Although things looked a bit touch-and-go for a while around New Year’s, the NHL’s first full, 82-game regular season since 2018-19 finished up over the weekend. Now the league pivots to playoff mode, a whole new season of hockey that usually promises to be more bone-crunching and defensive-minded — but could prove to be unusually offensive (in a good way) this year.
To help survey the postseason landscape, we have some answers — or educated guesses, at least — to hockey’s biggest burning questions heading into the playoffs:
Who are the Stanley Cup favorites?
According to both our Elo forecast model — which is ready for its rookie playoff campaign — and the Vegas books, the Colorado Avalanche have the best chance to win the Cup. The powerhouse Avs have led our odds every week of the season since December; their probability was as high as 29 percent in mid-April, and we currently give Colorado a 20 percent chance to hoist Lord Stanley’s mug for the first time since 2001.
|Team||Elo Rating||Make Conf. Final||Make Final||Win Cup|
|Tampa Bay Lightning||1581||25||13||7|
|Toronto Maple Leafs||1577||25||13||7|
|St. Louis Blues||1562||19||11||5|
|New York Rangers||1562||25||10||5|
|Los Angeles Kings||1503||10||3||<1|
Colorado is the strongest pre-playoff favorite by Elo rating since the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning and the third-biggest favorite since the 2004-05 lockout (also trailing the 2005-06 Detroit Red Wings). But it’s worth noting that both of those teams lost in the first round — and if Colorado bows out early (again), there are plenty of strong teams waiting in the wings to pick up the mantle as favorites. The Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes and Calgary Flames have at times looked dominant enough to rank near the top of the list of Cup candidates, and the Lightning are vying for their third consecutive championship. In a year with an unusual number of strong teams, even a team as deep and talented as Colorado is far from a sure pick.
Still, the Avalanche are our most likely team to make the Stanley Cup Final. And with an 8.2 percent chance of transpiring, the single most likely championship matchup is a rematch of the 1996 final between Colorado and Florida:
That was the last — and only — postseason in which Florida won so much as a single series, so it would be fitting if the Panthers’ first deep run in decades ended with a chance to avenge the sweep they suffered against the Avalanche 26 years ago.1 But it’s also plenty likely that we see a different (and equally compelling) matchup such as Colorado-Carolina, Calgary-Florida or one of many other possible combinations — some of which even contain the long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs.
Who looks better or worse in different rankings?
Elo provides a good baseline for ranking the playoff teams, since it is grounded in a framework that constantly updates our priors over the course of the season using a combination of wins and losses, margin of victory, strength of schedule and other factors. But it is obviously not the be-all and end-all — remember, hockey is a comparatively random sport in which a team’s record often hides important information about its true quality.
To help identify some of Elo’s blind spots, I ranked the playoff field in a handful of other metrics that tell us important information about a team’s attributes: actual and expected goal differentials at 5-on-5 per 60 minutes; Corsi percentage (or the share of shot attempts by a team in its games); and special-teams efficiency (a team’s power-play percentage relative to the league average, plus its penalty-kill percentage relative to the league).
|Rankings in other categories|
|Team||Elo Rank||5v5 Goal Diff.||Corsi %||Exp. Goal Diff.||Special Tms.|
The Avalanche didn’t look quite as strong in those categories as their Elo would suggest. Instead, the best teams in 5-on-5 goal differential were the Minnesota Wild and Calgary Flames. Carolina was the best team at maintaining possession according to Corsi (the Flames, Panthers and Boston Bruins did well in this category, too), as the Lightning, Wild and Avs lagged behind. Colorado was also an outlier among the top Elo teams in expected 5-on-5 goal differential, winning the battle of quality chances less often than the Panthers, Leafs and Bruins.
And finally, special teams is a tricky category because — somewhat counterintuitively — penalty calls tend to increase during the playoffs, making the performance of power-play and penalty-kill units more important than during the regular season, though those stats are also not especially reliable because of the sample sizes involved in a typical postseason. That means you could spin the comparative reliance on special teams for the New York Rangers, Edmonton Oilers and Pittsburgh Penguins (and, to a lesser extent, the St. Louis Blues) as a positive … or as a negative, depending on how much you believe that particular strength will come in handy over the next few months. (For what it’s worth, only 22 percent of goals in last year’s playoffs were scored by teams with a man advantage.)
Who’s on a roll going into the playoffs?
Late-season form is another category that feels like it should be particularly important, but it ends up being interpreted in a number of different ways. Certainly, there is a positive correlation (in full seasons since the lockout) between a team’s Elo gained in the second half of the schedule and its playoff wins. But there is an even stronger correlation2 between its midseason Elo and postseason success, meaning that late hot streaks don’t exactly trump existing talent.
That being said, you’d rather be peaking as you go into the postseason than hitting a skid. Here are the playoff teams that most fit both descriptions, in terms of Elo gained or lost over the regular season’s final month:
|Who’s Hot||Who’s Not|
|Team||Elo Gained||Team||Elo Lost|
|Edmonton Oilers||28.4||Nashville Predators||-17.5|
|St. Louis Blues||27.2||Pittsburgh Penguins||-15.7|
|Minnesota Wild||23.0||Dallas Stars||-12.3|
|Toronto Maple Leafs||15.1||Colorado Avalanche||-5.8|
|Florida Panthers||8.0||Washington Capitals||-2.5|
Hockey fans should keep an eye out for the Oilers, especially with defenseman Darnell Nurse potentially healthy; they went 11-3 in April and have a comparatively lower-rated first-round opponent in the L.A. Kings. Could a deep run finally be in the cards for Connor McDavid and company?
It’s a shame that the Blues and Wild have to cancel out each other’s recent successes, since they’ll face off in the opening round, but it should make for a compelling series. And on the other side, Colorado might not have much to worry about in Round 1 if Nashville’s recent form (6-9 in April) is any indication — even if the Avalanche didn’t exactly finish strong themselves. Perhaps more interesting is the question of whether the Penguins and Dallas Stars can rebound from their weak closing statements to pose a threat against the favored Rangers and Flames, respectively.
What’s the state of the Hot Goalie competition?
Goaltending is notoriously fickle in the NHL: Since 2005-06, the correlation between a team’s regular-season and playoff save percentage is just 0.26. Yet at the same time, a team’s performance between the pipes is one of the most important factors in mounting a serious Stanley Cup bid. So what can we make of each team’s hopes of having the netminding required to win it all?
The best goalie in the playoff field according to goals above replacement3 is Igor Shesterkin of the Rangers, who led the entire league in GAR during the regular season. He could certainly be the Hot Goalie of the postseason as well — and New York will need that, given the particulars of their roster construction and playing style. He’ll even be following a strong precedent; the best goalie of the 2020-21 regular season (Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy) ended up carrying his team to the championship. But that was the first season in a decade — since Tim Thomas and the 2010-11 Bruins — during which the best goalie of the regular season led his team to the Cup.
More often than not, the hottest postseason netminder comes from further down the regular-season rankings. This year, that could be Darcy Kuemper of Colorado, who was second in GAR among playoff goalies behind Shesterkin, or Calgary’s Jacob Markstrom (who was fourth). But another complicating factor this postseason is health, with the status of multiple highly ranked goalies up in the air. Nashville’s Juuse Saros (No. 3 among playoff-bound goalies in GAR), Pittsburgh’s Tristan Jarry (No. 5) and Carolina’s Frederik Andersen (No. 6) are all either potentially sidelined to start the playoffs or ruled out. While that’s good news for their backups, who’ll get the chance to put their own stamp on the playoffs, it’s yet another reason to expect unpredictability in net this postseason.
Who could pull off a first-round upset?
According to our model, here are the lower-seeded teams most likely to beat their opening-round opponents:
|Tampa Bay Lightning||Toronto Maple Leafs||49%|
|St. Louis Blues||Minnesota Wild||44|
|Pittsburgh Penguins||New York Rangers||43|
|Boston Bruins||Carolina Hurricanes||40|
|Los Angeles Kings||Edmonton Oilers||30|
|Dallas Stars||Calgary Flames||28|
|Washington Capitals||Florida Panthers||27|
|Nashville Predators||Colorado Avalanche||21|
I know what you’re thinking: If the two-time defending champion Lightning win over the perennially-hapless-in-the-playoffs Leafs, would it really be an upset? Perhaps not — and the model views that series as a de facto toss-up anyway. Similarly, the Blues can say they swept the regular-season series over Minnesota and are barely underdogs on paper against an opponent that shares many similar characteristics. And it wouldn’t exactly shock anyone if the Penguins toppled the Rangers, or even if the Bruins knocked off the Hurricanes (particularly considering Carolina’s goaltending void without Andersen).
It would qualify as a bona fide surprise, however, if the Kings, Stars, Caps or Preds defeated their seemingly superior opponents. And yet, our model thinks there’s a whopping 71 percent chance that at least one of those teams will advance to the second round. It’s another reminder of just how chaotic the NHL playoffs are — and how entertaining the next two months promise to be.
Check out our latest NHL predictions.