There are still approximately two weeks left in the NHL’s 2021-22 regular season, but despite Gary Bettman and team owners’ intentions on keeping all franchises in the playoff race from Game 1 through Game 82, we’re starting to see the first round of the 2022 post-season firming up.
For instance, in the highly-competitive Central Division, we pretty much know that the hard-charging St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild are destined for each other in the opening round. Both teams have nearly an identical record – the second-place Blues have 102 points and a 46-20-10 record, and the third-place Wild have a game in hand on St. Louis, a point total of 101, and a 47-21-7 mark.
Given that Central rivals in Nashville and Dallas (both of them Wild Card teams at the moment) have a full 10-point gap between themselves and the Wild, it’s safe to say the only question now is whether the Blues or Wild claim home ice advantage in the first round. And really, would you bet a lot of money on either St. Louis or Minnesota to get to the second round? This series is going to be a pick ‘em. And that will help make for a terrific first round.
The West’s other playoff matchups also are starting to take shape. The West-leading, league’-leading Colorado Avalanche are going to take on one of the Stars, Predators or Vegas Golden Knights. And whomever among Dallas, Vegas and Nashville is lucky enough to grab the first Wild Card spot will be taking on the soon-to-be Pacific Division champion Calgary Flames.
The biggest question in the West now, for the most part, is which of the Wild, Predators and Stars claim the two Wild Card berths. That’s a tight race, with Dallas and Nashville both having 91 points (and the Stars having one game in hand), and Vegas still hanging close, with 87 points and six games left. In any case, the two West wild card teams are going to be big-time underdogs against two powerhouses in Calgary and Colorado. But you never know — an upset is not out of the question in either case.
The Eastern Conference's playoff picture also is getting clearer: With a tremendous 54-14-6 record and 114 points in 75 games, the Atlantic Division-leading and Eastern Conference-leading Florida Panthers are only two points behind the Avalanche for the NHL`s President`s Trophy as the league`s top team. So we know Florida is going to be the opponent of the second Wild Card spot in the East. And that team will be one of the Pittsburgh Penguins (97 points, 43-23-11 record), Boston Bruins (97 points, 46-24-5 mark) and Washington Capitals (42-23-10 record, 94 points).
Now, there’s a slight chance that, in Boston’s final seven games, they overtake the defending, back-to-back Stanley Cup-champion Tampa Bay Lightning for third in the Atlantic, but the Caps, Pens, Bolts and Bruins have been slumping of late, and every game that happens from this point on will be huge for those four teams.
And the New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes are in the midst of a battle for top spot in the Metropolitan Division, tied with 104 points each. The Canes or Blueshirts will get the first wild-card berth (again, that will be either Pittsburgh, Washington or Boston), and either Carolina or the Rangers will finish second and get either the Penguins or Capitals. Each team’s pro scouting departments are now narrowing their sights on a handful of teams, and are actively breaking down their potential opponents’ strengths and weaknesses.
Also, we do know the Toronto Maple Leafs have more or less sewed up second place in the Atlantic with a team-record 104 points and a 50-20-6 record, and the only question for them is whether they’ll be squaring off against the Lightning or Bruins in Round One. The Leafs will have home ice advantage, but Buds fans will be nervously watching every minute of the series, hoping for the best, but steeling themselves for the worst.
Toronto is one of the hottest teams in the league right now (10-1-1 in their past dozen games), but it will take everything they have if they’re to beat the Lightning or Bruins. This will be another pick ‘em-caliber showdown if it’s Tampa Bay that Toronto gets, and the Leafs will be a slight favorite if they get the Bruins. But again, putting everything you’ve got on Toronto, Boston or Tampa playing in the second round is not a good idea. There’s a real sense of equality and balance here.
This is part of the attraction of the first round – there are so many possibilities, so many potential upsets, so few certainties. The playoffs rarely, if ever, turn out to be predictable. And the joy of this time of year, this prelude to the real drama, is seeing first-round matchups begin to materialize and give fans legitimate hope that this is their year. Let the series analyses begin.