The Stanley Cup Playoffs could also be known as Narrative Christmas.
The storylines that come from that magical stretch from May to June essentially shape how we talk about the game for the coming year, defining legacies and cementing superstars on hockey's biggest stage.
This year's postseason is no different. So, before we dive straight into the chaos of the first round, here are the 10 most pressing storylines of the 2022 Playoffs.
1. Can the Lightning Three-Peat?
We haven't seen a three-peat since E.T. was in theatres. So, congratulations on all that parity, Gary Bettman. I guess it worked wonders.
If any team is capable of going back-to-back-to-back in the modern NHL, it's the Lightning. This is just a remarkably deep squad from top-to-bottom, capable of withstanding the loss of a few key supporting pieces over the offseason thanks to their management group's bold approach to acquiring replacements.
Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow both left in free agency? Oh, that's cool. Here's Branden Hagel and Nick Paul.
The Lightning are just an enviably sturdy group at every position, with a deep forward corps, an imposing blueline led by a perennial Norris candidate, and a goaltender who can win a playoff series practically by himself.
The rigors of playing more hockey than any other team over the past three years might be their only downfall. But even then, that three-peat case isn't outlandish, either.
2. Can the Maple Leafs Win a Round?
Being a Leafs fan is something of a Sysephian endeavor. You spend all regular season methodically pushing that boulder up the hill, only to have it tumble back down as soon as you see the top, crushing you along the way.
This is the deepest Maple Leafs squad of the salary cap era. Heck, it might even be the deepest since players stopped chainsmoking in between periods. They're that good.
Toronto's forward corps is headlined by a 60-goal Hart favorite, one of the league's most lethal playmakers who finally discovered his shot this season, and John friggin' Tavares. The blueline, on the other hand, boasts eight bodies each capable of logging quality NHL minutes, one of which is the 2019 Norris winner who actually plays on the third pair.
Goaltending, frankly, is the only major question mark. And even then, Jack Campbell has shown the ability to morph into a world-beater for months on end.
The opponent is daunting. But the Leafs have all the tools to break the curse this year. It's just up to them.
3. Jumbo Joe's Last Shot at a Cup
We all want Joe Thornton to be happy, right?
This is almost certainly Jumbo Joe's final NHL season. The guy is a senior citizen whose body is currently held together by duct tape and loose dryer lint, having only played 34 games this season due to injuries and, well, declining play.
After a 24-year odyssey that has proven to this point proven fruitless, these playoffs represent what will likely be Thornton's ultimate shot at capturing that elusive Stanley Cup.
It's imperative that he gets it. And finding himself on one of the best offensive clubs in modern history that just wrapped up the President's Trophy, he's got some decent odds to do it.
4. Can the Hurricanes Survive Without Freddie Andersen?
The Hurricanes have come close -- achingly close -- to taking that crucial next step in their organizational progression. The rosters they've iced for the past three years have been cavernously deep, made even better by the perennial Jack Adams candidate guiding them behind the bench.
But it always seemed to end the same, with the Canes' annual Achilles' heel ultimately revealing itself as goaltending.
This season seemed different.
The Hurricanes took a chance on a 30-year-old Frederik Andersen coming off an injury-plagued final two years in Toronto. It was a risk, but a calculated one. And, wouldn't you know it, it paid off! Andersen was incredible in Carolina, posting Vezina-worthy numbers in 2021-22 that gave every Canes fan a sense of belief that this year would break the trend.
Then, Andersen got hurt. And that belief washed away.
Andersen has been ruled out for at least game one of the Hurricanes' first-round series versus the Boston Bruins. The timetable for his return is unclear at this point, and even if he does make it back, it remains to be seen just how good a veteran goaltender dealing with yet another significant injury will be when thrust into the pressure-cooker of the playoffs.
Antti Raanta has been solid in the past. But losing Andersen hurts. Real bad.
5. Is this the Penguins' Last Dance?
Both Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin are free agents this summer. Each player has dealt with serious injuries over the past few years, with Malkin missing over half of this season with his own ailment, and both find themselves closer to their 40th birthdays than they are to 30.
It's likely that only one of those two franchise pillars returns to Pittsburgh next season. And given Letang's extensive health issues and reports of him seeking a $10 million annual figure on his next deal, he might be the odd one out.
Basically, this is shaping up to be the last time we see the Crosby-Malkin-Letang Penguins shoot for a Cup. All good things must come to an end. And with three rings to show for it, this thing certainly was good.
But the end is near. Can they go out on top?
6. Is This Finally Colorado's Year?
God, this is such a good team.
It would be a travesty if the Avalanche didn't win the Cup this season. They're arguably the league's deepest team from top-to-bottom, are set to welcome back Gabriel Landeskog into the lineup after a 30-game absence, and face a relatively smooth path to the final that begins with an offensively-challenged Stars squad.
The stars (pun intended) are aligning. And after watching their Cup aspirations dwindle in the second round for the past two years, now is as good a time as any for the Avalanche to finally reach the heights they're destined for.
There just so happens to be one big X-Factor at play...
7. Can Nazem Kadri Keep it Together?
Boy, it sure would be cool if Nazem Kadri didn't lose his mind in the playoffs this year.
Kadri can claim that there was no ill-intent on the headshot he laid on Blues defender Justin Faulk in the first round last season that earned him an eight-game suspension. And I might even be inclined to believe him. He doesn't seem like a malicious person. But three straight playoffs ending thanks to three different illegal hits to the head as a member of two different organizations is either an incredibly troubling trend or the biggest coincidence in modern memory.
I'm going with the former.
A free agent this summer, Kadri has a personal stake in not getting in the way of his team's success this time around. He's simply too good to take himself out of a series anyway, and if he can walk that line without stepping over it, Kadri might be the extra jolt the Avs need to get over the hump.
8. Can Florida Out-Score their Problems in the Playoffs?
The Panthers are arguably the best offensive team of the salary cap era. That offensive might has allowed them to squeak their way out of more than a few binds this season thanks to sheer firepower, with the Panthers registering 24 come-from-behind wins. That's over 40 percent of their entire total!
That dance with the devil is all well and good. But the playoffs are a different beast, offering tighter margins and fewer open chances with which to work this magic. Can the Panthers continue to walk the tightrope they have while the stakes are higher than ever?
I guess we'll find out.
If any team can do it, though, it's them.
9. Can Johnny Gaudreau Show Up in the Playoffs?
To say that Johnny Gaudreau took a massive step forward this season would be an understatement. After a summer of trade rumors and uncertainty swirling around his future in Calgary, Johnny Hockey burst onto the scene with a Hart-worthy performance that effectively answered all questions about his potential as an NHL superstar.
That is, except for one.
The playoffs have not been kind to Gaudreau throughout his career. While his 19 points in 30 postseason games might not seem alarming, few will dispute that Gaudreau has faded into the background when the spotlight shined brightest in recent years, failing to ever lead the Flames past the second round.
Will this time be different? It sure could be.
Gaudreau is playing the best hockey of his career -- and maybe his life -- while the Flames have assembled arguably their deepest roster since that magical 2003 Cup run.
The stage is set. Time for Gaudreau to deliver.
10. Will McDavid Go on his First-Ever Cup Run?
Look, I'm just glad we're finally able to watch Connor McDavid play playoff hockey again. And it's time for the team with the best player to finally capitalize on that.
What happens next is anyone's guess.
McDavid is a one-man wrecking crew -- a player good enough to drag his team through a playoff series almost singlehandedly thanks to his game-breaking skill set that opposing coaches have yet to find an answer for.
All the Oilers need to do is get out of his way.