We’re three games into the Stanley Cup Final, one that seemed on paper to be in the running for the best matchup of the cap era and maybe beyond. On one side, the two-time defending champs going for the NHL’s first threepeat in almost four decades. On the other, the league’s most talented team looking to finally slay the dragon and bring their best game when it matters most.
And through the first three games it’s been … fine.
Maybe better than that. Game 1 was a borderline classic. But Game 2 was a blowout of historic proportions, and Game 3 wasn’t much better. The series is 2-1 and feels like it still has plenty of runway left, but neutral fans have to be getting at least a little worried that this epic Final could end up being a dud.
You know what, I don’t really want to think about it. So instead of looking ahead, let’s look back at the 14 series it took to get us here with a worst-to-best ranking. This will be tougher than most years, because I’m on record as saying this year’s playoffs have been unusually good. There are going to be some decent series that don’t even make the top 10, which is kind of cool.
14. Lightning over Panthers in four (Round 2)
This was supposed to be the exciting sequel to last year’s well-received debut, only with bigger stakes and (maybe) a new ending. Instead, it was a bust. The second Battle of Florida featured a Panthers team that had just won the Presidents’ Trophy and seemed ready to finally beat the Lightning, or at least put up more of a fight than they had in 2021. Nope. Tampa rolled in four straight, and the high-powered Panthers offense managed just three goals.
The Lightning played like champions who knew how to win.
The Panthers looked like a team still trying to figure it out.
And that’s why the back-to-back Stanley Cup champs are headed to the Eastern Conference Final –– again.
— The Athletic NHL (@TheAthleticNHL) May 24, 2022
You could argue that this series at least had its moment, including Ross Colton’s buzzer-beater in Game 2. But given the expectations, no series was as disappointing. It wasn’t even all that close.
13. Avalanche over Predators in four (Round 1)
I’m guessing this would be a lot of fans picks for last place, since the outcome was never in doubt once Juuse Saros went down and we all would have forgiven the Predators if they’d just tapped out after three games. But given the rock-bottom expectations, the Preds at least put up a bit of a fight, taking one game to overtime and holding a third-period lead in Game 4.
More importantly, it was at least kind of cool to see the Avs flex their muscles early on. It was like the opening scene of a big-budget TV show, where the main character gets to just destroy a few low-level opponents to make sure we understand what they can do. Sure, you figure there’s tougher challenges to come, but in the meantime it’s still fun to watch the hero straight-up wreck others.
12. Blues over the Wild in six (Round 1)
The great irony of the first round was that five of the eight series went seven games, but not the one that everyone assumed would go the distance. That would be the Wild and Blues, two equally matched teams that had spent most of the second half of the season battling for second in the Central Division and home ice in their inevitable first-round showdown. The matchup had just about everything you could want — lots of talent, some bad blood, and two legitimate Cup contenders with a sense of urgency to win now.
And then we got … well, not quite a dud, but nothing all that memorable. No overtime, no seventh game showdown, and all six games were decided by three goals or more. What was the signature game or moment from the series? Maybe Vladimir Tarasenko’s hat trick in Game 5, or Kirill Kaprizov’s in Game 2? Sure, those were good games from star players, although both needed an empty-netter for the third goal. This series was fine. We just wanted more than that.
11. Panthers over Capitals in six (round 1)
Probably the last interesting series on paper heading into round one, this one certainly got our attention early on, with the Capitals winning two of the first three. The Panthers levelled up after that, winning three straight to slam the door on any upset talk, but they had to battle to get there.
I’ll be honest, looking back on this series reminded me that it was at least a little bit better than I remembered, with Games 4 and 6 both going to overtime after tying goals late in regulation. Maybe this should have felt like a better David vs. Goliath story than it was. But a relatively recent Cup winner like Washington doesn’t really resonate as an underdog, and in hindsight we know that the outcome here didn’t matter all that much since the Panthers wouldn’t win another game.
Sorry, Florida, no top-10 appearance for you. I pumped your tires before the playoffs started, maybe too much, but no team was a bigger letdown once the action started.
This feels low for a seven-game series, and maybe it is, but do you really remember all that much from it? Yes, I know that feels like a setup for a joke about lazy Eastern time sportswriters who can’t stay up past their bedtime, but I’m not sure how much still resonates from this matchup outside the two fan bases. We had a Philip Danault breakout and briefly, it felt like the old Jonathan Quick was back. Plus a bit of nastiness that led to an exceedingly rare head-butting suspension, but for the most part the Kings were just a likable team that seemed as if they could be happy to be there. Meanwhile, the Oilers avoided another first-round collapse, which objectively would have been the most entertaining outcome.
9. Hurricanes over Bruins in seven (Round 1)
This one felt like a sure thing heading in, as two very good teams hooked up for the third time in four postseasons. The Hurricanes were a lot of people’s pick to come out of the Eastern Conference, while the Bruins were a sneaky good wild card entry looking for one last run. What more could you want?
And the series was OK. It just wasn’t much more than that, with no overtime and just Game 7 even being a one-goal game (and even then, only because of a last-minute goal). The home team won every game, which is always neat but made the whole thing feel a little bit paint-by-numbers.
If you liked watching two very good teams play perfectly competent hockey that probably ended with the home team winning 5-2, this was the series for you. But it could have been a lot more than that.
8. Avalanche over Oilers in four (Round 3)
A sweep in the top 10? Look, it was way too short, and not especially competitive. But in terms of star power, this was the best series of the first three rounds, and just about every second of it was enjoyable on some level. The Connor McDavid vs. Nathan MacKinnon matchup was irresistible, and two of the four games were high-scoring classics.
So was this the postseason’s most entertaining series, or its most disappointing? Yes, which is why I’m ranking it right around the middle.
This series got a bad rap from the start, after a couple of low-scoring games led to some fans labelling it boring. That wasn’t completely fair, and things certainly picked up as the series went on even as it mostly remained a low-scoring battle, with Jake Oettinger landing on everyone’s radar as the sort of goalie who could single-handedly steal a series. And the ending was fantastic, with a Game 7 overtime.
The downside is that by the time we got late into the series, we were all looking ahead to a potential Battle of Alberta. And the fact that Calgary went out in Round 2 means this series doesn’t hold up as well in hindsight as it might have if they’d gone on a long run. Still, in a postseason that delivered plenty of shootouts, there’s still something to be said for a goaltending battle.
6. Rangers over Hurricanes in seven (Round 2)
We were spoiled with five seven-game series in the opening round, but so far this matchup from Round 2 is the only one that’s gone the distance since. It was pretty good, featuring two talented teams with some history between them, and got off to a solid start with the Hurricanes’ late comeback in Game 1. From there, we got the same “home team wins” storyline that Carolina had already given us in the first round, only with a twist ending where the visitors win Game 7.
The drama was there, but this series was low-scoring and the last two games weren’t especially close. That said, you can’t complain too much about a winner-take-all game to get to the final four.
5. Lightning over Rangers in six (Round 3)
The best goaltending matchup in years mostly delivered, at least once Andrei Vasilevskiy found his footing after a tough opener. The Rangers stunned us by proving that it really was possible to beat the Lightning in back-to-back games, and seemed like they were going to pull off the sweep after jumping out to a 2-0 lead in Game 3. That’s when the Lightning roared back, basically pulling off the NHL’s version of The Undertaker sit up while grinding the Rangers down in four straight wins. If Colorado has their way, this may be remembered as a worthy champion’s final stand, but even that would be kind of cool.
4. Rangers over Penguins in seven (Round 1)
The biggest comeback of the playoffs came with some controversy, as Jacob Trouba’s hit on Sidney Crosby felt like the turning point. The hit was deemed legal, at least for now, but seeing Crosby exit was the biggest moment of the series, and maybe of the first round. The Rangers came back from down 2-0 to win Game 5, kicking off the three straight wins they needed to survive the series.
Any time a matchup swings on a controversy, fans are left with mixed feelings, and nobody likes to see an injury. But we’ll remember this series to years to come, with Trouba playing the villain just like fellow Ranger Adam Graves did in this rivalry decades ago. Mix in a Game 1 marathon that somehow still stands as the only multi-OT game of the 2022 postseason and the whole spicy pork subplot with Louis Domingue, and you can’t say this series wasn’t memorable.
3. Oilers over Flames in five (Round 2)
The Battle of Alberta didn’t live up to the hype. And it couldn’t have, because after three decades, anything short of a seven-game classic would have felt like a letdown. We didn’t get that.
But what we did get was five games of almost non-stop action, kicked off by the wildest Game 1 in recent history. Seriously, this game rocked, and the series has to be in the top five just based on that one.
Then came Game 2 and … well, you don’t remember much of Game 2, or the games after that. But you do remember the ending, as Connor McDavid put the punctuation mark on the series with an overtime winner. Mix in the bad blood, the history, and two absolutely fantastic crowds, and it was all pretty great.
This series not going seven games was the single biggest disappointment of the postseason, and the only reason that the Battle of Alberta wasn’t a slam dunk pick for number one. But let’s not get greedy — this series still delivered.
2. Avalanche over Blues in six (Round 2)
The big question in the Central all year was whether anyone could beat the Avalanche. We’re still not sure, but it’s quite possible that we’ll look back on the Blues as being the team that came the closest.
In fact, if the Blues get the overtime win in Game 1, or if Jordan Binnington doesn’t get run over by Nazem Kadri, this series might flip the other way. We’ll never know, although the latter scenario at least gave us the remarkably rare postgame TV interview worth remembering.
What we did get was an excellent series between two bitter rivals that started strong and ended even better, which was more than enough to overlook a pair of so-so games in the middle. Nathan MacKinnon’s end-to-end hat trick goal in Game 5 was the sort of series-winning individual performance that cements a legacy, except that the Blues missed the memo. It may have been the single most entertaining potential elimination game of the entire postseason.
The only thing keeping this one out of top spot is the lack of a seventh game. Maybe it deserves to be there anyway.
1. Lightning over Maple Leafs in seven (Round 1)
Go ahead and call this a homer pick, you know I’m right. The Leafs and Lightning put on a seven-game classic with a ton of talent, plenty of storylines, and all sorts of twists and turns.
You name it, this series delivered. Seven games, obviously. An overtime elimination game, yep. A blowout to throw off the narratives about which team was better? One on each side, and yeah maybe that was a little much, but those lopsided scores helped set the stage for the final stretch. Lots of goals by the biggest stars? Yep. A big comeback? The Leafs gave us that in Game 5. Alexander Kerfoot assisting on Lightning goals? That’s weirdly specific, but yes, the series had that too. Some controversial calls that one fan base can complain about for eternity? It’s the NHL, so it goes without saying.
And best of all, if you’re one of those fans who roll their eyes over how much hype the Leafs get, this series gave you the result you wanted. Everybody wins! Except the Leafs, because it’s the playoffs. But add it all up, and you’ve got your best series of the 2022 postseason. So far.
(Photo: Sergei Belski / USA Today)