The Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup inside the NHL’s 2020 post-season bubble, then repeated last July following a pandemic shortened campaign accented by one-and-done divisions based on geography.
Despite some COVID-19 challenges, the league managed to pull off an 82-game schedule in 2021-22 and is now set to return to its usual playoff format.
The Canadian Press takes a look at some of the storylines with the league’s second season primed to start Monday night:
Presidents’ Trophy curse
The Florida Panthers secured their first Presidents’ Trophy as the team with the best regular-season record after putting up 122 points.
The award, however, hasn’t meant much in recent years once the playoffs roll around.
Of the 35 winners since the trophy was first handed out in 1985-86, just eight have gone on to raise a Cup banner.
In 2013, Chicago was the last to hoist hockey’s silver mug, while the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings are the only other club to finish atop the heap in the salary cap era.
But it will be first things first for the Panthers against the Washington Capitals in the opening round as they look for the franchise’s first series victory since making the final in the team’s third season of existence in 1995-96.
Leafs hope to (finally) flip script
Toronto’s playoff failures are well-documented.
The team from hockey’s biggest market hasn’t won a playoff round since 2004 — prior to the league instituting the cap, two years before Twitter was launched and a pair of lockouts ago.
Recent heartache has included seven-game losses to the Boston Bruins in 2018 and 2019, a crushing bubble setback in the 2020 qualifying round at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and last spring’s stunning collapse after leading the underdog Montreal Canadiens 3-1.
The Leafs’ firepower up front led by two-time Maurice (Rocket) Richard Trophy winner Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner gets most of the attention. But a rebuilt blue-line and how a re-energized Jack Campbell navigates the crease will likely determine success or failure.
The pressure-packed road won’t be easy, starting in the first round against a Lightning roster eager to show it still has gas left in the tank after finishing third in the Atlantic Division behind Florida and Toronto.
Tampa is looking to become the first club to win three straight Cups since the New York Islanders won four in a row from 1980 to 1983.
The Lightning’s core remains intact with Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Brayden Point and Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Pat Maroon, meanwhile, is looking to become the first NHLer since some members of that Islanders dynasty to secure four straight titles after also winning with the St. Louis Blues in 2019.
The Calgary Flames topped the Pacific Division for the second time in four seasons, while a coaching change and a commitment to playing without the puck pushed the Edmonton Oilers past 100 points for just the second time in the careers of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
The Flames, who are led by Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk up front, and feature a hard-to-play-against roster backstopped by Jacob Markstrom, will face the Dallas Stars in the opening round.
McDavid, Draisaitl and the Oilers get the Los Angeles Kings.
If both Calgary and Edmonton advance, hockey will be treated to its first playoff Battle of Alberta since 1991 in the second round.
Avs’ clock ticking
The Colorado Avalanche topped the overall standings for long stretches before being overtaken by Florida in the Presidents’ Trophy race.
Despite a star-studded roster led by Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog and Cale Makar, Colorado has fallen in the second round the last three seasons.
The Avalanche, who open against the Nashville Predators, could lose pending unrestricted free agent Nazem Kadri this summer, which only heightens the urgency to win now.
The wear and tear of an 82-game season means no team enters the playoffs healthy.
But some have far greater injury concerns than others.
Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Frederik Andersen (undisclosed) isn’t expected to be ready for Game 1 against Boston, while Landeskog (knee surgery) could be back for Colorado.
Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse (lower-body) is also a question mark and Panthers blue-liner Aaron Ekblad (lower-body) might be poised for a return at some point during the first round after getting hurt in March.
The Predators suffered a big blow when No. 1 netminder Juuse Saros (lower body) was hurt this week.
Top-line Leafs winger Michael Bunting (undisclosed) is in a race to be cleared for the start of the playoffs. The same goes for Washington captain Alex Ovechkin (upper body).
Canada’s Cup drought
The Great White North’s three entries in 2022 have had some lean playoff years.
Edmonton owns just one series win since making the 2006 final. Calgary has the same number since almost touching the Cup in 2004.
And the Leafs, title-less since 1967 when the league was still only six teams, haven’t advanced to the second round in nearly two decades.
But with talent like McDavid, Draisaitl, Matthews, Marner, Gaudreau and Tkachuk, fans in each market will be dreaming of hockey’s holy grail coming back across the border for the first time since 1993.