NHL playoff predictions 2022: 1st-round winners, most overrated, dark horse, Stanley Cup champion and more

Will the Lightning threepeat? Will the Avalanche and Panthers be unstoppable? Or will some under-the-radar team emerge in this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs?

With the postseason opening Monday, The Athletic posed these questions and more to our NHL staff. Here are their picks to win each first-round series, the Eastern and Western Conferences, the Conn Smythe and the Stanley Cup, as well as picks for the most overrated team and a playoff dark horse:

First-round series predictions

Metropolitan Division: Bruins vs. Hurricanes

Percent of vote Bruins Hurricanes

4 games

0.0

0.0

5 games

0.0

10.4

6 games

16.7

37.5

7 games

20.8

14.6

Total

37.5

62.5

The Hurricanes swept the season series by a combined score of 16-1. Is 62.5 percent too low? I think 62.5 percent is just right. While it’s true the Canes dominated in the regular season, they lost the regular-season matchup to the Rangers two years ago then beat them in the play-in, and same with Washington a few years back before beating them in Round 1. As coach Rod Brind’Amour said, “It doesn’t matter. It’s irrelevant. It’s a new year starting Monday and what’s past is so irrelevant.” I will say the confidence boost from this regular season was probably necessary, and the slight edge is deserved. But I think the slight edge comes more from both teams’ new goaltending situations and the Canes’ core having a few more seasons of experience than they did the last time these two teams met. — Sara Civian, Hurricanes beat writer

Metropolitan Division: Penguins vs. Rangers

Percent of vote Penguins Rangers

4 games

0.0

0.0

5 games

2.1

14.6

6 games

14.6

33.3

7 games

16.7

18.8

Total

33.3

66.7

Are we underrating postseason experience in taking a team in the playoffs for the first time since 2017 over a perennial contender? Probably not. The Penguins were eliminated by an Islanders team that hadn’t reached the playoffs in the previous two seasons in 2019. In 2020, they were eliminated by the Canadiens, who hasn’t reached the postseason in their previous two seasons. Experience is nice. And it can be helpful. The Penguins, though, are dealing with Father Time, and his power is greater than that of experience on most occasions. They have been freakishly streaky all season and because of that trait are very unpredictable. That, more than their Stanley Cup rings, is what should concern the Rangers a bit. But the Rangers are the rightful favorite in this series. — Josh Yohe, Penguins beat writer

Atlantic Division: Capitals vs. Panthers

Percent of vote Capitals Panthers

4 games

0.0

8.3

5 games

0.0

50.0

6 games

2.1

25.0

7 games

4.2

10.4

Total

6.3

93.8

What do the Capitals need to do to keep up with the Presidents’ Trophy winners? The Caps are one of the biggest and most physical teams in the league, and they’ll need to use that combination of size and ruggedness to punish the Panthers and keep the series from turning into a track meet. It’s an M.O. that’s often repeated in D.C. this time of year, and it definitely applies now: Invest in physicality early and hope to reap the benefits later. That, and competent goaltending from Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov, neither of whom managed even an .890 save percentage in April. — Tarik El-Bashir, Capitals beat writer

Atlantic Division: Lightning vs. Maple Leafs

Percent of vote Lightning Maple Leafs

4 games

2.1

0.0

5 games

4.2

2.1

6 games

31.3

8.3

7 games

33.3

18.8

Total

70.8

29.2

The Lightning had the eighth-best record in the league but are among the Cup favorites and picked to beat the Leafs. Is this a legacy pick or are they in two-time-defending-champ form? The Lightning have definitely earned the benefit of the doubt, so I can see why they’re the popular pick (I picked them in seven games). But this is no slam-dunk, as this is the best Leafs team in recent memory. Is this their “time”? The gap between the Lightning and other top teams has shrunk a bit, but they still have the team — and goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy — to win this series. — Joe Smith, Lightning beat writer

Central Division: Predators vs. Avalanche

Percent of vote Predators Avalanche

4 games

0.0

39.6

5 games

0.0

47.9

6 games

2.1

8.3

7 games

0.0

2.1

Total

2.1

97.9

It looks like long odds for the Predators here. What do they need to do to make it a series? It is not hyperbole to say that the Predators’ chances in this series hinge on the health of All-Star goaltender Juuse Saros, who suffered a potentially serious lower-body injury last week. If Saros is unavailable, then the Predators will need to receive comparable goaltending from backup David Rittich, who was below average in 17 appearances this season (3.57 goals-against average, .886 save percentage). Without that, this series could indeed be over quickly. — Adam Vingan, Predators beat writer

Central Division: Blues vs. Wild

Percent of vote Blues Wild

4 games

0.0

0.0

5 games

0.0

0.0

6 games

4.2

29.2

7 games

33.3

33.3

Total

37.5

62.5

Two-thirds of our staff is predicting a Game 7 here. Why is this series going to be so good? Wow, and the voting couldn’t be any more split if it does go to seven games, with 33.3 percent for each team. That falls in line with what many national writers are saying, too, that the Blues-Wild series looks to be the best of the eight matchups on paper. Why? Well, you’ve got a 113-point team taking on a 109-point team, and there’s star power, depth, and both teams had lengthy point streaks the last month of the season. When you throw in the fact that the Blues and Wild are rivals who will bring the physicality, it makes for an incredibly intriguing series. Literally, it’s a pick ’em. — Jeremy Rutherford, Blues beat writer

Pacific Division: Stars vs. Flames

Percent of vote Stars Flames

4 games

0.0

14.6

5 games

2.1

45.8

6 games

0.0

35.4

7 games

2.1

0.0

Total

4.2

95.8

The Flames are overwhelmingly favored here. What’s the path to a Stars upset? The Stars’ path to upsetting the Flames has a few layers. The first thing they will need to do is establish a physical presence. With their elite skill and talent, particularly on the top line but even deeper, if the Flames get comfortable, they will pour it on. The Stars will also have to play good defense, and that’s before the goaltender becomes a factor. Neither Stars goaltender has started a playoff game before, so the structure in front of them needs to be sound to keep the score down while also creating rush opportunities for the offense. — Saad Yousuf, Stars beat writer

Pacific Division: Kings vs. Oilers

Percent of vote Kings Oilers

4 games

0.0

4.2

5 games

0.0

16.7

6 games

14.6

31.3

7 games

16.7

16.7

Total

31.3

68.8

The Oilers were a popular pick for both the playoff dark horse and the playoffs’ most overrated team. Which will it be? Though the Oilers started 9-1 and pushed that record to 16-5, there’s no question they’re playing the best hockey of their season now. Only the Panthers and Flames have better points percentages than Edmonton’s .724 since Jay Woodcroft was promoted from the minors to coach the team on Feb. 10. They were a below-average five-on-five team; now it’s a strength. They have two of the top offensive players in the world in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and a goaltender playing probably as well as he ever has in Mike Smith. They’re determined to make amends for their 1-7 record the past two postseasons. Don’t sleep on the Oilers. — Daniel Nugent-Bowman, Oilers beat writer

Beyond the first round

Dark horse

The Rangers have the best goalie in the league and have made moves to go all-in. Should they be considered a dark horse? The Rangers were already a successful team this season by defying the data. When Chris Drury added Andrew Copp and Frank Vatrano at the trade deadline, they became a legitimately strong team. Their lack of playoff experience makes them a dark horse but, as lots of my colleagues seem to feel, they’re edging into contender territory now. — Arthur Staple, Rangers beat writer

Most overrated team

Do the Maple Leafs deserve to be considered overrated after a season with the most wins and points in franchise history? Honestly, any “overrated” description must be based on reputation — playoff reputation, that is — not on what actually went down during the regular season. The Leafs had the No. 1 power play and the No. 8 penalty kill in the league. They scored more goals than any team but Florida. And while they have a reputation as a bad defensive team, they were ranked fourth in the NHL defensively in five-on-five expected goal rate. They have arguably the best player in the league, another top 15-20 player, and a deep defense. So, overrated? I don’t really see it. Not if you look at the facts so far this season. — Jonas Siegel, Maple Leafs beat writer

Eastern Conference champion

What’s most likely to derail the Panthers from a lengthy run? For all their charms — and the Panthers are truly one of the best offensive teams in recent history — it isn’t tough to suss out their disappointment blueprint. This is not a particularly good defensive team; on the season, its expected goals against per game is 2.52, 17th in the league and third-worst among playoff teams. Since the trade deadline? 2.86, 25th overall. Oof. Take that, mix in a standard Sergei Bobrovsky playoff performance (.908 career save percentage, between .882 and .901 in four of his last five postseasons), a tough road to the Final and, perhaps, an unfortunate cold streak? There it is. — Sean Gentille, national NHL writer

Western Conference champion

Team Percent of vote

58.3

39.6

2.1

What’s most likely to derail the Avalanche from a lengthy run? Though the Avalanche have given plenty of reason to believe, injuries and turnovers could always pop up and prove costly in the postseason. Colorado should be fully healthy going into the playoffs, but that wasn’t the case for a single game in the regular season, when Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Valeri Nichushkin and Devon Toews all missed at least 15 games. Can Colorado keep its top players in the lineup throughout the playoffs? Additionally, the Avalanche had leaky defense the last half of April, in part because of defensive-zone turnovers. They had the 28th-worst goals against per game since April 15. That was an aberration from the bulk of the season, but if this defensive bump in the road continues, it could spell trouble in a long, physical postseason series. — Peter Baugh, Avalanche beat writer

Stanley Cup champion

In the preseason, 56.4 percent of our staff picked the Avs to win the Cup. A year ago, it was 38.1 percent heading into the playoffs. Is 45.8 percent too low? Too high? The Avalanche enter the playoffs as the de facto favorite for a reason, from analytics models and oddsmakers alike. They may have struggled to get past the second-round hump in the past, but at some point, they have to break through. There’s just too much talent on this roster and very few weak links. It’s difficult to think of the last time a team had this much firepower at its disposal. This feels like the year Joe Sakic’s team finally gets it done. — Dom Luszczyszyn, national NHL writer

Conn Smythe winner

Makar and MacKinnon are favorites, and Rantanen makes the list too. If it’s not one of them, what other Avalanche players could be in the mix? Clearly a large portion of our staff picked the Avalanche to win, so it makes sense that Makar and MacKinnon lead the way in Conn Smythe predictions. Both are strong choices: Makar had a Norris-worthy season, and MacKinnon played at a 100-plus point pace this year, though he missed time to injury. Rantanen is gifted in every offensive area, so he’s another good option. If an Avalanche player outside of those three was to win, Darcy Kuemper and Gabriel Landeskog could be good predictions. Both would reward offseason moves by the Avalanche’s front office: Colorado both traded for Kuemper and gave Landeskog an eight-year contract this summer. — Peter Baugh, Avalanche beat writer

Tapping into our NHL betting expert in Vegas: Is there any value here? What do the markets say compared to our writers’ votes? It’s interesting that according to oddsmakers, Auston Matthews is tied with Nathan MacKinnon for the best odds to win the Conn Smythe at 14-to-1. Meanwhile only 2.1 percent of The Athletic staff chose Matthews, with 11 different players on five different teams ahead of him. The reason for the difference is the lack of faith from the staff that Toronto can win as a team. The Maple Leafs were voted the most overrated team, and only 2.1 percent chose them to win it all, whereas the oddsmakers give Toronto the fifth-best odds at 10-to-1.

The best value play according to the staff poll is Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Lightning netminder won last year’s Conn Smythe and received the fifth-most votes by The Athletic staff. But there are 20 players with better odds than Vasilevskiy to win it this season, as he’s tied with long shots such as Jack Campbell and Sam Reinhart at 40-to-1 odds. — Jesse Granger, Golden Knights beat writer

(Top photo of Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar: Michael Martin / NHLI via Getty Images)