Sunday, July 3, 2022

2022 NHL Playoffs: Predictions for the first round and Stanley Cup winner

The 82-game NHL regular season is officially complete and now teams will shift their focus towards the ultimate prize in the Stanley Cup.

The Florida Panthers enter the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the Presidents’ Trophy winner thanks to their 122-point regular season. Meanwhile, the Colorado Avalanche will be the top seed in the Western Conference.

The NHL postseason begins on Monday, May 2. In the first round, the lower-seeded wild card team faces off against the division winner with the best record. The other wild card team takes on the other division winner. The second and third place teams from the divisions battle it out in the other playoff matchups. In the opening two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, home ice advantage is given to the higher seed, which means that they had the better regular season record.

With the playoffs set to get underway, our NHL experts revealed their first round predictions along with their Stanley Cup picks.

Western Conference

(1) Avalanche vs. (WC2) Predators

Chris: The Avalanche were exceptional all season and were neck-and-neck with the Panthers for the Presidents’ Trophy. That’s not surprising given the amount of offensive weapons that Colorado possesses. Meanwhile, the Predators dropped their regular season finale as they blew a 4-1 lead to the Arizona Coyotes and fell into the second wild card spot in the process. If playing the Avalanche wasn’t bad enough, they’ll likely have to do it without star goaltender Juuse Saros, who is currently out of the lineup with a sprained ankle. With Saros expected to miss a few games, the Avalanche should cruise to the easy series win. Pick — Avalanche beat Predators 4-0

Austin: If these teams played this series 10 times, the Avalanche might win nine, and this won’t be that one exception. The Predators would be a massive underdog in this series even if goaltender Saros was healthy, but starting David Rittich in goal makes this uphill battle even more daunting. With Saros out, Colorado is definitively better than Nashville at every position on the ice. The Preds have shown an ability to be a scrappy bunch this season, but grit and sandpaper won’t be enough to pull off the upset against this Avalanche squad. Pick — Avalanche beat Predators 4-1

(2) Wild vs. (3) Blues

Chris: Postseason wins haven’t been prevalent throughout the Wild’s history, but this could be the season that their fortunes change. Kirill Kaprizov blossomed into one of the league’s most talented wingers in just his second NHL season. Fellow winger Kevin Fiala also had a career year and really helped stabilize Minnesota’s second line. With the veteran presence of Marc-Andre Fleury in net, that could end up being the difference against a Blues teams that doesn’t have a clear No. 1 netminder. Pick — Wild beat Blues 4-2

Austin: These two teams are very evenly matched, and any number of outcomes are possible. The Blues, led by Jordan Kyrou, Robert Thomas, Pavel Buchnevich, and Vladimir Tarasenko, have shown an ability to be lethal on the rush. For Minnesota, Kaprizov is the engine that powers a deep forward group that includes a nice balance of skill and defensive ability. Ultimately, this comes down to which blue line and goaltending situation I trust more. I both of those cases, the answer is Minnesota. The Wild come out of what will be a hard fought series. Pick — Wild beat Blues 4-3

(1) Flames vs. (WC1) Stars

Chris: The Flames may have been one of the biggest surprise teams this season. For a team that didn’t make a marquee addition in the offseason, Calgary relied on the star power that they already had in place to build a Stanley Cup contender. Hart Trophy candidate Johnny Gaudreau had the best season of his career for a team that had the second-most points in the Western Conference. In addition, goaltender Jacob Markstrom was a brick wall at times and will be a huge asset throughout the postseason. In this particular series, the goaltending matchup between Markstrom and Jake Oettinger could end up taking center stage. However, I just don’t think the Stars have enough offensive firepower to keep pace. Pick — Flames beat Stars 4-1

Austin: If the Flames find a way to contain the line of Jason Robertson, Joe Pavelski, and Roope Hintz, then this series will be over very quickly. If Calgary struggles to keep those three off the board and Dallas gets strong goaltending from Jake Oettinger, then the Stars have a puncher’s chance. I do think Darryl Sutter devises a plan to put a lid on Dallas’ top line, and Calgary is the much deeper team in this series. Even if the Flames’ dominant first line is canceled out, Tyler Toffoli, Andrew Mangiapane, and Dillon Dube can do some damage further down the lineup. Pick — Flames beat Stars 4-1

(2) Oilers vs. (3) Kings

Chris: The Oilers have had their fair share of postseason success throughout their history. However, since appearing in the Stanley Cup Final in 2006, the Oilers only made it out of the first round on one occasion. When Connor McDavid was tabbed as the savior of the franchise, it was to shine on stages such as this. McDavid led the league in points this season and he’ll show why in this series. I just don’t think the Kings will be able to score enough to keep up with the offensive juggernaut that is the Oilers. The combination of McDavid and Leon Draisaitl should thrive. Pick — Oilers beat Kings 4-2

Austin: There will be a lot of pressure on the Oilers to make a run this postseason, but this is a very tricky first-round matchup for them. The Kings have been very good at five-on-five this season, and Phillip Danault has been a brilliant two-way center for them. His services will be needed in this series as Los Angeles tries to limit Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, if that is even really possible. There’s no question that the Oilers have the edge when it comes to elite talent at the top of the lineup, and McDavid will get his, but I trust the Kings more as an overall team. Drew Doughty’s season-ending injury makes this a much tougher decision, but Los Angeles will outlast Edmonton. Pick — Kings beat Oilers 4-2

Eastern Conference

(1) Panthers vs. (WC2) Capitals

Chris: My Stanley Cup pick is the Panthers and they’ll showcase their dominance against the Capitals. It also doesn’t help that Capitals star Alex Ovechkin is banged up entering the series after suffering an upper-body injury last week. Ovechkin is likely going to play in Game 1, but he’s going to need to be superhuman for the Capitals to have a chance. The Panthers’ offense is just too dangerous and have strong goaltending that should keep the Panthers at bay. Pick — Panthers beat Capitals 4-1

Austin: This series has the chance to be fun, even if it doesn’t last very long. The Panthers have been the NHL’s most entertaining team all season, and who doesn’t love watching Alex Ovechkin in the playoffs? If the Capitals are going to pull off the upset, it will take a superb effort from Ovechkin as well as some miscues from Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Even then, the Panthers could still score their way out of trouble. There is not a better forward group in the league than Florida’s. They can roll four lines for 60 minutes and still burn out bulbs in the scoreboard. That is what will make the difference in this series. Pick — Panthers beat Capitals 4-2

(2) Maple Leafs) vs. (3) Lightning

Chris: Insert your Maple Leafs not making it out of the first round joke here. This time around, it’s going to be a different story for Toronto. This is the deepest roster that the Maple Leafs have had in quite some time. On top of that, they’re paced by one of the biggest stars in the sport in Auston Matthews. Matthews is coming off an insane month and he’s going to need that to carry over against the back-to-back champions. This isn’t going to be easy by any stretch. If Maple Leafs goaltender Jack Campbell can carry over his recent strong play, I believe that the Maple Leafs can pull out this series, but don’t be surprised if it goes seven games. Pick — Maple Leafs beat Lightning 4-3

Austin: The Maple Leafs have had trouble getting out of the first round for a while now, and this year they have to do it against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. So will be different about this year? To put it briefly, Auston Matthews. The Toronto superstar is on another level than everyone else this season and may very well be the MVP, and he doesn’t have a bunch of slouches around him. The Lightning have been chugging along all year with Steven Stamkos carrying the torch, and Andrei Vasilevskiy is fully capable of winning a series on his own, but this is where Tampa’s reign of terror comes to an end. Picking the Maple Leafs over the Lightning in the playoffs feels gross, but I’m going to trust what I saw from Toronto down the stretch. Pick — Maple Leafs beat Lightning 4-3

(1) Hurricanes vs. (WC2) Bruins

Chris: This is the one series that I’m having the most trouble with. That’s due in large part to the fact that it’s anyone’s guess as to whether Hurricanes goalie Frederik Andersen will play at any point in the series. Andersen is currently dealing with a lower-body injury and has been out since mid-April. Andersen was a dark horse for the Vezina Trophy all season and was truly spectacular. While Antti Raanta is no slouch, Andersen will be missed. In addition, the Bruins have a ton of scoring depth in David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, and Patrice Bergeron. It’s a shame that Carolina’s season may end due to something out of their control, but I think the Bruins will do enough defensively to take this series. Pick — Bruins beat Hurricanes 4-3

Austin: The Hurricanes and Bruins have met twice in recent postseasons, and Boston won both series with a combined record of 8-1. Will the third time be the charm for Carolina or will it just be more of the same? This could be a long series, but a couple of things have me leaning toward the Bruins. For starters, the Hurricanes take a high amount of point shots for a team with so much talent up front. If that continues in the postseason, the Bruins are well-equipped to deal with that and keep the Hurricanes off the scoreboard. Secondly, Patrice Bergeron is having an absurd defensive season, even by his standards. He will be up to the task of erasing Carolina’s best playmakers. Pick — Bruins beat Hurricanes 4-2

(2) Rangers vs. (3) Penguins

Chris: Similar to the Hurricanes/Bruins series, a goaltender injury is one of the biggest storylines to watch. Penguins netminder Tristan Jarry is currently dealing with a lower-body injury and has been out since April 14. Jarry will at least miss the first few games of this series. Backup Casey DeSmith has been strong at times, but was lit up for five goals against the Rangers earlier this season. I just can’t bring myself to bet against the Vezina Trophy frontrunner on the other side in Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin. The Rangers also have a stellar defense in front of Shesterkin as they only surrendered 2.49 goals-per-game during the regular season. This will be a long series, but the Rangers get the job done. Pick — Rangers beat Penguins 4-3

Austin: This is one of the toughest picks to make. There is a very compelling case to be made that Pittsburgh was the better team over an 82-game sample size. However, the Rangers really turned a corner over the last six weeks of the season, and their underlying process began to match their excellent results. The other thing working against the Penguins here is Tristan Jarry’s injury. He won’t play the first couple of games, and Igor Shesterkin vs. Casey DeSmith or Louis Domingue is a pretty one-sided goaltending matchup. Outside of the crease, the Penguins are the deeper of the two teams. Sidney Crosby is still one of the best players on the planet, and Pittsburgh is rock solid behind him down the middle. That will make the difference in this series. Pick — Penguins beat Rangers 4-2

Stanley Cup winner

Chris: There are several teams that are certainly capable of making a run at the Stanley Cup. Still, I’ve been on the Florida Panthers for the last several months and I’m not shying away from them now. Even before the acquisition of Claude Giroux, this was a group that could’ve hoisted the Cup, but that move truly put the Panthers over the top. Giroux’s presence on the top line has been nothing short of sensational. The Panthers’ offense, which features two of the most dynamic forwards in the sport in Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov, was the highest-scoring offense in the regular season and I believe that will carry over into the playoffs. Florida wins its first Stanley Cup in franchise history.  Pick — Panthers beat Flames 4-2

Austin: The Colorado Avalanche and Florida Panthers have been the top two teams in the NHL for a while now, so that would be the easy pick for the Stanley Cup Final. However, the NHL playoffs never go according to script. I do think the Avalanche will be able to get out of the Western Conference, but maybe not without a scare from the Calgary Flames. Colorado is just too talented at every position, and the team will be on a mission after last season’s early exit. In the Eastern Conference, Auston Matthews will help the Maple Leafs win the Prince of Wales Trophy, but the franchise will have to wait a little longer for its first Stanley Cup since 1967. The Avalanche are just too much of a juggernaut to be stopped this year. Pick — Avalanche beat Maple Leafs 4-2

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