The 2021 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs are going to look much different than they have in previous years.
The top four teams from each of the four divisions will qualify for the postseason, and the the first two rounds of the postseason will be intradivisional. Whichever franchises emerge will be reseeded by regular-season point total. That means we could see an Eastern Conference team face a Western Conference team prior to the Stanley Cup Final.
The top four teams in the East, Central, North and West Divisions are starting to become clear, as only one division has fewer than four points between the No. 4 and No. 5 teams.
The top battles between now and the middle of May will be for home-ice advantage in the first two rounds. The East and Central Divisions have the tightest races for their No. 1 seeds after Wednesday's games.
1. Washington: 60 points
2. New York Islanders: 58
3. Pittsburgh: 56
4. Boston: 50
5. New York Rangers: 46
6. Philadelphia: 44
7. New Jersey: 34
8. Buffalo: 27
All of the trade deadline spending in the East set up what should be a fantastic run to end of the regular season.
The Washington Capitals hold a small edge over the New York Islanders, but they have also played one more game than the second-place team.
Washington received a boost when it acquired Anthony Mantha from the Detroit Red Wings. That was a response to the Islanders bringing in Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac and the Boston Bruins trading for Taylor Hall.
Home-ice advantage means the most to the Islanders, who are 18-2-2 at home and just 9-9-2 on their travels.
The Capitals and Islanders have three games left against each other on April 22, 24 and 27. Two of those contests will be hosted by New York.
Pittsburgh's three-game winning streak has it six points ahead of the Bruins for the third seed. That advantage could blossom before April 24 since the Penguins have six games against the Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres.
That run could put Pittsburgh in contention for the top seed. It has two road clashes left with the Capitals and none remaining with the Islanders.
The Bruins and New York Rangers are tight in the race for the No. 4 seed, but Boston could gain an advantage through seven remaining contests versus Buffalo and New Jersey.
1. Carolina: 58
2. Tampa Bay: 58
3. Florida: 58
4. Nashville: 49
5. Chicago: 45
6. Dallas: 42
7. Columbus: 39
8. Detroit: 36
The Central is the most competitive division at the top.
The Carolina Hurricanes, Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers could all make a case they are the best team in hockey, but only one will receive the Central's No. 1 seed.
All three franchises have comparable home and away records, so there is not much of an advantage regarding the arena they play in come the postseason. Carolina is 14-3-4 at home and 13-7-0 on the road. Tampa Bay is 15-4-0 inside its own arena and 13-8-2 away from it. Florida is 14-4-3 on home ice and 13-8-1 on its travels.
Carolina and Florida are both in better form over the past 10 games. The Lightning are 4-6 during that stretch, which allowed the Canes and Panthers to level up in the standings.
Next week could decide where the Canes stand in the playoff race, as they face a four-game road swing against the Lightning and Panthers. After that stretch, Carolina does not play either top-seed rival.
Florida and Tampa Bay face each other Thursday and Saturday and again May 8 and 10. Those final two games could decide the final seed lineup.
The Nashville Predators are four points clear of the Chicago Blackhawks for the Central's final playoff berth. The Preds can create separation during their three-game set with Chicago next week.
1. Toronto: 60
2. Winnipeg: 55
3. Edmonton: 52
4. Montreal: 45
5. Calgary: 41
6. Vancouver: 35
7. Ottawa: 32
A Canadian team is guaranteed to make the league semifinals this year.
But the winner of the North still needs to win one more playoff series to have a chance at ending the country's title drought, which dates back to 1993.
The Toronto Maple Leafs appear to be the best contender to hoist the Stanley Cup, as they have gone five points clear of the Winnipeg Jets and split their 28 wins evenly home and away.
Toronto has the sort of attacking firepower in Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares that could break down any defense throughout a playoff series.
Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers are lurking in third place. Matthews vs. McDavid in the North Division playoff final would be a great spectacle.
Toronto, Winnipeg and Edmonton will qualify for the playoffs. The Montreal Canadiens have a four-point edge on the Calgary Flames and have played three fewer games.
Montreal and Calgary have four games left against each other in April. The Flames won Wednesday's meeting 4-1. They play again in Calgary on Friday and then have a three-game set in Montreal on April 23, 24 and 26.
1. Colorado: 64
2. Vegas: 60
3. Minnesota: 53
4. St. Louis: 44
5. Arizona: 43
6. San Jose: 40
7. Los Angeles: 38
8. Anaheim: 35
All season long the debate in the West has been whether the Colorado Avalanche or Vegas Golden Knights will emerge as the division's Stanley Cup contender.
The Avalanche and Golden Knights are the only divisional duo with 60 or more points entering Thursday, and the Avs lead the league with 64. Barring a collapse down the stretch, the two are on a collision course for the West Division final.
Minnesota will attempt to play spoiler to the dream matchup, It is 7-7 against Colorado and Vegas, with four of those victories coming over the Golden Knights. The Wild play Vegas twice more at the start of May. If Minnesota wins those games, we could talk about it as a serious third player in the West.
The St. Louis Blues, Arizona Cardinals and San Jose Sharks are in a spirited fight for the No. 4 seed, but earning that honor likely comes with the tall task of trying to beat Colorado in the first round.