The 2021 NHL season was a campaign like we’ve never seen it before – and we hope to never see it again. The game plan was limited (both in terms of the total volume and the variety of opponents). The fan capacity was limited. Thankfully, the ways the Stanley Cup final could play out are less limited with the NHL holding the last four again once we get to the semifinals.
But before that we have eight fantastic matchups in the first round. In order to prepare you for the tournament, we asked our panel to answer a five-pack of future-oriented questions. Click the links below to skip ahead or read through all five.
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Which series of the first round are you most looking forward to?
Emily Kaplan, National NHL Reporter: Boston Bruins versus Washington Capitals. There are just too many juicy storylines out there. Taylor Hall is burning the earth to get a deal with Boston this summer. Zdeno Chara against the team he led for 14 years – after it caught him in the free hand. Two battle-tested teams, a lot of star power and a playoff series with Brad Marchand and Tom Wilson offer the potential for fireworks.
Greg Wyshynski, NHL Senior Writer: Florida Panthers versus Tampa Bay Lightning. Fun fact: I attended the first home game of the Lightning Playoffs on April 21, 1996 in front of 25,945 spectators at the ThunderDome baseball stadium. From that moment until this season, the Lightning have never dealt with their Sunrise neighbors in a playoff series. The games between these teams were intense. The lightning bolts are hurt and vulnerable. That could be something special.
Arda Ocal, In The Crease / SportsNation: Toronto Maple Leafs versus Montreal Canadiens. Yes, I’m a little biased because I grew up in Toronto, but these two teams haven’t met in the postseason since 1979, though Leafs fans still have the fleeting and painful thought of a Stanley Cup final In 1993, against Montreal, Toronto’s grip goes out of hand. This is one of the biggest and oldest rivalries in sport on a stage where it really matters. In addition, social media are switched to FIRE in this case. I can not wait any longer
Tim Kavanagh, NHL Senior Editor: Carolina Hurricanes versus Nashville Predators. No, this doesn’t seem like a particularly tight series on paper. But the Preds played the Canes in two games with a ferocity befitting their emblem to end the season so they won’t go away so easily. Plus, this matchup features two fan bases that turn any foreplay into a college football-style tailgate. That will be fun.
Ben Arledge, NHL general editor: Toronto Maple Leafs versus Montreal Canadiens. An Original Six, a purely Canadian matchup right outside the door? Sign me up. I’m excited to see how the Leafs’ offensive firepower will be in the playoff spotlight. Put simply, Toronto can’t take this opportunity to win the first two rounds against competition that’s easier than normal.
Sach Chandan, Fantasy Hockey Editor: Edmonton Oilers versus Winnipeg Jets. The Oilers aren’t as complete as the other teams on this list, but after Connor McDavid’s historic season, I expect fireworks this postseason. His teammate Leon Draisaitl, who won the Hart Trophy, has also carved the Jets for seven goals this season. While goalkeeper Connor Hellebuyck and the Jets struggled, he’s the best goalkeeper in the league when he’s hot. If the Oilers win, it will have gone through high profile affairs where there is too much money. If the Jets win, it is because Hellebuyck regains his form and scores some wins.
What’s your bold forecast for the 2021 postseason?
Chaplain: The Panthers will upset the Blitz and win their first playoff series since 1996. I initially thought the Panthers were a mirage this season, but they’ve proven they’re real. Tampa Bay was in a doldrums to end the season. It’s clear Victor Hedman isn’t 100%, and I don’t know how easy it is for Nikita Kucherov, who didn’t play all season after hip replacement in December, to jump in and flip a switch right away.
Wyshynski: Auston Matthews wins the Conn Smythe. Granted, I could bury the Lede here, as “the multi-year playoff disappointment to win the first Stanley Cup since 1967 with an apparent goalkeeper” might be the bolder prediction. But I hit my MVP prediction for Victor Hedman for the playoffs last postseason, so I might as well get back into detail: The Leafs win the Stanley Cup on the back of an Arizona kid.
Ocal: Taylor Hall will lead the postseason. Years ago when I hosted Devils shows I saw firsthand the fire in his eyes and his will to get New Jersey into the playoffs. For many nights it looked unstoppable, piled up in spots, and was all over the ice. I’ve been seeing the same fire since he joined the Bruins at close of trade. He looks like old Taylor Hall, with highlight goals and an aura of trust around him that one would expect from someone with his talents. He looks unstoppable again.
Kavanagh: All three Maple Leafs goalkeepers will be active in the first two rounds. As a rule, teams decide on an option once the postseason starts to ride the hot hand. But the Leafs goal lately has been anything but typical. Jack Campbell has had epic successes this season, but he has no post-season experience. Frederik Andersen has this experience – but it has not exactly gone well for him this season. And just to keep this bold, we’ll say that at some point David Rittich will also find his way into the fold.
Arledge: Connor McDavid has scored the most points in a playoff series in the past 25 years. Brave enough? Alex Ovechkin holds the current mark at 14 against the Penguins in the 2008-09 season, but McDavid has only cut 100 points in a significantly shortened season. I see the potential for some longer back and forth series at the start of the playoffs, first against the Jets and then possibly the Leafs, which offers a lot of opportunities. McDavid scored nine points in a postseason run of four games last summer and has scored 20 points on two separate seven-game tracks this season.
Chandan: Colorado loses in the first round. The Presidents’ Trophy winners almost never make it through the first two rounds. The Avalanche have been one of the top Stanley Cup favorites since we dropped the puck in January, but they play against a seasoned blues team that have lost regulation only once in their last 12 games. Annoyance is rooted in special teams, and since the calendar was changed to April, the Blues have been the second best in the league with a power play rate of 32.1%, while their penalty shot has increased from 74.6% to 83.6%. I’m ready to eat this L if I’m wrong, but this is a tougher matchup for the Avs than it might look on the surface.
John Buccigross describes the main storylines in the NHL in the playoffs.
Which seed # 4 will go deepest into the playoffs?
Chaplain: New York Islanders. Come on, we’ve all been burned before. It is an annual tradition to devalue the islanders … until they run a run that forces you to watch out for them. The islands have the strongest team identity in the league. They all buy in defensively and can wear down teams in a long run.
Wyshynski: New York Islanders. Yes, it is the islands that are being eliminated. Carolina and Toronto are far superior to Nashville and Montreal, respectively. The blues are certainly rolling into the postseason and feeling pretty good about themselves, but they have to face an Avalanche team that have shown they can beat you in a number of different ways. I thought the islanders might piss off the penguins until their offensive apparently decided to move to Belmont Park months before the rest of the team. “Anti-hockey” alone is not enough against Pittsburgh.
Ocal: New York Islanders. “You have to go around the island” is never a funny business for an opponent, especially when the islands are under the direction of Barry Defiant. The islands are shabby, suck the soul right out of you, and have the necessary pieces like a solid goalkeeping team and one of the most talented young players in the game in Mathew Barzal. For the penguins no easy opponent in the first round.
Kavanagh: St. Louis Blues. Sorry for being a party pooper, but I don’t think the # 4 seeds will win their first round matchups. However, I think the blues can take the Avalanche to a seventh game thanks to the continuation of the Jordan Binnington Revenge Tour.
Arledge: New York Islanders. I’m going to be checking out Semyon Varlamov here to help the islands piss off the penguins in the first round and possibly even jump past a Caps team that struggled in the gate or a Bruins team that is streaked. Don’t expect a quiet final dance at the Colosseum.
Chandan: St. Louis Blues. I think i to have To say St. Louis, after my bold prediction above. After an uneven start to the season, the Blues seem to have figured out something. Binnington, who won the Stanley Cup as a rookie, has looked better since April with a saving of 0.921 percent, and Mike Hoffman found his goal on the first power play session. On top of that, I agree with the others that the Islanders are the defensively strong team here, but I can’t think of any other 4 seeds making a run here.
Which player will be the biggest X-factor for their team this postseason?
Chaplain: Devon Toews, D, Colorado avalanche. It was acquired by the islanders last summer for a pair of second-round players. At the end of the season he was wear an “A” for the Avs. Toews was dominant in Colorado’s blue line, perhaps the league’s most underrated defender.
Wyshynski: Alex Nedeljkovic, G, Carolina Hurricanes. The canes held all three goalkeepers – Nedeljkovic, Petr Mrazek and James Reimer – at the close of trading. They hope that one of them will take the reins this postseason. In his last 10 starts, “Ned” is 7-2-1 with a savings of 0.939 percent. Not all “time is a flat circle” getting here, but I remember the last time the Hurricanes won their division and a rookie goalkeeper took the fold in the playoffs, and it ended with a shirtless Rod Brind’Amour who picked the game Stanley Cup over a creek.
Ocal: Kirill Kaprizov, F, Minnesota Wild. This eye-catching 24-year-old Russian super rookie was rightly the talk of the Calder Trophy race all season. He even cemented himself in the top 10 NHL goals this season (27) and ticked off all the performance bonuses in his contract this year. Great for him! But do you know what any NHL player is going to say is better than money? Lord Stanley’s cup win. Not many people are plucking the wilderness to get out of the west. But that also means that seed # 3 puts less pressure on it. What’s more interesting is that you can see what Kirill The Thrill can do when the games matter most. Kaprizov has a gold medal in the Olympics and has played well for the Gagarin Cup in the KHL. How will that affect the NHL?
Kavanagh: Nikita Kucherov, RW, Tampa Bay Lightning. It almost seems unfair that the defending Stanley Cup champions are getting one of the best players in the world back for the postseason, but here we are. Kucherov – the 2019 Hart Trophy MVP winner of the league – scored 34 points in 26 postseason games in the 2020 bubble but has not played since the cup was raised on September 28. Will there be rust after this long absence? Will Jon Cooper and his staff let him overcome this rust if the Panthers rise 2-0 … or 3-0?
Arledge: Jack Campbell, G, Toronto Maple Leafs. Is there a bigger wild card in one of the 16 playoff teams? Toronto has a trophy-worthy squad, but goalkeeping continues to be the crucial component. If Campbell plays like he does in the regular season – a 17-2-2 record, 0.923 percent savings and 2.11 goals against average – then the Leafs are in business. But if he struggles in his first career playoffs or if Toronto is forced to turn to Frederik Andersen or David Rittich, the team could face disappointment soon.
Chandan: Alec Martinez, D, Vegas Golden Knights. Martinez was on track for the best season of his career, scoring 0.6 points per game before his foot injury. But that’s not why I choose him. When the Golden Knights get up late, trainer Pete DeBoer relies on his pairing with Shea Theodore for close wins. Martinez is a veteran of two Stanley Cup winning teams in LA, which include reaching the series goal in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final. He’s listed as questionable in the injury report, and the Knights would feel the loss if he wasn’t ready for Game 1.
Who will win the Stanley Cup?
Chaplain: Washington Capitals. I picked the caps before the season so I’m going to double up. The Caps hired Peter Laviolette this past off-season to instill a sense of urgency and the team seems to be buying in. As long as Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie’s not too freaky, I see a long run for Washington.
Wyshynski: Toronto Maple Leafs. There’s only one way to end this bizarre, unprecedented, and never-to-be-repeated (hopefully!) Season, and that’s when the Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1967. They’ll need one of their goalkeepers. In order to be competent enough to win four series and a bit of luck to find their way – say, avoiding Boston in the final two rounds – Toronto should start planning the (socially distant ) Parade begin. Unless you know they’re just the Leafs again.
Ocal: Tampa Bay Lightning. I picked the Maple Leafs to win earlier in the season and I think the Stanley Cup winner will come back to the Leafs and Lightning. The Leafs will definitely need a solid goal in the playoffs and the upcoming return of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov will no doubt strengthen Tampa, but the defending champions look unstoppable at times. I will repeat with Tampa as the champion in the NHL’s COVID-19 era.
Kavanagh: Carolina Hurricanes. The canes are one of the most complete teams we’ve seen lately, and they play a die-hard 200-foot game with opponents begging for mercy. Also, I’d love to see what kind of storm surge would happen with the Stanley Cup as a prop.
Arledge: Vegas Golden Knights. I picked them up the preseason and there’s really no need to change them now. They are among the highest scoring teams in the league, they have the experience of taking a run and their goalkeeper has been excellent.
Chandan: Toronto Maple Leafs. If there has ever been a year for the Maple Leafs to do this, it’s 2021, and they have a Cup-eligible squad right now. Of course, we’ve all seen the calamity this club seems to go through each spring, but the new format means they’ll avoid Boston and Tampa until at least the semifinals. As Ben said, if Campbell is in regular season form, he will solve the last problem the Leafs have left.