We made it! It is official everyone, we are entering NHL playoff territory. I imagine there is a lot of confusion in the air when it comes to this year’s crazy format and expectations, but let me be your guide. I’m going to take you through each matchup in the first round and detail how this is all going to work. In addition to first-round matchups, you’ll get to see my predictions for the entirety of the NHL playoffs. 

NHL Playoffs: Rounds 1 and 2

Rounds 1 and 2 are going to be pretty wild. This is two rounds filled with nothing but the interdivisional play between NHL teams that have been stuck playing each other all season. Some may be tired of the matchups, but I couldn’t be more thrilled to see this intense playoff energy triumph while the rivalries boil before our eyes. This is going to be intoxicating and that is not referring to the whiskey on ice that will be in hand. I suggest a bottle of Legend, it is a wonderful Bourbon that can get the job done to help enjoy these NHL playoffs. 

I mentioned interdivisional play for these first two rounds and well, that’s what we’re getting. Each division consists of four playoff teams and they are seeded one through four, based on their regular-season point totals. (1) will play (4) and (2) will play (3). The winners of these games will advance to round two of the NHL playoffs and battle it out in a seven-game series for the division title, so to speak. Let’s dive into the matchups. 

MassMutual East Division 

#1 Pittsburgh Penguins (37-16-3) vs. #4 New York Islanders (32-17-7)

Most would say it’s tough to bet against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin right? Well, that is exactly what I am doing. Goaltending is so unbelievably important in the playoffs and the Islanders have two upper-tier goaltenders in Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov who will be an absolute nightmare for the Pens. The Pens lead the series 6-2 in the regular season and they also average 3.45 goals per game which are good enough for second in the NHL. While the Pens do put up a lot of goals, the Islanders do not allow many (2.23 per game which is second in the NHL).

Pittsburgh has a top ten power-play unit while the Islanders have a top ten penalty kill unit. I like the depth of NYI a bit more especially in the defensive end and I think we will see that play a huge role in this series. Matthew Barzal is quick, he can handle the puck with ease, and he can create dangerous scoring chances whenever he is on the ice. Matthew put on quite the show in last season’s playoffs and we should expect nothing less this year. I’m going with the underdogs. 

Prediction – Islanders in 7 

#2 Washington Capitals (36-15-5) vs. #3 Boston Bruins (33-16-7)

During the 2020 NHL playoffs, we experienced life without Tuukka Rask for the Bruins and it wasn’t ideal in round two. Clearly, the Bruins have Rask back and this is a team with something to prove after not living up to expectations over the regular season. The Capitals will deploy Alexander Ovechkin to his home away from home, at the top of the circle, where he will fire shot after shot all series long. The regular-season series is tied at 4-4 so we get to witness the ultimate tiebreaker. 

The Bruins are ranked fourth in the NHL when it comes to goals against per game which is at 2.39. The Caps are at 2.88, which is still top twenty, but I trust the vets in net over the young duo of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek in this playoff series. The trio of Brad MarchandDavid Pastrnak, and Patrice Bergeron is enough to scare the living daylights out of opponents. Now, guess what? They added Taylor Hall to the mix as well. The addition of Anthony Mantha on the opposite end will not be enough. 

Prediction – Bruins in 6

Discover Central Division 

#1 Carolina Hurricanes (36-12-8) vs. #4 Nashville Predators (31-23-2)

I have wrestled with the idea of picking the Hurricanes to go on a crazy run all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals because they are just that good. They will face some tough competition once they get out of the first round though. Hold tight, we’ll get there later. Therefore, I am going to flat out tell you the Hurricanes should not lose this series in any way, shape, or form. The Predators will put up a fight with the likes of Filip Forsberg and Roman Josi, but it will not be enough to match up with the top-caliber firepower of Dougie HamiltonSebastian Aho, and Andrei Svechnikov

The Canes have the number two power-play unit with a whopping 25.6% so if the Predators can’t stay out of the penalty box, then they are indeed in a world of trouble. The Predators have the third-worst penalty kill percentage in the NHL (75.4%). Goaltending is a little weak in Nashville and the Canes love to fire the puck on the net. An average of 32 shots per game is no joke and going to be a tough test for Juuse Saros. The biggest question for the Canes is which goalie will play most? My answer is Alex Nedeljkovic. Alex is quietly putting up a breakout performance (15-5-3, 1.90 GAA, .932 SV%)

Prediction – Hurricanes in 5

#2 Florida Panthers (37-14-5) vs. #3 Tampa Bay Lightning (36-17-3)

This is a matchup that everyone is going to have a tough time predicting. Nevertheless, Florida had one hell of a year and that’s going to cloud most minds when it comes to brackets. Look a bit further into the entire situation here at hand because the Lightning is about to get Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos back in their playoff lineup. Remember what this team did last time the whole gang was together? Oh yeah, they won the Stanley cup. 

The Panthers and Lightning both average over three goals per game with Florida at 3.36 (#4) and the Lightning at 3.21 (#8). We all know how great Andrei Vasilevskiy is and how great he performs in the playoffs. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau are highly skilled players who will put some points on the board, but it won’t be enough with a lack of depth on their defensive end outside of MacKenzie Weegar and Brandon Montour. I am a bit excited to see which goaltender rises to the occasion for Florida. I would love for it is Spencer Knight

Prediction – Lightning in 6 

Honda West Division 

#1 Colorado Avalanche (39-13-4) vs. #4 St. Louis Blues (27-20-9)

Here we have our President’s Trophy winner going up against a team that looks nothing like a playoff hockey team. That was harsh, I know, but we clearly don’t think the Blues are making another run right? They just don’t have what it takes anymore. I think Ryan O’Reilly and David Perron are fantastic hockey players, but could they take down the Aves? No way. I’ll be dumbfounded if the Blues win this series. Anything is possible though, I guess. The Blues are a great team who were facing bad luck all season long. Settle down, I apologize for my mean words. 

Nobody scores more goals per game than the Avalanche (3.52) and nobody has scored more goals than the Avalanche, in general, this season (197). I really don’t need to mention their power-play unit but come on, Nathan MacKinnonCale MakarMikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog? The Blues already score less than their opponents here on average (2.98), but it really doesn’t help that Philipp Grubauer will be stopping pucks on the other end. Grubauer has helped the Avalanche become the third-lowest goal against average in the NHL at 2.36. The blues better hope they get 2018-2019 Jordan Binnington or they are going to be experiencing some very long nights with a very quick finish to this series. 

Prediction – Avalanche in 5

#2 Vegas Golden Knights (40-14-2) vs. #3 Minnesota Wild (35-16-5)

I’m ecstatic to watch this series. The Knights are an unbelievable team and so tough to score on with their two top-notch goaltenders, Robin Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury. On the other hand, the Wild are a very young and sneaky-talented team who will grind their way through games with an underdog mentality. Do I think the Wild have enough juice to take down the Knights in the first round though? No, I do not. The Golden Knights are an anomaly. They are filled with great skaters at every position and as I mentioned before, nobody can score on them. The Knights rank first in the league in goals-against with a low average of 2.18. 

Kirill Kaprizov is no joke. He is a budding superstar who is just Jack Eichel and Marco Rossi away from taking the entire league by storm. With that being said, Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone will not allow that storm to happen. This Knights team also has Shea Theodore and Alex Pietrangelo on the back end. The Knights put up 190 goals this season and that was good enough for third in the league. I don’t see Cam Talbot or Kaapo Kahkonen getting in the way of the Knights. Talbot showed some real promise after his injury for a while there but didn’t finish the year as strong. 

Prediction – Knights in 5

Scotia North Division

#1 Toronto Maple Leafs (35-13-7) vs. #4 Montreal Canadiens (24-21-11)

Montreal is a team that can make some noise. They’re very quick and we saw how they played against the Flyers last postseason. The Canadiens have some skaters who can create scoring chances at any given time. Nick Suzuki is a guy that can make things happen from anywhere. On the contrary, the Leafs have way too much firepower for the Canadiens to handle in a seven-game series led by Auston Matthews

The Leafs average 3.35 goals per game on average which were good enough for sixth in the League. The only thing that concerns me is the goalie play from Frederik Andersen. His season has been an underachieving effort at best. Jack Campbell came to the rescue and stood on his head for the remainder of the year though. Hopefully, we see more of him in the postseason. Carey Price is always phenomenal in the playoffs, but he won’t be enough to call the Canadiens victorious over guys like John TavaresMitch Marner, and Morgan Rielly.

Prediction – Maple Leafs in 6

#2 Edmonton Oilers (35-18-2) vs. #3 Winnipeg Jets (29-23-3)

The Jets look completely lost out there, don’t they? I really don’t know what’s happening. I’m assuming Connor Hellebuyck is finally fatigued after carrying the team on his back for so long. This lack of performance is exposing the true colors of this Jets squad. It’s a shame because I think Hellebuyck deserves better. I believe this will ultimately be a close matchup though and it’s because there is no depth outside of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl for the Oilers. We aren’t saying that Darnell Nurse and Tyson Barrie won’t play a huge role in this series, but after them, what’s left? 

I do believe the top-heavy Oilers will close out this series, but it’s going to be a very high-scoring series with very little defensive help on either end. Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele will play at their elite levels but even so, it won’t be enough. All of me wants to see McDavid win the cup with my Flyers out of the mix, but I just don’t think they have as much as they truly need to go deep in the playoffs. Mike Smith is getting up there in age and I’m not sure he can play every game at the level the Oilers need him to. I am not downplaying the amazing resurgence he is having, but I’m trying to be realistic. 

Prediction – Oilers in 7

Predictions for Round 2

East – Bruins over Islanders in 6 games

West – Knights over Colorado in 6 games

North – Maple Leafs over Oilers in 7 games 

Central – Hurricanes over Lightning in 7 games

Semi Finals and Stanley Cup Finals 

This is where things get tricky. Anyone can play anyone here and it’s actually pretty damn cool. The four division winners will advance to the semi-finals and will get re-seeded based on their regular-season point totals. Round three will again consist of a seven-game series for each matchup. When looking at my predictions, the Knights, Hurricanes, Maple Leafs, and Bruins will advance. The matchups will look like this: 

#1 Golden Knights (82 points) vs. #4 Bruins (73 points) – Knights win in 6 

#2 Hurricanes (80 points) vs. #3 Maple Leafs (77 points) – Hurricanes win in 6

My 2021 Stanley Cup Finals Matchup: #1 Golden Knights vs. #2 Hurricanes – Knights win in 6 

Good Luck to All Teams!

I just don’t believe anyone can take down the Knights. I could be wrong of course but you know, the Knights are just too dominant. They have the ultimate secret weapons that really aren’t too secret in Robin Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury. They’re more of a cheat code than secret weapons, really. Elite goalie play is what all Stanley Cup winners get, and the Knights are going to get that from two different tenders. All I can say is I am ready for the playoffs to start and am looking forward to all of these matchups. 

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David Arnott

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