5 things I've learned during the 2022 NHL playoffs
Andrei Vasilevskiy's solo effort in the postseason highlights the rarity of playoff teams relying on a singular goalie. Photo by Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press.

This sets up as a Stanley Cup Final befitting that spectacular silver trophy.

The dirty little secret about the two-month grind toward crowning an NHL champion is that the tournament rarely delivers the best two teams to its grandest stage.

Tampa and Colorado should be an exception to the rule. 

The Lightning are four wins away from accomplishing something I never thought possible in a 32-team, hard-cap league. Mario Lemieux’s Penguins, Steve Yzerman’s Red Wings, Jonathan Toews’s Blackhawks and Sidney Crosby’s Penguins never reached three straight Finals, and not even Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers hoisted the Cup three years running.

But here the Lightning are knocking on that door.

They may not have faced a tougher challenge during their outrageous 11-series winning streak.

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Colorado has skated opponents into submission this spring, ripping through the Western Conference bracket with a 12-2 record on the backs of Cale Makar and Nathan MacKinnon.

The Avs have the look and feel of a team whose time has finally come, although a thumb injury to Nazem Kadri that required surgery earlier this month leaves them in a weakened position. The second-line centre is considered doubtful for the Final, which seems more ominous when coupled with the fact Tampa appears set to welcome Brayden Point back to its lineup for the first time since Game 7 of Round 1.

That’s a big swing at a key position.

Still, there are enough thoroughbreds in the Avalanche’s stable to make them favourites entering the best-of-seven. They own home ice, too, with Game 1 set for Wednesday night at Ball Arena.

Thanks in large part to MacKinnon and Makar, the Avalanche are pre-series favourites (-195) to win the Stanley Cup. Photo by David Zalubowski/AP.

You’d have to go back to the 2013 Chicago-Boston final to find a Stanley Cup loaded with this much star power and hype.

It feels like a logical conclusion to a postseason where offence ruled the day. The 2021-22 season saw a goal-scoring explosion, and it carried over into the first spring in 27 years where we’ve had a goals-per-game rate at 6.35 or higher.

That meant lead changes and unpredictability. Edmonton lost one game 9-6, another 8-6 and still played into the final four. The league’s next generation of game-breakers took turns exerting themselves on a nightly basis.

As we get set for a Cup Final that carries great promise, here are some thoughts, observations and lessons learned during a memorable playoffs so far.

Edmonton's dynamic duo

Take a peak at the playoff scoring leaders. Then look again:

PlayerPoints
Connor McDavid33
Leon Draisaitl32
Mika Zibanejad24
Nikita Kucherov23
Adam Fox23
Cale Makar22
Nathan MacKinnon18
Stats via Hockey Reference

It would be tough to overstate how special McDavid and Draisaitl were during the Oilers' run, particularly in the first two rounds. They could conceivably finish as the top two scorers for the entire playoffs despite seeing their team fall eight wins shy of a championship.

Incredible.

The positive aspect of those performances are fairly self-evident: It’s tangible proof the generational talents are capable of driving success for Edmonton at the most critical time of year.

But it’s difficult to look past the fact that they couldn’t possibly be expected to do more in the future, and the Oilers still have considerable ground to gain on Colorado. That falls on general manager Ken Holland and his staff, entering an offseason where shoring up the goalie situation has to be the top priority.

Mikko Koskinen signed with Lugano in Switzerland on Monday and Mike Smith will turn 41 next season. Even with Stuart Skinner in the organization, there’s obvious room for an upgrade.

Cale Makar, superstar

The biggest breakthrough performance in these playoffs has to go to Makar.

He’s playing 27 minutes per night, producing more than 1.5 points per game and significantly tilting the ice in his team’s favour.

Now, you might quibble with labelling it a “breakthrough” given that the 23-year-old is nominated for the Norris Trophy and widely considered an NHL star. So let me be clear: He’s broken through to superstardom, to a place where we should be debating how high he belongs on the list of the world's best players.

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Don’t look past the fact that Wayne Gretzky labelled Makar the best on the ice in a Western Conference Final that also included McDavid, Draisaitl and MacKinnon in the peaks of their careers.

That series didn’t deliver much of the anticipated drama, but it still belongs in a time capsule because of its historical implications. There were multiple Hall of Famers slugging it out, and Makar made the most significant mark.

Rarity of one-man bands

The spike in scoring has spotlighted how difficult life can be without top-flight goaltending.

Somewhat incredibly, 30 goalies have seen action during these playoffs, with only Tampa, Dallas and Florida getting by entirely with one man at the position.

The Lightning have Andrei Vasilevskiy, a workhorse who won the Conn Smythe Trophy last year. The Stars had Jake Oettinger, who played out of his mind in Round 1 (.954 save percentage) and nearly pulled off an upset singlehandedly against Calgary. The Panthers had Sergei Bobrovsky, who couldn’t be blamed for his team’s meagre offensive output during a second-round loss to Tampa.

Generally speaking, teams need at least two options in the playoffs.

Pavel Francouz has won six straight games for the Avalanche spread over a couple playoff rounds, stepping in capably while No. 1 Darcy Kuemper battled injury.

Every team would love a goaltender with Vasilevskiy’s consistency and impeccably high rate of performance, but in reality most organizations are patching it together at the position nowadays.

Smooth sailing

I’ll start this section by knocking wood because there are still games to be played, but it’s been a relatively controversy-free playoffs.

Truly.

I’m sure you can think of a missed call against your favourite team or a hit you didn’t think got enough attention from player safety. But if you step back and look at the entire tournament, it’s gone about as well as possible for the NHL in an age where we get every angle on a high-speed replay delivered immediately.

The most divisive ruling was probably the Blake Coleman go-ahead goal in Game 5 of the Flames/Oilers series that was called back because the situation room deemed that he illegally kicked it into the net.

That will be discussed further by the general managers, and could result in a rule tweak.

There was a lot of noise about Makar’s goal in Game 1 against Edmonton that was allowed to stand because many thought it should be called offside. But even the Oilers felt the tag-up offside rule was correctly applied in that situation after having a chance to digest what happened on the play.

This sport is fast and physical and competitive. It’s impossible to get everything right. But the league has done a good job, all things considered. 

Where there's a will ...

You obviously don’t win a Cup without skill. But will is a necessary ingredient in every championship cocktail, too.

The Lightning gave us plenty of reason to question if they had enough left in the tank to go on this kind of run during their Round 1 bout against Toronto.

They were beaten soundly in the opener, 5-0, and fell behind 2-1 and 3-2 in that series. At times they seemed to struggle with the Leafs' speed, and Vasilevskiy wasn’t playing up to his usual standard while facing a steady diet of odd-man rushes.

There would've been no shame in going down to the Leafs after winning two pandemic Cups and grinding through dozens more games than any other team in the league since 2020.

After Tampa rallied for an overtime win over Toronto in Game 6, however, we learned just how much another title shot meant to them.

It started with this gem of a quote from head coach Jon Cooper when he was asked if his team had less to play for in Game 7:

"I don't want anybody to sit here and say 'Well, is it easier because we won two Cups if the Leafs get the best of us tonight? It’s OK?’ That’s BS,” Cooper said. “We’re standing here on the cusp of greatness and why the hell wouldn’t we charge through that door? Let’s go get this. Let’s attack this.”

Those words echoed through a Game 7 performance where the Lightning built a defensive shell around Vasilevskiy and blocked twice as many shots as their opponent. They dug deep and rode two Nick Paul goals to a 2-1 victory and haven’t faced elimination again during these playoffs.

We don’t know yet if they’re going to get the job done for a third straight year, but there can be no doubt that they still possess the heart and desire of a champion.

NorthStar Bets editorial Insiders have no influence, direct or otherwise, over the setting of odds advertised on our platforms.