It’s the most wonderful time of the year for NHL fans, with the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs in full swing. There’s no better time than the present to kick off my annual round-by-round predictions blog series.
First Up, the First Round
Are you ready to finally (hopefully) see your favourite team play an opponent other than a divisional foe? Every club entering this year’s postseason now has that very potential.
Of course, they’ll have to earn a deep enough playoff run to make it their reality. Cross-divisional play only begins as of the Semifinals, as the first two rounds will still only include match-ups between clubs that saw each other all year long.
It’s been a unique stretch for this league. From the moment the 2019-20 schedule was ceased, to their bubbled return to conclude 2020, to the shortened 2020-21 season, it seems these playoffs might be the closest thing to normal we’ve seen of this game in some time.
That said, there are still some factors that make it less straightforward than usual. However, the basic premise remains. 16 teams enter the bracket-style tournament, every series is a best-of-7, four rounds await, with the last team standing getting to hoist the Stanley Cup.
So, who do you have capturing it this time around? Let’s look at who I think will remain after these initial rounds are complete. (Feel free to tell me how wrong I am on Twitter, too.)
Toronto vs. Montreal
Yes, the Toronto Maple Leafs are one of my two favourite NHL teams. However, I pride myself on being an objective fan of the sport, first and foremost. With that in mind, this still feels like it’s finally the right time for the Auston Matthews-led Maple Leafs to make a move. Towards the Second Round, anyway.
All the while, the Montreal Canadiens just aren’t in the same league as this year’s Leafs. From top-six talent, to depth throughout the lineup, to goal-scoring potential, to keeping pucks out of their own end, Toronto is poised to outperform Montreal in the most fundamental (and necessary) areas of the game.
Prediction: Toronto in 5.
Edmonton vs. Winnipeg
While the Edmonton Oilers enjoy the unfair advantage that is Connor McDavid, his prowess alone isn’t going to control an entire series. Can he steal a game or two? Of course. However, having him carry the team through the hardest tournament in professional sports is a far less likely feat.
The Winnipeg Jets rely on more of a collective effort and that will prove to be the difference in this one. It will be a hard-fought battle, no question about it, but the Jets’ consistent style and output will keep them on the successful side of the balance beam, closer to the Stanley Cup than the Oilers will get.
Prediction: Winnipeg in 6.
Carolina vs. Nashville
If despising the Nashville Predators isn’t justification enough for assuming they’ll lose every time they play, then perhaps the fact that the Carolina Hurricanes are looking to follow up on their recent division-winning campaign will be. Plus, Rod Brind’Amour makes everything around him better.
Carolina is superior to Nashville. From top to bottom, there’s no debate. And that’s not to take away from the impressive climb the Predators took to secure that last spot in the Central. But this is the postseason and that momentum will have ceased by the time the Hurricanes are done with them.
Prediction: Carolina in 5.
Florida vs. Tampa Bay
Would you have predicted the state of Florida would have two teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs this year (let alone, ever)? Even if you did, odds are you didn’t have the Florida Panthers playing host with home-ice advantage. Yet, the Tampa Bay Lightning are far from underdogs.
Tampa is dangerous, regardless of the fact that they’re looking to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. Factor in the timely (aka unfair) return of Nikita Kucherov and they’re clearly in the driver’s seat of this series. Florida achieved impressive progress, but they’ll have to wait until next year to find more.
Prediction: Tampa Bay in 6.
Pittsburgh vs. New York
Although the New York Islanders found a way to heat up at ideal times throughout the year, the Pittsburgh Penguins looked like a well-oiled machine by the end of theirs. Every time it feels like the Penguins are set to slip away from being one of the league’s most-feared, they find their grip again.
It’s not to say the Islanders haven’t continued to bulk up a more solid build, year-over-year. It just won’t be enough to overcome one of the more overlooked superstars in today’s game. The youthfulness of Mathew Barzal may shine now, but the experience of Sidney Crosby will seemingly never wear off.
Prediction: Pittsburgh in 6.
Washington vs. Boston
If you’re not a Boston Bruins fan, are you permitted to actually predict they win anything? Well, regardless, I’m not currently a believer. They had a respectable run as one of the best for years, but it just felt like their most dominant characteristics (and characters) softened this past season.
On the other hand, while it’s been nearly three years since the Washington Capitals and Alexander Ovechkin captured the organization’s first Cup, they continue to tinker in ways that keep them competitive. Their slow start to 2020-21 won’t be a hindrance to a strong finish for the Capitals.
Prediction: Washington in 6.
Colorado vs. St. Louis
I know that the Colorado Avalanche are widely considered favourites to take this whole thing down, but it feels like the hype is greater than the end result that awaits them. However, in the meantime, elite stars like Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen will have their way with a lesser opponent.
It’s not like the St. Louis Blues are rolling into the playoffs with the same type of edge they earned in 2019’s lead-up. They barely hung on to fourth in the West, because they just aren’t that good. Much of what keeps them overrated (i.e. Jordan Binnington) will be exposed at the hands of the Avalanche.
Prediction: Colorado in 5.
Vegas vs. Minnesota
What do you get when you mix two clubs that have drastically different depths of history in the league, who would otherwise not meet this early in any other (non-realignment) year? A series that sees the powerhouse Vegas Golden Knights attempt to reign supreme against a surprising Minnesota Wild team.
Sure, rookie sensation Kirill Kaprizov tore up the league with a creativity unmatched by many. But he’s now up against William M. Jennings winners Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner. The latter will undoubtedly douse the fire that the Wild kept lit for much of the year.
Prediction: Vegas in 6.
Lots of Hockey Left
As we all embark upon a couple of months full of the most intense hockey to come out of the NHL, the hope is always that our team is in it for the long haul. As such, we tweet away among our respective fanbases, for as long as our favourite side remains.
The reality is that the odds aren’t in my favour that my picks will prove to have been perfect. It’s just a matter of probability. Yet, I stand by them and will celebrate accordingly if they all do hold up. Especially since that would mean that one of my teams, the Maple Leafs, is one step closer to their goal.
By the way, if you’re thinking I waited until some games got underway before I finalized my picks, you’re wrong. How can I prove that? It’s quite simple, actually.
In order to enter the NHL’s Stanley Cup Bracket Challenge, all picks had to be finalized before the first puck drop. My predictions there align with everything I proclaim here. See for yourself.
Who do you foresee punching their ticket into the Second Round? Let me know in the comments, below.