By WAYNE REDSHAW
Round one of the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs is in the books and round two begins on two fronts tonight.
Looking back on the first round I was six-for-eight which is not bad considering my record from previous years. I had Toronto winning over Tampa Bay in seven games but it was the Lightning emerging the winners in game seven as they put on quite a defensive clinic and hung on for a narrow 2-1 victory to send the Leafs packing after another first round exit.
The other series where I was wrong was the Minnesota Wild – St. Louis Blues series. I said they were two evenly matched teams and they were, but Blues veterans delivered and that was the difference in the end.
Now, a look at the second round match-ups.
Lightning vs Panthers
This is a series that could go the limit as they are two evenly matched teams. During the regular season in four meetings, both teams won twice. Overall, the Panthers, who finished first overall, outscored the Bolts by a 19-15 margin.
Goaltending is superior for both teams. Panthers’ Sergei Bobrovsky played a key role in the opening round against Washington. At the other end, the Tampa Bay’s Andrew Vasilevskiy appeared to yield some soft goals early in that series but Vasilevskiy delivered in overtime in game six and was superb in game seven against the Leafs. That’s the way the Russian-born performed the past two seasons in helping Tampa Bay win back-to-back Stanley Cup championships. He’ll have to come up big again if the Lightning are to advance.
On defence, I think you have to give a slight edge to the Lightning led by Victor Hedman. He has good supporting staff with the likes of Erik Cernak, Ryan McDonagh and Michael Sergachev. The Panthers have Aaron Ekblad as their blueline leader.
Up front, I feel the Panthers have a little more fire power with Aleksander Barkov, Claude Giroux, Sam Bennett, Anthony Declair and Sam Reinhardt. And don’t forget Carter Verhaeghe, who played for the Bolts last year. He got the opportunity to play in South Florida and he delivered including two overtime winners against the Capitals in the last series.
On the Lightning side, Nikita Kucherov led the way against Toronto and he will need to come up big again if the Lightning are to advance. Steven Stamkos has a booming shot and scored against Toronto. However he needs to get more of his shots on the net rather than blasting high and wide. Corey Perry played well in the series opener as did Anthony Corelli, Andrej Platt and Ross Colton. The big question mark is Braydon Point, he is questionable tonight because of a lower body injury when he fell into the boards in game seven against the Leafs. He only scored one goal but it came in overtime in game six to prolong the series. If he is out that leaves a big hole in Tampa’s offence.
This series could be a “homer series” so I give the edge to the Panthers.
Prediction: Panthers in seven games.
Rangers vs Hurricanes
This could be a goaltenders series. Igor Shesterkin carried New York during the regular series and he’ll have to come up big again if they are to advance. Meanwhile, Aniti Raanta was solid for the Hurricanes against the Boston Bruins.
While the Hurricanes finished ahead of the Rangers during the regular season if the Rangers can get a split in the first two games of this series that could become a big factor in the series.
I like the Rangers forwards units better than the Canes with the likes of Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, Anthony Panarin and Ryan Strome.
Carolina has some quality forwards led by Sebastian Aho but they are thin compared to New York. Where the Hurricanes have a slight edge is on the blueline. The Rangers have Adam Fox but I like Tony DeAngelo and Jaccob Slavin for the Canes.
Specialty teams for both teams should also be a big part in the series. Who draws fewer penalties should be a key.
Prediction: Rangers in six games
Oilers vs Flames
It is billed as the Battle of Alberta and it should be just that. Look for a very physical series from start to finish.
Calgary finished first ahead of Edmonton to get the home ice advantage. But that advantage could go out the window fast unless they can contain the Oilers’ Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. That’s going to be a big chore as McDavid with his size and ability and Draisaitl with his scoring touch literally destroyed the Los Angeles Kings.
In my books the Oilers are far superior to the Flames. What Calgary will have to do is get more traffic in front of Oilers goalie Mike Smith and create some scoring chances. But to accomplish that first the Flames must find a way to stop McDavid and company from getting in their territory.. if they can’t then Calgary’s chances are slim.
The bottom line – the Flames need lots of production from the likes of Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk to get to the next round. And goalie Jacob Markstrom has to find a way to come really big. Calgary has the edge between the pipes as I am not sold on the Oilers’ Mike Smith.
Prediction: Oilers in six games
Blues vs Avalanche
The Colorado Avalanche had a cake-walk in the first round against Nashville so they are well-rested. This round with the St. Louis Blues don’t look for a sweep but the Avs should prevail in the end.
St. Louis, who finished 10 points back of Colorado will have a battle on their hands. Up front, they are led by Ryan O’Reilly, David Perron and Vladimir Tarasenko. Jordan Bennington, who took over the goaltending chores for the Blues against Minnesota in game four and won three straight will have to remain red hot if the Blues are to advance.
I simply like Colorado more, especially with the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen up front and Cale Makar solid on defence. And with the sweep over Nashville, that enabled goalie Darcy Kuemper to recover from an eye injury. He should be good to go.
Prediction: Avs in six games.
(Wayne Redshaw has covered sports in Niagara for over 50 years, 33 and a half at the Welland Tribune. He was publisher of the FORE! Golfers Only for 12 years and also wrote for many newspapers and magazines in Canada and the United States.)