The 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs have been one of the most exciting of the modern NHL era. Fans have been treated to close, hard-fought games: 12 games have been decided in overtime; six of the 12 matchups have been decided in Game 7, including five in the first round alone.
The playoffs always provide new insights into the game, notably how and why teams are successful. This season, however, has shattered perceptions about the NHL and what it takes to win the Stanley Cup. The Colorado Avalanche, Edmonton Oilers, Tampa Bay Lightning, and New York Rangers have shown what it takes to win in today’s game.
In the NHL, Defense Wins Championships?
It’s a cliche in all sports that defense wins championships, and hockey is no exception. In recent seasons, strong defense and goaltending have helped teams hoist the Stanley Cup, including the Lightning and St. Louis Blues, who had deep defensive units. However, this season, teams have continued to advance despite their struggling defensive game. Most notably, the Oilers eliminated the Calgary Flames in five games in the Second Round despite allowing 20 goals in the series and three goals or more in four games.
This season, goals were up – 18 teams averaged over three goals per game compared to 12 in 2020-21. Higher scoring has spilled into the playoffs with offenses taking over games and continuing to run up the score; 39 of the 73 games combined for seven goals or more in the first two rounds. However, can teams still win the Cup without great defense?
Great defense and dominant defensemen are still essential to winning in the playoffs. However, the role of defensemen has changed, especially this season, and how they affect the game has changed as well. As the game gets faster, great skaters like Adam Fox and Cale Makar are highly valued, not just for their ability to keep up with opposing forwards, but for how they handle the puck and turn defense into instant scoring chances, and can open up from the point as an extra scoring threat. Likewise, players are expected to be more versatile than ever before, and teams that have their full roster stepping up at both ends of the ice have been the most successful.
Great defense is still essential, but in a changing game, we are seeing firsthand the difference in their impact. Games continue to be high-scoring, and defensemen seem to be struggling to keep up. But, ultimately, their ability to keep up has made the difference in the playoffs and made the games faster and more offensive as a result.
Rangers Letting the Kids Play
A veteran presence and playoff experience are still essential to winning the Stanley Cup. Players who have been through the playoffs and understand the game tend to give teams an advantage, especially as the game changes. However, this season, a handful of teams have proven that their young stars are not only ready for the spotlight but are also proving their value.
The Rangers have relied on their “Kid Line” to add depth to the forward unit, with Filip Chytil, Alexis Lafrenière, and Kaapo Kakko (all 22 years old or younger) providing a spark to the offense, while the Avalanche’s blue line features two young defensemen in 23-year-old Makar and 20-year-old Bowen Byram.
To quote fellow The Hockey Writers contributor Declan Schroeder, “A lot of teams have a veteran bias and would rather give older players big roles, hoping experience wins the day. But the game’s faster than it’s ever been, and saying to hungry young players, ‘here’s your big chance on the big stage, go out and eat’, sure can pay dividends and make for exciting hockey.”
Experienced players continue to play a major role in the playoffs. However, there has been a shift toward talented, younger players who are unfazed by the pressure and speed of the big games. These young players have more responsibility on successful teams and are slowly taking over in the playoffs this season.
Speed Kills but Adaptability Wins the Stanley Cup
In the Oilers’ series against the Flames, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and the rest of the forward unit controlled play and overwhelmed their opponent with speed in all three zones, especially on the rush. The Flames entered the series as the more complete team, but the Oilers took advantage of open ice and allowed their great skaters, McDavid and Draisaitl, in particular, to carry their team to the Western Conference Final in five games.
While the Oilers proved that possessing a fast and potent offense can overwhelm opponents, the Stanley Cup Playoffs as a whole have proven that the teams that adapt and win in all situations will be successful. The Lightning, the reigning back-to-back Stanley Cup champions, are the perfect example. This season, they defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in a high-scoring first-round series, matching their offense goal for goal. Yet, they also went into the second round and won low-scoring, slower games to shut down a Florida Panthers team that averaged a league-high 4.11 goals per game in the regular season.
Similarly, the Rangers advanced to the Eastern Conference Final after two very different seven-game series. Against the Pittsburgh Penguins, they had to limit the rushes from the top line of Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, and Bryan Rust, and also match the plethora of goals throughout the series. When the Rangers faced the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round, they suddenly had to win defensive battles against arguably the best defensive unit in the NHL. Ultimately, the teams that have made it to the Semifinal are those who can both slow the game down and blow their opponents away and survive both tests themselves.
Other Takeaways From the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs
A common theme has always been the value of good or even great goaltending in the playoffs, and that is still true. Good goal scorers raise a team’s floor, but world-class goaltenders, like Andrei Vasilevskiy and Igor Shesterkin, raise a team’s ceiling and help them advance. Similarly, the playoffs have proven the value of depth and the ability to find goals from the third or even fourth lines.
The 2022 Playoffs continue to reinforce ideas that have been taken for granted as essential for success in the past. However, this year, we have also seen a faster and younger game and the great teams that have shifted not only in the types of players they value but how they have played to win.