Speed and youth change the game
The 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs have been one of the most exciting in the modern NHL era. The fans were treated to close and contested games: 12 games were decided in overtime; six of the 12 matchups were decided in Game 7, five of them in the first round alone.
Related: McDavid vs. Makar Will Determine Oilers/Avalanche Series
The playoffs always offer new insights into the game, including how and why teams are successful. This season, however, has upended perceptions of the NHL and what it takes to win the Stanley Cup. The Colorado Avalanche, Edmonton Oilers, Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers showed what it takes to win in today’s game.
In the NHL, defense wins championships?
It’s a cliché in all sports for defense to win championships, and hockey is no exception. In recent seasons, strong defense and goaltenders have helped teams win the Stanley Cup, including the Lightning and St. Louis Blues, who had deep defensive units. However, this season the teams have continued to progress despite their struggling defensive play. Most notably, the Oilers eliminated the Calgary Flames in five games in the second round despite allowing 20 goals in the series and three or more goals in four games.
Goals have increased this season – 18 teams have averaged more than three goals per game compared to 12 in 2020-21. Higher scoring spilled over into the playoffs with infractions taking over games and continuing to push the score up; 39 of 73 games combined for seven or more goals in the first two rounds. However, can teams still win the Cup without a great defence?
Great defense and dominant defenders are always essential to winning in the playoffs. However, the role of defenders has changed, especially this season, and the way they affect the game has also changed. As the game heats up, great skaters like Adam Fox and Cale Makar are highly regarded, not only for their ability to keep up with opposing forwards, but also for the way they handle the puck and transform the defense. in instant scoring opportunities, and can open up from the point as an additional scoring threat. Similarly, players are expected to be more versatile than ever, and teams that have their full rosters at both ends of the ice have performed the best.
A great defense is always essential, but in an evolving game we see firsthand the difference in their impact. Games continue to be scored and defenders seem to be struggling to keep up. But, in the end, their ability to follow made the difference in the playoffs and made games faster and more offensive.
Rangers letting children play
A veteran presence and playoff experience are still key to winning the Stanley Cup. Players who have made it through the playoffs and understand the game tend to give teams an advantage, especially when the game changes. However, this season a handful of teams have proven that their young stars are not only ready for the spotlight, but also proving their worth.
Rangers relied on their ‘Kid Line’ to add depth to the forward unit, with Filip Chytil, Alexis Lafrenière and Kaapo Kakko (all aged 22 or younger) providing a spark in attack, while the Avalanche’s blue line includes two young defensemen in Makar, 23, and Bowen Byram, 20.
To quote a comrade hockey writers Contributor Declan Schroeder, “A lot of teams have a veteran bent and prefer to give older players big roles, hoping that experience wins out. But the game is faster than it ever was. summer, and telling hungry young players, “Here’s your big chance on the big stage, get out there and eat,” can definitely pay dividends and make hockey exciting.
Experienced players continue to play a major role in the playoffs. However, there has been a shift towards talented, younger players who aren’t fazed by the pressure and speed of 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 run. The Flames entered the series as the most complete team, but the Oilers took advantage of the open ice and allowed their big skaters, McDavid and Draisaitl, in particular, to lead their team to the Conference Finals. West in five games.
While the Oilers have proven that possessing a fast, powerful offense can overwhelm opponents, the Stanley Cup Playoffs as a whole have proven that teams that adapt and win in any situation will succeed. The Lightning, the consecutive defending Stanley Cup champions, are the perfect example. This season, they beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in a high-scoring first-round series, tying their offensive goal for goal. Yet they also went to the second round and won low-scoring, slower games to end a Florida Panthers team that averaged 4.11 goals per game in the regular season.
Likewise, Rangers advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals after two very different seven-game series. Against the Pittsburgh Penguins, they had to limit front-row rushes from 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. At the end of the day, the teams that made it to the semi-finals are the ones that can both slow play and blast their opponents and survive both tests themselves.
Other takeaways from the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs
A common theme has always been the value of a good or even a great goaltender in the playoffs, and that’s still true. Good scorers raise a team’s floor, but world-class goalkeepers like Andrei Vasilevskiy and Igor Shesterkin raise a team’s ceiling and help them progress. Likewise, the playoffs proved the value of depth and the ability to find goals from the third and even fourth lines.
The 2022 Playoffs continue to reinforce ideas that have been taken for granted as essential to success in the past. However, this year we have also seen a faster and younger game and the big teams that have changed not only in the types of players they value, but also in the way they have played to win.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink has written for several sports blogs and platforms spanning NHL, NFL, MLB and college sports. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_Thoughts for more islanders and general hockey news.