeghe) up front and solid blueliners (Brandon Montour, Aaron Ekblad). Florida’s Achilles heel is in goal, where neither Sergei Bobrovsky or backup Spencer Knight inspire much confidence. Late in the season the Cats turned to Alex Lyon (9-4-2, 2.80 GAA, .914 SP), who last year won a Calder Cup with the Chicago Wolves, to save their playoff hopes.

While the Bruins won’t have an easy road to the Cup, Florida shouldn’t provide much of a barrier in the first round. With the Panthers’ question marks in goal and a lack of depth up front, this series could be over quickly. I like Boston to advance in five games.

  1. Toronto Maple Leafs (50-21-11) vs. 3. Tampa Bay Lightning (50-21-11)

    Toronto flew under the radar (as much as any Maple Leafs team can) with all the buzz surrounding the Bruins. Their spectacular regular season won’t matter if the Maple Leafs don’t at least win their first playoff series since 2003, or make a long playoff run. Toronto remains a top-heavy squad, with their big four of Mitch Marner (team-leading 99 points), William Nylander (team-leading 40 goals), Auston Matthews (40 goals in 74 games), and John Tavares (80 points) as their offensive focal points. A blue line led by Morgan Rielly and the ageless Mark Giordano remains worrisome. In goal, Toronto went in a new direction when Matt Murray didn’t pan out. Ilya Samsonov (27-10-5, 2.33 GAA, .919 SP) might just be the guy to turn around this team’s fortunes in net during the playoffs.

    After a dominant run over the past five years, the wheels started coming off the rails for the Tampa Bay Lightning at times during the 2022-23 regular season. Yet, here the Lightning are, as dangerous as ever as an opponent for the shaky Maple Leafs. Nikita Kucherov had an outstanding regular season (team-leading 113 points). Along with Brayden Point (team-leading 51 goals) and Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay provides an enviable top-three threat. Despite the presence of Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev, Tampa Bay’s defense often gets overlooked. It’s always a mistake. After playing in a ton of games over the past three seasons, goaltender Andrew Vasilevskiy (34-22-4, 2.65 GAA, .915 SP) can be forgiven for an average regular season. But if the experienced Russian has his A-game during the playoffs, watch out for another deep Tampa run.

    While it is tough to pick against Tampa Bay, something does not seem quite right for the Lightning going into the postseason. A couple of physical games late in the schedule, including a doozy in a series preview against the Leafs, might have woken up Tampa Bay. However, I think this will be the year Toronto finally overcomes its demons and moves on. I like the Maple Leafs in a seven-game series victory.

Metropolitan Division Semifinals

  1. Carolina Hurricanes (52-21-9) vs. 1WC. New York Islanders (42-31-9)

    With injuries to Max Pacioretty and Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina faced plenty of adversity this season. Yet here the Hurricanes are, winning the Metropolitan Division again, and looking
    dangerous for the postseason. Carolina’s strength remains its blue line, which was bolstered by the off-season addition of Brent Burns (61 points). The Hurricanes have a three-headed monster in Frederik Andersen, Antti Raanta, and Pyotr Kochetkov in goal, who all could be called upon in the playoffs. If there is a concern for the Hurricanes, it is their offense, which has been shut down at times in previous playoffs. Sebastian Aho (team-leading 36 goals) and Martin Necas (team-leading 71 points) are the squad’s top offensive threats.

Speaking of offensively challenged squads, the Islanders are one of the standard bearers for teams that struggle to score. An injury to Mathew Barzal (51 points in 58 games) certainly didn’t help New York’s offensive prospects, but Brock Nelson (team-leading 36 goals and 75 points) surprised with an excellent campaign. The Islanders make up for their offensive woes by featuring one of the best goalies in the NHL in Ilya Sorokin (31-22-7, 2.34 GAA, and .924 SP). He’s assisted by a deep defense that includes Noah Dobson and Ryan Pulock.

While it wasn’t a great year on Long Island, the experienced Islanders will be a tough out. The issue is that Carolina has a similar roster, but just more talent in their skaters. Sorokin could steal the series, but I think the Hurricanes will muster just enough offense to advance in six games.

  1. New Jersey Devils (52-22-8) vs. 3. New York Rangers (47-22-13)

    After years of squandering young potential, the Devils served notice that they belong among the NHL’s elite teams after a stunning regular season. Their three best offensive players — Jack Hughes (team-leading 43 goals and 99 points), Nico Hischier (80 points) and Jesper Bratt — offer star power along with defenseman Dougie Hamilton, who has proved he is worth every penny on the blue line. Subpar goaltending has torpedoed many New Jersey teams over the past few years, but the Devils have found a starter in Vitek Vanecek (33-11-4, 2.45 GAA, .911 SP) who they can rely on.

    Despite elite talent, the New York Rangers disappointed at times early in the season. They found their stride and now look poised for a deep playoff run. Elite goaltender Igor Shesterkin (37-13-8, 2.48 GAA, .916 SP) remains the squad’s focal point, but the Rangers have star power offensively in Artemi Panarin (team-leading 92 points), Mike Zibanejad, and trade deadline acquisition Patrick Kane. The same is true on defense, with the likes of Adam Fox (72 points), K’Andre Miller, and Jacob Trouba manning the blue line.
  2. A classic match up of Devils/Rangers expects to be the best series of the first round. The Devils had an unbelievable year, but facing New York is a daunting prospect. There are no real weaknesses on the Rangers, with the possible exception of offensive depth, and the Devils’ inexperience could prove costly. I see the Rangers advancing with a six-game series victory.

Western Conference Preview

Central Division Semifinals

  1. Colorado Avalanche (51-24-7) vs. 1WC. Seattle Kraken (46-28-8)

    Despite cruising to a Stanley Cup title last season, Colorado’s turnaround this season, capturing the Central Division, was arguably more impressive. Facing the loss of injured captain Gabriel Landeskog, plus injuries to star defenseman Cale Makar (66 points in 60 games), and the loss of key contributors in the offseason, the Avalanche overcame a woeful start to rise back to the top. Nathan MacKinnon (team-leading 107 points) and Mikko Rantanen have replaced Landeskog with impressive contributions. In goal, Colorado swapped Alexandar Georgiev (39-16-6, 2.52 GAA, .919 SP) in for Darcy Kuemper and hardly missed a beat. Devon Toews, Sam Girard, and Bowen Byram have been impressive on defense along with Makar.

The biggest surprise in the 2022-23 playoff field is the Seattle Kraken, which had the largest second-season turnaround of any franchise in NHL history. While the first-time playoff participants lack star power (other than the emerging Matty Beniers), the Kraken feature a deep lineup. Forward Jared McCann (team-leading 40 goals and 70 points) and defenseman Vince Dunn (team-leading 50 assists) both had breakout campaigns, as did many other Seattle players. Their main concern is in goal. Neither Philipp Grubauer or Martin Jones played like an elite number-1 netminder.

Upstart Seattle won’t pose too much of a threat to the defending champions, but funny things can happen in the playoffs. The Kraken will come at the Avalanche in waves and should score enough to apply some pressure. I think Colorado will outgun the Kraken and win a fun six-game series.

  1. Dallas Stars (47-21-14) vs. 3. Minnesota Wild (46-25-11)

    Last year the Dallas Stars made the playoffs by riding a red-hot goalie. Jake Oettinger (37-
    11-11, 2.37 GAA, .919 SP) had another outstanding season and will likely key any Stars playoff run. Offensively, Dallas has become Jason Robertson’s team, as the 23-year-old blew past his career highs this season (team-leading 46 goals and 109 points). He’s joined by veteran stalwarts like Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and the ageless Joe Pavelski. They play in front of a formidable defense featuring one of the league’s best in Miro Heiskanen, plus Ryan Suter, Esa Lindell, and Colin Miller.

    Despite playing a physical brand of hockey, Minnesota kind of flew under the radar during the 2022-23 season. The Wild are a little banged up, and likely won’t have Joel Eriksson Ek at least at the start of the playoffs. Superstar Kirill Kaprizov (team-leading 40 goals and 75 points in 67 games) also missed time this season with injuries. While the Wild aren’t the league’s best team in any category, Minnesota has a veteran in goal in Marc-Andre Fleury (24-16-4, 2.85 GAA, .908 SP) who knows how to win titles. Veteran Jared Spurgeon still leads the Wild’s blue line.

    It’s a fun matchup of the two franchises that have called the Twin Cities home. This will likely be the most physical series of the first round, and I would expect plenty of tight, low-scoring games. While the Wild are due for a long postseason run, Dallas looks to be tough to overcome. I’ll take the Stars to win an epic seven-game series.

Pacific Division Semifinals

  1. Vegas Golden Knights (51-22-9) vs. 2WC. Winnipeg Jets (46-33-2)

    Vegas surprisingly missed the 2022 postseason, and that did not sit well with the Golden Knights’ ownership or the fans of the recent expansion squad. New coach Bruce Cassidy righted the ship, and now the Golden Knights look dangerous even without injured captain Mark Stone. Center Jack Eichel (team-leading 66 points in 67 games) has re-emerged as one of the league’s best, while Alex Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore anchor a superb blue line. Vegas does not have a lot of elite offensive threats but do possess players that can score a big goal throughout their lineup. Injuries have decimated the Golden Knights in goal, as Vegas have been forced to use five different netminders during the season. Journeyman Laurent Brossoit seems likely to get the first shot to backstop the Golden Knights in the playoffs.

Playing in front of new coach Rick Bowness, it has been a tumultuous season in Winnipeg. The Jets were one of the league’s best teams in the early going, before a midseason swoon nearly dashed playoff hopes in Manitoba. Winnipeg earned their spot in the playoffs, and star goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (37-25-2, 2.49 GAA, .920 SP) was a big reason why. The Jets offense wasn’t as scary as it has been in past years, but forwards Kyle Connor (team-leading 80 points) and Mark Scheifele (team-leading 42 goals) are two of the NHL’s most underrated scorers. Where Winnipeg vastly improved this season was on defense, as Josh Morrisey (76 points) anchors a solid group that includes Neal Pionk, Dylan DeMelo, Brenden Dillon, and Nate Schmidt.

Vegas should be on upset alert, as Winnipeg looks a lot like the Montreal squad that upset the Golden Knights two years ago in the playoffs — only more physical. The Jets will push Vegas and I expect them to win some tight games. While I’m taking the Golden Knights to win this series in seven games, this will be a close matchup.

  1. Edmonton Oilers (50-23-9) vs. 3. Los Angeles Kings (47-25-10)

    Despite featuring two of the NHL’s biggest stars, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton has struggled to be relevant in the playoffs. However, the Oilers have finally established themselves as one of the NHL’s best teams, with McDavid (NHL-leading 64 goals and 153 points) and Draisaitl (128 points) leading a squad that finally could win it all. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zach Hyman also had big seasons up front. The Oilers’ blue line, featuring the likes of Darnell Nurse, Evan Bouchard and Mattias Ekholm, has never looked more formidable. Jack Campbell was brought in to be the answer in goal but failed spectacularly. He’s given way to the surprising Stuart Skinner (29-14-5, 2.75, .914) who will likely start Game 1 of the playoffs.

    The almost-fully rebuilt Kings roster took another step up in 2022-23. They’re hoping for more from their young prospects in the coming years while veterans Anze Kopitar (team-leading 74 points) and Drew Doughty stick around as holdovers from their last Cup run(s). The recent additions of Kevin Fiala, Viktor Arvidsson, and Phillip Danault helped the Kings leap forward as prospects like Adrian Kempe (team-leading 41 goals) continue to mature. Similar to other teams like Vegas and Edmonton in the West, Los Angeles has had its problems in goal. At least deadline acquisition Joonas Korpisalo and Pheonix Copley seemed to have shored things up a bit.

    While Los Angeles gave Edmonton plenty of problems in the first round last year, this now seems like a better and deeper Oilers squad ready for a deep run. Los Angeles’ biggest weakness is in goal, and that is something Edmonton will expose. I’ll take the Oilers in five games.

    The Rest of the Playoffs
    Division Finals: Boston over Toronto in six games, New York over Carolina in six games, Dallas over Colorado in seven games, Edmonton over Vegas in six games

    Conference Finals: Boston over New York in seven games, Dallas over Edmonton in seven games

    Stanley Cup Finals: Boston over Dallas in five games

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