Locked in since January, path to Cup through East isn’t easy

Two months after the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference were locked in before the NHL even reached the All-Star break, Rod Brind’Amour set Carolina’s lineup for a game against Pittsburgh with the future in mind.

“Everything you do is built towards the Stanley Cup,” veteran defenseman Ian Cole said. “(Brind’Amour has) been saying: ”I’m not here for the short term. I know we’re going to make the playoffs. This is how do we best put ourselves in a position to win the Stanley Cup five months from now.′ It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Now, it’s a sprint for the Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals that have made up the top eight in the East since Jan. 2. Florida and Carolina emerged as division winners, the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers are favored to come out of the East and win the Stanley Cup, but no team’s path to the final is an easy one.

“We’ve got to beat everybody at some point,” Panthers coach Andrew Brunette said Sunday. “It’s a new season anyway. Regardless where you finished after 82, it’s what you do now.”

That has been true for almost two decades in the East, where the top seed going into the playoffs has not reached the final since the salary cap era began in 2005. Only one Presidents’ Trophy winner in that time has won the Stanley Cup in an 82-game season over that time.

Their first opponent, the Capitals, know that pain all too well after finishing atop the NHL standings in 2016 and 2017 before bowing out in the second round and then winning the Cup the next year when expectations were low. The same goes this time around as heavy underdogs against Florida in a stacked bracket with the winner of Tampa Bay-Toronto waiting in the second round.

“The East is full of really good teams: high offensive, octane teams, and it’s really anyone’s game,” Washington winger Tom Wilson said. “It’s up for grabs.”



The Panthers are -355 favorites on FanDuel Sportsbook, which also has a five-game series as the outcome with the lowest odds. Florida has the firepower to blow the Capitals out after leading the league in scoring, and getting through this quickly would be advantageous.

The longer the series goes, the more it benefits Washington, which is a bigger and more physical team that will try to impose its will on an opponent with no recent history of playoff success.

Two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky is Florida’s guy in net, though rookie Spencer Knight has played well especially recently and could also see some action. The Capitals are one of a handful of teams with major goaltending questions and are almost expected to use Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov.

“They know that just based on the way that it’s been here for two years,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “We have counted on and relied on both goaltenders. And they’ve done a good job.”

Alex Ovechkin is expected to play for the Capitals after missing the final three games of the regular season with what they’re calling an upper-body injury. Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad also looks in line to return after being out the past six weeks with an upper-body injury.


The Lightning have won the Stanley Cup the past two years. The Maple Leafs haven’t won a playoff series with this core or even gotten past the first round as a franchise since 2004.

Toronto is due to break through eventually, and much like Florida its success is predicted on scoring. Auston Matthews led the league with 60 goals in the regular season and he’s just one star among John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.

The Maple Leafs go in with Jack Campbell as their projected starting goalie and Erik Kallgren next in line. Their playoff hopes rely on one of them being solid.

Tampa Bay’s core has played more high-level hockey than anyone on earth the past two years, and fatigue may take its toll. But after the Lightning saw the big trophy they hoisted twice again recently at the White House amid a late-season surge, they look poised to make another deep run.

“The good thing with our group is the hunger’s still there,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “We don’t need any kind of extra motivation.”



The Hurricanes beginning the playoffs without starter Frederik Andersen because of injury threatens to throw off the balance of the series that begins Monday. Brind’Amour said Andersen would not play in Game 1 Monday and there’s no timetable for the Dane’s return.

Now the biggest question for Carolina becomes whether the rest of the team can make up for Andersen’s absence in front of either Antti Raanta or rookie Pyotr Kochetkov.

The Hurricanes lost in the second round last year, got knocked out by Boston in the bubble in the same round in 2020 and were swept by the Bruins in the conference final in 2019. Nothing close to that will be acceptable this time around.

“Our goal is to win the Stanley Cup,” Cole said recently. “That is it. Anything short of that is a failure of a season. So from Day One, our goal has been to win the Stanley Cup. Nothing else is acceptable.”

Boston can similarly set that lofty goal thanks to high-end talent like Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. The Bruins are leaning on rookie Jeremy Swayman in net but also got elite defenseman Hampus Lindholm at the trade deadline and are built to win now.


Not counting the expanded, 24-team tournament two years ago, the Rangers are in the traditional playoffs for the first time since 2017. New York is ahead of schedule on a rebuild in its first season under new coach Gerard Gallant.

That’s because of the play of Igor Shesterkin, who posted a league-best 2.07 goals-against average and .935 save percentage. If he keeps up that kind of play and can steal games, the Rangers could do anything this spring.

They also dominated during the regular season against the Penguins, who will be without injured starter Tristan Jarry for the start of the playoffs and have turned to Casey DeSmith to make his NHL playoff debut Tuesday in Game 1 at Madison Square Garden.

“I’ve had playoff experience at every level (except for the NHL),” DeSmith said. “But the bottom line is nothing really changes as far as (being a goalie) and the mindset. It’s really just another hockey game. Obviously, it means a little bit more. But as far as mindset and approach, everything stays the same.”

Scroll Down For:

    NHL top prospect Connor Bedard draws comparisons to Connor McDavid as draft approaches

    connor bedard
    Anne-Marie Sorvin/USA TODAY Sports

    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The NHL is going to have another Connor to contend with very shortly.

    For everything two-time NHL MVP Connor McDavid has accomplished in Edmonton since being selected No. 1 in the 2015 draft, Connor Bedard is on the same trajectory in being pegged as this year’s top eligible draft prospect, Central Scouting director Dan Marr said Friday.

    “He’s right up there with Connor McDavid, it’s just the next generation,” Marr said in touting Bedard’s quickness, shot and ability to read and adapt. “So Connor McDavid started that trend, and Connor Bedard is going to lead it into the next trend.”

    The annual NHL pre-draft combine in Buffalo, New York, is resembling more of a coronation for the 17-year-old Bedard, who has spent the past two years putting up generational numbers with the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League while also shining against his peers on the international stage.

    “I think you can use a lot of adjectives to describe it,” Regina coach John Paddock told The Associated Press recently in comparing Bedard’s production at the same age level to McDavid and Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.

    “That’s quite a high ceiling,” said Paddock, a former NHL coach and player. “But there’s no indication he’s not going to do that based on what he’s done to date.”

    The Chicago Blackhawks own the No. 1 pick, and are highly anticipated to use it on Bedard when the draft opens in Nashville, Tennessee, on June 28.

    Bedard held his latest meeting with the Blackhawks at the combine in a relationship that began at a top-prospects camp in Toronto last summer.

    Bedard’s arrival would coincide with the franchise in transition, with Chicago moving on from its aging core after trading 2007 No. 1 pick, Patrick Kane, and with captain Jonathan Toews’ future uncertain.

    “Yeah, it’d be awesome,” Bedard said of the possibility of being selected by the Blackhawks. “The history of that organization, that city with sports would be unbelievable. We’ll see what happens, but to be selected, that would be a huge honor.”

    Bedard said he’s following McDavid’s advice to stay in the moment and not peak too far ahead. He added, his dream to play in the NHL began no different than those of his colleagues: the moment he picked up a hockey stick growing up in North Vancouver, British Columbia.

    What separates Bedard, however, is his exceptional skating ability and a hard shot, which is even more lethal given his quick release.

    With Bedard the likely top pick, the intrigue at the draft is likely to revolve around who rounds out the remainder of the top five selections.

    University of Michigan’s Adam Fantilli is second among North American skaters on Central Scouting’s final list, followed by top American prospect, William Smith, who played for USA Hockey’s developmental program. The top two European skaters are also considered in the mix with Sweden’s Leo Carlsson and Russia’s Matvei Michkov.

    Anaheim is scheduled to pick second followed by Columbus, San Jose and Montreal.

    Marr gives the edge to Bedard while also being impressed with Fantilli – just the third freshman to win the Hobey Baker Trophy awarded to college hockey’s top players – in a draft class considered very deep with offensive-minded forwards.

    “You’re going to win with both,” Marr said. “And whoever gets these two players they’re going to help define a franchise.”

    What distinguishes Bedard, who doesn’t turn 18 until next month, has been his consistency.

    Last season, his 71 goals in just 57 games were the most in the WHL since Pavel Brendl scored 73 in 1998-99. Bedard’s 143 points were the most in the CHL since three players topped that mark in 1995-96. And it was a season in which he enjoyed 10 games with five or more points, and just five games in which he failed to register a point.

    In 2020-21, Bedard became just the third WHL 16-year-old to reach 100 points, and was the youngest to score 50 goals in finishing with 51.

    He’s also made a splash on the international stage. Bedard led Canada with nine goals and 23 points at the world juniors last winter, and his combined production of 17 goals and 36 points in just 16 games ranks fourth on the career tournament list.

    Bedard has honed his talent by spending countless hours practicing shots in his backyard, which he referred to as his “Happy Place.” He was so dedicated to work on his shot that he preferred practicing than joining his family for a vacation to Disneyland, and eventually vacationed in Hawaii but only after he was allowed to bring his inline skates and sticks to practice.

    Noted for being soft-spoken, Bedard said he’s not yet allowed himself to envision being drafted or making his NHL debut yet.

    “It’s hard kind of think of that. But of course, I’ll work as hard as I can to try to achieve that goal,” he said. “And hopefully I do.”

    Blue Jackets acquire D Damon Severson from Devils after he signs 8-year deal

    blue jackets
    Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

    The Columbus Blue Jackets acquired Damon Severson from the New Jersey Devils on Friday after the veteran defenseman and soon-to-be free agent signed an eight-year $50 million contract.

    Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen sent a third-round pick, 80th overall, in this month’s draft to the Devils for Severson, who will be under contract through the 2030-31 NHL season.

    Severson had 58 goals and 205 assists in 647 career appearances with the Devils since making his NHL debut in 2014-15. He scored seven game-winning goals and averaged more than 21 minutes of playing time during his nine seasons. The 28-year-old had seven goals and 26 assists this season, including two game-winning goals, in 81 games.

    “Damon is a versatile defenseman who has great vision, moves the puck extremely well, has good size and can play heavy minutes at both ends of the ice,” Kekalainen said.

    The Canadian was selected in the second round in the 2012 draft. He has collected 30 or more points five times in his career and twice notched 11 or more goals. He played in every game in three straight seasons from 2018-21 and has played 80 or more contests four times in his career.

    With the addition of the third-round pick, New Jersey now has six selections in the draft, including its own picks in rounds two, four, five, six and seven.

    Matthew Tkachuk returns from big hit in Stanley Cup Final, adds more playoff heroics

    James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports
    1 Comment

    Matthew Tkachuk was down, out briefly and then back with plenty of time to make a difference.

    The Florida Panthers star left early in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final after a big hit from Vegas Golden Knights forward Keegan Kolesar, and he missed most of the first period and didn’t return immediately following intermission while being evaluated for a concussion. After looking as if he might be lost for the night, Tkachuk returned in the second and then came through with more of his now trademark playoff heroics.

    Tkachuk scored the tying goal with 2:13 left in regulation, forcing overtime and giving the Panthers new life. He then provided the screen on Carter Verhaeghe‘s OT goal for a 3-2 victory that cut Florida’s series deficit to 2-1.

    The 25-year-old said he knew he was coming back when he left the game, pulled by concussion spotters. That absence felt like a long time ago in the aftermath of another big win he was largely responsible for.

    “I felt great – I feel great,” Tkachuk said. “I’m ready to go. Everybody’s excited that we’re in this position right now.”

    Florida is in this position rather than facing elimination in Game 4 on Saturday thanks in large part to Tkachuk, who also set up Brandon Montour‘s goal that opened the scoring less than five minutes in.

    Not long after, Tkachuk stumbled getting up after the hit from Kolesar and skated to the bench. He took a shift on Florida’s power play before going down the tunnel at the demand of concussion spotters mandated by NHL protocol.

    At that point, there was zero clarity, even on the Florida bench.

    “You’re not informed at all: It’s a complete shutdown,” coach Paul Maurice said. “You are completely in the dark on those. You don’t know when the player’s coming back. There’s not an update.”

    Players insist they were not worried. Montour called it a no-brainer.

    “He’s going to come back no matter what,” captain Aleksander Barkov said. “He’s really tough guy, and he’s going to battle through everything.”

    Tkachuk rejoined his teammates on the bench a few minutes into the second. When he stepped back onto the ice for his first shift since leaving, fans cheered and chanted, “Chucky! Chucky!”

    The crowd was even louder and threw rats when Tkachuk scored his biggest goal of many during this run to tie it. He didn’t get an assist on Verhaeghe’s goal but made it happen with a tape-to-tape pass in the neutral zone and was in front of Adin Hill when it happened.

    Asked if he was happy Tkachuk returned, Maurice joked that it was after midnight.

    “It was fine,” he quipped.

    Panthers rally, top Golden Knights 3-2 in OT of Game 3 of Stanley Cup final

    stanley cup final
    Sam Navarro/USA TODAY Sports

    SUNRISE, Fla. — Carter Verhaeghe scored 4:27 into overtime and the Florida Panthers pulled off some more postseason dramatics to beat the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2 in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday night.

    Matthew Tkachuk tied it with 2:13 left in the third period for the Panthers, who got the franchise’s first title-series game win in seven tries. Florida had to fend off a power play to start overtime, and Verhaeghe got the winner from the slot to get the Panthers within 2-1 in the series.

    Game 4 is Saturday night.

    Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 25 shots for Florida. Adin Hill made 20 saves for Vegas, but got beat on the only shot that came his way in overtime.

    Brandon Montour also scored for Florida, which pulled Bobrovsky down 2-1 late in the third for the extra attacker and Tkachuk — who left for parts of the first and second periods after taking a big hit — made that move pay off when he tied the game.

    His goal breathed life into a very nervous building. But the Panthers were furious — and replays showed they had a case — when Gustav Forsling was sent to the box with 11.2 seconds remaining for tripping. Florida survived that scare, and a few minutes later, had life in the series again.

    The odds are still long, but the Panthers at least have a bit more statistical hope now. Of the previous 55 teams to trail 2-1 at this point of the Stanley Cup Final, 11 have actually rallied to hoist the trophy.

    It’s improbable, sure. So are the Panthers, who were the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, were down 3-1 to Boston in Round 1, were 133 seconds away from trailing this series 3-0 — and now have tons of reasons for optimism.

    Jonathan Marchessault and Mark Stone each had power-play goals for Vegas.

    Marchessault’s goal was his 13th in his last 13 playoff games, his fourth of this series and his third with the man advantage.

    As if all that wasn’t enough, there was a little history in there as well. Vegas joined the 1980 New York Islanders as the only team with at least two power-play goals in three consecutive games in the Cup final. And Marchessault became the third player in the last 35 years to score in each of the first three games of a title series — joining Steve Yzerman in 1997 with Detroit and Jake Guentzel with Pittsburgh in 2017.

    But it wasn’t enough to give Vegas a 3-0 lead in the series.


    Before Thursday, Florida’s last home game in the title series was June 10, 1996, when Uwe Krupp scored in the third overtime for a 1-0 win as Colorado finished off a four-game sweep of the Panthers for the Cup. … Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was in the crowd, as was NBA great Charles Barkley, and former Dolphins star Dan Marino was the celebrity drummer to welcome the Panthers onto the ice.