The 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs have yet to see a team advance to the second round with most series through their fifth games. That's just how we wanted things to go, unless you've got a vested rooting interest, of course.
But the playoffs are the second season for a reason. Games get tighter, players get hurt and sometimes how a team played for 82 games is wildly different than how they play in the postseason. That also means sometimes we have to unlearn what happened over the course of seven months and soak in the new norm the race for the Cup provides.
Every team is still in it, and that means we have 16 teams teaching us something brand new about themselves.
Whether it's a team that's got a little more fight in them than expected or a player seemingly coming out of the blue to give their team an advantage, there's something to be said for all of them. How these teams are performing in the face of pressure, adversity expectations or lack thereof is a big part of the fun and drama of it all. It's also the source of heartburn and sleepless nights for fans of the teams involved.
So, what have we learned? Let's take a look going division by division.
Boston Bruins: They're Not Invincible
Boston clinched a spot in the playoffs with 18 games left in the season in early March and wrapped up the Presidents' Trophy with seven to go later that same month. After a stretch of games that didn't really matter, they're now dealing with a Panthers team that, ahem, scratched and clawed just to get into the postseason. Starting the playoffs without an injured Patrice Bergeron (he returned in Game 5) and David Krejci missing the past three games has made things a bit trickier, but that's what the playoffs are like. After such a long spell without games that really mattered, the Bruins are trying to turn things on while also hoping to keep Florida at bay.
Florida Panthers: They're Tough When They Score the First Goal
The Panthers have scored the game's first goal twice in this series and have won both of those games. Everyone wants to score first in the playoffs or in literally every game ever played, but as a severe underdog, the Panthers have no choice but to try to play while ahead. Florida is a much better team when they can play the game at their pace, and Boston's defensive play makes overcoming a deficit tough. The Panthers' Game 5 win in Boston showed how much it helps to have a lead, even one goal, to pad mistakes or tough goals against. Florida can't get into a boat race with Boston, but it can sneak across the finish line as long as they get ahead of the situation.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Lacking Depth in Their Defensive Core
Victor Hedman left Game 1 and didn't play in Game 2. Another Lightning defenseman, Erik Cernak, was knocked out of action in the series opener by an elbow to the head from Leafs forward Michael Bunting. Although Tampa Bay ran away with Game 1, Game 2 was a blowout win for Toronto. The Lightning could barely afford to lose anyone on defense, never mind a Norris Trophy winner and a guy who averaged more than 19 minutes per game. Without Cernak, the Lightning have lost three straight games, including two straight in which they blew third period leads (3-2 in Game 3; 4-1 in Game 4). Health is a factor for everyone in the postseason, but losing two of the top-four defensemen for any amount of time, never mind multiple games, is a recipe for disaster. Tampa has played a lot of hockey the past three years, and its record headed into the playoffs wasn't super (9-11-2 since the beginning of March), but the Leafs have been able to take full advantage of them in a weakened state.
Toronto Maple Leafs: They Can Handle Pressure?!?
Previous iterations of the team would've stared third-period deficits in the face and withered, allowing their opponents to break their spirit with even the slightest bit of luck. Their comeback wins in Games 3 and 4 have them a win away from winning a first-round series for the first time since 2004. Wins like the past two can give them the confidence they'll need to vanquish the team that's made the past three Stanley Cup Finals. The job is never done until it's finished, and a loss in Game 5 would assuredly change the conversation again, but this Toronto team is showing the gumption they haven't in the past.