After a season shortened to five months by the COVID-19 pandemic, 16 teams endured and advanced to the NHL postseason, their hopes for a Stanley Cup championship still alive.
We finally got clarity Thursday on where all the divisions stack up. Colorado beat Los Angeles 5-1 to claim the West Division, finishing with the best record in the NHL in the process. The Avalanche are one of the clear favorites to win a title, especially if they can survive the Vegas Golden Knights in the Division Finals. Carolina and Tampa Bay, two of the league’s best teams, reside in the Central. Young Toronto, which rolled all season long in the North Division, is a dangerous threat to win its first Cup since 1967. The Maple Leafs have the clearest path to the semifinal round, while the East holds four serious Stanley Cup threats: Pittsburgh, Washington, Boston, and the New York Islanders.
With so much familiarity within the divisions, the first two rounds of the playoffs should be compelling. I like Colorado, Boston, Toronto and Carolina to advance to the final four, with the Avalanche surviving to claim their first Stanley Cup in 20 years.
North Division Preview
1. Toronto Maple Leafs vs. 4. Montreal Canadians
Expectations for 2020-21 were high for the Maple Leafs, as they were the clear choice to win the North Division. Despite missing top goaltender Frederik Andersen for most of the spring, Toronto went wire-to-wire to claim the top spot among the seven Canadian teams. With few strong defensive teams in the division, the Maple Leafs scored at will on many nights. Sniper Auston Matthews flirted with 50 goals (he has an NHL-leading 41 tallies and 66 points). Mitch Marner lived up to the hype with a 67-point season. Further down the lineup, Toronto showed surprising depth, thanks to the leadership of grizzled veterans Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza. The Maple Leafs’ defense remains a team weakness, but Morgan Reilly got a lot more help on the blue line from new addition T.J. Brodie, Jake Muzzin, and the surprising Justin Holl. Goaltender Jack Campbell, who went 17-2-2 with a 2.11 goals against average (GAA) and .923 save percentage (SP), will likely get the first chance to carry the mail in net for the Leafs. If he struggles, Andersen is now healthy and could likely step in.
This was hardly the breakout season many expected for the Canadiens. With a deep group of forwards and the two-way emergence of defenseman Jeff Petry (team-leading 30 assists), Montreal got plenty of offense. Young talents like Nick Suzuki (41 points) and Jesperi Kotkaniemi continued to mature. Free-agent signee Tyler Toffoli, the off-season’s best pickup, posted a remarkable 28-goal campaign to lead the Canadiens. They also coaxed 17 goals out of reclamation project Josh Anderson. Where the Canadians disappointed was defensively and in goal. Superstar Carey Price (12-7-5, 2.64 GAA, .901 SP) struggled all season. Unless he can find the level of play he had last year in the bubble, Montreal is headed for trouble. Same goes for 35-year-old defenseman Shea Weber, who struggled at times within the wide-open North Division.
Montreal is a team built for the playoffs, where games tend to slow down, and their grit should grind down Toronto all series long. The high-flying Maple Leafs will also have to deal with the demons of their own past; their last playoff series win came in 2004. However, it appears that young Toronto is finally ready to take center stage and go on a deep run. Therefore, I like Toronto in five games over Montreal in this series.
2. Edmonton Oilers vs. 3. Winnipeg Jets
Led by the two most dynamic scoring threats in the NHL, likely league MVP Connor McDavid (NHL-leading 71 assists and 104 points) and last year’s Hart Trophy winner Leon Draisaitl (83 points), Edmonton finished the season as the clear second-best team in the North Division. Much like Toronto, play in the North Division catered to the brand of hockey Edmonton prefers. Blueliners Tyson Barrie and Darnell Nurse posted big seasons. After those four players, the Oilers’ depth clearly drops off. Forward Jesse Puljujarvi was a pleasant surprise after returning from his self-imposed exile to Finland. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins played well in a support role. However, Edmonton still needs to find more secondary scoring and depth defensive play in order to make a serious run in the postseason. Having to rely in goal on the aging Mike Smith (21-6-2, 2.31 GAA, .923 SP), or the struggling Mikko Koskinen, does not help matters.
Until their late-season collapse, Winnipeg was one of the better stories of 2020-21. Despite discarding goal-scoring machine Patrik Laine early in the season, the Jets featured plenty of offense. Three 20-plus goal-scoring forwards, Mark Scheifele (team-leading 61 points), Kyle Connor (team-leading 24 goals) and Nikolaj Ehler led the Jets, while veterans Blake Wheeler, Paul Stastny and Andrew Copp, are also important offensive cogs for Winnipeg. Winnipeg constantly gets dinged for its defense, and the Jets still lack depth on their blue line, but Neal Pionk and Josh Morrissey make up a solid top pair. That leaky defense plays in front of division’s best workhorse goaltender, Connor Hellebuyck (23-17-3, 2.60 GAA, .915 SP). Hellebuyck is the kind of goalie that can steal games in the postseason.
Edmonton should be confident going into a series with Winnipeg, having won seven of nine matchups this season. Still, I have liked resilient Winnipeg all season, and they certainly have the edge as far as offensive depth in this series. If Hellebucyk is on his game, he will give the Jets a chance to exploit that advantage. I see Winnipeg knocking out Edmonton in six games.
North Division Finals
1. Toronto vs. 3. Winnipeg
Toronto over Winnipeg in seven games
East Division Preview
East Division Semifinals
1. Pittsburgh Penguins vs. 4. New York Islanders
In the loaded East Division, few predicted the Pittsburgh Penguins would finish in the top spot. We should know better than to bet against a team featuring Sidney Crosby (team-leading 24 goals and 62 points) and Evgeni Malkin. This season Crosby paired with Jake Guentzel (23 goals and 57 points) and Bryan Rust, to form one of the NHL’s best trios. Further down the depth chart, Malkin and newcomer Kasperi Kapanen each missed significant time with injuries. When healthy, the pair had instant chemistry and racked up the points. Blue line veteran Kris Letang (team-leading 38 assists) had a throwback season, and he got plenty help from an unheralded group that included Brian Dumoulin, John Marino, Mike Matheson, and Cody Ceci. Ceci, who was recently exiled from both Toronto and Ottawa, has been one of the league’s best reclamation projects this season. In his first season as the clear number one, goaltender Tristan Jarry endured some uneven play, yet still posted a 25-win season.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, the New York Islanders underachieved during 2020-21, especially after an injury to captain Anders Lee. However, last year’s Eastern Conference finalists are always dangerous and are built for postseason play. The Islanders feature a deep offense led by budding star Mathew Barzal (team-leading 45 points), leading goal scorer Brock Nelson (18 goals), Josh Bailey, Jordan Eberle, Anthony Beauvillier, and J.G. Pageau. Defensively, the Islanders remain stout, behind a group that includes Adam Pelech, Scott Mayfield and Nick Leddy. In goal, the Islanders have two solid options to choose from in rookie Ilya Sorokin and veteran Semyon Varlamov. Both posted 13-plus win seasons, save percentages above .915, and goals against averages lower than 2.20. Coach Barry Trotz cannot make a bad choice by starting either one.
Two of the NHL’s hardest working teams, Pittsburgh and New York, face off in what should be a terrific East Division showdown. In the eight games they played this season, Pittsburgh won six of them, and the Islanders just haven’t been the same team that they were prior to Lee’s injury. New York swept away the Penguins two years ago in the first round of the playoffs, but I feel like Pittsburgh will handle the Islanders in seven games this time around.
2. Washington Capitals vs. 3. Boston Bruins
By adding coach Peter Laviolette in the offseason, the Washington Capitals proved they meant business putting together another run at the Stanley Cup with a veteran roster. Laviolette’s last three teams have made the Finals; none of his clubs have finished with a losing record since 2004. Sniper Alex Ovechkin added 24 goals to his career total — 730, sixth all-time — again leading the Capitals offensively. He got plenty of offensive help from T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom (team-leading 53 points). Meanwhile, Tom Wilson (96 penalty minutes) wreaked havoc on the league and remains a game-changer with his physical play. Defense is Washington’s weak link, a result of significant turnover the past few years. Still, a crew that includes John Carlson (44 points), Justin Schultz, Dmitry Orlov and the ageless Zdeno Chara, can both defend and move the puck. In goal, Washington went young this season. The duo of Vitek Vanecek (21-10-4, 2.69 GAA, .908 SP) and Ilya Samsonov remain unproven. Both had stretches of fine play during the season, as well as stretches where they were lit up like the Fourth of July.
Racking up 29 goals and 69 points, Brad Marchand remains one of the NHL’s most underrated scorers on a veteran squad. He’s become a clear offensive leader on the Bruins, an important part of the famed Perfection Line trio alongside Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. However, the Bruins really turned a corner offensively after the trade-deadline acquisition of Taylor Hall, spreading out the scoring far beyond just their first line. Hall became nearly a point-a-game player playing alongside veteran David Krejci and off-season addition Craig Smith, finally tapping into the level of play that made him the league’s MVP in 2018. The 2020-21 Bruins look a lot different on defense, especially without the legendary Chara patrolling the blue line. Charlie McAvoy (30 points), Matt Grzelcyk, and Brandon Carlo lead an unheralded group beset with injuries for most of the season. If the Bruins face a question mark going into the playoffs, it is in goal. While veteran Tuukka Rask (15-5-2, 2.28 GAA, .913 SP) is finally healthy, he has yet to find the form that carried Boston to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2019. Sensational rookie Jeremy Swayman is the next option if Rask can’t find his top postseason form.
Bruins-Capitals should prove to be an extremely physical series, one that will likely take a toll on the other going into the second round. Boston was the better team in the season series, going 4-2-2 in their eight matchups, and I like the Bruins to survive in a seven-game series victory over Washington.
East Division Finals
1. Pittsburgh vs. 3. Boston
Boston over Pittsburgh in six games
Central Division Preview
Central Division Semifinals
1. Carolina Hurricanes vs. 4. Nashville Predators
The emerging Hurricanes are now clearly one of the NHL’s best teams. Budding superstar Sebastian Aho (team-leading 24 goals and 57 points) leads an offensive crew that includes talents like Vincent Trocheck and Andrei Svechnikov. Martin Necas, and veterans Jordan Staal and Nino Niederreiter, are also capable scorers. However, Carolina’s offense pales in comparison to the team’s biggest strength — its defense. With the likes of Dougie Hamilton (42 points), Brett Pesce, and Jaccob Slavin on the blue line, Carolina features arguably the best top six in the NHL. Where the Hurricanes surprised most during 2020-21 was in goal. Goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic (15-5-3, 1.90 GAA, .932 SP) came out of nowhere to take the league by storm. He will likely start Game 1 against Nashville, ahead of veterans Petr Mrazek and James Reimer.
The sharks were swirling around the floundering Nashville Predators, who got off to a terrible start in the 2020-21 season. Sitting at 11-16-1 in mid-March, facing a rash of injuries, the Predators’ young talent turned the tide of the season and returned Nashville to the postseason. Last year’s Norris Trophy winner Roman Josi (team-leading 25 assists and 33 points) continues to carry this team from the blue line, but even he would say his team’s MVP this season has been goaltender Juuse Saros (21-11-1, 2.28 GAA, .927 SP). Saros put the team on his back mid-season, and that made a big difference during a year where Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen, and Matt Duchene all struggled offensively. In fact, Nashville’s top-two goal scorers are the unheralded Calle Jarnkrok and Mikael Granlund (13 goals each). The Predators’ physical fourth-line trio of Tanner Jeannot, Colton Sissons and Yakov Trenin (affectionately known as the Herd), provided a big spark to help offset Nashville’s offensive woes. Saros, along with the Predators’ stellar blue line (which includes Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis), always keep Nashville in games.
Carolina dominated Nashville during the eight-game season series, but the Predators picked up a win when it mattered most, clinching a playoff berth with a 3-1 victory over the Hurricanes on May 8. That win knocked last year’s Stanley Cup finalist Dallas out of the playoffs, setting up this intriguing first-round series. With Carolina featuring few weaknesses, they should cruise past the pesky Predators. However, I expect all games in Carolina’s five-game series victory over Nashville to be close.
2. Florida Panthers vs. 3. Tampa Bay Lightning
Along with Minnesota and Pittsburgh, Florida was one of the NHL’s biggest surprises, ascending from out of the playoff picture to the second spot in a top-heavy Central Division. The difference this season: Florida complimented its young core, led by Jonathan Huberdeau (team-leading 61 points) and Aleksander Barkov (team-leading 26 goals), with effective reclamation projects like Carter Verhaeghe, Patric Hornqvist and Anthony Duclair. That helped the Panthers overcome their weakness on defense, especially after an injury to star blue liner Aaron Ekblad. In goal, Sergei Bobrovsky took the majority of starts, and posted 19 wins. However, coach Joel Quenneville might be forced to use the team’s unsung hero Chris Driedger (14-6-3, 2.07 GAA, .927 SP) or budding prospect Spencer Knight between the pipes to make a deep playoff run.
Coming off a Stanley Cup title, Tampa Bay looks more than ready to defend its crown. Despite playing without superstar Nikita Kucherov all year long, and the last month of the season without captain Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay’s other leaders stepped up. Defenseman Victor Hedman (team-leading 36 assists) turned in a Norris Trophy-like season from the blue line, and Andrei Vasilevskiy (31-10-1, 2.21 GAA, .925 SP) was terrific as always in goal. Forward Brayden Point (team-leading 23 goals and 48 points) is emerging as a star offensively, and he led the team in both goals and points. Point, Ondrej Palat, and Yanni Gourde are all focal points on a deep squad offensively, which will include Kucherov and Stamkos who expect to return for Game 1. Behind Hedman, the Lightning have solid veterans like Ryan McDonagh and recent acquisition David Savard. Even without Kucherov and Stamkos, the Lightning have few weaknesses.
The Battle for the Sunshine State will be intense as Florida and Tampa Bay go toe-to-toe for the first time in a playoff series. I like Tampa Bay’s experience and mental toughness as an edge to take this series in six games over Florida, despite everything the Panthers will throw at the defending champions.
Central Division Finals
1. Carolina vs. 3. Tampa Bay
Carolina over Tampa Bay in six games
West Division Preview
West Division Semifinals
1. Colorado Avalanche vs. 4. St. Louis Blues
Is this Colorado’s time to shine in spotlight? The young Avalanche have been one of the NHL’s best teams all season. Colorado features a lethal combination of speed and skill on offense, arguably the league’s best transition defense, and a shutdown goaltender in Philipp Grubauer (30-9-1, 1.95 GAA, .922 SP) between the pipes. Colorado’s top line of Nathan MacKinnon (team-leading 45 assists), Mikko Rantanen (team-leading 30 goals and 66 points), and Gabriel Landeskog are unstoppable on most nights, and the Avalanche carry plenty of offensive talent behind their big three. On defense, Cale Makar (44 points), Samuel Girard and Devon Toews are all terrific on both ends of the ice. If there is a concern for Colorado, it is whether they can handle physical play and a rough series, but this is an Avalanche team can win games in many different ways.
The 2019 Stanley Cup champions seem far removed from that glorious spring in the Gateway City before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. For whatever reason, the magic was not there during 2020-21 for St. Louis. The departure of star defenseman Alex Pietrangelo still looms over this squad, but the Blues still feature an enviable top-six on their blue line, with Justin Faulk, Torey Krug (31 points), Vince Dunn and Colton Parayko leading the way. Ryan O’Reilly is the team’s unquestioned heart and soul offensively, leading the team with 24 goals. O’Reilly has terrific chemistry with veteran forward David Perron (team-leading 55 points). Adding sniper Vladimir Tarasenko at mid-season made the Blues a bit more dangerous offensively. In goal, Jordan Binnington (17-14-0, 2.64 GAA, .911 SP) has firmly established himself as one of hockey’s best. If St. Louis were to wreak havoc in the playoffs, it will likely be because Binnington stole them some games.
The opening-round matchup between Colorado and St. Louis features two franchises moving in opposite directions. The Avalanche’s window for winning is just starting to open, and Colorado is set to become one of the NHL’s best teams for many years ahead. Meanwhile, the Blues’ magic from 2019 seems to be fading away. Colorado won five of the eight meetings this year, and I feel like Colorado will roll over St. Louis in five games here.
2. Vegas Golden Knights vs. 3. Minnesota Wild
Vegas is an easy Stanley Cup pick for many, as they seem to have the team best built to win a championship. Adding Pietrangelo in the off-season helped make the Golden Knights one of the NHL’s best defensive teams. Interestingly, Pietrangelo might not even be Vegas’ best defender, as Shea Theodore had an outstanding 2020-21 season. Forward Mark Stone is the league’s best two-way player, and his 61 points attests to the fact he provides plenty of offense. He has company on the offensive end with talents like Max Pacioretty (team-leading 24 goals), Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Alex Tuch all up front. In goal, Vegas has a pair of goaltenders in Marc-Andre Fleury (26-10-0, 1.98 GAA, .928 SP) and Robin Lehner (13-4-2, 2.29 GAA, .913 SP), who would be clear number ones on other teams. Expect one of the two to grab the net early in the playoffs and run with it.
The Minnesota Wild are one of the best stories of the 2020-21 season, and feature the league’s most dynamic young talent — Kirill Kaprizov (team-leading 27 goals and 51 points). The likely Calder Trophy winner takes over games offensively, and is worth buying a ticket just to watch. The Wild lack high-end talent to go with the young Russian, but Kevin Fiala, Mats Zuccarello, Jordan Greenway (team-leading 25 assists), and Joel Eriksson Ek are all solid offensive players. Minnesota’s foundation remains its elite defense. Ryan Suter, Matt Dumba, Jonas Brodin and Jared Spurgeon are as good as any top-four in the league. That’s a big reason why the team matched up so well against juggernaut Vegas all season, and will make Minnesota a tough out in any round of the playoffs. Having two great options in goal in either rejuvenated veteran Cam Talbot (19-8-5) or rookie Kaapo Kahkonen (16-7-0), doesn’t hurt either.
Vegas is a heavy favorite in this series, but that likely means little to coach Dean Evason and the Wild, who won the season series against the Golden Knights. Vegas needs to take advantage of its offensive depth to win this series, and it should relentlessly overcome the Wild by rolling all four lines. It will likely take all seven games, but I like the Golden Knights to outlast Minnesota.
West Division Finals
1. Colorado vs. 2. Vegas
Colorado over Vegas in seven games
A Quick Look at the Rest of the Playoffs
Stanley Cup Semifinals
Colorado over Boston in five games
Carolina over Toronto in five games
Stanley Cup Finals
Colorado over Carolina in six games