Chaos is usually the name of the game in the first round of the NHL playoffs, with eight series rolling and plenty of upsets. This year was no different.
The Tampa Bay Lightning who had gone to the final each of the past three years? You guessed it, gone.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are now the favorites to win the team’s first championship since 1967, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, fresh off winning their first playoff series in nearly two decades. Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers are also favored to come out of the West in another bid to end Canada’s 30-year Cup drought.
With the exception of the 2020 bubble and 2021 season with only in-division play, the league has bracketed its playoffs and not reseeded after the first round since 2014. That system had led to plenty of griping about top teams in the same division meeting earlier, but upsets this year have changed the entire face of the playoffs.
More upheaval could be ahead in the second round, which starts Tuesday and features three first-time playoff matchups — just the sixth time that has happened at this stage of the postseason since 1944 and the first time since 2003.
“I think the second round in some ways is almost the prime time, because you still have the interest of the entire hockey world,” said veteran coach Paul Maurice, whose Florida Panthers knocked off the Bruins in seven games and next face the Maple Leafs. “Sometimes two months later, people fall off when it comes down to two cities, right? But now, everybody’s still watching.”
PANTHERS vs. MAPLE LEAFS (Game 1: Tuesday, 7 p.m. EDT (ESPN)
Fans in Toronto chanted, “We want Florida!” after the Leafs beat the Lightning in Game 6. That was wishful thinking at the time — until the Panthers upset the Bruins.
“They got their wish,” said Carter Verhaeghe, who scored Florida’s Game 7-winning goal in overtime.
Toronto now has home-ice advantage in the second round and plenty of confidence following an emotional series win against Tampa Bay. The Leafs core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly had lost its opening series six consecutive years.
Matthews called it “a monkey off the back for a lot of us that have been here for quite a long time” and acknowledged, “It only gets harder from here.”
DEVILS or RANGERS vs. HURRICANES (Game 1: Wednesday, TBD)
The Hurricanes are in the second round despite playing without injured forwards Andrei Svechnikov (torn ACL in March) and Teuvo Teravainen (broken hand in Game 2 against the New York Islanders). They advanced with a Game 6 overtime road victory set up by Derek Stepan and finished by fellow veteran depth forward Paul Stastny, who scored the winning goal.
“It speaks to the depth that we have here,” defenseman Jaccob Slavin said. “(Coach Rod Brind’Amour) trusts everybody out on that ice at any point in the game. … It’s always been a part of our identity, is 20 guys pulling on the same rope. And it was needed there and they came through huge, so it’s awesome.”
Carolina will face the winner of the first-round finale: Game 7 between the New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils late Monday.
KRAKEN vs. STARS (Game 1: Tuesday, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Like the Maple Leafs, Dallas gets home ice thanks to a first-round upset after defeating Minnesota to move on to the second round. The Stars have one of the best goaltenders left in the field: Jake Oettinger, who had a .929 save percentage against the Wild.
Seattle’s Philipp Grubauer wasn’t bad in beating Colorado, his old team he left two summers ago to sign on with the then-expansion Kraken. He made 33 saves in the Kraken’s Game 7 win and knows the Stars present another challenge.
“Same thing as Colorado: When you look at the regular season, pretty tight games here, but they’re a really good team and in the playoffs the cards get mixed newly,” Grubauer said. “They’re fresh and they got a couple days of rest, so we’ve got to make sure we prepare ourselves really well.”
OILERS vs. GOLDEN KNIGHTS (Game 1: Wednesday, TBD)
Now, McDavid and Eichel face off in the playoffs for the first time since being picked first and second in the 2015 draft by the Oilers and Sabres. Eichel’s time in Buffalo ended with a trade to the Golden Knights, and he’s thriving in the desert with Vegas back in the playoffs in Bruce Cassidy’s first season as coach.
“They’re well-coached, and they finished at the top of the (Western) Conference for a reason,” Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft said. “They’ve had a pretty steady year, and they get contributions up and down the lineup. … We know we’re going to have our hands full.”
AP Sports Writers Tim Reynolds and Aaron Beard contributed.
Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press