The storylines defining the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs

Andy Devlin, Icon Sportswire, Derek Leung / NHL / Getty Images

As Game 5 action looms in the first round of the playoffs, one series is done while six matchups are deadlocked at two wins apiece. These trends and performances have shaped the NHL postseason so far.

Scorers can't be stopped

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Disregard the old saying that it's harder to score in the postseason. Offense surged in 2021-22 to heights unseen in 26 years, and the trendline has kept rising in May.

Teams combined to score 6.28 goals per game during the regular season, the most since the league saw the same average in 1995-96. Through Monday's playoff action, teams have potted 6.56 goals per game - 7.00 exactly when excluding the Calgary Flames and Dallas Stars, whose goalie duel is a glaring outlier.

The offensive barrage keeps generating blowouts. Almost half the games played so far have been decided by four goals or more. Twelve of 16 playoff squads have scored five goals in a game, and seven have done so more than once. A flood of empty netters has seen teams that pull the goalie outscored 20-1.

Game 4 between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs typified the frenzy. Tampa Bay scored five early goals as it shelled Jack Campbell in its 7-3 win. The other five tallies came late as the Maple Leafs heated up, with the Lightning striking twice on the empty net. Tampa Bay also had eight power plays because Toronto's extracurricular stickwork - slashes, hooks, high sticks - kept getting penalized.

Referees are enforcing a strict standard. They've granted 263 power-play opportunities so far, or 8.22 per game. There were 5.78 man advantages per game during the regular season and 5.49 in the 2021 playoffs. It's telling that Connor McDavid has drawn four penalties after getting zero calls in the past two postseasons; the Edmonton Oilers' power play is one of seven league-wide that's averaging a goal per game or better.

Most series are tied, though only three games have required overtime. The losing goalie impressed in a couple of those outings. Igor Shesterkin stopped 79 pucks to help the New York Rangers push the Pittsburgh Penguins to three extra periods. When Connor Ingram made 49 straight saves in the Nashville Predators' 2-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche, his night to remember was Colorado's only low-scoring game of the first round.

Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar, meanwhile, became the third player in the salary-cap era to record 10 points in a four-game series. Nathan MacKinnon is up to five goals, as are Jake Guentzel, Evander Kane, Kirill Kaprizov, and David Perron.

Goaltending drama

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Ingram, Nashville's third-string goalie, stepped in when Juuse Saros sprained his ankle and Colorado chased David Rittich. Louis Domingue, Pittsburgh's third goalie, won the triple-overtime game in relief of Casey DeSmith after devouring spicy pork and broccoli at the intermission. Pyotr Kochetkov, the Carolina Hurricanes' third goalie, came off the bench to replace Antti Raanta and beat the Boston Bruins in the fourth NHL game he'd ever played.

Thanks to injuries and defensive woes, 26 netminders have already appeared in the postseason. That doesn't include the established starters who have been sidelined since April: Saros, Pittsburgh's Tristan Jarry, and Carolina's Frederik Andersen.

Few goalies are enjoying themselves. Four Game 1 starters - Rittich, Linus Ullmark, Ville Husso, and Vitek Vanecek - wobbled early and were benched for their respective backups. Campbell, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and Jonathan Quick all have save percentages below .900. Even Shesterkin, the Vezina Trophy lock, has been lit up and yanked in two Rangers defeats.

So who's playing well? According to Natural Stat Trick, Edmonton's Mike Smith has saved 4.58 goals above average in his four starts, ranking him second in the playoffs to Jake Oettinger of Dallas (6.97). Oettinger was the Stars' fourth-string option when the season started, but he's looked unflappable in thwarting Calgary's attack. His .960 save percentage - Oettinger has surrendered six goals in four games - remains sparkling.

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Faltering favorites

Colorado swept Nashville, yet two matchups that were lopsided on paper are knotted up. The Flames and Panthers won their respective Game 4s on Monday, but both have looked vulnerable at times instead of asserting their superiority.

The Flames needed 53 shots to overcome Oettinger in Game 4. They beat him at five-on-three and on Johnny Gaudreau's penalty shot before Calgary's top line connected at even strength. Gaudreau's five-on-five scoring splits - 3.58 points per 60 minutes in the regular season, 2.31 in the playoffs despite a rash of chances - reflect that this series has been the Oettinger show. At least Jacob Markstrom's response (.952 save percentage) bodes well.

Escaping Washington with an overtime victory didn't solve Florida's problems on special teams. The regular-season juggernaut that scored more goals than any team this century is the only playoff club without a power-play tally. The Panthers are mired in an 0-for-13 skid while the Capitals have gone 5-for-17. Washington has limited Florida's dangerous chances at five-on-five, and Ilya Samsonov's save percentage is .949 since he replaced Vanecek.

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Names to watch

These three groups of players are under pressure to produce this week.

Top scorers gone cold: This tag applied to Steven Stamkos until he bombed a slapper past Campbell early in Game 4. The same went for William Nylander until he scored twice on Vasilevskiy in garbage time, and for Sam Reinhart until he forced OT against the Capitals on Monday.

Across the league, 30-goal forwards who have yet to net one in the playoffs include Anthony Duclair, Matthew Tkachuk, Andrew Mangiapane, Jason Robertson, Adrian Kempe, Pavel Buchnevich, and Kevin Fiala. Ryan Hartman and Mikko Rantanen haven't scored either, though both have five helpers.

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Deadline acquisitions: Some March trade additions are contributing in May. Rangers pickups Frank Vatrano and Andrew Copp have combined to score five times. Colin Blackwell and Brandon Hagel have each scored a key goal in Toronto's series against the Lightning, and Hagel and Nick Paul have drawn five penalties apiece.

Less positively, huge hits injured Boston's Hampus Lindholm and Pittsburgh's Rickard Rakell. As for the biggest names to move at the deadline, Claude Giroux has been quiet since scoring in Florida's playoff opener, Mark Giordano has been steady for Toronto in third-pairing minutes, and eight of the 11 goals Marc-Andre Fleury has allowed came in Minnesota's two losses.

X-factors in 2-2 matchups: Here's one skater from every team to watch in the series that are tied.

  • Maple Leafs-Lightning: Winning 71% of his faceoffs is about all John Tavares has done offensively. Brayden Point continues to tease a potential breakout: His 20 scoring chances lead the Lightning.
  • Panthers-Capitals: By drawing six penalties, Mason Marchment keeps giving Florida chances to strike. The Panthers have heavily outshot T.J. Oshie's line, but he leads the Capitals with three goals and has been on the ice for none against at five-on-five.
  • Hurricanes-Bruins: Although Carolina is 2-for-22 with the man advantage, Teuvo Teravainen is one of the league's better power-play distributors. Connor Clifton's ice time increased on the Boston blue line when Charlie McAvoy entered COVID-19 protocol.
  • Flames-Stars: Tkachuk's five-on-five scoring discrepancy - 3.23 points per 60 minutes this season, 1.20 against Dallas - is even more crooked than his linemate Gaudreau's. Robertson has a team-high 12 shots in the series and probably needs to bury some for the Stars to advance.
  • Oilers-Kings: The analytics suggest Duncan Keith has had a solid series, but his poor clearances and an ill-advised tip led to two L.A. goals in Game 4. Phillip Danault plays hard minutes, and the Kings have outscored Edmonton 5-1 during his five-on-five shifts.
  • ​​Wild-Blues: Fiala has one assist against St. Louis after bagging 23 points in 10 games late in the regular season. After Vladimir Tarasenko notched 21 points in the same span, his five-on-five playoff output - a 23% expected goals mark and a 5-1 Blues deficit in actual goals - has been poor.

Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.

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The storylines defining the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs
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