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2022 NHL playoffs preview: Lightning’s goaltending lone given

The most inequitable playoff format in North American pro sports creates early-round matchups that inevitably guarantees elimination of elite teams while ensuring that lesser clubs advance. The system also typically generates more interest early in the tournament instead of reaching a crescendo with the conference finals and Stanley Cup final.

These are not anomalies or hiccups. These are not flaws. They are features of the system that went into effect in 2014 and replaced the 1-8 conference seedings and second-round reseeding that served everybody well for the previous 20 years, except perhaps the marketing people at the league who crave “brackets.”

So this year, the fourth-overall Maple Leafs will meet the eighth-overall Lightning, the fifth-overall Wild will face the ninth-overall Blues while the seventh-overall Rangers will play the 12th-overall Penguins and the 11th-overall Oilers will confront the 14th-overall Kings.

It is as if the French Open created a seeding system under which Rafa Nadal would face Daniil Medvedev in this year’s opening round. Why general managers of perpetually successful teams stand for this system is beyond me. But if they don’t care and if owners who stand to lose significant revenue because of the absence of integrity in the system don’t care, then why would anyone else?

This was the season that made claims of parity into a parody, with the East’s eight playoff qualifiers having broken away from the field by the Christmas recess. Have teams completed the season with a winning percentage of .650 or better. There were three such teams in the league’s previous full season of 2018-19 and an average of four per season over the first 13 full seasons of the hard-cap era.

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Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy
AP

But the field for the Cup has rarely, if ever, seemed so wide open. It is kind of like a Kentucky Derby in which there are 22 entries because no horse truly stands out. That is because the teams that finished at the league’s tippy top, and that would be the Puddy Tats from Florida, the Avalanche of Colorado and the Candy Canes of Carolina all have incomplete playoff portfolios and all enter the tournament with goaltending questions. It is impossible to remember a tournament in which so many teams entered with such instability in nets.

But there is no instability and there are no questions when it comes to reigning Conn Smythe winner Andrei Vasilevskiy of the two-time defending champion Lightning. That is the touchstone in the series against the Maple Leafs. It’s not about Toronto’s Cup drought that is going on 55 years. It’s not even about the franchise’s failure to win a single postseason series since 2004, though that does tend to haunt the team. If the Maple Leafs are going to win this best-of-seven against a very special group, they are going to have to deny what seems significant superiority in the Lightning’s net.

Remember, Auston Matthews goes from 60-to-zero, which happens to equal Mitch Marner’s postseason goal total over the last two tournaments. The Lighting have created a special aura. They have a special group. And now the Maple Leafs, who received finicky playoff goaltending from Frederik Andersen the last five years, have to rely on untested 30-year-old Jack Campbell or 25-year-old neophyte Erik Kallgren to stop cold the drive for a three-peat .

Both teams are worthy Cup contenders. Only one will get out of the first round. I’m not so sure it is going to be Toronto.

The Panthers are worthy contenders, so are the Hurricanes, so are the Avalanche. Add the Flames, the Wild and the Blues to the mix. The Bruins could elbow their way into the conversation in the event of a first-round victory over a Carolina team they dispatched with ease in both 2020 (five games) and 2019 (a sweep).

And then there are the Rangers, perhaps the mystery team of the tournament. No team has ever won the Stanley Cup immediately following a four-year absence from the playoffs, which is what the Blueshirts are attempting to pull off. But they do have Igor Shesterkin.

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Carolina Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho
USA TODAY Sports

That gives the team a credible shot and provides a seemingly lopsided edge in the first-round matchup with Pittsburgh’s Casey DeSmith. The edge would be significant even if No. 1 Tristan Jarry were not recovering from a broken foot. Think last season against the Islanders. By the way, the Penguins have not won a postseason series in the last three years and have won one round since completing their back-to-back titles in 2017.

The Panthers have not won a playoff series since 1996, when they obstructed their way to the end of their third year of existence. Indeed, that is the only year the Panthers have ever won a playoff round. They come into this event as Presidents’ Trophy winners off a 58(!)-17-6 season keyed by an explosive, multidimensional offense triggered by Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov. Acquiring both Sam’s They Am—Bennett and Reinhart—represented a coup.

But there are nagging questions about netminder Sergei Bobrovsky, a reliable regular-season mainstay throughout his career who has been dreadful in the playoffs, compiling a minus-23 GSAA (Goals Saved Above Average) per Hockey-Reference. Florida should be able to run over a Washington team that finished poorly and has not won a round since its 2018 Cup victory but the burden of proof is on Bobrovsky. If he meets it, Alexander Ovechkin can go home to Russia in a couple of weeks.

Carolina is a big-time team that has been building big-time aspirations brick by brick. And they allowed the fewest goals in the league with Andersen as their No. 1. But the Dane, shaky to begin with in the postseason for the Leafs, has been down with a lower-body injury and though Antti Raanta is a quite capable backup , he is historically injury prone. Pyotr Kochetkov, anyone?

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Colorado Avalanche center Nazem Kadri
AP

The Avalanche probably haven’t played an important game since October, considered by acclamation the best team in the West since the preseason. Let me ask you this: Are you sure that there are 16 victories in Darcy Kuemper’s immediate future? Let me ask you whether there is any reason to believe that Nazem Kadri will make it through the playoffs without getting suspended?

Who are the Wild, GM Billy Guerin’s compelling creation, going to go with in nets? Will they go with Cam Talbot, 12-0-3/.920/2.30 after the trade deadline acquisition of Marc-Andre Fleury? Or will it be the three-time 37-year-old ring-wearer, who went 9-0-2/.910/2.74 after his trade from the Blackhawks? Does Minnesota have two No. 1’s or none?

When the Bruins were drubbing the ‘Canes in those recent series, they had the exceptional Tuukka Rask in nets. Now, it’s Linus Ullmark or Jeremy Swayman. What about the estimable Blues, who will face a nightly choice between 2019 Cup winner Jordan Binnington, whose numbers (18-4-4/.901/3.13/minus-6.5 GSAA) were inferior to Ville Husso’s (25-7-6/ .919/2.56/14.9 GSAA)?

The Oilers finished 26-9-3 after Jay Woodcock replaced Dave Tippett behind the bench, displaying significant improvement in attention to detail. Question: Will Connor McDavid draw any penalties? The Kings, Predators and Stars are all in line to receive the TV version of the show as participation trophies after another year in which Nashville GM teased pre-deadline reconstruction but instead nosed into the final spot with the league’s 16th-overall record.

If there is a Grade A threat to the Avalanche in the West it probably comes from Calgary, a complete team with a combination of skill and brawn and a two-time Cup winning coach in Darryl Sutter behind the bench. There is the trio of 40-goal scorers that features Johnny Gaudreau (40-75), Matthew Tkachuk (42-62) and Elias Lindholm (42-20), but the Flames’ greatest asset may lie in Jacob Markstrom’s work in nets. Add this team to the short list with stability in nets.

I can see at least a half dozen teams with the necessities to win it all as long as their goaltending holds up. But I keep going back to the one team whose goaltending you know will stand up under this test.

And that is Tampa Bay.

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