Somehow we blinked, and now we're one-to-four games out West away from the 2023 Stanley Cup Final.
We laughed. We cried. The historic regular season Bruins blew a 3-1 lead to the eighth seed Panthers, who just swept the Hurricanes as they punched the first ticket to the Final. The Maple Leafs finally made it out of the first round, only to fall pretty quickly in the second.
There's tons to unpack as all the eliminated playoff teams start to come back from their respective golf courses and devise the game plan for next season.
As we and the Panthers await the results of the Golden Knights-Stars Western Conference Final, let's assign one word to each eliminated playoff team.
You have to hand it to the Hurricanes' depth players, like Jordan Martinook who came up with 10 points in the series against the Devils: They really did everything they could. Under head coach Rod Brind'Amour, you're generally going to get a consistently "all-in" effort to a man on this team.
But Brind'Amour couldn't bring injured star forwards Andrei Svechnikov or Max Pacioretty back, and as the Panthers completed the Eastern Conference Final sweep Wednesday, it was clear that finishing touch is exactly what was missing for the Canes.
Should they have done more at the trade deadline for finishing touch insurance? This has been a common criticism since deadline day, but then you look at a team like the Rangers who went all in and still lost in the first round. Maybe it's simply a matter of Svechnikov returning to health and re-signing Pacioretty, but the recurring theme of Carolina's scoring drying up as playoff series go on has been their achilles heel throughout their recent playoff trips.
The lopsided scoring nature of the Hurricanes-Devils second-round series aged a bit poorly for the Devils now that Carolina couldn't buy a goal in the Eastern Conference Final.
It makes for further evidence for New Jersey that goaltending is the only thing holding an exciting offensive team back now. It was super encouraging to watch the young core take the next step and thrive under relatively low pressure. Underlying metrics aren't as meaningful in the playoffs when you're 1. just trying to live another day and 2. working with a significantly smaller sample size, but the dominance we saw from Jack Hughes (OK, not against the Canes in those wacky games) and Co. have me convinced this is a team on the rise with nowhere to go but up. That is, if rookie goaltender Akira Schmidt fine-tunes his game and/or they seek out a proven goaltender, they can improve the power play, and figure out contract extensions for players like Jesper Bratt and Timo Meier.
With a playoff round won and one lost now under their belts, the Devils are officially cooking in the potential perennial playoff team kitchen.