With the expanded 24-team playoff format, it gives tons of teams a new chance to compete for the Stanley Cup. This year’s postseason will be very different compared to previous ones. There’s no difference whether a team was hot or cold before the pause as everyone is starting at square one, injured players have returned, there will be a lot of rust to shake off and no home-ice advantage.
While there are a lot of new aspects, there is one thing remains constant and that’s a chance at an underdog story. Here are three underdog teams that can surprise everyone once hockey returns.
- Columbus Blue Jackets
They surprised everyone in last season’s playoffs sweeping the dominant Tampa Bay Lightning. When all their stars left for free agency, including their star goalscorer, Artemi Panarin, and Vezina-winner, Sergei Bobrovsky, it seemed like the Blue Jackets were headed to an inevitable rebuild.
Instead, John Tortorella has completely rejuvenated his group and despite injuries to star players, including goaltender Joonas Korpisalo, they managed to make the playoffs again. The Blue Jackets continue to prove doubters wrong and are one of the hardest-working teams in the NHL.
Their defensive style of play is built for postseason hockey and they have a strong goaltending tandem to support the team. When Korpisalo went down with an injury, Elvis Merzlinkins stepped up and made a name for himself in his first NHL season. This “next man up” mentality has been with the team the whole season and is exactly what makes them such a difficult team to play against.
- New York Rangers
Goaltending wins championships and the New York Rangers have three incredible goalies at their disposal. Alexander Georgiev and Igor Sheshterkin are young, up-and-coming goaltenders that have been solid this season. If the Rangers need some experience between the pipes, they can call on Henrik “The King” Lundqvist.
That is some insane goaltending depth that no other team can boast. The three of them combined for a dominant .912 save percentage and combined with their strong offence, it makes for a very dangerous opponent.
The Rangers have two star goalscorers in Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin. Zibanejad has developed into a first-line center and that gives New York two very strong offensive lines. This is a very well-rounded team that could make some serious damage in the playoffs.
- Edmonton Oilers
This is Connor McDavid’s first playoff appearance since 2017. He’s been hungry for this moment and no one in the league can stop McDavid when he’s on a mission. The Edmonton Oilers made a lot of moves at the Trade Deadline to boost their offensive depth and find fast wingers to play with both McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Dealing with the most dangerous duo in the league already causes a lot of problems for opposing coaches and now the Oilers have added more depth to decimate opponents’ defences.
Special teams are very important in the playoffs and the Oilers have the best power play (29.5%) and second-best penalty kill (84.4%) among the 24 playoff teams. The tandem of Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith has been solid for Edmonton and they are supported by an offence that averages 3.1 goals a game.
When the Oilers made it to the second round in 2017, Draisaitl led the team with 16 points (6G 10A) and McDavid had nine (5G 4A). Both players have gotten much better since and it will be fascinating to see how much damage they do respectively in this year’s postseason.