Each series of the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs has made it through its first two games. Some are tied, some have seen the home team win both games, and one has seen the visitors return home with a 2-0 lead.
There has been the usual mix of controversial calls, goaltending drama and overtime heroics. But what are some of the larger themes our reporters have witnessed through the first 16 games of this year’s tournament? And what does it all mean looking ahead to the rest of the first round — and beyond?
ESPN reporters Ryan S. Clark, Kristen Shilton and Greg Wyshynski chime in with their top takeaways as the series shift to the lower seeds’ home buildings:
Heavy is the head that wears the crown
Taylor Hall told me that the Boston Bruins have discussed the unique pressures of entering the playoffs as the most successful regular-season team in NHL history. They could go wire to wire and win the Stanley Cup; they could fall short and become another Presidents’ Trophy curse footnote; or they could implode early and end up being a cautionary tale, like the 2019 Tampa Bay Lightning.
“The reason that we have these expectations is because we stuck with our process all season long to win 65 games, doing it in the fashion that we did it. Why would we change, right?” Hall said.
But things have changed for the Bruins in their series against the Florida Panthers, which is tied 1-1 heading into Game 3 on Friday night. The Panthers had a higher expected goals than Boston in those two games, earning the majority of the high-danger chances at 5-on-5. The Bruins allowed them to carry play for stretches in their Game 1 win. Boston’s Game 2 loss to Florida was even more uncharacteristic: 15 turnovers, some created by the Panthers but most gifted away by Boston through sloppy puck management.
“I think it was just trying to make plays when plays weren’t there to be made,” coach Jim Montgomery said.
But the biggest change for the Bruins through two games has been the absence of star captain Patrice Bergeron. At first, the team said he was suffering the effects of an illness that had swept through the team, but he also left the team’s regular-season finale against the Montreal Canadiens with an upper-body injury. Before Game 2, Montgomery defined the reason for his absence as “not an illness,” although the Bruins haven’t specified the nature of his injury. His status for Game 3 is questionable.
Bergeron contributes offensively on their top line. He’s considered the greatest defensive forward in NHL history, winning a record five Selke Trophies and favored to add a sixth this season. He wins 61% of his faceoffs; against the Panthers, the Bruins are sub-50% in the dot. Although he’s been a presence in the coaches’ room behind the scenes, they desperately miss him on the ice.
The Bruins are a machine that rolled through the regular season. It’s a 1-1 series that they’re still favored heavily to win. But the pressure on the best to finish the season as the best is real. Players like Brad Marchand acknowledged there were nerves in Game 1. What happens if the Panthers’ upset bid continues? — Wyshynski
Toronto and Tampa Bay: Blowout series?
The Maple Leafs and Lightning knew they’d be meeting in the first round for seemingly four months. All that pent-up energy appears to be manifesting in lopsided, high-scoring affairs.
In Game 1, the Lightning jumped all over the Leafs with a goal less than two minutes in and finished with a 7-3 victory.
In Game 2, the Leafs notched a power-play marker just 47 seconds into the first period and wound up winning 7-2.
Is that the direction this series will continue taking? Each side trading multigoal victories until the final buzzer hits on Game 7?
Individual performances are fitting a pattern, too. Morgan Rielly notched four assists in Toronto’s Game 2 win, making him the fourth player in the 2023 playoffs to produce a four-point effort. That also tracks with the number of lopsided scores we’ve seen early in this postseason, including six games already determined by a four-goal margin.
From a purely competitive standpoint, it’ll be interesting to see whether that trend continues and how it will impact the outcomes ahead — Shilton
Hey, it must be the money
At some point, every front office throughout the NHL will encounter this problem if it hasn’t already. There will come a time when those running the team go from trying to find ways to spend their cap space to the challenge of trying to build a winner with limited funds.
One of the ways to solve that problem is finding contributors on cheap deals. It’s another reason players on entry-level contracts offer value in several ways. And as this postseason has already shown, there are a number of them who’ve made an impact.
So far, there have been 26 players still on their ELCs who have played at least one playoff game. It’s a group that includes top-nine forwards such as Matty Beniers, Matt Boldy, Quinton Byfield and Wyatt Johnston, plus top-four defensemen such as Evan Bouchard, Bowen Byram, K’Andre Miller and Nick Perbix. — Clark
The Devils aren’t ready for prime time
New Jersey is known for many things, but two of them are “The Sopranos” and the NHL’s Devils. So credit to star center Jack Hughes for finding a way to spiritually marry the two in his comments after the Devils’ 5-1 loss in Game 2, saying his team got “whacked for the second straight game” by the rival New York Rangers.
“We’re not playing to our standard, and it’s biting us in the a– right now,” he said.
No team in the Stanley Cup playoffs looks less like its regular-season self than New Jersey. Consider:
The fun, puck-rushing team was fourth in the NHL in even-strength goals; against the Rangers, it has yet to score one.
The Devils used their speed to control pace and opponents; against the Rangers, they’ve climbed into the trenches to engage with them physically, amassing 71 penalty minutes in Game 2.
They were fourth on the penalty kill in the regular season; they’ve given up four power-play goals, all of them to the Rangers’ Chris Kreider, in two games.
They’re down 2-0 and have been outscored 10-2 by the Rangers. The playoff inexperience of many Devils players has been glaring, but the ineffectiveness of players who have been there before, like Ondrej Palat and Timo Meier, also has contributed to this deficit. Goalie Vitek Vanecek has done what he can, but the Devils are seeing the difference between having a goalie who might not lose you a series and one who seems designed to win one on his own.
To the Rangers’ credit, their top stars have been difference-makers while the Devils flail about. Kreider has four goals, Vladimir Tarasenko has two and Patrick Kane had his most impactful game as a Ranger in Game 2. Igor Shesterkin has stopped the Devils when they’ve gotten chances against him, leading the robust collection of Rangers fans at the games in Newark to let their neighbors know he’s “better” through their chants.
Devils coach Lindy Ruff has kept the faith. “This team has always been up for an incredible challenge,” he said after Game 2. “They’re going to battle to the bitter end. I’ve got a lot of faith in this team.” — Wyshynski
Carolina’s (horrendous) luck with injuries could spell trouble
It was bad enough the Hurricanes lost both Andrei Svechnikov and Max Pacioretty to long-term injuries before the postseason even started.
Now Teuvo Teräväinen is on the shelf too, courtesy of a broken hand suffered in Carolina’s 4-3 overtime win in Game 2. That leaves the Hurricanes down another top-line forward, one who had 12 goals and 37 points in the regular season.
It’s no wonder Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour was so frustrated discussing Teräväinen’s injury after the fact, admitting he was “a little ticked” with how Islanders forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau “absolutely tomahawk-chop[ped]” his player. The silver lining for Carolina is its 2-0 series lead over New York. The dark cloud looming is that it could be 2-2 before the weekend is out. That’s postseason hockey, and Carolina is running out of healthy bodies to put pucks in the net. The Islanders are far from a prolific scoring team, but they are a top-notch defensive one (and boast a spectacular goaltender in Ilya Sorokin).
The Teräväinen injury could serve as a major turning point in what’s rapidly becoming an increasingly intense first-round matchup (the no-call on Scott Mayfield in Game 2 certainly upped the ante in that respect). How will Carolina respond and adjust to this latest bout of adversity? More importantly, is there another offensive threat waiting in the wings to fill the void? — Shilton
Could two eventually become one for the Minnesota Wild?
Marc-Andre Fleury said he didn’t make any “good key saves” in Game 2 against the Dallas Stars. Dean Evason said “nothing” was on Fleury but “it was all on us.” Clearly blame can be shared, but can the Wild win a playoff series by continuing to share their net between Fleury and Filip Gustavsson?
To Evason’s point, Natural Stat Trick’s numbers show the Wild had fewer scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances in 5-on-5 play in Game 2 compared with what they did in Game 1. Plus, the Stars scored four power-play goals against a unit that was the No. 10 penalty kill in the league. But that also comes with the caveat that they had the seventh-most penalty minutes in the NHL.
Evason said after the 7-3 loss that the Wild will follow the same process they’ve used all season to determine who will start Game 3. And although that could hold true, has Evason already reached a point where he might have to deviate from the tandem approach and name a clear No. 1 starter? — Clark
Tracking toward too many turnovers
Each team is two games into its postseason, and it feels as if turnovers have been a hotter topic than in years past.
Boston coach Jim Montgomery described the Bruins‘ giveaways in Game 2 as “catastrophic.” The Maple Leafs were practically passing the puck onto Lightning sticks throughout Game 1 — primarily while in front of their own net.
Edmonton has already been credited with 30(!) turnovers. Minnesota has 29. New Jersey has 28. And on down it goes, to the apparently much more disciplined New York Rangers (only nine for them). Unsurprisingly, the Rangers are up 2-0 heading back to Madison Square Garden.
Self-inflicted wounds are a team’s worst nightmare. It’s one thing to lose; it’s another to see results slip away because of your players’ own sloppy execution. Will the trend continue? Or could this just be an indication of early-series nerves across the board? If some of these clubs don’t tighten up, it could be a short spring. — Shilton