Columnists, Ice Hockey, Sports

Off the Post: Playoff hockey is just around the corner

Spring has sprung, and among the blue skies, chirping birds and blooming flowers will soon be the NHL playoffs. In 18 days, 16 teams will set out on the unmatched journey to fight for the Stanley Cup. 

There’s truly nothing that beats the spectacle of playoff hockey as the weather gets warmer and the competition gets hotter. This is what players and fans alike wait all year for, and thus far, five teams have already punched their ticket to the postseason. 

Alexia Nizhny/DFP STAFF

The Colorado Avalanche, Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes, Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers have all clinched playoff berths as the regular season dwindles down with less than ten left on the schedule for each team. 

These five teams sit at the top of the standings now, but have had trouble reaching the ultimate goal in recent history. None of the groups have hoisted the cup in the last 15 years at least –– the Leafs, for example, haven’t won a title in 55 years though they’ve been knocking on the doorstep for quite some time now. 

The Panthers have been dominant since October. With 110 points in the bank and first place in the Atlantic Division secured, they’re heading into May full speed ahead. Florida lost in the first round in 2021 to the eventual champion Tampa Bay Lightning, and have yet to earn a title for the organization since the franchise’s inception in 1993. 

The squad has six players on the roster with over 20 goals and Jonathan Huberdeau has 105 points, second-most in the league behind only Edmonton’s Connor McDavid. Florida has won their last eight and will be a threat to whoever they play in the opening round. 

I would like to say the same about Toronto, but their first-round curse makes it hard to believe they could run an opponent early. The last five times the Leafs have made the show, they’ve quickly exited no matter how good of a regular season they had. 

It’s the running joke of the league that Toronto will never make it to the second round, which I presume is funny to everyone but the fans who have burned their blue jerseys outside of Scotiabank Arena. That fanbase has been through it and I’m not sure if they –– or the players –– can take another upset. 

So, this might be the year the Leafs aren’t the laughing stock of the sport and actually legitimize themselves as a competitive post-season team. Auston Matthews is creeping up on 60 goals after recently joining the 50-in-50 club. He’s one of the sport’s most talented athletes who has never seen a playoff series win. Matthews and the guys in that locker room need to change that. 

The Colorado Avalanche, on the other hand, have made it to the second round, but not past it, for the last three years despite being a consistent powerhouse of the West. They’re always high on my bracket and have maintained the league’s first-place standing, but they’ll have to show up when it really matters now to make their success actually mean something. 

The Avalanche’s last championship was in 2001, and 2022 seems like one of their last windows to go far in the postseason before their roster begins to shift. It currently looks like Colorado will play the Dallas Stars, who would be the second wildcard in the Pacific if the playoffs started today. That’s a must-win for Colorado. 

I will forever be loyal to my New York Rangers, but the Carolina Hurricanes have been an extremely exciting team to follow along the past three years. They’ve raised their performance tremendously since the 2018-2019 season and have made the playoffs every year since then after missing the mark for the nine years prior. 

The Canes have depth in their roster with older guys like Jordan Staal and Derek Stepan and young talent like Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov. You see a hunger in the whole bench during games and they’ve learned to have fun while racking up wins under head coach Rod Brind’Amour. 

Carolina is on the path to win the Metropolitan division with the red-hot Rangers four points behind them. For the first time in five years, New York is returning to the Stanley Cup playoffs and the team has also hit the 100 point mark for the first time since 2016-2017. The dark days of the team’s rebuild are finally paying off as this young and gritty group has earned themselves a spot in the postseason. 

The turnaround in the Big Apple has been outstanding, and a lot of credit goes to Gerard Gallant in his first year as head coach. He has demanded the locker room, earned respect from his squad and only accepts excellence. With leaders like Chris Kreider, Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad also stepping up, there seems to be no shortage of motivation on the team. 

General manager Chris Drury also made some important deals at the deadline –– no bigtime names, but they’ve had a bigtime impact since their arrival in New York. Frank Vatrano, Andrew Copp and Tyler Motte have slotted in perfectly with a dynamic Ranger lineup and have shown real purpose in their play. 

It will be interesting to see how the youth of the group adjusts to this next level of the game, but, I can vouch, New York is ready for playoff hockey to return to Madison Square Garden and for the Stanley Cup to be paraded down 7th Avenue. 

It’s refreshing to see these five teams secure their spots early and determine their own destiny. I, for one, have gotten tired of the Tampa Bay, Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals top-of-the-standings dynasty. The postseason is an entirely different animal, though, and it really just comes down to who wants it more. So let the games begin … IT’S FINALLY TIME FOR PLAYOFF HOCKEY! 

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