Panthers-Lightning, Oilers-Flames rivalries renew in Stanley Cup Playoffs

Panthers-Lightning, Oilers-Flames rivalries renew in Stanley Cup Playoffs

Ready for Round 2?

A first round full of goals, comebacks and Game 7s — highlighted by superstars like Cale Makar, Connor McDavid, Artemi Panarin and Johnny Gaudreau — has set up dream series in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

We’ve got a rematch of the Battle of Florida between the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning and the Presidents’ Trophy winners as the top regular-season team, the Florida Panthers.

We’ve got the Battle of Alberta between the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers for the first time since 1991; the Cup-or-bust Colorado Avalanche against the 2019 champs, the St. Louis Blues; and a matchup of the top two defensive teams in the regular season, the Carolina Hurricanes (2.44 goals against per game) and New York Rangers (2.49).

“It’s not easy,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said, shaking his head. “It’s not easy this time of the year.”

The first round averaged 6.4 goals per game. That’s more scoring than there was in the regular season, when there were 6.3 goals per game, and the most in the first round since there were 6.8 goals per game in 1994-95. There were lopsided games and no big upsets. For the second time since the NHL went to four divisions in 2013-14, each division winner from the regular season advanced. (It also happened in 2017-18.)

Yet the first round was still incredibly competitive and as difficult to forecast as a coin flip. Six teams overcame a series deficit to advance: the Blues, Flames, Lightning, Oilers, Panthers and Rangers. There were five Game 7s. Four were decided by one goal, the most ever for a single round, and two went to overtime. Who scored the winners? Panarin and Gaudreau, two of the top 12 scorers in the regular season.

“You dream about stuff like that,” Gaudreau said.

Makar scored 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in four games, the most in NHL history by a defenseman through four games in a postseason. Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon said, “He might be the best player in the League right now.”

But wait. McDavid ended up with 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) in seven games. Two players have scored more points in a first-round series. Their names are Mario Lemieux (17 in 1992) and Wayne Gretzky (15 in 1987).

“He’s the best player in the world,” Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl said. “There’s lots of skill, obviously, with him. That’s a given. It’s the will, right? You can see it in his eyes. You can feel it every shift that he’s out there. He’s determined.”

It will take more will and determination from here.

Tampa Bay defeated Florida in six games in the Stanley Cup First Round last year, their first playoff meeting. But Lightning center Brayden Point‘s status is uncertain because of a lower-body injury, and the Panthers have grown, adding defenseman Ben Chiarot and forwards Claude Giroux and Sam Reinhart.

“I think people, especially in Florida, have been begging for the two teams to be contenders and go at it,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “I think last year many people said that might have been the series of the playoffs. They’ve retooled their team and brought some big names in there. It should be a ton of fun. They are fun to play against. It’s competitive … I think it’s really good for hockey.”

People have been begging for Calgary and Edmonton to meet in the playoffs again since Tampa Bay (1992) and Florida (1993) entered the NHL. It’s been that long, too long, since Esa Tikkanen scored on Mike Vernon to give the Oilers a 5-4 overtime win against the Flames in Game 7 of 1991 Smythe Division Semifinals at what then was known as the Olympic Saddledome. This is really good for hockey too.

“I’ve been here for nine years and never had even a sniff of a chance to play them in the playoffs, so it’s pretty special,” Gaudreau said. “I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

The Avalanche swept the Blues in the first round last season, are coming off a sweep of the Nashville Predators and have the highest expectations. But they’ve lost in the second round each of the past three seasons and need to get over this hump. The Blues have a championship core, went 14-2-2 to close the regular season and defeated the Minnesota Wild in six games.

“They’re a different team this year, we’re a different team this year, so you can’t look into last year too much because that’s in the past and we’re focused on the present and playing this St. Louis team this year,” Avalanche defenseman Devon Toews said. “They’re a highly potent offensive team that we’ve got to be ready for.”

The Hurricanes swept the Rangers in the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers in 2020, when the NHL played a 24-team tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But write off the Rangers at your own risk. Not only did they come back from down 3-1 in the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins, they came back in each of those last three wins.

“That’s our team,” Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said. “We compete, we battle and we find ways to win games that maybe we shouldn’t.”

The best part?

Arenas are packed. So are plazas outside. For the first time since 2019, before anyone had heard of COVID-19, fans are in full throat in the playoffs from Alberta to Florida, from Colorado to Carolina.

And we’re only a quarter of the way through.

“I’m getting the chills already,” Hurricanes center Jordan Staal said. “It’s exciting. It’s what you want as a player. It’s what you dream about. Our fans have been unbelievable. I know it’s going to get even better.”

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