The matchups and storylines are set as the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs get underway this week, with the last team standing hoisting the cherished chalice sometime in late June.
Will that be the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are looking to become the first team to win the Cup in three consecutive seasons since the New York Islanders won four straight from 1980 to 1983? Could the Florida Panthers, who raced to the top seed in the Eastern Conference, win their first Cup? Might the Colorado Avalanche, the top seed in the West and an underachiever the past two postseasons, break through? Or will the Toronto Maple Leafs shake off their demons and claim their first Cup since 1966-67?
We've got all the angles covered to get you ready for the playoffs as ESPN hockey reporters Greg Wyshynski and Kristen Shilton take a look at each of the 16 postseason teams, offering the reasons each team could win it all, along with their (potentially) biggest flaws, players to watch and a bold prediction for every contender.
Note: Profiles for the Atlantic and Central playoff brackets were written by Shilton, while Wyshynski analyzed the Metro and Pacific brackets. Also note that wild-card teams are listed according to which playoff bracket they're playing in (the Capitals, for example, are in the Atlantic).
Stats are collected from sites such as Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference and Evolving Hockey.
Jump to a team:
Atlantic: FLA | TOR
TB | WSH
Metro: CAR | NYR
PIT | BOS
Central: COL | MIN
STL | NSH
Pacific: CGY | EDM
LA | DAL
1. Florida Panthers
Record: 58-18-6 (122 points)
Case for a Stanley Cup run: It's hard to argue with the Panthers' results this season. They're the NHL's top-scoring team for a reason, having been consistently outstanding offensively since Game 1. Florida has three 30-plus goal scorers, six players with 50-plus points and a Hart Trophy contender in Jonathan Huberdeau, who can go toe-to-toe with any offensive threat in the league. Unsurprisingly, Florida has also produced excellent special-teams numbers (including with its top-10 power play). The Panthers' depth of electric scoring ability has the potential to carry this team a long way into spring.
Biggest flaw(s): Defense, and goaltending. We all saw what happened to netminder Sergei Bobrovsky in last season's playoffs (when he was replaced midway through the first round by rookie Spencer Knight), and the veteran has struggled down the stretch this season (with a save percentage below .900 in three of four recent appearances). Those aren't encouraging totals.
It doesn't help that in front of Bobrovsky, Florida got a little too comfortable late in the season as the Cardiac Cats. The Panthers repeatedly fell into multiple-goal deficits they were able to erase because, well, see above. That formula doesn't generally work in the postseason. The clichés exist for a reason: There's no space out there anymore, no time to make plays or dangle or show off. While Florida's offensive talent is its best asset, if the overall team defense can't hold up (especially if Aaron Ekblad isn't able to return to form due to his knee injury), it could make for a shorter run than the Panthers are aiming for.
Player to watch: Claude Giroux. Why? Because he picked this opportunity. Florida is the only place he wanted to land at the trade deadline. After years of falling short in Philadelphia, the former Flyers captain wants to win it all. What will he bring to the table to help make it happen?
Bold prediction: As happened to Tampa Bay in 2019, the seemingly unstoppable Panthers fall short with a baffling first-round exit.
2. Toronto Maple Leafs
Record: 54-21-7 (115 points)
Case for a Stanley Cup run: Toronto has got the talent in all three phases of the game. Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are one of the NHL's most dynamic offensive duos. Mark Giordano has helped solidify the blue line, and the Leafs actually have good depth there, for once. In net, Jack Campbell appears back on his game following a midseason downturn and rib injury. Toronto is no longer the one-dimensional wonder of its past, capable of putting pucks in the net but incapable of keeping them out. Team defense has become a part of the equation because that mentality is exhibited by the team's top players (including Matthews). And there's the Leafs' excellent special teams, including the NHL's best power play and a penalty kill that is nearly as likely to score short-handed as to get scored on.
Biggest flaw(s): Confidence. Toronto can't hide from its ugly postseason past. No one will let the Leafs forget what happened against Boston (twice) or Montreal. This version of Toronto can contend with any team it will face in the playoffs -- but only if the Leafs actually show up as their best selves. That's been the disconnect before, and those demons won't be overcome until Toronto has success when it matters most.
Player to watch: Marner. The winger is having an unbelievable regular season but hasn't scored a playoff goal since 2017-18 and has only eight assists in 12 postseason games the past two years. There's a massive monkey on Marner's back, and seeing how he responds to that in the postseason this year is going to go a long way in determining just how good the Leafs can be.
Bold prediction: Toronto shocks the world and wins multiple playoff rounds.
3. Tampa Bay Lightning
Record: 51-23-8 (110 points)
Case for a Stanley Cup run: Tampa knows how to win. The Lightning have done it the past two seasons, under less-than-ideal pandemic-related circumstances to boot. There's a real calmness that the Lightning have in the toughest moments, a constant belief in their ability to weather any storm. That mindset is critical when every team out there is looking to unseat the champions. Then, of course, there's the personnel. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy has been, and continues to be, Tampa's MVP. Did he skid at the end of this season? Yes, but that doesn't mean he can't flip the switch when it's time. The Lightning have great depth down the middle of the ice with Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos and Anthony Cirelli, electric scoring potential in Nikita Kucherov and an excellent defenseman who leads by example in Victor Hedman. Tampa's lineup remains as intimidating as any in the league.
Biggest flaw(s): Fatigue. Long playoff runs result in short offseasons to follow. Tampa hasn't had much downtime since the NHL's bubble tournament two years ago. All that winning is great at the time, but it cuts into recovery. The Lightning had some bumpier stretches in the season's second half. Is that a sign that Tampa is losing its legs?
Player to watch: Vasilevskiy. The first round might actually be the hardest for Tampa, knowing how hungry the Leafs are to overcome their checkered playoff past. The Lightning goalie will have to be better than his best to get Tampa over the hump and back into postseason cruise control.
Bold prediction: Brandon Hagel comes alive at last. Since being acquired at the trade deadline, the former Blackhawks winger hasn't produced. Look for that to change in the Lightning's second season.
4. Washington Capitals
Record: 44-26-12 (100 points)
Case for a Stanley Cup run: Thanks to the steepest parity the Eastern Conference has seen in some time, the Capitals had a 100-point season for the sixth straight 82-game campaign. Granted, that included 12 overtime losses, a middling even-strength offense and goaltending issues galore. But it was also a campaign that saw Alex Ovechkin score 50 goals and carry the team for stretches this season. He received help from familiar Capitals names such as Evgeny Kuznetsov, John Carlson and Tom Wilson, while Conor Sheary and Anthony Mantha chipped in. But forwards Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie saw their offensive output drop during seasons impacted by injuries and illness. But that's the regular season. These are the playoffs. The Capitals have a veteran group that can play physical hockey and defend well at 5-on-5. With a healthy Ovechkin, they can be in any series. One problem ...
Biggest flaw(s): Ovechkin missed the Capitals' final three games after appearing to injure a shoulder in an April 24 game. He is the Russian Machine, and seeing him play in the first round would not be a surprise, although coach Peter Laviolette said that Ovechkin would not have been able to play had the playoffs started last week. Washington lives and dies on the performance of its franchise star, especially on the power play. If he's diminished, so are the Caps' Cup chances -- significantly. But equally as ominous is the Capitals' goaltending. Vitek Vanecek has been wildly inconsistent, while Ilya Samsonov has played to a sub-replacement level this season.
Player to watch: Tom Wilson managed not to get suspended during the regular season, to his credit. He had 23 goals and 28 assists and led all Capitals forwards in goals scored above average. Physicality gets ratcheted up in the playoffs, and Wilson has shown the ability in the past to turn a series with one big injurious hit. He's the kind of player to watch with your head on a swivel.
Bold prediction: Evgeny Kuznetsov leads the Capitals in scoring, but their stay in the playoffs is limited to one round.
1. Carolina Hurricanes
Record: 54-20-8 (116 points)
Case for a Stanley Cup run: What if a team had its best regular season in franchise history and no one noticed? That must be what the Hurricanes felt like in 2021-22, as they set a new standard for points in a season, won the Metropolitan Division for the first time and led the league in goals-against average. Yet Carolina is not mentioned in the same breath as other Stanley Cup contenders. That could change in a hurry in the postseason, as the Canes flex their impressive depth, stingy penalty kill and offensive power led by Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov. The team gets contributions from steady veterans (Jordan Staal), stellar young talents (Martin Necas) and other teams' castaways (the divisive but effective Tony DeAngelo). Orchestrating all of it is coach Rod Brind'Amour, for whom the players would skate through a wall.
Biggest flaw(s): Well, let's go with "potentially biggest." Goalie Frederik Andersen had a dominant regular season, finishing third in goals saved above average (38.7). But he's expected to miss a few games in the first round due to a lower-body injury. Beyond that, he hasn't won a playoff series since 2015. His playoff struggles are a bit overblown -- his numbers aren't that bad overall -- but the doubts linger. If Andersen can't go, netminder duties will fall to backup Antti Raanta and rookie Pyotr Kochetkov.
Player to watch: Rookie forward Seth Jarvis has been absolutely outstanding for the Hurricanes. The 13th overall pick in 2020, Jarvis had 11 points in a nine-game stretch near the end of the season, running shotgun with Aho for a lot of it. He was fourth on the team in goals scored above average. Jarvis might not have the point total to make noise in the Calder Trophy race, but you'll know his name after this postseason.
Bold prediction: The Hurricanes get past the Bruins in the first round, but it's a grinding seven-game series.
2. New York Rangers
Record: 52-24-6 (110 points)
Case for a Stanley Cup run: Let's start with the best goalie in the world. Igor Shesterkin led the NHL in save percentage and goals saved above average, carrying the Rangers for the first two-thirds of the season as New York was near the bottom of the league in even-strength analytics. But right around the trade deadline, the Rangers' play started to pick up and continued to trend upward through the final month of the season under first-year coach Gerard Gallant. There's more to the team than just a dominant goalie, however. Chris Kreider became just the fourth player in Rangers history to top 50 goals. Artemi Panarin averaged 1.28 points per game. Adam Fox, last year's Norris winner, had a strong encore. The role players GM Chris Drury added along the way -- such as forwards Frank Vatrano and Andrew Copp -- have bolstered the team.
Biggest flaw(s): Power plays don't always come easy in the Stanley Cup playoffs. That's not great news for a Rangers team whose power-play prowess (fourth in the NHL) far outpaced its even-strength offense (18th). Only four teams had a lower expected goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 than the Rangers this season: the Sabres, Kraken, Coyotes and Blackhawks. Not exactly the best offensive company to keep.
Player to watch: Mika Zibanejad was back to being a point-per-game center this season, playing the majority of his time with Kreider and assisting on 24 of his goals. He's a dynamic offensive talent who has 11 points in his past 15 playoff games.
Bold prediction: Shesterkin pitches two shutouts in the opening round as the Rangers advance.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins
Record: 46-25-11 (103 points)
Case for a Stanley Cup run: The Penguins crossed the finish line as a playoff team. That wasn't a given before the season and certainly wasn't while Pittsburgh played through its seemingly annual spate of injuries. But now that the Penguins are in, with a lineup dotted with familiar names sporting Stanley Cup rings, the best case for a championship run is made by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Jeff Carter, Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel. That core has been augmented by strong seasons from a supporting cast of forwards Evan Rodrigues and Danton Heinen, and especially defenseman Mike Matheson, who had a career-redefining campaign. They'll help power what could be a last attempt at a Cup for this aging core, with Malkin, Letang and Rust among the team's pending free agents. As Crosby said recently: "I think you try to enjoy it as much as you can and try to take it all in because you know that it's not going to last forever."
Biggest flaw(s): The playoffs couldn't arrive at a worse time for Pittsburgh. Goalie Tristan Jarry, who had an outstanding regular season, has been sidelined with a broken foot that he's in the process of rehabbing. If he makes it back, Jarry still has to demonstrate his postseason prowess after flopping against the Islanders in their 2021 series. Until he does, it's Casey DeSmith's crease. The Penguins' offense is also struggling, with an ice-cold power play and players such as Rust mired in slumps. Forward Jason Zucker, who could help, can't stay in the lineup due to injuries. Things aren't trending well for Pittsburgh at the buzzer.
Player to watch: Crosby had 84 points this season, which was his best points-per-60 minutes average for a season with at least 68 games played since 2009-10. Unfortunately, Alex Ovechkin cornered the market on "he can still do that at his age, wow!" reactions, leaving Crosby's incredible season a bit underappreciated. The past three postseasons haven't been the greatest for Sid, with six points in 14 games. He had just two points in the Pens' six-game series loss to the Islanders last playoffs. But being that he's Sidney Crosby and he knows this could be the last ride for members of this group, he's absolutely the player to watch for Pittsburgh.
Bold prediction: The Penguins go out in the first round, but goaltending isn't the reason. Well, unless it's because of their opponents' goaltending.
4. Boston Bruins
Record: 51-26-5 (107 points)
Case for a Stanley Cup run: Boston can be a tough team to play against. The Bruins are one of the league's stingiest teams (averaging 2.69 goals against) and excel at limiting shots against (28.7 per game, third fewest in the NHL) and high-danger chances (first overall). If defense wins championships (and history suggests it's a big factor), the Bruins should be feared by any opponent. The addition of Hampus Lindholm on the back end has really strengthened the B's blue line and gives them more options to mix and match pairings throughout the playoffs as needed. The Bruins' goalie tandem of Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman deserves credit in this area too, providing consistently good performances that have more than assuaged fears about how the team would move on from Tuukka Rask.
And of course, there's Boston's core. Patrice Bergeron is still Patrice Bergeron. Ditto Brad Marchand. There is a winning pedigree in Boston that starts with its leadership, and spreads to David Pastrnak, Taylor Hall, Charlie McAvoy, and on down the list.
Biggest flaw(s): Consistency and resiliency. When things aren't going Boston's way -- when the Bruins struggle to score a goal or give up a bad one -- can they persevere and push back? That killer instinct has been a hallmark of Boston's play in the past and hasn't always been at the forefront of late. Same with its overall consistency. Some nights, the Bruins look impenetrable; the next, they're floundering in their own end. When Boston is at its best, it is a hard-hitting, back-breaking group to go up against. Maintaining that intensity each night in the playoffs will be a task in itself.
Player to watch: McAvoy. The Bruins' top blueliner hasn't garnered the same attention as some of the league's flashiest defenders this season, but he has been excellent in his own right. And if Boston is going to turn its defensive advantages into a lengthy playoff run, it will be McAvoy leading the way. He does all the little things, is strong at both ends of the ice and can contribute just about anywhere. Expect more great performances from him.
Bold prediction: Boston uses its shutdown capabilities to bounce a high-octane offensive opponent in the first round.
1. Colorado Avalanche
Record: 56-19-7 (119 points)
Case for a Stanley Cup run: Colorado is a beast. Period. The Avalanche are top three in league scoring, top six in goals against, have a top-five power play and boast enviable depth at forward and on the back end to complement Darcy Kuemper, who has had a resurgent second half in net.
Colorado has shown it can win all types of games, whether big-time blowouts or tightly contested grinders. And it's not just the Avs' marquee names -- Nazem Kadri, Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar to name a few -- who are having an impact. Colorado is fortunate to have dynamic middle-six scorers such as Valeri Nichushkin and quiet contributors such as Artturi Lehkonen who can sneak up and burn opponents unexpectedly. While it's desirable to have the top-end talent Colorado does, it's often the unheralded players who pick up the playoff slack. And that could make a huge difference for the Avalanche this spring.
Biggest flaw(s): Defensive chemistry, and the penalty kill. For all the great stats the Avs have produced this season, they're average on the kill (79%), which could be an issue in the postseason, when it's harder to score and every advantage that goes the other way has the potential to be a backbreaker. Sorting out the optimal defensive pairings will be a task for coach Jared Bednar. After Makar and Devon Toews, where do the rest of Colorado's defensemen fit? How much trust should he place in Jack Johnson or Samuel Girard? The Avalanche remember well how Vegas cut through them like butter in the playoffs last year. That can't happen again.
Player to watch: Kadri. What sort of postseason magic can Kadri create to cap this career season? Free agency is looming, and all eyes will be on Kadri as he chases that elusive championship.
Bold prediction: The Avalanche flip the season script, struggling to score in the early going of the playoffs and relying on team defense to step up and move them along.
2. Minnesota Wild
Record: 53-22-7 (113 points)
Case for a Stanley Cup run: What does (almost) every long playoff push include? Excellent goaltending. The Wild have that, big-time. Marc-Andre Fleury has been lights out since arriving at the trade deadline from Chicago. Cam Talbot, solid all season, has improved even further riding shotgun with the newcomer. That presents a perfect backdrop for Minnesota's run. The Wild have had offensive stars emerging throughout the season, from Kirill Kaprizov to Kevin Fiala to Mats Zuccarello. Minnesota has been scorching hot since mid-March, going 19-2-3 since March 16, entering the playoffs with a hard-earned swagger.
Biggest flaw(s): Minnesota's special teams are less than awe-inspiring. The Wild's penalty kill is bottom 10 in the league, and their power play sits somewhere in the middle. Failing to capitalize on man-advantage chances almost always comes back to bite teams in the postseason; ditto with struggling to keep pucks out on the kill. Those 5-on-5 opportunities can be -- and almost always are -- limited in the playoffs. The game-changing swings can come down to special teams, and that's not where the Wild have thrived.
Player to watch: Jonas Brodin. It's easy to talk about Minnesota's goaltending and offensive prowess, but Brodin has been helping facilitate all that with locked-in defensive play (and he's no slouch with the puck either, registering a career high in points this season). Brodin is a leader on the ice and anchors the Wild in a way that is crucial to their success. Keep an eye on those little things Brodin can do to put Minnesota over the top.
Bold prediction: Coach Dean Evason bucks tradition by not naming a playoff starter in net, opting to alternate between Fleury and Talbot instead.
3. St. Louis Blues
Record: 49-22-11 (109 points)
Case for a Stanley Cup run: History has a funny habit of repeating itself. Luckily for the Blues, that deja vu high they're currently riding is a good one.
Back in 2019, St. Louis went from flailing to thriving at the end of the regular season and carried a hot streak all the way past Boston for the franchise's first Cup title. This season is shaping up in similar fashion. After a bumpy road through February and most of March, the Blues caught fire into April and have been unstoppable of late. The goaltending from Ville Husso has been exceptional, and Jordan Binnington is finally rebounding to become a more reliable backup. Also on a roll: St. Louis' power play, which has been top three in the NHL since late March. The Blues are rightly playing with incredible confidence, and we know from past experience where that can lead them.
Biggest flaw(s): St. Louis has had defensive issues all season. It's part of what has made Husso so invaluable; he covers for all manner of ills in the Blues' own end. That, combined with St. Louis being one of the NHL's worst teams in 5-on-5 possession totals, puts a lot more pressure on Husso -- a rookie appearing in his first postseason -- at the toughest time of year. The Blues do have scoring talents, including Jordan Kyrou and Vladimir Tarasenko, but with more limited chances in tight-checking postseason games, St. Louis will have to really focus on the defensive details to avoid a letdown.
Player to watch: Tarasenko. Here's a player who requested a trade out of St. Louis and instead has thrived there this season. He's the club's leading scorer, averaging more than a point a game, and eats important minutes. Tarasenko had 11 goals and 17 points during the Blues' 2019 run. Whether or not he'll again be eyeing a trade out of town this offseason, Tarasenko should take every chance to shine in the coming weeks.
Bold prediction: Binnington ends up back in the starter's net, and carries St. Louis deep into the postseason.
4. Nashville Predators
Record: 45-30-7 (97 points)
Case for a Stanley Cup run: Nashville is a great underdog -- back the Predators into a corner and wait to see some of their best hockey. So it works in Nashville's favor to not just go into the postseason as a wild-card team, but to know there's an uphill battle ahead to make its time in the playoffs last. Look back at how Nashville started the season, winning just one of its first five games but then exploding to earn the NHL's best record (23-7-2) from mid-October to early January. From there, things started falling apart for the Predators; they didn't perform as well at the top of the standings.
What makes Nashville dangerous (other than Roman Josi, Matt Duchene, Filip Forsberg and Juuse Saros, of course) is the chip on its shoulder, the hunger to prove the team's critics wrong. Those types of intangibles are impossible to quantify in the unknowable season ahead.
Biggest flaw(s): Can the Predators keep it together in their own end? That's the question. We know Josi is a Norris Trophy-caliber defender, but the rest of Nashville's blue line doesn't exhibit nearly the same consistency. Saros missed the last two games of the season with a lower-body injury, and his status is uncertain heading into the postseason. The Predators can score well enough, but how well they can execute team defense and keep the puck out of their own net will be the key.
Player to watch: Forsberg. A game-changing talent who also is playing for his next contract (from Nashville or someone else). That's a killer combination. Forsberg can, and will, challenge any defense the Predators see in coming weeks. And, as Nashville's leader in game-winning goals, Forsberg also has the potential to create some must-see drama.
Bold prediction: Nashville shocks the hockey world by going from wild-card entrant to Western Conference finalist.
1. Calgary Flames
Record: 50-21-11 (111 points)
Case for a Stanley Cup run: Few teams are built better for a run at the Cup than the Calgary Flames. They were third in expected goals against and fourth in expected goals for per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 this season. They had three 40-goal forwards in Johnny Gaudreau, who posted a remarkable 115-point season, Matthew Tkachuk and Elias Lindholm, with Andrew Mangiapane (35 goals) not far off the pace. Their lineup features solid two-way forwards in Mikael Backlund and Blake Coleman. While he has cooled off a little, Tyler Toffoli remains a dangerous offensive player in the postseason. Their top defensive pairings of Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson along with Chris Tanev and Oliver Kylington have been outstanding. Watching all of it from the crease is Vezina contender Jacob Markstrom. Coach Darryl Sutter has this team primed to bring the Cup back to Canada for the first time since 1993.
Biggest flaw(s): Being a top-heavy offensive team is a good problem to have when the top of one's lineup is filled with players who have more than 35 goals. But the Flames don't get quite as much contribution as some teams from their bottom six. Again, a criticism of Calgary this season is like using one of those eyepieces to search for a flaw on a gorgeously cut diamond. But teams win with depth in the playoffs, and there's been some falloff here for the Flames.
Player to watch: Tkachuk's best offensive season arrived, to no one's surprise, as he's headed into restricted free agency this summer. The 24-year-old forward had 103 points and was a plus-58 (!) on the season, while still finding time to amass 68 penalty minutes. The rare NHL talent who can agitate you with words, deeds and on the scoreboard. If the Flames win the Cup, it wouldn't be hard to see him taking home a Conn Smythe.
Bold prediction: The Flames advance to the Western Conference finals, including a Battle of Alberta win over the Oilers.
2. Edmonton Oilers
Record: 49-27-6 (104 points)
Case for a Stanley Cup run: This is Edmonton Oilers Version 2.0. Under coach Dave Tippett, the Oilers were 13th in the NHL in expected goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5; under interim coach Jay Woodcroft, who took over Feb. 10, the Oilers jumped to fourth in that category. They were 27th in goals-against per 60 at 5-on-5 under Tippett; under Woodcroft, they were ninth. Edmonton trended up across the board under Woodcroft, including in the most important area: the standings, where the Oilers finished second in the Pacific. It was once again the Connor and Leon show, as McDavid had 123 points and Draisaitl had 110. The next highest scorer, Zach Hyman, had 54 points. As long as the Oilers' stars are shining that brightly, they'll have a chance to win any series.
Biggest flaw(s): Beyond McDavid and Draisaitl, the Oilers don't necessarily have the depth that other contenders in the Western Conference can boast in their forward group or on the blue line. But if there's a true flaw with the Oilers, it's once again found in the crease. Yes, Mike Smith has been in a groove during April, with a .948 even-strength save percentage in nine games. But we doubt that's sustainable, and the alternative remains Mikko Koskinen.
Player to watch: Under different circumstances, 22-year-old defenseman Evan Bouchard might have been a Calder Trophy finalist with his 43 points in 81 games. Alas, he's ineligible, having played more than six games in his first two NHL seasons. The Oilers will have to settle for Bouchard logging 19:46 in average ice time and being part of a successful pairing with Duncan Keith, which is not something Edmonton fans would have predicted before the season.
Bold prediction: The Oilers win their first playoff series since 2017 before bowing out to Calgary.
3. Los Angeles Kings
Record: 44-27-11 (99 points)
Case for a Stanley Cup run: The Kings, who flaunt one of the deepest prospect pools in the NHL, had been waiting a few years for their next generation of stars to mature. But the catalyst for their first playoff berth since 2018 wasn't the kids, but rather the established veterans. Anze Kopitar led the team in scoring.
Forwards Viktor Arvidsson and Phillip Danault, GM Rob Blake's key offseason pickups, were in the top four in scoring. The team also had strong seasons from veterans Trevor Moore, Alex Iafallo, Adrian Kempe and Alex Edler, a resurgent campaign from Jonathan Quick and an outstanding season from Drew Doughty before he went out with a wrist injury. But the kids were all right too: Forwards Arthur Kaliyev, Rasmus Kupari and Quinton Byfield, as well as defensemen Mikey Anderson and Sean Durzi, also contributed.
The Kings have had strong underlying numbers under coach Todd McLellan all season, including placing fifth in expected goals per 60 minutes and fifth in percentage of shot attempts at 5-on-5. The best that can be said of them is that the Kings found ways to win: While their divisional rivals flailed about trying to qualify for the postseason, Los Angeles won four straight critical games in regulation down the stretch.
Biggest flaw(s): The fact that the Kings still managed to make the playoffs without Doughty is a testament to how well they played before his injury. Los Angeles was 32-19-7 when Doughty went out on March 7. They went 12-8-3 after that. It's hard to imagine the Kings doing anything of consequence in the postseason without Doughty, an accomplished playoff performer who had 31 points in 39 games this season, averaging 25:44 per night. They're very ordinary on the back end without him.
Player to watch: There was a time, not too long ago, when Jonathan Quick was considered one of the best big-game goaltenders in the NHL. He backstopped the Kings to the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014, posting an incredible .946 save percentage to win that initial championship. He hasn't been that guy for a while, and at 36, he might never be that guy again. But this was his best season since 2017-18, and there were enough moments of "vintage Jonathan Quick" to make one wonder if there isn't just a little more playoff magic left in him, 10 years after winning the Conn Smythe.
Bold prediction: Kopitar and Danault do what they can against Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, but the loss of Doughty proves too much and the Kings fall to the Oilers in six games.
4. Dallas Stars
Record: 46-30-6 (98 points)
Case for a Stanley Cup run: The Stars made the playoffs in large part because of their top line. The trio of Joe Pavelski, Roope Hintz and Jason Robertson might still be underrated around the NHL, but they carried Dallas up the standings despite critics having panned the Stars' postseason chances. That unit shows no signs of slowing, either, and that should give Dallas a confidence boost going into the first round.
Everyone knows anything can happen once the playoffs begin. Unlikely contenders emerge year after year. Why not Dallas? What do the Stars have to lose? There's power in being an underdog, a freedom to simply play your game without expectation. The Stars' first line might be its superpower, but this lineup can offer a lot more than that. Jake Oettinger has played well in net, and Dallas' defense has looked more cohesive lately. Seeing its dedication pay off with a playoff opportunity should be all the motivation Dallas needs to give each game its best.
Biggest flaw(s): Depth scoring has been an issue for the Stars. After Pavelski, Hintz and Robertson (who all tallied 70 or more points), Dallas' offense has been streaky. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn have underperformed much of the season, and the Stars don't get much scoring help from their defensemen (John Klingberg leads Dallas blueliners with six goals). While Dallas has every reason to feel good about its top point-getters, in a tight playoff series the secondary scoring often puts teams over the top. The Stars need to be more than just a one-line wonder.
Player to watch: Miro Heiskanen. Goals project to be at a premium for Dallas, so look for the team's top defender to step up in keeping pucks out of the Stars' end -- and out of their net. Heiskanen missed time this season with illness but is an invaluable asset to Dallas' overall success. Heiskanen can set a tone for how the entire team approaches its defensive strategy. This is when he should shine.
Bold prediction: The Stars take a powerhouse first-round opponent to seven games.