Two months after the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference were locked in before the NHL even reached the All-Star break, Rod Brind’Amour set Carolina’s lineup for a game against Pittsburgh with the future in mind.
”Everything you do is built towards the Stanley Cup,” veteran defenseman Ian Cole said. ”(Brind’Amour has) been saying: ”I’m not here for the short term. I know we’re going to make the playoffs. This is how do we best put ourselves in a position to win the Stanley Cup five months from now.’ It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Now, it’s a sprint for the Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals that have made up the top eight in the East since Jan. 2. Florida and Carolina emerged as division winners, the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers are favored to come out of the East and win the Stanley Cup, but no team’s path to the final is an easy one.
”We’ve got to beat everybody at some point,” Panthers coach Andrew Brunette said Sunday. ”It’s a new season anyway. Regardless where you finished after 82, it’s what you do now.”
That has been true for almost two decades in the East, where the top seed going into the playoffs has not reached the final since the salary cap era began in 2005. Only one Presidents’ Trophy winner in that time has won the Stanley Cup in an 82-game season over that time.
Their first opponent, the Capitals, know that pain all too well after finishing atop the NHL standings in 2016 and 2017 before bowing out in the second round and then winning the Cup the next year when expectations were low. The same goes this time around as heavy underdogs against Florida in a stacked bracket with the winner of Tampa Bay-Toronto waiting in the second round.
”The East is full of really good teams: high offensive, octane teams, and it’s really anyone’s game,” Washington winger Tom Wilson said. ”It’s up for grabs.”
1 FLORIDA vs. 4 WASHINGTON
The Panthers are -355 favorites on FanDuel Sportsbook, which also has a five-game series as the outcome with the lowest odds. Florida has the firepower to blow the Capitals out after leading the league in scoring, and getting through this quickly would be advantageous.
The longer the series goes, the more it benefits Washington, which is a bigger and more physical team that will try to impose its will on an opponent with no recent history of playoff success.
Two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky is Florida’s guy in net, though rookie Spencer Knight has played well especially recently and could also see some action. The Capitals are one of a handful of teams with major goaltending questions and are almost expected to use Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov.
”They know that just based on the way that it’s been here for two years,” coach Peter Laviolette said. ”We have counted on and relied on both goaltenders. And they’ve done a good job.”
Alex Ovechkin is expected to play for the Capitals after missing the final three games of the regular season with what they’re calling an upper-body injury. Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad also looks in line to return after being out the past six weeks with an upper-body injury.
2 TORONTO vs. 3 TAMPA BAY
The Lightning have won the Stanley Cup the past two years. The Maple Leafs haven’t won a playoff series with this core or even gotten past the first round as a franchise since 2004.
Toronto is due to break through eventually, and much like Florida its success is predicted on scoring. Auston Matthews led the league with 60 goals in the regular season and he’s just one star among John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.
The Maple Leafs go in with Jack Campbell as their projected starting goalie and Erik Kallgren next in line. Their playoff hopes rely on one of them being solid.
Tampa Bay’s core has played more high-level hockey than anyone on earth the past two years, and fatigue may take its toll. But after the Lightning saw the big trophy they hoisted twice again recently at the White House amid a late-season surge, they look poised to make another deep run.
”The good thing with our group is the hunger’s still there,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. ”We don’t need any kind of extra motivation.”
1 CAROLINA vs. 4 BOSTON
The Hurricanes beginning the playoffs without starter Frederik Andersen because of injury threatens to throw off the balance of the series that begins Monday. Brind’Amour said Andersen would not play in Game 1 Monday and there’s no timetable for the Dane’s return.
Now the biggest question for Carolina becomes whether the rest of the team can make up for Andersen’s absence in front of either Antti Raanta or rookie Pyotr Kochetkov.
The Hurricanes lost in the second round last year, got knocked out by Boston in the bubble in the same round in 2020 and were swept by the Bruins in the conference final in 2019. Nothing close to that will be acceptable this time around.
”Our goal is to win the Stanley Cup,” Cole said recently. ”That is it. Anything short of that is a failure of a season. So from Day One, our goal has been to win the Stanley Cup. Nothing else is acceptable.”
Boston can similarly set that lofty goal thanks to high-end talent like Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. The Bruins are leaning on rookie Jeremy Swayman in net but also got elite defenseman Hampus Lindholm at the trade deadline and are built to win now.
2 N.Y. RANGERS vs. 3 PITTSBURGH
Not counting the expanded, 24-team tournament two years ago, the Rangers are in the traditional playoffs for the first time since 2017. New York is ahead of schedule on a rebuild in its first season under new coach Gerard Gallant.
That’s because of the play of Igor Shesterkin, who posted a league-best 2.07 goals-against average and .935 save percentage. If he keeps up that kind of play and can steal games, the Rangers could do anything this spring.
They also dominated during the regular season against the Penguins, who will be without injured starter Tristan Jarry for the start of the playoffs and have turned to Casey DeSmith to make his NHL playoff debut Tuesday in Game 1 at Madison Square Garden.
”I’ve had playoff experience at every level (except for the NHL),” DeSmith said. ”But the bottom line is nothing really changes as far as (being a goalie) and the mindset. It’s really just another hockey game. Obviously, it means a little bit more. But as far as mindset and approach, everything stays the same.”
AP Sports Writers Tim Reynolds in Coral Springs, Florida, and Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports