With the quick turnaround and overlap between regular season and playoffs this year, we won’t have the chance to do a full 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs Preview podcast episode before the games begin, so let’s settle for the next best thing. A quick blog preview to tide us over until Monday when we record the full preview after the games have already started. We’ve gotta cement in our predictions before the playoffs start, right?
Let’s start out in the West Division, where we’ve got 2 absolute powerhouses, including the Presidents’ Trophy winning Colorado Avalanche.
(1) Colorado Avalanche vs. (4) St. Louis Blues
The Blues were surprisingly average in the regular season, a clear tier below the top of the division. The Blues’ 63 points and -1 goal differential put them in a massive underdog position heading into these playoffs, especially in this opening round matchup. Colorado had 82 points, a +64 goal differential and are, on paper, the clear favourites to take this series, possibly in quick fashion.
St. Louis is going to be relying heavily on Jordan Binnington in this matchup, both to improve on the team’s defense and for his own bounceback playoff performance. Last season’s series against Vancouver was a massive letdown for Binnington, with an .851 SV% and 4.72 GAA. Amongst all teams in the playoffs this season, the Blues have given up the most goals in the regular season, putting even more pressure on the defense to limit chances and Binnington to find some of the magic of his breakout season back in 2018-19.
This will not be remotely easy against the Avalanche and their high powered offense, whose 197 goals are the most in the league during the regular season. Led by Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen up front with Cale Makar on the back end, the Avalanche will be taking every opportunity to bury the Blues in high quality shots and chances. The Avs were second in shots in all situations and high danger chances at even strength this season.
Burke: Avalanche in 6
Sean: Avalanche in 5
(2) Vegas Golden Knights vs. (3) Minnesota Wild
Another season, another strong performance from the Vegas Golden Knights. With this year’s “How do they keep getting away with this?” addition of Alex Pietrangelo, Vegas was able to roll 2 Norris calibre defenders on their top 2 pairings (the other being Shea Theodore). Vegas tied the Avalanche for the top spot in the NHL with 82 points, losing the Presidents’ Trophy on a tiebreaker (Colorado had more regulation wins), but Vegas took home the William Jennings Award for fewest goals given up. This is a team that does not give up many scoring chances, and those that are have a hard time getting through the elite tandem of Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner.
With a goal differential of +67 on the regular season, Vegas shows that they are able to pile it on and win by huge margins, a trend that may continue into the playoffs. An interesting note is the regular season matchup between these teams, with Vegas having a 3-4-1 record and only a +1 goal differential (24-23) against the Wild this season. Does Minnesota hold the secret to shutting Vegas down?
Hands up if you predicted Minnesota to finish third in this division and place well within the top tier of the West! Anyone? Definitely not us, as we figured the Wild would be fighting for that 4th spot and well below the top few teams. But here they are, with a couple of massive hot streaks in the regular season and a newfound excitement around the team lead by Kirill Kaprizov. Minnesota has a realistic shot at upsetting Vegas in this first round.
Both of these teams are stingy and do not give up many scoring chances, with Minnesota having the edge. And now that this team is not being let down by their goaltending, the strong defense and deep forward group have a chance to shine.
Burke: Wild in 7
Sean: Golden Knights in 6
(1) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (4) Montreal Canadiens
For the first time in 21 seasons, the Toronto Maple Leafs have won their division. And, they won’t have to face Boston in the second round of these playoffs. Are the stars aligning for the Maple Leafs? Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner sure are. Matthews is taking home the Rocket Richard Trophy with 41 goals (and one more game to play), the only player to hit 40 this season, and sits tied for fifth in league scoring with 66 points. Marner was fourth in league scoring with 67 points. Despite the North Division and Toronto taking flack for not being able to defend, the Leafs aren’t as bad as it would seem and are sitting at seventh best in goals against per game at 2.72.
The real question mark for Toronto is the goalie situation. Frederik Andersen has faltered the last couple seasons. In Freddie’s injury absence this year, Jack Campbell rose up and has absolutely shined for Toronto. The likely scenario is that Campbell will be the Game 1 starter for the Maple Leafs, leaving Andersen and trade deadline acquisition David Rittich to battle for the backup spot.
The Montreal Canadiens are entering the playoffs a little bit on the injured side, with key players like Philip Danault, Brendan Gallagher, and Carey Price out with injury, Shea Weber missing a game and being seen with a thumb splint, and Jonathan Drouin away from the team for personal reasons. These are crucial players to have hurt, and the Habs are hoping that Danault, Gallagher, and Price are ready for the playoffs.
After an amazing start that saw the Canadiens take the North Division by storm early on, the team entered a slump that lasted most of the rest of the season. It led to a coaching change near constant lineup adjustments and shuffling. They found their stride a bit by the end of the regular season, but are still heading into the postseason 4-4-2 in their last 10 with a 24-21-11 record and -9 goal differential. Those 59 points are the lowest of any playoff team this year. The Habs have the advantage of a deep roster capable of battling and grinding out momentum while shutting down the opposition, something they will have to find the ability to do if they want to stand any chance in this series.
Burke: Maple Leafs in 5
Sean: Maple Leafs in 5
(2) Edmonton Oilers vs. (3) Winnipeg Jets
The Edmonton Oilers were a bit of a surprise this season for many, as they were widely predicted to be in the third or fourth spot in this division. But, with some major underperformances and slumps by close competitors, and amazing play by a few specific players, the Oilers are a serious contender in the North this season. Connor McDavid worked some magic and managed to hit 100 points in 53 games (currently sitting at 104 with one game to play). Leon Draisaitl is second in league scoring with 83 points. And, who can forget the unbelievable performance by Mike Smith this year, having his best season in 10 years, and one of the best of his entire career, at 39 years old.
The tricky part for Edmonton, as always, is depth. The majority of the team’s impact and success goes through McDavid and/or Draisaitl, though this season a few others (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Darnell Nurse, Tyson Barrie, and Mike Smith) have stepped up and contributed in their own ways. This is an improvement on past seasons since the team can at least do things without one of the big two involved, but the depth is not quite good enough to provide a proper balance just yet. The Oilers are entering the postseason hot (8-2-0 in their last 10, through 55 games) with McDavid having 35 points in 13 games leading into the postseason and need to capitalize early to keep that rolling.
Winnipeg, on the other hand, is slumping badly. 2-8-0 in their last 10 (through 55 games), and a 2-7-0 record against Edmonton this season. It will take a miracle for this team to stand much of a shot in this series. Connor Hellebuyck is most of this team’s chance to succeed in the postseason, and he has been sufficiently okay through the regular season. Comparatively speaking, that is. Connor has not been bad by any means, but considering his 2019-20 season that he basically carried the team to success, this season’s performance is lacking a bit.
Winnipeg’s main struggle is the strength of their defense, which isn’t significantly worse than Edmonton’s in performance (Winnipeg’s 152 goals against to Edmonton’s 150), but it seems to struggle sometimes against Edmonton’s high powered offense. The Jets are a strong, battling team that should also be getting Nikolaj Ehlers back for the postseason, they’ll need to band together and play some serious shutdown hockey to squeak out some wins in this series.
Burke: Oilers in 7
Sean: Oilers in 6
(1) Carolina Hurricanes vs. (4) Nashville Predators
Carolina is the surprise top seed in the Central this season. Although they’ve struggled a bit towards the end of the year, ending on a 5-2-3 note, Carolina finished only 2 points behind the Presidents’ Trophy winner. They are a deep team with speed, top end talent, goaltending, strong defense, and a potential Jack Adams winner behind the bench. This matchup could be lopsided and over quickly.
Carolina’s top 6 can name drop guys like Sebastian Aho (57 points), Vincent Trocheck (43 points) Andrei Svechnikov (42 points), Martin Necas (41 points), and another 42 points from Dougie Hamilton on the back end. Petr Mrazek can boast a .923 SV% and 2.06 GAA, and Alex Nedeljkovic a .932 SV% and 1.90 GAA. These numbers just represent the strength on the Hurricanes’ roster, the success of their system to win this division, and set the narrative for a massive underdog story.
The Predators squeaked into the playoffs near the end of the season after an atrocious start that led many, including us, to question if the team’s window wwas over and they should start rebuilding. Even the GM was ready to sell at the deadline. But, Juuse Saros turned his game around and carried the Predators to the fourth spot in the Central. This team does not have the roster strength or team system that Carolina has, so if Nashville is to find any success in this series (and to be honest, that could just be winning a game or two), it is going to come from their defense taking control and slowing the game down to counter Carolina’s fast pace. Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis are all top tier defenders who will be relied on heavily to obstruct, slow down, and disrupt the pace of the Hurricanes (in non penalty taking ways, of course).
Burke: Hurricanes in 4
Sean: Hurricanes in 4
(2) Florida Panthers vs. (3) Tampa Bay Lightning
For the first time ever, the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning will be facing off in the playoffs. Who will win the inaugural Battle of Florida? It’s going to be a damn close series.
The Panthers were a huge surprise this season to finish as high in the standings as they did, but after a disappointing first season for Joel Quenneville behind Florida’s bench, the quick turnaround is a relief for this team’s entrance into contender status. Once again led by the dynamism of Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov (61 and 58 points respectively), Florida possesses a strong and balanced roster with a number of players capable of shifting around the lineup as needed. Carter Verhaege, Anthony Duclair, and deadline acquisition Sam Bennett are key role players for this team and their talents will be crucial for matching up against the defending champs.
The loss of Aaron Ekblad, who was in the Norris Trophy discussion at the time of his injury, leaves a massive hole on their defense, but Mackenzie Weegar has been doing his best to fill those skates. Averaging just over 22 minutes per game and putting up 36 points on the season, Weegar has blossomed into a top pairing defender over the last 2 seasons and is currently the leader of the defense for the Panthers.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are this postseason’s antagonists and many fans would probably like to see them lose for the appearance of cap circumvention with the returns of Nikita Kucherov (who missed the entire regular season recovering from surgery but is apparently ready for Game 1 of the playoffs when cap space isn’t an issue anymore) and Steven Stamkos (who has also missed significant time with injury again).
This is a roster with star power like no other, having scoring race winners and MVPs in Kucherov and Stamkos, Norris calibre defender in Hedman, and one of the best goalies in the league with Vasilevskiy. It is incredibly difficult to match up against this team in their quest to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions. Most of the key players from last season’s Cup winning team are still here, and with some prospects like Ross Colton and Cal Foote adding youth and depth to the roster, it is a very realistic possibility for Tampa Bay to have another deep run.
Burke: Panthers in 7
Sean: Lightning in 7
(1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs (4) New York Islanders
Once again, the Pittsburgh Penguins continue to surprise and succeed. I’ve said it in the past, when Crosby and Malkin are still here, you can never count the Penguins out, and this season is yet another example. A bit of a slow start raised some question marks but the team picked it up as they found their game in the last two-thirds of the year and ended up winning the division.
The Penguins boasted a strong offensive showing this season, finishing second in goals for (1 behind Colorado). Jake Guentzel (57 points), Bryan Rust (42 points), Jared McCann (32 points in 43 games), and Kasperi Kapanen (30 points in 40 games) gave this team the scoring versatility to thrive in an insanely difficult division.
On the other side we have the New York Islanders, a team built for postseason success. A strong, shutdown style of play with a roster that is tough to play against might be the answer for the Penguins. The Islanders’ 128 goals against is second lowest in the league, a testament to the strength of the team’s goaltending as Semyon Varlamov was one of the league’s best and Ilya Sorokin had a strong rookie season, as well as the Barry Trotz led system that continues to stifle the league’s best offensive teams.
The flipside of the stingy style the Isles play is that their own offense can be tough to come by at times. Their 156 goals for has them tied for 20th and tied for lowest total for a playoff team. With Anders Lee out of the lineup, the team’s offense is driven by Mat Barzal, leading the team in scoring with 45 points. If Pittsburgh can find a way to shut him down (and by extension, his linemates), it likely won’t take too many goals to take down the Islanders.
Burke: Penguins in 6
Sean: Islanders in 7
(2) Washington Capitals vs. (3) Boston Bruins
The Capitals are heading into the postseason banged, battered, and bruised. Alex Ovechkin missed the last couple weeks of the season with a lower body injury. John Carlson missed time with an injury of his own. Nicklas Backstrom was rested at the end of the season to help recover. T.J. Oshie may not be ready to go for Game 1. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Ilya Samsonov are still on the COVID-19 Protocol list and their status for Game 1 is unknown as well. This list covers most of the team’s top players and producers, leaving massive gaps in the roster that need to be filled.
Washington was strong in the regular season, finishing with 77 points and a tie for the division lead, and ended the season surprisingly well given the circumstances, with a 7-2-1 record in their last 10. This is a positive for them knowing that even with most of their core sidelined, they can still win games.
Boston is always a strong contender to make a deep playoff run with how their roster is built. The team was let down last season when the top line of Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak was shut down through the series against the Lightning and the depth couldn’t make up for the production gap. But, the deadline acquisition of Taylor Hall has given life to the team’s second line. Joined by David Krejci and Craig Smith, Hall has 14 points in 16 games and is exactly what the Bruins needed to give them another scoring threat in the top 6.
Burke: Bruins in 7
Sean: Bruins in 6
There you have it, our predictions for the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs! The action gets underway tomorrow, May 15, with the Capitals and Bruins. It also marks the first time where the regular season and playoffs are happening at the same time as the North Division still had a few games to close out over the weekend.
For more (and a podcast version of this post next week), make sure to check out Clappercast Hockey Podcast on our site, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. And, follow us on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter! Make sure to share this around and spread the good word of Clappercast!