2022 Stanley Cup playoffs: Conference finals preview, matchups, predictions

The conference final round of the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs is upon us. Sixteen teams entered the postseason tournament, but only four are left in the bracket, as the New York Rangers will take on the Tampa Bay Lightning in the East, and the Colorado Avalanche will square off against the Edmonton Oilers in the West.

To help get you up to speed before the puck drops on Game 1 of the West matchup Tuesday night, we're bringing you a mega-preview, breaking down each team in five different categories and offering our predictions on which clubs will head to the Stanley Cup Final.

Note: Kristen Shilton previewed the Western Conference teams, while Greg Wyshynski previewed the two clubs from the East.

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New York Rangers

How they got here: Defeated Pittsburgh Penguins 4-3, defeated Carolina Hurricanes 4-3.

Goalie confidence rating: 10

The Igor Shesterkin that we saw during Round 1 is not the Igor Shesterkin that the Lightning are going to see. He worked through his emotions during the Rangers' first two games in Pittsburgh, where he was pulled twice. He battled back and won a Game 7. Against Carolina, Shesterkin gave up two or fewer goals in six of the seven games in the series and won another Game 7, this time on the road. He's both their last line of defense and their catalyst, as the Rangers feed off his performances when opponents tip the ice.

Defenseman Adam Fox said he's looking forward to the battle between Andrei Vasilevskiy and Shesterkin. "Obviously, Vasilevskiy has a track record that speaks for itself. But I think Shesty has one that does, too. What he's done this year has been insanely impressive. Two good goalies coming together. But I have a lot of faith in Shesty," he said.

What we've learned about this team so far in the postseason

The Rangers had their share of breaks. Defenseman Jacob Trouba's booming hits took out Penguins star Sidney Crosby for two critical games, and then Hurricanes forward Seth Jarvis in Game 7. The Rangers didn't have to face Penguins starter Tristan Jarry until Game 7; instead, they saw backup Casey DeSmith for five and a half periods and then third-stringer Louis Domingue for just over six games. The Rangers didn't have to face Hurricanes starter Frederik Andersen, who missed the playoffs with a lower-body injury; instead, they saw Antti Raanta for six games and half of Game 7 until his injury, and then third-stringer Pyotr Kochetkov.

But breaks are only breaks if one capitalizes on them, and the Rangers have shown an impressive resiliency. They rallied to beat the Penguins after being down 3-1 in their first-round series. They rallied from 2-0 and 3-2 series deficits to defeat the Hurricanes. "I've kind of referred to us as cockroaches. We just didn't go away. That's always been ingrained in the culture of every good team I've been on here. We just don't go away, regardless of the score and regardless of where the game is. We just keep on trying to find our game and playing for each other," said forward Chris Kreider.

The Rangers still aren't an impressive five-on-five team, relying on Shesterkin to bail them out at even strength, which he has. They're tremendous on the power play, as Carolina witnessed. They have depth at forward and are getting excellent play from defensemen like Fox and Trouba. And coach Gerard Gallant is pushing the right buttons when it comes to line combinations.

Player(s) who will be key to the series

Obviously, the Rangers are going to go as far as Shesterkin takes them. But the players and Gallant all said that their Game 7 win at the Hurricanes was indicative of what a quintessential effort from the Rangers looks like, getting points from 12 different players.

Mika Zibanejad led the way with three points. Kreider had two goals, after scoring 52 during the regular season. They'll need continued offense from Fox, who had 18 points in 14 games. But it'll also take continued contributions from players like Andrew Copp (12 points), Ryan Strome (9) and Frank Vatrano (8); and further damage done by the Rangers' "Kid Line" of Alexis Lafreniere, Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko.

Player who needs to step up

Artemi Panarin quietly had points in the last three games against Carolina, including a great outlet pass that sprung Strome for a critical goal that put them up 3-0. But the Rangers star has only had two signature games in the playoffs: a three-point night in Game 2 against the Penguins and an overtime power-play goal in Game 7 of that series. They could use some more from him, especially at five-on-five.

How will the Rangers handle Nikita Kucherov?

No disrespect intended to Sebastian Aho, but the Rangers didn't have to face an elite offensive player like Kucherov in their series against the Hurricanes. The last time they did was in the first round, when Crosby's line ran roughshod over them (Crosby had 10 points in six games) -- until a Trouba hit cost No. 87 a game and a half. Kucherov has 15 points in 11 games, including seven on the power play. How they choose to defend Kucherov's line is going to be a key for the series.

Tampa Bay Lightning

How they got here: Defeated Toronto Maple Leafs 4-3, defeated Florida Panthers 4-0.

Goalie confidence rating: 10

Andrei Vasilevskiy is one of the greatest postseason goaltenders in NHL history. His .925 career playoff save percentage ties him for third all time (minimum 60 games) with Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek, among others. This postseason, he's 8-3 with a .932 save percentage and has 6.76 goals saved above average to lead all goalies still playing in the postseason. And that was against the two best offensive teams in the regular season.

The Big Cat's run since 2020 in elimination games is the stuff of legend: 10-0, six of the wins by shutout. He's an integral part of their success.

What we've learned about this team so far in the postseason

There's a lot we already knew about the Lightning after back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, from their ability to win in a variety of ways to their efficiency in elimination games. But that doesn't mean the playoffs haven't enlightened us about some aspects of this Lightning team.

For example, we've learned that they've effectively rebuilt their bottom six after the offseason exodus of their celebrated checking line of Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow. Center Ross Colton, who scored the only goal in their Cup-clinching game last summer against the Canadiens, has played the majority of his minutes with Brandon Hagel, whom the Lightning acquired from Chicago at the trade deadline. They've spent time with fellow deadline pickup Nick Paul, formerly of the Ottawa Senators, but really clicked with veteran winger Corey Perry in the Florida series. Colton and Perry, the latter of whom was acquired as a free agent this past summer, lead the Lightning with five goals each. Returning contributors Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat can play up or down the lineup with effectiveness. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, in his first season with the Lightning, and playoff hero Pat Maroon also bolster the bottom six.

We're learned that fatigue hasn't yet been an issue for a team that's gone all the way in two straight postseasons -- perhaps because they followed truncated regular seasons? We've also learned that two straight Stanley Cups haven't made the Bolts fat and happy; the hunger to win another, and the killer instinct to close out teams, remains for Tampa.

Player(s) that will be key to the series

Nikita Kucherov leads the Lightning with 15 points in 11 games. There's an argument to be made that Kucherov is the best power-play performer in the NHL, and he has lived up to that with seven points with the man advantage. Their second-leading scorer is defenseman Victor Hedman, who is doing as Victor Hedman does: He has 10 points in 11 games and is skating 25:03 per game.

Center Steven Stamkos (eight points) and defenseman Ryan McDonagh have been there in big moments. Center Anthony Cirelli has two points in 11 games but has provided what the Lightning need in the middle after Brayden Point's injury.

Player who needs to step up

The Lightning have a couple of players they'd like to see produce a little more, but their lack of production is injury-related in both cases. Obviously, the Lightning would like to see Point back on the ice. Coach Jon Cooper says his standout center -- the team's leading goal-scorer (30) over the past two postseasons -- is progressing from a lower-body injury he suffered in Game 7 against the Maple Leafs. He had four points in seven games before that.

Hagel took a puck off one of his feet in Game 2 against the Panthers, though he appeared in Games 3 and 4. He hadn't been practicing, but is expected to play in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. Again, Hagel has done fine in the roles that they've cast him in during the playoffs. That said, they'd like more than one goal off 18 shot attempts in 11 games from a player who had 25 goals in the regular season.

What will be the key to solving Igor Shesterkin?

The Rangers goalie has been their best player through the first two rounds -- heck, he has even chipped in three assists on top of his stellar goaltending. But he's not unbeatable. In fact, even as he has gotten better as the playoffs have continued -- playing through jitters in the first round that included two games he didn't complete in Pittsburgh -- he has yet to pitch a shutout.

The Hurricanes had their best success on high-danger chances, scoring eight high-danger goals against the Rangers goaltender, the second-most allowed in the second round. Some of those came on odd-man rushes, a few on chances on the doorstep. There were times when Carolina created chaos around Shesterkin's crease but couldn't find the rebounds he'd leave. The Lightning will have to convert some of those to beat "Shesty."

As Carolina coach Rod Brind'Amour said: Their problem offensively was not having elite goal-scorers. There is no such problem for the Lightning.

Prediction for the series: Rangers in seven

Tampa Bay is better 5-on-5. Their power play is going to do some damage. They aren't going to wilt if the Rangers control the tempo. If New York wants to trade chances like they did against the Hurricanes at MSG, the Lightning have finishers that make them pay in ways the Hurricanes could not. If New York wants this to be a 1-0 goalie duel, the Lightning can win those, too. A healthy Brayden Point obviously bolsters their advantage. On paper, they're winning this series.

On paper, the Rangers were out in the first round. And yet, here we are. You can say the Rangers haven't faced a goalie like Vasilevskiy, and that's true. But it's also true that the Lightning haven't faced a goalie like Shesterkin, who is playing out of his gourd right now. The Rangers are playing with house money. They're not the Maple Leafs or the Panthers, crushed by the weight of expectations and entitlement. They're finding ways to win, finding ways to survive and I think they do it again here.

The Stanley Cup playoffs are a place where teams defy the numbers, find an undeniable belief in themselves and create - for lack of a better term - postseason magic. I think we're there with the Rangers.

Colorado Avalanche

How they got here: Defeated Nashville Predators 4-0, defeated St. Louis Blues 4-2.

Goalie confidence rating: 7.5/10

Darcy Kuemper has been solid if unspectacular in the playoffs, posting a 6-2-0 record, .904 save percentage and 2.44 goals-against average.

Granted, Nashville's Ryan Johansen did (accidentally) injure Kuemper's eye in the first round, but the goalie recovered and Colorado swept the Predators in time for Kuemper to return in the second round against St. Louis. Kuemper came through in that series when the Avalanche needed it, but there wasn't a lot of rhythm to his game.

Then again, Kuemper hasn't been facing a ton of shots. In over 500 minutes of game action this postseason, Kuemper has faced only 218 pucks. That's by far the fewest among any goalie left in these playoffs. The Blues averaged just 26 shots per game at Kuemper, while Colorado was in control averaging 37 shots the other way. When Kuemper was tested, he didn't always look sharp; St. Louis caught him in bad positioning and decidedly flat-footed on a few occasions. Now, does that reflect a deficiency in Kuemper's game? Or was it symptomatic of the Blues' inconsistent attack?

The answer should be clear early on against Edmonton. The Oilers peppered Calgary's Jacob Markstrom with over 34 shots per game in the second round and their elite talent up front (Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Evander Kane, etc.) will be coming full force. Kuemper's terrific regular season (37-12-4, .921 SV%, 2.54 GAA) suggests he's up to the task of what's ahead though -- even if his playoff resume to date isn't so dazzling.

What we've learned about this team so far in the postseason

We don't roll out the term "juggernaut" for just anyone around here.

Colorado is every bit as good as we thought it was, and could be. Any notion that the Avs' slide out of the regular season (losing six of their last seven games) was a premonition of poor playoff performance to come was unfounded. Colorado is notably multifaceted, capable of beating its opponents in different ways. There's an enviable level of top-end talent, but the balanced depth is really what the Avalanche have displayed in the postseason.

Other than Nathan MacKinnon going off in Game 5 against St. Louis, and Cale Makar just being generally excellent at every turn, it's not as if Colorado has required its superstars to carry the day. Seven Avs skaters have at least three goals in the playoffs, and five have double-digit point totals. Colorado has given up the third-fewest goals against per game (2.70) among remaining playoff teams, and its power play is operating at a crisp 34.5% (best in show throughout the postseason).

The Avalanche are excelling in the ways they should, getting timely goals and playing to their strengths. Colorado's penalty kill (only 73.1%) and goaltending (see above) have underwhelmed, and would be the most likely potential issues against Edmonton. But what we've seen so far in the playoffs is Colorado primarily at its best.

Players who will be key to the series

All eyes will be on Makar and MacKinnon.

The Avs' Norris Trophy finalist defenseman projects to draw Edmonton's toughest matchups, and as the Oilers proved against Calgary, its top line is tough to contain. How well Colorado's back end -- led by Makar, Devon Toews and Bowen Byram -- can manage those assignments will go a long way in determining the series.

Meanwhile, MacKinnon will be leading the charge up front. If his Game 5 hat trick against the Blues was any indication, "Playoff Nate" is ready to dance toe-to-toe with McDavid & Co. MacKinnon already has eight goals and 13 points in 10 games. While offense can sometimes dry up the deeper we get into postseason play, that doesn't necessarily mean it will be the case here. MacKinnon's contributions will be massive for the Avs.

Player who needs to step up

We've already discussed Kuemper. Let's key on Mikko Rantanen.

Colorado's big winger has one goal in these playoffs, which he scored on an empty net in the Avs' 6-3 victory over St. Louis in Game 4. He has added 10 assists to his point total, but Rantanen has still fallen short of expectations to date in terms of output. Rantanen's 36 goals led Colorado in the regular season, so seeing him hesitate to shoot the puck and fail to drive play like a $9.25 million-per-year player should in the postseason is odd.

The Avalanche will require all hands on deck to keep pace with Edmonton. Their superstars kept improving throughout the last round and were the difference-makers at critical times. Rantanen must be exactly that for Colorado in the series ahead.

How do the Avs slow down the McDavid-Draisaitl-Kane line?

Never let them have the puck. Like, ever.

If only it were that simple.

Edmonton's top line is stacked, it's slippery and it's been operating at an incredibly high level. Keeping those three in check starts with good neutral-zone play, limiting their ability to gain speed and forcing play to the outside. Calgary got burned off a couple clean looks for that unit that turned into almost series-defining mistakes. Colorado has to frustrate the Oilers' top skaters, make it difficult for them to find space or get in a rhythm early.

The Oilers' top trio will be a confident bunch going into the series -- as they should be -- and Colorado can send a message early by staying on top of them and standing up to that top line's speed in the middle of the ice.

Edmonton Oilers

How they got here: Defeated Los Angeles Kings 4-3, defeated Calgary Flames 4-1.

Goalie confidence rating: 8/10

The legend of Mike Smith has only grown this postseason.

He's a 40-year-old veteran churning out great numbers, including an 8-3-0 record, .927 SV% and 2.70 GAA. If you just ignore the three goals he gave up in the first six minutes of Game 1 against Calgary, and also put aside that he allowed a 132-foot clearing attempt past the posts in Game 4, then Smith has been unequivocally rock solid for the Oilers.

Unlike Darcy Kuemper, who has faced the fewest shots among remaining playoff goaltenders, Smith has been peppered with the second-most. Being involved to that degree clearly works for the netminder, and he has thrived under the pressure. That bodes well for Edmonton in this series, since Colorado happens to be a high-volume shot team (39.8 per game); if that continues, Smith will be back under a spotlight early and often in the next round.

What we've learned about this team so far in the postseason

The Oilers are more resilient than some observers previously thought. When Jonathan Quick repeatedly slammed the door in the first-round series, Edmonton didn't panic. The Oilers bought into playing good defense, stuck to their structure and chipped away at Quick until they broke through. The second round against Calgary couldn't have started any worse with a quick 3-0 deficit for Edmonton in Game 1 and another 2-0 hole to start Game 2. Again, the Oilers stayed calm, and refocused. At every juncture where past Oilers' teams have misstepped, this group has stepped up.

The other thing we've seen from Edmonton is a real commitment to the defensive side of the puck from its top players. There was never any doubt that Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl could score in the regular season, but the playoffs have brought their challenges in keeping up that pace offensively. This postseason has been different because of how strong that duo's defensive habits are. It starts in their own end and being engaged down low. The uptick of physicality in McDavid's game has been well-documented. There has also been more effort on the forecheck.

All of those little things add up when they're coming top down through the lineup. It breeds confidence, and that's having a huge impact on the Oilers' success in this postseason.

Player who will be key to the series

If Cale Makar is the flashy rising star leading Colorado's blue line, Duncan Keith is the veteran grandmaster stabilizing Edmonton's back end.

Keith has been on every big stage hockey has to offer. He knows when to push and when to pull back. He relieves pressure in Edmonton's end, makes smart plays up the ice and is a natural leader from whom few words are required -- but there's no doubt Keith has a "big voice" in the Oilers' room, according to teammates. Colorado will be zipping around trying to set a tone offensively, and early in this series Keith will be looked upon to steady Edmonton between the whistles and on the bench.

Keith did that for the Oilers against Calgary, steering them out of a potential loss in Game 2 and picking up some of the responsibilities for the not-100% healthy Darnell Nurse. What Keith does best is bring consistency to Edmonton's defensive effort. They'll need every bit of his experience and ability to slow the Avalanche down.

Player who needs to step up

You could put Nurse here, and say he hasn't been an obvious difference-maker for the Oilers (to the degree a top-pairing defender usually is). But the defenseman is battling a core muscle injury and he's still playing over 21 minutes per game, so faulting him too harshly for not performing at his most elite would be misguided.

In general, Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft has been leaning on the same eight forwards up front and limiting the use of his fourth-liners. So if there's room for improvement anywhere, it's from some of the Oilers' second- and third-line skaters like Warren Foegele, Ryan McLeod, Kailer Yamamoto and Jesse Puljujarvi. Each player had some solid stretches late in the Calgary series, but those four have combined for only five goals thus far in the playoffs. We've seen in other series around the league how important timely scoring is from often unheralded or unexpected players. There hasn't been a ton of that for the Oilers; most of their key tallies have come from the same group of four or five guys.

This series against Colorado could see each team's top talents canceling each other out. That's where depth will come into focus, and the Oilers will want to be sure theirs is on point.

Which powerhouse top line has the edge?

Are we focusing heavily on the best players in this series? Yes. Do you blame us? Obviously not.

This Western Conference finals present a hockey feast for the eyes: Colorado's top line of Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Valeri Nichushkin vs. Kane, McDavid and Draisaitl. Oh, baby.

Edmonton's trio has combined for 26 goals and 67 points in 12 games. Colorado's big three has produced 17 goals and 31 points in 10 games. Now, these two teams just went through two second-round series that were markedly different. The Oilers played a wide-open, goal-scoring bonanza of a five-game spread against Calgary versus the Avalanche's more bruising, defensive-conscious, six-game affair against St. Louis. This series projects to trend more toward what Edmonton just experienced, with the potential for larger momentum swings and opportunity to generate offense.

If that's the case, whose top line will benefit more? Colorado's will have less pressure to produce given their second unit is anchored by a guy named Nazem Kadri, who's coming off an 87-point regular season and is averaging a point per game in the playoffs. But don't underestimate the drive of MacKinnon and McDavid to really show off here. Their head-to-head matchup will be a primary talking point in the lead-up to Game 1. Both stood out late in the second round with an individual highlight performance (MacKinnon with his Game 5 hat trick, McDavid with the overtime game-winner in his own Game 5). They are firing on all cylinders.

The edge, though, probably belongs to Edmonton. Because as good as McDavid has been, Draisaitl might be better (and he's playing hurt, too). Draisaitl has unmatched playmaking ability and when he's on a roll, it's hard to think of how Colorado will totally contain how adept he is with the puck. And Kane already had a pair of hat tricks in the playoffs. Not too shabby.

All we know for sure is that the real winners here are those of us watching the action unfold.

Prediction for the series: Colorado in seven

All things being equal, Colorado boasts the deeper team. Its defense has been a little better than Edmonton's (giving up a playoff-low 27 shots against per game versus the Oilers' 37.5) and its depth is impressive. Mike Smith has been great for Edmonton in the playoffs, without question, but we haven't seen the best of Kuemper yet. If he finally emerges in this series, that's an edge for the Avalanche as well. It'll be down to the wire, but I like Colorado.

My other prediction for this series? Special teams will play a pivotal role. The Avalanche have an excellent power play (34.5%) but weaker penalty kill (73.1%). The Oilers are more balanced (28.1% on the power play, 85.4% on the kill). Edmonton really performed well against Calgary on the penalty kill too, coming up with critical stops that frustrated the Flames' attack. If Edmonton can do that again in the conference finals, Colorado's march to the Cup finals will be severely impeded -- and perhaps derailed.