Why to keep an eye on Golden Knights’ Jack Eichel, Oilers’ Connor McDavid

The 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs are here, and the best hockey players in the world will be battling for the sport’s ultimate prize. There are certain players who will have an especially big impact on how this postseason plays out, and we have highlighted a number of them.

Superstars like Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews are playing at an elite level, and they are hungry for their first Stanley Cup. Those two have already shown that they can put on a show in the postseason, but a couple of key players will be making their playoff debuts.

Jack Hughes and Jack Eichel have never suited up in a playoff game, but that is about to change. It will be interesting to see whether those players can get the job done when the pressure is at its highest.

Here are some important players to watch in the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Maple Leafs’ ability to win a postseason series leads the way

The 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs are set to begin, but first, we have some questions. Every NHL postseason comes with a plethora of unknowns, and that’s part of what makes the tournament so much fun to watch.

Can a seemingly cursed team get over the hump? Will a player making his postseason debut live up to the hype or will he wilt in the spotlight? Will the Cup favorites get tripped up on their path to a championship?

Over the next couple of months, players and teams will provide answers to questions like those, for better or worse. Until then, let’s take a look at which players and teams face the biggest questions this year.

Here are six burning questions about the 2023 NHL Playoffs.

Will anyone knock off the Avalanche?
The Avalanche have fought the injury bug all season, and yet they still look poised to defend their title as Stanley Cup champions. Will any team be able to end Colorado’s reign?

The Avs have dealt with a slew of injuries in 2022-23, but they have really rounded into form down the home stretch. In the last month, Colorado has been among the league’s best teams with a 13-2-1 record and an expected goals share of 53.5% at five-on-five, per Natural Stat Trick.

They’ve been able to do all of that without captain Gabriel Landeskog, who has yet to suit up this season as he deals with an injury. With Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar leading the way, the Avs are still one of the deeper teams in the league. Having said that, the departure of Nazem Kadri in the offseason left a hole in the middle of the second line that the Avs haven’t really been able to fill consistently this year.

The Avalanche will also face a tougher journey to the Cup in 2023. The Dallas Stars have been at or near the top of the Central Division all season, the Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings have both improved since last year, and the Vegas Golden Knights are back to being one of the conference’s best teams. Those teams have the right ingredients to knock off the defending champions this spring. –Nivison

Can the Maple Leafs finally win a series?
It’s been the only question in recent years when it comes to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Will they finally break through the proverbial glass ceiling and advance past the opening round of the postseason?

The Maple Leafs had a terrific regular season in which Mitch Marner had a career-best 99 points. Still, all of that will be for nothing if Toronto can’t get out of their own way and come away with a series win.

This time around, the Maple Leafs will be facing the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round for a second consecutive season. The Maple Leafs had the Lightning on the ropes last postseason with a 3-2 series lead, but they dropped back-to-back one-goal games over the final two contests of the series.

The Maple Leafs front office was extremely active at the trade deadline as they acquired veteran winger Ryan O’Reilly, forward Sam Lafferty and defenseman Jake McCabe. General manager Kyle Dubas clearly wasn’t trying to be complacent and leave anything to chance this time around. Will those moves be enough to defeat the defending Eastern Conference champions? We will find out in a matter days. –Bengel

Can Jack Eichel lead the Golden Knights to a Stanley Cup?
For the first time since he was drafted No. 2 overall by the Buffalo Sabres in 2015, Jack Eichel will take the ice in a playoff game. Eichel won’t be able to dip his toe into the postseason pool either. He’ll have to dive in headfirst because the Golden Knights need to capitalize on their championship window while it’s still open.

Prior to the 2021-22 season, Eichel and his $10 million salary cap hit were traded to the Golden Knights, but he missed most of the season while recovering from surgery. Now fully healthy, Eichel has been great for Vegas in 2022-23. He has recorded 65 points in 66 games and is currently riding an eight-game point streak.

Now that Eichel has powered the Golden Knights to the top spot in the Western Conference, it’s time to see what he can do in the playoffs. Throughout his first seven years in the league, Eichel watched peers like Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon and Auston Matthews get multiple cracks at a Stanley Cup.

Eichel will be in that mix this year, and he has the team around him to make a special run. –Nivison

Will the Rangers deadline additions result in a Stanley Cup Final appearance?
The New York Rangers definitely made the biggest splash leading up to the NHL trade deadline last month. The team acquired a pair of talented wingers in the form of Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko.

The Rangers came just two wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final during the 2022 postseason. After being eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Rangers went out and signed Vincent Trocheck to be the franchise’s second-line center. Trocheck has certainly paid dividends with a 64-point campaign, which was the second-highest total of his 10-year career.

New York was obviously having a terrific season even before landing Kane and Tarasenko. However, those moves signaled the fact that the Rangers were willing to do whatever it takes to get to the Stanley Cup Final. Both Kane and Tarasenko have a Stanley Cup under their respective belts and have thrived when the lights are brightest.

The Rangers’ opening round playoff series against the Devils isn’t going to be a walk in the park, but it’s one that New York is certainly capable of winning. The true test will likely be when the Rangers would eventually have to face off with the Boston Bruins. They’ve yet to beat the Bruins this season, but they also only played one game against them with Kane and Tarasenko on their roster.

The Rangers are going for it all in 2023, but will it be enough? –Bengel

How will the Wild handle their goaltending situation?
Minnesota Wild head coach Dean Evason has a big decision to make ahead of Game 1. Barring a sudden and jarring rule change from the NHL, Evason must pick one of Filip Gustavsson or Marc-Andre Fleury to get the start between the pipes.

Frankly, his initial decision shouldn’t be too difficult. Gustavsson has been the better goaltender all season, and he has established himself as a Vezina Trophy contender. Gustavsson has posted a GAA of 2.05, which is second in the NHL, and his 32.2 goals saved above average rank third, per Natural Stat Trick.

Still, having Fleury on the bench makes this situation a fascinating one. For starters, Gustavsson has never appeared in a playoff game, and Fleury has a long and impressive postseason resume. Fleury has started 107 playoff games, played in three Stanley Cup Finals, and has three rings in his trophy case.

With that in mind, how patient will Evason be with Gustavsson if the 24-year-old netminder starts to struggle? Given the urgency that a seven-game series creates, it might be tempting for Minnesota to go with the more experienced Fleury if Gustavsson turns in a poor outing, even if the latter has been rock solid throughout the regular season. –Nivison

Will any team be able to solve Linus Ullmark?
Very few teams have had much success when facing Boston Bruins netminder Linus Ullmark throughout the 2022-23 season. We’re talking about a goaltender that leads the league in wins (40), goals-against-average (1.89) and save percentage (.938).

Ullmark has continued to play some of his best hockey entering the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Bruins goalie has yielded one goal or fewer in five of his last seven starts and has been victorious in six of those outings. According to MoneyPuck, Ullmark has a league-leading .966 save percentage when facing unblocked shots during the regular season.

When facing Boston’s first-round opponent in the Florida Panthers, Ullmark has looked a little more human. The 29-year-old has allowed a grand total of six goals in two starts and surrendered three goals apiece in those two contests. It’s certainly going to be a tough battle for the Panthers, but they’ve had some success against Ullmark.

When facing an elite offense like the Devils, Maple Leafs or Rangers, it’ll be interesting to see if Ullmark can continue to close the door on the opposition. Ullmark did lose his only two career playoff starts in the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs and recorded a shocking 4.16 goals-against-average in those starts.

Maple Leafs’ Michael Bunting suspended three games for illegal hit on Lightning’s Erik Cernak

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Michael Bunting has been suspended three playoff games for an illegal hit to the head of Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Eric Cernak in the second period of Game 1. The NHL Department of Player Safety announced its decision on Wednesday, and the Leafs will be without Bunting through Game 4.

Late in the second period, Bunting and Cernak were going for a loose puck when Bunting launched into Cernak’s head. The Tampa defenseman left the game with a head injury and did not return, and Bunting was assessed a five-minute major.

Michael Bunting has received a 5-minute match penalty for an illegal check to the head on Erik Cernak. pic.twitter.com/aY8TnNZgWl

— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) April 19, 2023
In its video explaining decision, the NHL said that both criteria for an illegal hit to the head were met on the play.

“First, the head is clearly the main point of contact,” the NHL said in its explanation. “Bunting’s arm and elbow make direct and forceful contact with the head of Cernak, and it is the head that absorbs nearly all of the force of the check.

“Second, the head contact on this play is avoidable. Bunting unnecessarily extends his body upward into Cernak’s head to deliver this check, missing his core completely and picking his head.”

The league also noted that Cernak was “particularly vulnerable” because there was clear interference on Bunting’s part. The puck was still far away when Bunting initiated the contact.

Lightning head coach Jon Cooper has already ruled Cernak out for Game 2, and Toronto will be without Bunting while facing a 1-0 deficit in the series.

Bunting is coming off a 2022-23 season in which he tallied 23 goals and 26 assists in 82 games. His absence will make the Maple Leafs’ attempt to get out of the first round for the first time since 2004 an even more difficult task.

Timberwolves’ Anthony Edwards fined $50K for recklessly swinging chair after playoff game in Denver

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards has been fined $50,000 for recklessly swinging a chair after a playoff game in Denver earlier this year, the NBA announced on Wednesday. Per the collective bargaining agreement, the league could not end its review into the matter until the criminal investigation into the incident was concluded; charges against Edwards were dropped in July.

After missing a potential game-tying shot at the buzzer of the Timberwolves’ Game 5 loss to the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs last season, Edwards sprinted off the floor and down the tunnel toward the locker room. As he left the court, he picked up a chair and tossed it aside, hitting multiple bystanders.

Video shows Anthony Edwards throwing chair at security guard pic.twitter.com/jw8eFM2Ky4

— MadstrosityYT (@MadstrosityYT) April 26, 2023
Denver police spokesman Jay Casillas said that the two women struck by the chair sustained minor injuries and Edwards was charged with third-degree assault for “knowingly or recklessly” causing bodily injury. Edwards was cited at the arena, and given a court date of June 9.

Edwards’ lawyer, Harvey Steinberg, issued a statement in the immediate aftermath:

“With the game over, Anthony’s exit from the court was partially obstructed by a chair, which he moved and set down three steps later. As video of the incident confirms, Anthony did not swing the chair at anyone and of course did not intend to hurt anyone,” Steinberg said. “Anthony intends to vigorously defend against these baseless charges.”

The charges against Edwards were later dropped.

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Ahead of his fourth season with the Timberwolves, Edwards has spent his summer with Team USA, and will participate in the FIBA World Cup later this month. He was inserted into the starting lineup for the team’s tune-up game against Puerto Rico and was one of the stand-out players. He finished with a team-high 15 points and four steals in the Americans’ 117-74 win.

Team USA will play four more friendlies in the coming weeks before beginning World Cup action on Aug. 26 against New Zealand. The Americans are looking to bounce back from an embarrassing seventh-place finish in 2019 and win their sixth gold medal in the event.