If recent history were ignored, the Toronto Maple Leafs would be overwhelmingly favorites heading into this series. They had 111 points on the season, 13 more than the Tampa Bay Lightning, and finished the year strong with a 7-1-2 record, compared to the Lightning’s 4-6.

But the Lightning have reached the Stanley Cup Finals in the last three springs while the Maple Leafs are looking to get past the first round for the first time since… 2004. The pressure is high on the current group, eliminated in the first round or before in the last six seasons.

Toronto also comes with an inexperienced goalie, Ilya Samsonov. He even had the audacity to claim that the Maple Leafs were the best in every way.

Perhaps, however, that other premature failure last year, in seven games against that same Lightning, will have hurt enough for the Maple Leafs players to play as if their lives depended on it.

At the very least, the position of their general manager Kyle Dubas, and probably that of head coach Sheldon Keefe, is very likely dependent on a victory in the first round…

Vasilevskiy had a season slightly below his standards, but he remains monstrous in net and can sow doubt in the minds of Maple Leafs players, especially at the start of the series, if he is at the top of his game.

Marner has things to be forgiven. He comes close to 100 points in the season, but fades in the playoffs. He scored only 7 goals in 39 games in such an occasion, with 26 assists. He will want to prove that he has the will and the power to shine in a more intense and violent context as well.

The Lightning have always been able to count on big third lines during their Cup conquests. Nick Paul, a 6’3″, 225 lb colossus, obtained last year for Mathieu Joseph and a fourth-round pick, will be at the center of this trio. He can also produce offensively, as evidenced by his 17 goals.

O’Reilly slowed a lot with the St. Louis Blues before being traded, but his experience could be the difference in Toronto, among a band of rather green players. We should entrust the center of the second line, with John Tavares and William Nylander, to this winner of the Conn-Smythe Trophy awarded to the most valuable player in the playoffs in 2019.

The Devils have won five more games this season than their first-round opponents, but in contrast, the Rangers have playoff experience.

Head coach Lindy Ruff was showered with boos in the opener, but the Devils had a dream year finishing third overall.

However, this is the group’s first playoff appearance since 2018, and again, only Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Miles Wood and Damon Severson were there.

The Rangers amassed a few points less than the previous season, but they reached the semi-finals last spring with the current group. This experience could weigh in the balance.

The Devils acquired one top player at the trade deadline, Timo Meier, but the Rangers acquired two, Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko.

The pressure will also be strong on Devils goaltender Vitek Vanecek, due to his inexperience, only three starts in the playoffs, unlike Igor Shesterkin, strong from his 20-game career last year.

Kane has underperformed since arriving from Chicago, only 12 points, including 5 goals, in 19 games, but we like to remember in New York that Martin St-Louis was also average after his acquisition before being reborn in series.

Meier cost some good young players and two first-round picks if the conditions are met, and he had a tentative start in New Jersey, scoring six points in 13 games, but finishing strong with eight points in as many games. He could find himself on a third line with Erik Haula and Jesper Boqvist to balance the forces.

The third trio of youngsters in New York, Alexis Lafrenière, Kaapo Kakko and Filip Chytil, finally started to express themselves this winter. Lafrenière had 15 points in 27 games in February and March.

A very profitable transaction for the Devils, who obtained in John Marino a defender of top 4 for a younger rear, Ty Smith, unable to hang on to the NHL for the moment. Marino plays against big opposing lines with Ryan Graves and is the most used defender on the penalty kill.

A Seattle win would be one of the biggest upsets of recent playoff years.

Nine points separate the two teams, but also, above all, the Colorado Avalanche are experiencing tobacco after winning the Stabley Cup last year; the Kraken, on the other hand, enter the playoffs in their second year of existence and rely on a number one center of only 20 years old, Matthew Beniers.

Let’s give Caesar his due, however, this team made up of players mostly rejected by other formations still amassed 100 points. Head coach Dave Hakstol knew how to maximize the performance of this group, and the effectiveness of the collective game made up for the lack of talent.

If we had to encourage the Kraken, let’s mention the health problems of Cale Makar, absent in the last seven games of the season, the retirement of captain Gabriel Landeskog for the entire series, and the fact that we has ever succeeded in replacing the second center Nazem Kadri.

Despite everything, Colorado has not lost on a regular basis in the last eight meetings of the season…

Second overall pick in 2021, behind Owen Power, Beniers was one of the main offensive powerhouses with 57 points, including 24 goals, at just 20 years old. The step is high nevertheless in series against such a powerful formation.

What condition will Makar, still brilliant offensively with 66 points in 60 games, look like after missing the last seven games, not counting ten games between Feb. 9 and March 1 to recover from a concussion?

The Taylor Hall trade for Adam Larsson was decried at the time in Edmonton, but the Oilers took two years to recover from his departure. Larsson, the second overall pick in 2011, is coming off his best offensive season with 33 points, but he’s best known for his defensive skills. He’ll be in MacKinnon’s hands as much as possible.

Some may have missed the news, but the former Canadiens center went from a drifting formation, the Washington Capitals, to the Avalanche. An opportunity to win his second career Cup, at 33 years old.

The Winnipeg Jets exceeded expectations with the arrival of a new coach, Rick Bowness, who was intractable from the start with his stars Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, but the club faltered and qualified for the playoffs by the buttocks skin.

The Golden Knights have enjoyed success despite the injury of their unlikely number one goaltender Logan Thompson. Laurent Brossoit will undoubtedly be the starter in the first game, assisted by Jonathan Quick, survivor of the Los Angeles Kings, via Columbus.

Brossoit, 30, came back to life at the end of the season. He’s 7-0-3, 2.17 GAA and .927 save percentage, but he’ll face one of the best in the game, Connor Hellebuyck.

Dubois had 42 points after 41 games, but the offense was less strong in the second half of the season, with 21 points in 32 games. We will especially remember his performances in the playoffs, where he should play in the center of the first line between Kyle Connor and Scheifele.

Eichel produces less than one of the four pieces obtained for his services, Alex Tuch, but he is said to be more responsible defensively and his leadership qualities are touted. His 66 points in 67 games are decent, but don’t tell the whole story about his game.

Niederreiter’s acquisition from the Nashville Predators for a second-round pick in 2024 on Feb. 25 didn’t make much of a splash, but the young veteran can be quite useful in the playoffs because of his size and sense of defensive responsibility . He will in principle complete a third line, but could get a promotion if Nikolaj Ehlers is not restored in time.

As if by magic, Mark Stone should return in time for the start of the playoffs. He had not played since January 12. Gossips will say that we delayed his return in order to comply with the cap, since salaries are no longer counted in playoffs.