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It's NHL Playoffs time, baby

Hockey

HELLO! We’ve spent the past few days prepping for the WNBA and NWSL regular season starts, but today’s special edition pop-up newsletter is all about the beginning of the end: the NHL postseason is upon us.

May 15, 2021
Source: Montreal Canadiens/Twitter
Source: Montreal Canadiens/Twitter

QUOTE OF THE DAY

"You do not play hockey for good seasons. You play to win the Stanley Cup. It has to be the objective."

—Former NHLer Guy (pronounced Gee) Lafleur, who knows a thing or two about winning the Stanley Cup, considering he did it five times as a Montreal Canadien in the 1970s.

🏒 The set-up

SOURCE: NHL.COM

This NHL postseason has been long and eagerly awaited. Due to the temporary division realignments made for the 2021 regular season, this postseason — known officially as the Stanley Cup Playoffs — is starting a month later than normal and is set up a little differently than other years.

  • As opposed to the regular set-up of two conferences with two divisions in each, this season, the league was split into four divisions — East, Central, West and North — with seven teams in the North and eight in each of the rest. 

The top four teams from each division, based on regular season standings, are moving on to the postseason, with the top team set to play the fourth-seeded team, and the No. 2 and No. 3 teams meeting in the first round.

  • Each round of the playoffs is a best-of-seven series, so the first team to four wins advances. The second round will see the remaining two teams in each division face off.

Things will get extra-interesting by the time the third round, aka the semifinals, rolls around. That’s because the four remaining teams won’t have played each other at all throughout the regular season. But before we get too ahead of ourselves, let’s take a look at how the first round (and usually the most exciting one, TBH) is shaping up.

➡️ East Division

SOURCE: SPORTSNET STATS/TWITTER

No. 1 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 4 New York Islanders: We’re not entirely sure how the Pens made it to the top of the East. Sure, they’re great, and yes, they still have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin leading the charge, but their season was just “alright” by Stanley Cup-winning standards of seasons past.

  • But the Pens are still the Pens, and their offense is still as stellar as it’s been for about 15 years. For their part, the Islanders have the better goalie in Semyon (pronounced sehm-YON) Varlamov and a stronger defense, which makes this a fun yin-yang pairing.
  • The Pens have the head-to-head season advantage, going 6-2 against the Isles, but we wouldn’t be totally shocked if they find a way to lose this one.

No. 2 Washington Capitals vs. No. 3 Boston Bruins: The Caps and Bruins kick off the postseason today at 7:15 p.m. ET, and based on their regular season head-to-head record (a 4-4 split), this series should go the full seven games.

  • The Bruins recently picked up the 2010 first overall draft pick and friend of The GIST Taylor Hall and have a stacked first line, but the difference-maker in this series might be the return of big man Zdeno Chara.
     
  • The 6’9” Caps defenseman captained the Bruins for 14 seasons, including the 2011 Cup run, until he left for Washington in 2020. Though he already faced Boston during the regular season, there’s something special about facing your old team in the playoffs.

📍 Central Division

SOURCE: CHRISTOPHER HANEWINCKEL/USA TODAY SPORTS

No. 1 Carolina Hurricanes vs. No. 4 Nashville Predators: The last time the Hurricanes won their division, way back in 2006, they also won the Stanley Cup. Fifteen years later, they have everything in place to do it again, including Rod Brind’Amour: the Coach of the Year candidate who captained that 2006 team to the Cup. Coincidence?

  • The Hurricanes are favored not only to win this series, but the whole shebang. The underdog Preds could be a challenge though: they don’t score often, but starting goalie Juuse Saros and the solid defense are tough to beat.

No. 2 Florida Panthers vs. No. 3 Tampa Bay Lightning: The Panthers are one of five teams in the postseason who are playing for their first-ever Stanley Cup...but they’re facing off against the reigning champs, and their cross-state rival, the Lightning.

  • The Lightning haven’t been themselves recently, but will have stars Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov back in the lineup after injuries. Despite the current rankings, if the Panthers pull out the win in this battle of the Sunshine State, it’ll be an upset.

⬅️ West Division

SOURCE: JOE CAMPOREALE/USA TODAY SPORTS

No. 1 Colorado Avalanche vs. No. 4 St. Louis Blues: How many renditions of “Gloria” do we think it will take to help the Blues beat the Avalanche? The limit does not exist. Seeing as the Avalanche won the President’s Trophy (awarded to the team with the most regular season points) this week, the Blues don’t stand much of a chance.

  • Not to brag, but we called an Avalanche Stanley Cup win back in January, and we’re sticking with it. Their goaltending is the team’s only question mark, but it’s like 12-point font while everything else for them — offense, defense and coaching — is 82-point.

No. 2 Vegas Golden Knights vs. No. 3 Minnesota Wild: What happens in Vegas...continues to amaze the rest of the hockey world. An expansion team just four years old, the Knights have never missed the playoffs, and improve every single season. If anyone can challenge the Avalanche, it’s this division rival.

  • Now that’s not to take anything away from the Minnesota Wild. They’re a complete team, with a deep offense and a brick-walled defense. Their only (major) flaw is that they play in the toughest division in the league.

❄️ North Division

SOURCE: PAUL CHIASSON/CANADIAN PRESS

No. 1 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. No. 4 Montreal Canadiens: We’ve waited 42 years for this highly anticipated postseason match-up, and we’ll have to wait another few days. Since the North Division still has some regular season games left to play, the North playoff series won’t start until Thursday.

  • The Leafs and the Habs aren’t complaining though. The wait gives their starting goalies, Jack Campbell and Carey Price, respectively, some extra time to rest, and in Price’s case, recover from injury.
  • The Habs also expect to have stars Shea Weber, Brendan Gallagher and Philip Danault back in the lineup for Game 1, which will help to even up the playing field with the stacked and healthier Leafs. But will that even be enough? We shall see.

No. 2 Edmonton Oilers vs. No. 3 Winnipeg Jets: We’ve saved the best for last. Not the best team (hello Colorado!), but hands-down the best player in the league, Oilers superstar and Art Ross Trophy winner Connor McDavid

  • McDavid leads the league this season with 104 points in 55 games, 21 points ahead of the next guy...who also happens to be his teammate and occasional linemate, Leon Draisaitl.
  • But the Oilers aren’t just flashy goals and mega offense; Tyson Barrie and Darnell Nurse (WNBA star Kia’s brother/PWHPA star Sarah’s cousin) keep it tight on defense, too. The Jets have the better goalie in Connor Hellebuyck, but we can’t give them much else.

👀 How to watch

SOURCE: NANCY LANE/MEDIANEWS GROUP

After tonight’s sole match between the Caps and Bruins, the East Division continues tomorrow at noon ET with the Pens and Isles. The Central and West Divisions will kick off tomorrow, too, and the North on Thursday. Check out the full schedule here

  • In the U.S., games will air on NBC and NBCSN, while Sportsnet and CBC have all the action in Canada. The countdown is on.