After two strange years, the 2022 NHL season brought normalcy. The playoffs brought something even greater.
By: Mitchell Fox
The 2022 NHL Playoffs may have ended the same way as any other playoffs, but after two strange seasons hampered by the pandemic, this one brought something much greater than a return to normal.
On the backs of fascinating matchups, superstar performances, great storylines and a Stanley Cup Final for the ages, the 2022 playoffs offered fans a unique experience that was capped off when the Colorado Avalanche walked away with a deserved Stanley Cup.
2020 - The Bubble
In 2020, following a layoff from March to August due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the playoffs were played in the now-famous “bubble.”
Because the regular season was not completed, the league vied for a play-in format, giving the four best teams in each conference a bye to the official first round and having the next eight teams play an extra best-of-five series to determine if they would get into the playoffs or not.
So, 12 Eastern Conference teams found themselves holed-up in a hotel and playing games in Toronto, while 12 Western Conference teams did the same in Edmonton. “Win or go home” took on a whole new meaning as teams found themselves fighting to stay in the bubble if they wanted to win it all.
It was a unique experience, but it had its downfalls. For one, there were no fans in the stands, a factor that both players and fans watching on TV certainly noticed thanks to the use of piped-in crowd sounds and covers over the seats.
There was interest in the games (especially in light of being stuck at home during a pandemic) but it was not an ideal situation for the players or fans.
2021 - Realigned
In 2021, the NHL changed up its divisions so that teams would not have to travel over the Canada-US border over the course of a shortened 56-game season.
For Canadian fans, it meant seeing their favourite team take on teams from the other side of the country that they might only face a couple of times in a typical season. For all fans, it raised the possibility of bringing new rivalries to fruition.
The playoffs, then, featured some strange matchups, culminating in a situation where the Montreal Canadiens (somehow) won the Clarence Campbell Bowl as the Western Conference champions.
The 2021 playoffs did feature some fascinating storylines. The Toronto Maple Leafs blew a seven-game series to the aforementioned Canadians, those Canadians were the surprise of the playoffs thanks in large part to the play of Carey Price, and the Tampa Bay Lightning won their second Stanley Cup in less than a calendar year.
The 2020 and 2021 NHL playoffs were intriguing because they were decidedly unique, but they did not offer what the 2022 playoffs would: a return to normal.
2022 - The Return to normal
Thanks to some phenomenal hockey from the first round through to an unbelievable Stanley Cup Final, normal looked pretty great this time around.
For one, there was an electric series between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs that featured all the drama a seven-game series brings. The Leafs missing the second round once again may have been disappointing for their fans, but the hockey was great to watch from game one right through game seven.
The Florida Panthers, on the other hand, managed to break their playoff winless drought of 25 years (making the Leafs the active leader in that unfortunate category). The Panthers and the Washington Capitals duked it out in a series where Florida's uncanny ability to score late in games earned them a victory.
The first round also saw the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues push each other to the brink in a series that may not have been as close as some expected, but provided battle-it-out hockey and some surprising coaching decisions, namely the Wild sitting past Stanley Cup champion goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury for Cam Talbot in an elimination game.
Conversely, the Calgary Flames found themselves in a much closer series than expected with the Dallas Stars, thanks in large part to Stars goaltender Jake Oettinger and his whopping .954 save percentage across seven games.
So, the playoffs started off hot, with five of eight first-round series going to seven games and two more to six games. Fortunately, the fire kept burning into the second round, which included the well-established Battle of Alberta and the up-and-coming Battle of Florida.
Intra-state or intra-province matchups in the playoffs have not been common in recent years. The Battle of Alberta has only happened five times in playoff history, the last of which was an Oilers victory in seven games in 1991. Meanwhile, the Battle of Florida happened for the first time in 2021 when the Lightning beat the Panthers in the first round.
Of course, the Lightning managed to make the latter appear like not much of a “battle” this time around, sweeping the President’s Trophy-winning Panthers in dominant fashion. But that only added to the intrigue of a team getting closer to crowning themselves a dynasty.
As for the Battle of Alberta, the five-game series did not feature the fighting or shenanigans the Battle was known for in the 1980s, but it did bring a worthy story in the form of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl showcasing their game-breaking ability.
The Flames fell into the trap of the Oilers run-and-gun style as McDavid and company filled the scoresheet. Shaky goaltending and the Flames’ potent offense allowed for some close games, but McDavid showed himself to be the league’s most dominant player all series long, even netting the overtime series-winning goal in game five.
He would go on to finish the playoffs with 33 points in 16 games (a 2.06 per game rate) while Draisaitl, who was noticeably injured for a portion of the playoffs, provided a similar 32 points (2.00 points per game).
McDavid’s and Draisaitl’s performances (which made them the top two scorers in the playoffs despite missing an entire round) paralleled the best players to ever play in the NHL. The last player to manage a 2 points-per-game pace over more than one series was NHL Hall-of-Famer Mario Lemieux, who had 34 points in 15 games in 1992.
Adding in the play of Nathan MacKinnon, Nazem Kadri and Jordan Kyrou in a gritty Avalanche-Blues series along with the heroics of New York Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin against the Carolina Hurricanes, it was evident these NHL playoffs saw not only some spectacular games and series, but awe-inspiring individual performances. This would continue into the third round and the Stanley Cup Final.
In the West, McDavid and Draisaitl and the high-flying Oilers took on the even-more dangerous Avalanche led by MacKinnon, Cale Makar and company. The expectation going in was more of the high-scoring hockey seen in the Battle of Alberta and the unbelievable playmaking the Avalanche showed throughout the regular season and playoffs.
Fans were not disappointed. Though a quick glance shows a four-game sweep for the Avalanche, the games were more exciting than that might suggest. Game one saw an unbelievable 8-6 final and game four ended 6-5 in a nail-biting overtime (who said scoring was supposed to slow down in the playoffs?).
The Western Conference Final saw 35 goals in four games, compared to the Eastern Conference Finals’ 30 goals in six games.
While this might seem to be an indictment of the Lightning-Rangers series, it was in fact the opposite. While the West saw offence in spades and superstar scorers stealing the show, the intrigue of the series in the East came from the matchup between the pipes.
It was Andrei Vasilevskiy, a past Vezina Trophy winner and the goalie regarded by many to be the league’s best, against Shesterkin, whose regular season play earned him this season’s Vezina Trophy and a spot as a finalist for the Hart Trophy for the league’s most valuable player .
After the Rangers took the first two games, the Lightning reversed the script completely (a shift that came noticeably soon after New York fans chanted “Igor’s better!”). When Vasilevskiy and the Lightning’s team defence found their groove, they never lost it, holding the Rangers to just five goals over the last four games of the series.
The Lightning also found scoring from all throughout the lineup and got the leadership they needed when it mattered. Captain Steven Stamkos scored both of the Lightning goals in a 2-1 victory to take the series in game six, a necessary effort given the absence of Brayden Point due to injury since game seven against the Leafs.
The Avalanche and Lightning showed in the respective Conference Finals that they were the two teams most deserving of a chance to battle it out for the Stanley Cup. On paper, both teams had a number of star players and strong depth on forward and defence, while on camera, it was clear they each brought a level of speed, skill and team playmaking ability found on championship teams.
So, the first three rounds of the 2022 NHL playoffs were more than great. They were interesting, exciting and filled with everything that the hockey world needed after a couple of crazy years. They led fans through the ups and downs of watching their favourite teams and the league’s stars put everything they had into their search for a Stanley Cup.
A final between the Avalanche and Lightning might not have been a surprise given each team’s talent, but the road to get there was better than any fan could have expected.
Without a doubt, the 2020 and 2021 playoffs were unique. The 2022 playoffs, however, were special.