Ready for Round 2?
A first round full of goals, comebacks and 7 games – highlighted by superstars like Cale Makar, Connor McDavid, Artemi Panarin and Johnny Gaudreau — set up a dream streak in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
We have a Battle of Florida rematch between the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning and the Presidents’ Trophy winners as the best regular season team, the Florida Panthers.
We have the Alberta battle between the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers for the first time since 1991; the Colorado Avalanche Cup-or-bust against 2019 champions St. Louis Blues; and a matchup of the two best defensive teams in the regular season, the Carolina Hurricanes (2.44 goals against per game) and the New York Rangers (2.49).
“It’s not easy,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said shaking his head. “It’s not easy this time of year.”
The first round averaged 6.4 goals per game. That’s more points than there were in the regular season, when there were 6.3 goals per game, and the most in the first round since there were 6.8 goals per game in 1994 -95. There were lopsided matches and no big upsets. For the second time since the NHL expanded to four divisions in 2013-14, every regular-season division winner has qualified. (This also happened in 2017-18.)
Yet the first round was still incredibly competitive and as hard to predict as a draw. Six teams overcame a series deficit to qualify: the Blues, Flames, Lightning, Oilers, Panthers and Rangers. There have been five Game 7s. Four were decided by a goal, the most ever in a single round, and two went to extra time. Who scored the winners? Panarin and Gaudreau, two of the top 12 regular season scorers.
“You dream of things like that,” Gaudreau said.
Makar had 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in four games, the most in NHL history by a defenseman in four playoff games. avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon said: “He might be the best player in the League right now.”
But wait. McDavid had 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) in seven games. Two players scored more points in a first-round series. Their names are Mario Lemieux (17 years old in 1992) and Wayne Gretzky (15 years old in 1987).
“He’s the best player in the world,” Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl mentioned. “There’s a lot of talent, obviously, with him. It’s a no-brainer. It’s the will, right? You can see it in his eyes. You can feel it every shift he’s there- down. He’s determined.”
It will take more willpower and determination from here.
Tampa Bay beat Florida in six games in the Stanley Cup first round last year, their first playoff meeting. But the Lightning center Brayden PointStatus is uncertain due to a lower-body injury, and the Panthers have grown, adding the defender Ben Chiarot and forward Claude Giroux and Sam Reinhart.
“I think people, especially in Florida, have been begging for both teams to be in contention and get on with it,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “I think last year a lot of people said it could have been the playoff series. They revamped their team and brought in some big names. It should be a lot of fun. It’s fun to play against them. It’s competitive…I think it’s really good for hockey.”
Ever since Tampa Bay (1992) and Florida (1993) entered the NHL, people have been begging Calgary and Edmonton to meet again in the playoffs. It’s been so long, too long, since Esa Tikkanen scored on Mike Vernon to give the Oilers a 5-4 overtime win over the Flames in Game 7 of the 1991 Smythe Division Semifinals at what was then known as the Olympic Saddledome. It’s really good for hockey too.
“I’ve been here nine years and I’ve never had the opportunity to play them in the playoffs, so it’s pretty special,” Gaudreau said. “I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
The Avalanche swept the Blues in the first round last season, just swept the Nashville Predators and have the highest expectations. But they have lost in the second round each of the last three seasons and must overcome this difficulty. The Blues have a championship core, went 14-2-2 to close out the regular season, and defeated the Minnesota Wild in six games.
“It’s a different team this year, we’re a different team this year, so you can’t look too much at last year because that’s in the past and we’re focusing on the present and this team at St. Louis. this year,” the Avalanche defenseman Devon Toews mentioned. “They are a very strong attacking team that we have to be ready for.”
The Hurricanes swept the Rangers in the best of 5 Stanley Cup playoffs in 2020, when the NHL played out a 24-team tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But write off the Rangers at your peril. Not only have they come back from a 3-1 first-round loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, they’ve come back in each of those last three wins.
“This is our team,” said Rangers coach Gerard Gallant. “We compete, we fight and we find ways to win games that maybe we shouldn’t.”
The best part?
The arenas are full. The same goes for outdoor seating. For the first time since 2019, before anyone heard of COVID-19, fans are in the playoffs from Alberta to Florida, Colorado to Carolina.
And we’re only halfway there.
“I already have chills”, center of the Hurricanes Jordan Staal mentioned. “It’s exciting. It’s what you want as a player. It’s what you dream of. Our fans have been amazing. I know it’s going to get even better.”