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2022 NHL Playoffs: Burning questions for each of the Stanley Cup contenders

The 2021-22 NHL regular season is officially in the books and arguably the most exciting postseason in sports is set to get underway on May 2. 

The Florida Panthers came away with the Presidents’ Trophy after leading the league in standings points in the regular season. Florida will be the top seed in the Eastern Conference while the Colorado Avalanche earned the top seed in the Western Conference. 

The NHL postseason field has quite a few teams that are capable of making deep runs to the Stanley Cup Final. However, with such a deep field, there are plenty of questions that will need to be answered in order for these teams to achieve playoff glory. 

Let’s dive into the biggest burning questions as the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs begin.

Can the Maple Leafs advance past the opening round?

This seems to be the million dollar question that everyone is asking. It’s been no secret that the opening round of the postseason hasn’t been the Maple Leafs’ forte in recent years. In fact, Toronto has been eliminated in the opening round in each of the last five postseasons despite recording at least 95 points in the regular season in three of those years. A high-profile roster hasn’t always equated to being a successful team on the ice once the weather warms up. 

However, this is one of the most talented teams that the Maple Leafs have had in quite some time. Star center Auston Matthews is coming off a regular season in which he registered 106 points. He also became the NHL’s first 60-goal scorer since the 2011-12 season when Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos scored 60 goals on the nose. Matthews has looked downright unstoppable as of late with 10 goals during the month of April. While Matthews has been sensational, he’s not doing it by himself. The Maple Leafs have have three other players that have scored at least 27 goals in Mitchell Marner, William Nylander, and John Tavares and average 3.8 goals-per-game (fourth-best in the league). If anywhere close to this Toronto offense shows up, it would be a shock to see the Maple Leafs bow out in the first round yet again.

Can the Panthers overcome the Presidents’ Trophy jinx?

The Florida Panthers won their first Presidents’ Trophy in franchise history after amassing 122 points this season. While the Panthers have had an exceptional season, winning the Presidents’ Trophy hasn’t meant postseason success with the majority of its previous winners. In fact, the league’s top regular-season team has only won the Stanley Cup twice since the 2004-05 NHL Lockout. The Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup 2008 after winning the Presidents’ Trophy and the Chicago Blackhawks won it all in 2013. In addition, no Presidents’ Trophy winner has advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals since the Blackhawks hoisted the Cup in 2013.

If any team can get the job done, it would certainly be the Panthers. Florida finished the regular season with four players topping the 30-goal mark and three players topping the 80 points. Winger Jonathan Huberdeau led the way with a team-high 115 points (30 goals and 85 assists) and finished tied for second in the NHL in points. The additions of winger Claude Giroux and defenseman Ben Chiarot at the trade deadline prove to be huge upgrades. It won’t be easy with teams like the Carolina Hurricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs wreaking havoc in the East, but the Panthers possess the deepest roster. Now it’ll all come down to execution.

Does Sidney Crosby have any postseason magic left?

Since the Pittsburgh Penguins selected Sidney Crosby with the No. 1 pick in the 2005 NHL Draft, the standards have been incredibly high. That’s what happens when a franchise wins three Stanley Cups with a player of Crosby’s caliber leading the way. While Crosby might not be as explosive as he once was, the Penguins star is still capable of some very special moments. Crosby recorded 84 points (31 goals and 53 assists) in the regular season, which was his highest point total since the 2018-19 campaign when he registered 100 points.

Crosby has registered 191 postseason points throughout his NHL career and been the straw that stirs the drink for the Penguins’ offense. However, Pittsburgh hasn’t made it out of the opening round in three of the past four seasons following their Stanley Cup win in 2017. If the Penguins want to make a deep playoff run, they’re going to need the Crosby of old to impose his will in each and every series.

Will the Lightning become a dynasty and win their third consecutive Stanley Cup?

The Tampa Bay Lightning  are in pursuit of a three-peat after winning the Stanley Cup each of the past two seasons. Obviously, a great deal has been made about the Panthers and Hurricanes when it comes to the Eastern Conference. However, the Lightning weren’t too far behind in the standings with 108 points.

If Tampa Bay is able to three-peat, this group would be in very select company. Only the Toronto Maple Leafs (1947-49, 1962-64), Montreal Canadiens (1956-60, 1976-79), and New York Islanders (1980-83) have won at least three consecutive Stanley Cup championships since the NHL took over the Cup in 1927. 

Tampa Bay basically is returning the same team from last season’s Stanley Cup-winning squad, but did add winger Brandon Hagel from the Blackhawks at the trade deadline. In addition, they’re also going to have a healthy Steven Stamkos, which they haven’t had the luxury of in the playoffs the past two seasons. Depending on who the Lightning draw in each round, they have a chance to make history.

The Calgary Flames surprised the hockey world by being one of the top teams in the West this season. One of the biggest reasons for that was the play of star winger Johnny Gaudreau, who had a career year in which he registered 115 points (40 goals and 75 assists). 

This is the the fifth time that “Johnny Hockey” will be postseason bound. In 30 career playoff games, Gaudreau has accumulated 19 points (eight goals and 11 assists), which is isn’t bad by any means. While the Flames do possess stellar goaltending in Jacob Markstrom, Gaudreau is going to need to produce in a big way if Calgary wants to make a run at the Stanley Cup. Gaudreau is coming off a month in which he scored nine goals and dished out 15 assists down the stretch. If that level of production can continue, it’ll go a long way towards the Flames potentially advancing a few rounds in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Can the Wild exercise their postseason demons?

The Minnesota Wild haven’t had a ton of postseason success in their 22-year history. In fact, the Wild have only made it out of the first round on three occasions, which include an appearance in the Western Conference Finals during the 2002-03 season (lost 4-0 to the Anaheim Ducks). 

One of the biggest strengths may be finally having a stabilizing force in between the pipes. The team went out and acquired veteran goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury at the trade deadline in what felt like a very necessary move. Cam Talbot showed flashes at times, but was ultimately very inconsistent throughout the majority of the season prior to the move. While Fleury’s numbers weren’t eye-popping with the Blackhawks, it’s also worth noting that the Blackhawks were a sieve defensively in front of Fleury and he was put in some difficult situations. 

Fleury’s play has been up-and-down at times, but his postseason numbers speak for themselves. During his career, the 37-year old has a 90-70 record with a 2.53 goals-against-average and a .912 save percentage. Over his past two playoff appearances as a member of the Vegas Golden Knights, he’s gone 12-8 along with a 2.16 goals-against-average, including rattling off nine wins during the 2020-21 postseason. Now it is going to be a tough test against the St. Louis Blues in the opening round, who do average 3.8 goals-per-game. Still, If the Wild get the Fleury that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in recent playoff years, the Wild can win a series or two.

Can the Avalanche win their first Stanley Cup in over 20 years?

The Colorado Avalanche battled tooth-and-nail with the Panthers for the Presidents’ Trophy throughout the regular season. Much like the 2021 season, the Avalanche enter the Stanley Cup Playoffs as one of the most formidable teams in the field. Colorado was one of the top offenses in the league as they averaged 3.8 goals-per-game, which only trailed the Panthers in that department. This is arguably the deepest roster that the Avalanche have had since they won the Stanley Cup in 2001. 

Colorado has no shortage of offensive productive with four players registering at least 86 points this season. The biggest question mark for the Avalanche is going to be getting consistency from goaltender Darcy Kuemper. Kuemper has had a solid season with a 37-12-4 record and a 2.54 goals-against-average, but he’s struggled in recent weeks leading up to the postseason. The veteran netminder had a 3.28 goals-against-average in April and surrendered at least four goals in five of his 10 starts. In addition, Kuemper only yielded two or fewer goals in two of those starts. Goal scoring will never be in question when it comes to the Avalanche, but a deep run towards the Stanley Cup will likely hinge on what they get from Kuemper in net.

Since appearing in the Stanley Cup Final in 2006, the Edmonton Oilers have only made the playoffs four times during that stretch while only getting out of the opening round once. Over the course of his seven-year NHL career, star forward Connor McDavid only has been to the postseason three times and has recorded 22 playoff points (11 goals and 11 assists) in 21 games. 

McDavid has established himself as perhaps the top player in the sport and even led the league with 123 points this season. However, in each of his last two postseason appearances, McDavid has only led the Oilers to one win. The Oilers star is going to need to show why he’s one of the best players in the world if Edmonton wants to advance out of the first round and past the Los Angeles Kings.

Can Igor Shesterkin enjoy postseason success despite inexperience?

After missing the playoffs three of the past four seasons, the New York Rangers had their best campaign in seven seasons. Goaltender Igor Shesterkin is certainly one of the primary reasons for that level of success. Shesterkin turned in a phenomenal season in which he went 36-13-4 while leading the NHL with a 2.07 goals-against-average and .935 save percentage. 

The only real uncertainty surrounding the Rangers is that Shesterkin doesn’t have a ton of postseason experience. The Vezina Trophy favorite has only one career playoff start under his belt, which came against the Carolina Hurricanes during the 2019-20 postseason. Shesterkin surrendered three goals while stopping 30 of the 33 shots he faced during Game 3 of that particular series. 

While having very little postseason experience isn’t ideal, Shesterkin did just wrap up a sensational regular season. The Rangers netminder also had a tremendous amount of success against his first round opponents in the Penguins. In four starts against Pittsburgh, Shesterkin only gave up three total goals and won three of those four starts. Shesterkin’s only loss was a 1-0 defeat in late February. If Shesterkin channels the same level of confidence from these regular season meetings, the Rangers could find themselves moving on.

Will Frederik Andersen be healthy enough to carry the Hurricanes?

Goalie Frederik Andersen spent the previous five seasons with the Maple Leafs before signing with the Carolina Hurricanes this past offseason. It ended up being a terrific signing for the Hurricanes as Andersen had the best season of his nine-year NHL career. Andersen had the second-best goals-against-average (2.17) and the fourth-best save percentage (.922) in the league this year.

Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, Andersen is dealing with a lower-body injury that he suffered against the Avalanche back on April 16. Since that performance in which he yielded seven goals, the 32-year old has been out of the lineup and his status for the Hurricanes’ first round series against the Boston Bruins is up in the air. Prior to Game 1 against Boston, Carolina head coach Rod Brind’Amour announced that Andersen would be getting the start. It appears that there could be hope that Andersen plays in the series, but that’s an unknown at this point. Even with the amount of talent that the Hurricanes possess offensively, they’re going to have to hope to get Andersen back at some point in this series because the Bruins are a very dangerous team.

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