NHL playoff preview: Which teams are set for postseason success?
Josh Werle, Sports Editor
With around 20 games remaining in the National Hockey League season, the playoff picture has begun to take shape. With some divisions being stronger than others, there is still plenty of time for some of the teams on the brink of contention to make one final push into a playoff spot, while other teams are dominating their conferences and show no signs of slowing down.
Here is a preview of the NHL playoff race, and which teams seem poised for postseason success.
Over the past few years, the NHL’s Atlantic division has been extremely top-heavy. The Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers have consistently ranked in the top four, leaving the rest of the teams in the Atlantic in the dust. Although this year is a far tighter race, these four teams still rank amongst the best. The Bruins are the top team in the entire NHL by a country mile, as they sit at a league-best 91 points at the time of writing, with only 13 losses all season. Goaltender Linus Ullmark is a clear favourite to win the Vezina trophy — awarded to the league’s best goaltender during a given season — as he currently sits at a 1.88 goals against average and a .937 save percentage, both being a league best. Add to that the fact that defensemen Hampus Lindholm and Matt Grzelcyk have a league best positive net rating of 36, and star forward David Pastrnak is second in goals scored and fifth in total points this season, and it’s clear why the Bruins are dominating the league.
They are a lock to sit at the top of this division, and should easily win the President’s Trophy — awarded to the team with the most points in a season.
In the second and third spots of the Atlantic division are the Maple Leafs and Lightning. Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy sits with the second most wins this season behind Ullmark, while star forward Nikita Kucherov is sitting with the third most points in the NHL with 80. The recent back-to-back Stanley Cup winners are poised for postseason action, where they will most likely face the Maple Leafs.
The Maple Leafs have put together a great team effort this season, with no one player sticking out from the pack on the stat sheet. The Leafs have three players ranking in the top-thirty for most points this season, with Auston Matthews just outside that list due to injuries. With Matthews back, this team is ready to fire on all cylinders heading into the playoffs. After trading for veteran Ryan O’Reilly near the trade deadline, the Leafs are seemingly full-steam ahead and will look to contend for a Stanley Cup in the offseason.
The Florida Panthers are just behind these three juggernauts, and will look to hold strong in a wild card spot. That being said, the spread between them and the very bottom of the division is only a 12-point difference, with the Detroit Red Wings and Buffalo Sabres chasing the Panthers’ tails. Although Matthew Tkachuk has been dominating in his debut season with the Panthers, they are certainly missing the help of Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar this season.
This season, the Eastern conference teams are far better than that of the Western conference. This is indicative of the best team in the West having less points than both third-place teams in the East. Sitting in first place in the division, the Carolina Hurricanes have proven that they are one of the best in the East. With goaltender Frederik Andersen battling injuries, the Canes have had to rely on Antti Raanta and rookie Pyotr Kochetkov to guard their crease throughout the season, with both having success. Martin Necas, Andrei Svechnikov and Sebastian Aho have been filling the scoresheet for the forwards, while former Norris trophy winner Brent Burns sits in fourth for points on the team with 43. Although Carolina is in a strong position, they can’t be quite as comfortable as the Bruins are, as the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers are less than ten points behind them.
After a slower start to the season, the Rangers have seemingly found their groove as of late. Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad have both crossed the 60 point mark, and goaltender Igor Shesterkin is back to playing in his Vezina-winning form. In opposite fashion, the Devils got off to a blistering start to the season, and have held strong onto their position at the top of the Metropolitan. With a record of 24-6, goaltender Vitek Vanecek has been beyond stellar for this team so far. The former Washington Capitals goaltender has been playing far better in his new threads this year, and has kept this team at the top of their game. Young star Jack Hughes has continued to develop into one of the league’s best offensive players, continuing to have a career year this season. These two teams, along with the Hurricanes, are locks for the playoffs this year.
The New York Islanders are in fourth place in the Metropolitan division, and will look to secure a wild card spot. They are in good shape, especially with the recent acquisition of star forward Bo Horvat, but they need to win big in order to keep their position. Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals are only a few victories away from taking that spot, so these remaining games are of the utmost importance.
Last season saw five teams from the Central division competing in the playoffs, while only three from the Pacific division made the cut. This year, it’s looking like that narrative could flip. The entire Western conference is very lucid right now, and these final games are vital to any team’s success. The Dallas Stars hold first place in the Central division, and they shouldn’t see any decline in their play in the home stretch. Jason Robertson has continued to defy the odds, and is one of the best goal scorers in the entirety of the NHL. He currently sits in fifth place with 35 goals, only one goal away from a tie with third place. Although he is the star of the Dallas show, players like Joe Pavelski and Jamie Benn have continued to show that age is just a number, and goaltender Jake Ottinger has carried his 2022 playoff momentum with him into this season with 23 wins thus far.
The Winnipeg Jets are only a point behind them at the time of writing, and have seemingly gotten their act together. At the conclusion of last season, this team seemingly had too many questions that needed answering, and this year they seem to have found them. Defenseman Josh Morrissey has recorded more points than most forwards, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler have found their mojo, and Connor Hellebuyck is back to his winning ways in the crease. The reigning Stanley Cup champions aren’t to be forgotten, as the Colorado Avalanche are still in a playoff spot at this time. Injuries have really hampered this team, and after losing goaltender Darcy Kuemper in the offseason, they have yet to dominate in their usual fashion. They need to watch the Minnesota Wild, who are right on their heels and are looking to snag their spot.
After only three teams seeing postseason action in the Pacific division last season, it looks as though there will be at least four this time around. Vegas Golden Knights Goaltenders Adin Hill and Logan Thompson have both exceeded expectations, while the team’s top stars — old and new — have increased their production. Chandler Stephenson and Jack Eichel have stuck out as the team’s top players while Mark Stone has been battling through injuries.
The Los Angeles Kings and Edmonton Oilers — who battled in the playoffs last year — could contend against one another in the first round again. In his first year with the team, Kevin Fiala is leading the Kings in points, while veterans Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty are continuing to produce a high offensive output. After years of playing back and forth in the NHL and minor leagues, goaltender Pheonix Copley is having a breakout career year with the Kings. With less than five regulation losses on his record, Copley will look to carry this momentum into the playoffs. After the Oilers’ new offseason acquisition, Jack Campbell, struggled in the crease, goaltender Stuart Skinner played his way into a starting job. With Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl sitting at the one and two positions for most points in the NHL this season, the Oilers are in a good position heading into the playoffs.
After an inaugural year that saw the Seattle Kraken defer towards the bottom of the league leaderboard, the team’s sophomore appearance has been a complete 180. After shuffling around some players in the offseason, this new-look team looks different on the ice and in the standings. Goaltender Martin Jones has had a career turnaround since joining the Kraken, and has been keeping the team in the playoff mix only a couple points behind the top of the division. Rookie Matty Beniers has been the star of the show, making an appearance as an NHL All Star in his first season.
At the time of writing, the Calgary Flames are four points back from the Kraken, and will need to step up their game if they want a chance at the playoffs. Unless Minnesota or Colorado take a tumble — leading five teams from the Pacific division into the playoffs — Calgary will need to overtake one of the Pacific’s top teams in order to make the postseason. After losing star players Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk, the team has been struggling to find their groove on the ice. The Flames are tied for the most overtime losses in the entire league, and should look to be on the winning side of overtime over their last games if they wish to have a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup.