Stanley Cup playoffs: Guide to top storylines, players to watch

ByGreg Wyshynski ESPN logo
Saturday, April 15, 2023

As a service to fans who have a general interest in the National Hockey League but have no idea what's happened since the Colorado Avalanche raised the Stanley Cup by preventing a Tampa Bay Lightning three-peat last year, we're happy to provide this FAQ as a guide to the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs.

For you die-hard puckheads: Here is your official refresher before the games begin. Enjoy!

More: Playoff Central

Full schedule

Regular-season stats

Wait, they're holding a tournament for the 2023 Stanley Cup? Shouldn't they just give it to the Boston Bruins?

If the NHL was ever going to cut to the chase and hand the chalice over to a regular-season juggernaut, it would have been this Boston Bruins team.

Boston entered the season with many wondering if its window to win had closed, with a new coach in Jim Montgomery and forward Brad Marchand and defenseman Charlie McAvoy missing the start because of offseason surgery.

Free agent centers Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci believed differently and re-signed with the team for another crack at the Cup. They were, as it turns out, quite wise to do so.

A brief honor roll of the Bruins' achievements this season:

  • NHL record for wins in a single season (65), previously held by the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings and the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning.
  • NHL record for points in a single season (135), previously held by the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens.
  • Went wire-to-wire in first place of the Atlantic Division.
  • NHL record for most consecutive home victories to start a season (14).
  • Tied NHL record for most road victories (31).
  • First team in NHL history to post at least three road winning streaks of seven or more games in a season.
  • Set franchise records for home and away wins.
  • Became the fifth team in NHL history to have a 60-goal scorer (David Pastrnak, 61) and the leading goaltender in wins (Linus Ullmark, 40).
  • Finished 61 goals ahead of Dallas in goal differential, becoming the third team in the expansion era (since 1967-68) to finish with a goal differential of 60 goals or better over the second-place team in that category.
  • Led the NHL in wins, points, goals-against average, penalty kill, wins after leading in the first or second period, wins when scoring first and wins when their opponent scores first.

The Bruins also won the Presidents' Trophy -- which is probably why they won't win the Stanley Cup, because they're now cursed.

What's the Presidents' Trophy curse?

There have been 36 previous Presidents' Trophy winners for having the league's best record. Only 11 of them advanced to the Stanley Cup Final, and only eight of those teams hoisted the Cup. Only three teams in the salary cap era (since 2005-06) have won the Presidents' Trophy and advanced to the Stanley Cup Final.

It's only gotten tougher in recent years. Since the NHL changed to a wild-card format in 2013-14, there hasn't been a single Presidents' Trophy winner that has advanced to the Stanley Cup Final. That Tampa Bay Lightning team whose points record the Bruins topped? It was swept in the first round by the Columbus Blue Jacketsand goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who plays for the Bruins' first-round opponent in the Florida Panthers. (As does potential MVP candidate Matthew Tkachuk, whom the Panthers acquired last offseason in a blockbuster trade.)

Otherwise, seven Presidents' Trophy-winning teams in the wild-card era lost in the second round. That's where the Bruins could meet either the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Lightning after their fascinating first-round series.

The Leafs and Lightning in the first round again, eh?

The current playoff format has deemed it so!

Tampa Bay eliminated Toronto in seven games last season after another stereotypical collapse for the Leafs, who haven't won a playoff series since 2004. But that streak could end here. Toronto was 13 points better in the standings than the Lightning. The Leafs are loaded offensively with 40-goal scorers Auston Matthews and William Nylander, Mitch Marner (99 points) and John Tavares, who played at a point-per-game pace. In Ilya Samsonov, they might have found their answer in goal. They acquired Ryan O'Reilly at the trade deadline from St. Louis, a former playoff MVP whose postseason savvy could transfer to his teammates through hockey osmosis.

The Lightning have been to the Stanley Cup Final for three straight seasons, winning back-to-back Cups before falling to the Colorado Avalanche last postseason. Has roster attrition finally caught up with coach Jon Cooper's squad? Tampa is still coping with the losses of defenseman Ryan McDonagh (traded to Nashville) and clutch forward Ondrej Palat (signed with New Jersey). But the Lightning still have a foundation of Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and especially Andrei Vasilevskiy. Which means they have a chance in any series.

But time comes for every champion. Just ask Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin as they watch the playoffs from home this spring.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals didn't make the playoffs?

For the first time since 2005-06, when Crosby and Ovechkin were fresh-faced rookies, neither the Capitals nor the Penguins qualified for the playoffs. The Capitals played through significant injury absences of players like John Carlson and Tom Wilson to finish with their worst points percentage since 2006-07. The Penguins fumbled the bag in the last week of the season while in control of their playoff fate and watched their 16-year postseason qualification streak end.

There already has been fallout for both teams: The Capitals "mutually parted ways" with coach Peter Laviolette, while the Penguins fired both general manager Ron Hextall and team president Brian Burke in a front-office house cleaning.

With the Caps and Pens sidelined, who are the contenders from the Metro Division?

The Carolina Hurricanes won the Metro for the third straight season and will face the wild-card New York Islanders in the first round. The Islanders are getting healthy at the right time, as star center Mathew Barzal is expected back after being out since mid-February. The Hurricanes are in the opposite boat: They're without injured wingers Max Pacioretty, out since January with a torn ACL, and Andrei Svechnikov, whom they lost in March. This could be a grind-it-out battle between Carolina, the NHL's second-best defensive team, and the Islanders, who had one of the league's top goalies in Ilya Sorokin.

In the other first-round series, we've got four words for you: Battle of the Hudson.

What can we expect from a Devils vs. Rangers series?

Lots of blue in New Jersey and an increasing amount of red at Madison Square Garden.

For the first time since the New Jersey Devils eliminated the New York Rangers in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals, these unfriendly neighbors will square off in the playoffs. The Rangers made the conference finals last season with star goalie Igor Shesterkin, Norris-winning defenseman Adam Fox and star forwards Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad.

The Rangers' star power only intensified at the trade deadline: They acquired Chicago Blackhawks superstar Patrick Kane and St. Louis Blues scorer Vladimir Tarasenko. Kane, seeking his fourth career Stanley Cup win, has 12 points in 19 games for the Rangers.

The Devils, meanwhile, ended their rebuild with their first playoff berth since 2018. The season began with fans chanting for coach Lindy Ruff to be fired. It ended with a franchise record for points in a season (112) and with star center Jack Hughes setting a new franchise single-season scoring record (99 points). Hughes, Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt, as well as defenseman Dougie Hamilton, fuel the Devils' high-tempo offense and aggressive defense.

The Devils' 49-point increase in the standings year over year was one of the most dramatic in NHL history ... and almost matched by the turnaround for the second-year Seattle Kraken in the West.

How did the Kraken make the playoffs?

Many were disappointed when the Kraken didn't replicate the first-year success of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, failing to make the playoffs let alone make the Stanley Cup Final like Vegas did. But they cracked the code in Year 2, posting a 100-point season for a 60-point improvement year over year.

Unlike last season, their goaltending was good when it needed to be, although ultimately the Kraken finished 30th in team save percentage. But it was Seattle's offense that made them a playoff team, finishing fourth in the NHL in goals per game thanks to a 40-goal season from Jared McCann, a career high in points by defenseman Vince Dunn and most importantly a breakout season from rookie center Matty Beniers. The Calder Trophy favorite had 57 points in 80 games, playing big minutes.

The Kraken finished in the first wild-card spot, earning them a first-round date with the Central Division champion Colorado Avalanche.

What's the deal with the Avalanche?

Things for the defending Stanley Cup champions are ... different. Last summer saw the departure of center Nazem Kadri (Flames) and Andre Burakovsky (Kraken) -- who were both among their top-5 scorers -- as well as starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (Capitals), whom they replaced with Rangers backup Alexandar Georgiev. This season saw the injury bug munching on the Avs, as only eight players managed to appear in 70 games. Captain Gabriel Landeskog missed the season and has now been ruled out for the postseason as well.

Unfortunately for the Kraken, some things are the same for the Avalanche. Like winger Mikko Rantanen, who scored 55 goals this season to set a career high, and defenseman Cale Makar, who had 65 points in 60 games. Like the will of Nathan MacKinnon, their leading scorer with 111 points. He factored in on all four goals they scored in Friday's win over Nashville to earn the Central Division title over Dallas. As we saw last postseason: MacKinnon will push his team as far as it can go.

Who are the Stars playing?

The Minnesota Wild, as the former North Stars face the State of Hockey's squad for just the second time ever.

The Stars had their best points percentage (.659) since 2015-16. The line of Jason Robertson, Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz terrorized opponents, while Dallas mainstays Jamie Benn (33 goals) and Tyler Seguin (50 points) had strong seasons. Defenseman Miro Heiskanen shattered his previous career marks for points with 73 on the season. Goalie Jake Oettinger fulfilled the promise of his stellar playoff performance last season. All of this was with new coach Pete DeBoer behind the bench, who famously took the Devils and Sharks to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with those teams.

The Wild, meanwhile, reminded us all never to judge a trade before it plays out. Please recall when they re-signed Marc-Andre Fleury last year, which made fellow Minnesota goalie Cam Talbot quite unhappy. So the Wild traded Talbot to Ottawa for goalie Filip Gustavssonin a move that was universally labeled as a downgrade in goal.

Fast-forward 82 games and "The Gus Bus" had 22 wins while finishing third in goals-against average (2.10) and second in save percentage (.931) for goalies with at least 25 games played. The Wild have some options in goal this postseason after their goaltending faltered in the 2022 playoffs.

Meanwhile, star winger Kirill Kaprizov was brilliant again, with 40 goals and 75 points in 67 games, finishing 78 points behind Connor McDavid in the scoring race.

How good was Connor McDavid this season?

McDavid, 26, reached a new form in his Pokémon-like evolution into a hockey deity. The Edmonton Oilers' center finished with 153 points in 82 games, the 15th-highest total in NHL history and the best offensive season since Mario Lemieux's 161 points in 1995-96. McDavid's 64 goals were the highest since Alex Ovechkin's 65 tallies in 2007-08.

These career bests for McDavid have him primed to run away with MVP and player of the year honors, finishing 25 points ahead of the NHL's second-leading scorer: his Edmonton teammate Leon Draisaitl.

Will the efforts of McDavid and Draisaitl once again be undermined by the rest of the Oilers in the playoffs?

Not necessarily. They have a strong supporting cast at forward, including Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (a career-best 104 points), Zach Hyman and Evander Kane. The Oilers' acquisition of defenseman Mattias Ekholm from the Predators at the trade deadline was clutch: He had 14 points in 21 games.

But their postseason fortunes could come down to one player: rookie goalie Stuart Skinner, who won 29 games in the regular season and stabilized the position after free agent coup Jack Campbell struggled (.888 save percentage). Although, in fairness, the Oilers did make the conference finals last season with absolutely chaotic goaltending, eliminating the Los Angeles Kings, their first-round opponent this season, along the way.

Can the Kings win another Cup with Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty?

Absolutely. The Kings are a fascinating team in the playoffs. They still have Kopitar and Doughty, two-time Stanley Cup winners. They have a slew of younger homegrown talents, from Adrian Kempe (41 goals) to 2020 No. 2 overall pick Quinton Byfield,making an impact. And then they have a collection of veteran acquisitions that GM Rob Blake has added in the past two seasons: forwards Phillip Danault and Viktor Arvidsson before last season; star winger Kevin Fiala before this season; defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov and goalie Joonas Korpisalo at the trade deadline from the Columbus Blue Jackets.

It could all add up to a Stanley Cup run for coach Todd McLellan's club. Or, at the very least, a second-round meeting with Jonathan Quick's new team, the Vegas Golden Knights.

The Golden Knights are back in the playoffs?

Not only that, they set a franchise record for points (111) in a season, which sounds impressive until you remember they're a 6-year-old. It's never dull in Vegas and this season was no exception:

  • A new coach in former Bruins boss Bruce Cassidy.
  • The loss of starting goalie Robin Lehner to offseason hip surgery that led to the team using five goalies this season, from rookie Logan Thompson to Quick, whom they acquired from Columbus at the deadline.
  • The loss of captain Mark Stone to a back injury that put him on the shelf on Jan. 12.

Stone will return for the Knights in the playoffs, bolstering a lineup that featured a strong performance from star Jack Eichel (66 points in 67 games).

They also have an official mascot goldfish.

Vegas has a playoff goldfish?

Some teams have official dog mascots. Vegas has Goldie:

Hey, if the Golden Knights lose to the Winnipeg Jets in the first round, at least their mascot won't remember it five minutes later.

What's the deal with the Jets?

Winnipeg outlasted the Calgary Flames for the final wild-card spot in the West. Coach Rick Bowness has used every trick in the book to motivate his team and spark his veteran core. Many of them responded, including a Norris Trophy-worthy season from defenseman Josh Morrissey (76 points). But in the end, it was another "Connor Hellebuyck drags the Jets to the playoffs" season, as the former Vezina winner started 64 games and won 37 with a .920 save percentage.

That's the glory of the playoffs: Goaltending remains the great equalizer. Even when we're clearly in an offensive era for the NHL.

Defense has no home in the current NHL?

The numbers don't lie: After what many thought would be a temporary spike due to last season's COVID-related absences and postponements, the NHL saw its offensive output increase again to 3.18 goals per team per game -- the highest average scoring season since 1993-94 (3.24). One major reason: power-play efficiency. Teams converted power-play chances at a 21.32% rate, which was the highest since 1985-86 (22.1%).

Will we see scoring continue like that in the playoffs? Or, in the end, does defense win championships?

Good thing the Boston Bruins are basically the best at both.

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