Stanley Cup playoffs takeaways after the first 32 games

ByESPN staff ESPN logo
Tuesday, April 25, 2023

We've reached another pivot point in the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as 32 games have been played. Each series will be heading back to the higher seeded team's home ice, with four of them looking to close things out in Game 5.

But beyond the wins and losses, what other trends and storylines have emerged?

ESPN reporters Ryan S. Clark, Kristen Shilton and Greg Wyshynski are here with their biggest takeaways on the overarching themes of the postseason thus far, and what it all means looking ahead to the rest of Round 1 and beyond.

Goalie controversies stack up

The postseason can be tough on a netminder. One minute you're the hero; next, you're the villain. Multiple teams have already found themselves either making goalie changes or facing the prospect of doing so after having to pull a goaltender:

It has been an unpredictable run for goaltenders so far. Who knows how much more of that we'll see ahead? -- Shilton

The fast and the furious

The New York Islanders closed out Game 3 of their series against the Carolina Hurricanes by scoring four goals in two minutes, 18 seconds. It did more than set the record for the fastest four goals scored in Stanley Cup playoff history.

It's the most prominent example -- for now, at least -- of how these playoffs have seen several sequences in which goals are being scored in quick succession. After 32 games, there have been 25 instances across 18 games in which there were at least two goals scored within a two-minute, five-second stretch.

So what's the series with the most whiplash? The matchup between theDallas Stars and the Minnesota Wild, a series in which there has been five occasions when two or more goals have been scored within two minutes, five seconds of each other.

It happened three times in Game 2:

Then came Game 3, when Johansson scored for a 2-0 lead only to have Luke Glendening cut the lead to 2-1 within 11 seconds.

But that's not the only series to have such hectic scoring bursts. It's happened four times in the Hurricanes-Islanders series, and another four times in the Boston Bruins- Florida Panthers series as well.

Maybe the most surprising detail? The last series to have two goals scored in quick fashion was Edmonton Oilers-Los Angeles Kings. That was unexpected, considering the Oilers led the NHL in goals per game during the regular season (3.96) while the Kings were 10th (3.34).

Then came Game 2. Connor McDavid scored two goals within one minute, 40 seconds of each other to give Edmonton a 2-1 lead, only to have Kings wingerAdrian Kempe score less than 20 seconds later, which comes out to a total of three goals in less than two minutes. And in Game 4, the Kings netted two within one minute, 23 seconds in building a 3-0 lead, only to see the Oilers roar back and eventually win in OT.

While those who admire a defensive struggle might cringe at this rapid scoring, it's made these playoffs one of the most thrilling in recent memory. -- Clark

The Bruins aren't unbeatable -- but an upset is looking less likely

It's true, Boston did lose to Florida in Game 2 of their series under a landslide of self-inflicted wounds (a.k.a. turnovers).

And yes, the Bruins were outshot (throughout) and at times particularly outplayed by the Panthers in the first and second periods of Game 4.

But then, Boston hit its stride and you realize it had no Patrice Bergeron and no David Krejci and Linus Ullmark isn't exactly 100% ... and it's still so dominant. All that depth we kept touting has manifested in a four-point performance from Taylor Hall, a two-goal outing by Jake DeBrusk, six points in four games from trade deadline pickup Tyler Bertuzzi, a clutch score from would-be healthy scratch Nick Foligno, and how about Dmitry Orlov on the blue line?

It gets worse, too (if you're any team in the league other than Boston). There was one area the Bruins didn't excel at in the regular season, and it was the power play. Well, they went 2-for-4 with the man advantage in Game 4. If momentum continues to build in that department, there's not much to stop Boston from stomping their way through to a Cup Final ... is there?

The Bruins didn't face much adversity in the regular season. Losing Game 2 was a turning point to show how Boston would respond. Like they often do, the Bruins answered that bell and then some. Florida may still win Game 5 and take the series back to their home ice. That would be a definite blow to Boston's ego, dropping an elimination decision in their own building.

It just doesn't seem likely to happen. What will it take to stop this Boston train from rolling? -- Shilton

Officially troubling?

Complaining about Stanley Cup playoff officiating is a rite of the season, like watch parties and rally towels. It happens in every tournament, as calls made in the regular season are seemingly ignored in the postseason. If I had a dime for every time a fan complained that "they just put their whistles away in overtime!" I could probably outbid Ryan Reynolds for the Ottawa Senators. Depending on the exchange rate.

That established: Having logged a considerable amount of time watching the 2023 postseason, the officiating has been ... not great. Phantom calls, ignored penalties and "game management" have led to much frustration. Some recent examples:

  • Wild forward Marcus Foligno was whistled for two questionable infractions against the Stars, leading to two Tyler Seguin power-play goals in Minnesota's Game 4 loss. "It's a joke. It doesn't make any sense," Foligno said. "I go to hit a guy who touches the puck. It's not interference. I get high-sticked in the face. It's not a tripping call when you hit a guy clean on. It's bulls---."
  • The Islanders were hit with two specious first-period penalties in Game 4, as Zach Parise was pushed into Hurricanes goalie Antti Raanta but was given an interference penalty, and Mathew Barzal was given a penalty for diving despite getting cross-checked in the back by the mountainous Brent Burns. "He got embellishment and I don't understand that," coach Lane Lambert said.

That's not even factoring in the off-ice controversies that have had us talking about officiating. Like the video review in Game 3 between the Kings and Oilers that couldn't determine if the puck was hit with a high stick before an overtime game-winner by the Kings. Like the "conflict of interest" accusations from Toronto fans towards referee Wes McCauley, who has history with Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe on the ice and off the ice. Their record in games officiated by McCauley only fueled that chatter:

There are theories about the scrutiny placed on officiating this postseason. The game is too fast now. More people watching means more criticism. Less experienced officials overseeing critical games. Even the advent of 4K HD technology means we have a clearer view than ever of what happens on a play.

But here's my theory: It feels worse than ever because the consequences for phantom calls are more palpable.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, there were 210 power-play opportunities through the first 28 postseason games. That's actually down from 235 power-play opportunities from last season at the same point. The difference: There have been 53 power-play goals scored so far this postseason vs. 48 last postseason. Power-play efficiency in 2022-23 was the highest in the NHL (21.31%) since the 1985-86 season (22.10%). There are fewer power plays, but getting the calls right could be the difference in the game.

In the refs' defense, it hasn't been all bad. For example, they used replay technology well in reducing major penalties to their actual levels of infraction. In the past, the Leafs' Morgan Rielly would have 100% been given a 5-minute boarding major for his hit on Brayden Point in Game 3. Instead, the penalty was rescinded, which was the correct call.

If only more of them could be correct. -- Wyshynski

An (over) abundance of overtimes

Regulation wins are apparently passé in 2023.

We're just past midway of the first round of this postseason and nine games have already reached extra time. Last year, there were eight games total that went to overtime in the first round.

What's with the uptick this season? Who cares? It's made for some wildly entertaining hockey, especially with how almost every game that's gone past regulation has been the result of a furious comeback performance:

  • Winnipeg clawed back from a 4-1 deficit to reach overtime in Game 3 against Vegas.
  • Toronto pushed back from a 3-2 hole with Ryan O'Reilly scoring in the final minute of regulation to force OT in Game 3. Then in Game 4, the Leafs rallied from a 4-1 deficit in the third period before winning in overtime.
  • Carolina has recovered twice now from a 3-2 hole to win in overtime.
  • And then, there's the Los Angeles-Edmonton series. Three of the four games in that series have needed extra time. L.A. has been down 3-1 and 2-1 before winning in extra time. In Game 4 it was the Oilers behind 3-0 after 20 minutes, rallying to tie it in the second, trailing again in the third before forcing overtime and getting the W.

Perhaps we can chalk up all the late-game heroics to how wide open this postseason has felt so far. Almost every series has felt really evenly matched. The pendulums have swung fast from period to period and game to game.

Will the remainder of this round really tighten up? Or will it remain the most free-wheeling, wide-open postseason landscape we've seen in years? -- Shilton

Devils recapture their swagger

The Devils lost the first two games of their Battle of the Hudson showdown with the rival New York Rangers in humiliating fashion: at home, by a 10-2 aggregate count on the scoreboard, seemingly overwhelmed by the opponent and the moment.

Devils coach Lindy Ruff referenced inexperience and "jitters" to help explain the 2-0 hole they'd dug for themselves.

Their star, Jack Hughes, rewrote that history after the Devils won their second straight game at Madison Square Garden on Monday night to even the series. "When you go down 2-0, that has nothing to do with experience. That has everything to do with us not playing very well," he said.

Ruff said the Devils tend to "try to entertain too much" when they play at home, which harms their puck management. On the road, they're less flashy and "take advantage of other team's mistakes," he said. That was evident in these two road wins, as the Devils reconstituted the formula that enabled them to set a new franchise record for standings points in a season (112). They hounded the Rangers in every zone, taking away space from stars like Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko. The Rangers had nine giveaways in the first two games of the series; in Games 3 and 4, they had 34.

The series is a microcosm of Ruff's season, with fans muttering about his job status after bad losses in the first two games -- and then having to acknowledge his role in the turnaround.

He benched starting goalie Vitek Vanecek after Game 2, turning to rookie Akira Schmid to calm things down. Schmid has given them the saves they need, and they've played much better in front of him. Ruff scratched one of his favorite energy forwards, Miles Wood, after some unfortunate penalties in Games 1 and 2. His replacement, Curtis Lazar, has been a steadier presence. Ruff struck the right demeanor and said the right things to foster the comeback.

It has not been all sunshine for the Devils. They continue to take too many penalties. They've still managed only four even-strength goals all series against goalie Igor Shesterkin. Forward Timo Meier, their high-profile trade deadline acquisition, doesn't have a point in the series, and was dropped off Nico Hischier's line a few times in the series.

But now it's the Rangers facing a reckoning on their confidence and effort. Coach Gerard Gallant blasted his team after the Game 4 loss.

"Tonight was a close hockey game, but we didn't show up," he said. "We didn't play hard enough. We didn't compete hard enough. All we did was yap at the linesmen for getting thrown out of faceoffs."

After scoring two power-play goals in each of the first two games of the series, New York went 0-for-8 in two home losses. When asked whether a lack of production from his star players was the problem, Gallant said: "That was the difference. Definitely."

Captain Jacob Trouba said there was "no panic" in the Rangers' room. Meanwhile, in the Devils' room, they have their swagger back.

"We got whacked, two games in a row. Last thing you want to do is stand and talk in front of you guys when we lose," Hughes said to the media. "We're back in this thing and we're excited." -- Wyshynski

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