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Steve Russell / Toronto Star via Getty Images
It’s official: We know which eight teams will be vying to represent the Eastern Conference in the 2022 Stanley Cup Final.
We’ve seen outright dominance from the Florida Panthers during the regular season, epic goal-scoring exploits from the Toronto Maple Leafs and next-level goalie play from the New York Rangers. Oh, and don’t forget about the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Each team has valid credentials and a case to be made on why it will win the Prince of Wales Trophy.
With that all in mind, the B / R NHL staff was called together for another roundtable to discuss and debate the winners coming out of the East.
Disagree with our team? Submit your thoughts in the comments below.
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There are a million reasons not to pick the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Any real hockey fan knows their history.
They haven’t won a Stanley Cup in 53 seasons. They haven’t won a playoff series in 16 seasons. And after a first-place finish in last season’s thrown-together North Division, they proceeded to blow a 3-1 lead to the fourth-seeded Montreal Canadiens and exited the handshake line to another unsatisfying summer.
All that’s true and can’t be debated.
Nevertheless, this year feels different. Again.
The Leafs have been consistently good. They’ve won a franchise-record 51 games. They have the league’s most prolific goal scorer in Auston Matthews. And they have a goalie in Jack Campbell who’s 6-0-1 in seven starts since returning from a month-long injury respite.
The ingredients to win 16 springtime games are there.
But more than anything, what this team needs is a little good fortune. Something other than a cataclysmic injury to a guy like John Tavares. Something other than a COVID-19-prompted empty arena bereft of fan support. Something other than a scalding hot goaltender in the opposition’s net.
All these things appeared across two weeks in the series with the Canadiens last year and spelled doom. And there’s no guarantee that a goaltender on the level of an Andrei Vasilevskiy alone can’t do it again this year if an initial matchup with the two-time defending champs from Tampa Bay becomes reality at season’s end.
But just like the Lightning had to get past their nemeses in Columbus before flexing their parade-lap muscles, the Leafs will need to exorcise their first-round demons at some point. The guess here is that it happens this year, and once it does the rest of the dominoes could fall in place nicely if a 5-3-1 combined record against Tampa Bay and East powers Florida and Carolina this season is any indication.
Get your spot reserved soon on Yonge Street. It’s going to be a heck of a party.
– Lyle Fitzsimmons
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Over the last few seasons, the NHL playoffs have been trending bigger and slower. Heavier teams, as Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic recently found, are doing the most damage in the postseason — at least since 2018 — and it’s caused teams like the New York Rangers and Minnesota Wild to actively seek out toughness and grit.
There’s nothing wrong with that old-school approach, but if you love offense-first, off-the-rush creative hockey, then you ought to be cheering for the Florida Panthers come playoff time. While most coaching staffs are incredibly (and boringly) risk-averse, bench boss Andrew Brunette has this club playing high-octane hockey.
It’s sort of reminiscent of the “seven seconds or less” offense that eventually took the NBA by storm, pushing that league to new heights in terms of watchability and popularity. People pay money to watch hockey games to see goals, and the Panthers score in bunches.
As such, the hope here is that they punch their way through to the Stanley Cup Final, perhaps sending some other organizations back to the drawing board in search of more skill and creativity. That’s what the Panthers bring to the rink every night, and it’s a joy to watch unless they’re hanging nine goals on your favorite team or chasing your squad’s goalie for the second time this season.
This isn’t just some hope and a prayer offered up to the hockey gods in the name of fun hockey, though. Well, this is a high-octane team that is going to be difficult to slow down and handle across a seven-game series. The Panthers have six skaters with 50 or more points. Jonathan Huberdeau refuses to go away as a Hart Trophy candidate. Aleksander Barkov is one of the most complete players in the game, and they have their Old Guy Without a Cup (OGWAC) in Claude Giroux.
The Panthers have a real chance at finishing the season averaging more than four goals per game (wow), they take 37.6 shots on goal per game (double wow), and they have a power play that is pushing 25 percent effectiveness.
It’s been a minute since a team has gunned its way to a Stanley Cup title. Here’s to hoping the Panthers can get it done this season.
– Franklin Steele
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The two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning have stumbled in recent games, winning just four of their last 10. On Tuesday, Joe Smith of The Athletic took note of their inconsistent play, ominously forecasting an early playoff exit unless their fortunes reverse soon.
It’s worth recalling, however, the Lightning lost seven of their final 10 regular-season games in 2019-20. The following season, they dropped their last three games before the postseason.
In both cases, they went on to win the Stanley Cup.
The Lightning aren’t immune from the rigors of their first full 82-game schedule since COVID-19 derailed the 2019-20 campaign. The shortened offseasons certainly haven’t helped. Such is the price of being back-to-back champions.
And yet, it would be foolhardy to bet against Tampa Bay.
The Lightning still possesses their championship core of captain Steven Stamkos, forwards Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Alex Killorn, defenseman Victor Hedman and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. Their supporting cast, including Ondrej Palat, Anthony Cirelli, Pat Maroon, Ryan McDonagh, Mikhael Sergachev and Erik Cernak, remain mostly intact. They’re also guided by one of the best head coaches in the game in Jon Cooper.
Offseason departures such as Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman were replaced by Nicholas Paul and Brandon Hagel. Last summer’s free-agent market brought an experienced and still-effective Corey Perry into their ranks.
The Lightning understand the pain and sacrifice required to win a championship. They recognize when it’s time to take their game to a higher level. The leaders know when to step up and how to thrive under the heat of Stanley Cup playoff pressure.
It won’t be a cakewalk for the Lightning. Powerful opponents in the Eastern Conference, such as the Florida Panthers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes, are hungry for the Stanley Cup. Nevertheless, the Bolts still have what it takes to remain the beasts from the East.
– Lyle Richardson