NHL Playoff Picture 2021: Bracket Predictions and Teams to Watch
The quest to win the Stanley Cup will begin in May. And of the 16 playoff berths that are up for grabs, seven have already been clinched.
As of Tuesday, only teams from the Central and West Divisions had secured postseason spots: the Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning in the former, and the Vegas Golden Knights, Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild from the latter.
The Toronto Maple Leafs joined that group Wednesday, clinching a berth with a 4-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens. Toronto is in first place in the North Division and has a seven-point lead over the second-place Edmonton Oilers.
As more teams prepare to secure postseason hockey, here are predictions for what the seedings will look like when the Stanley Cup playoffs begin, followed by a look at three top championship contenders to keep an eye on.
Predictions for Playoff Seedings
1. Boston Bruins
2. Washington Capitals
3. New York Islanders
4. Pittsburgh Penguins
1. Toronto Maple Leafs
2. Edmonton Oilers
3. Winnipeg Jets
4. Montreal Canadiens
1. Carolina Hurricanes
2. Tampa Bay Lightning
3. Florida Panthers
4. Nashville Predators
1. Vegas Golden Knights
2. Colorado Avalanche
3. Minnesota Wild
4. St. Louis Blues
Vegas Golden Knights
The Vegas Golden Knights will be making their fourth consecutive playoff appearance and will be looking to reach the Stanley Cup Final for the second time during that span. And this is only their fourth season in franchise history.
That's right: Vegas has never missed the postseason since joining the NHL as an expansion team ahead of the 2017-18 season. This year, the Golden Knights may have their best opportunity yet to win their first Stanley Cup, as they have impressed all season en route to compiling an NHL-high 72 points.
Not only that, but Vegas is also on a roll heading down the homestretch, having won 10 games in a row. It earned a 5-2 victory Wednesday over the Colorado Avalanche, their main rivals for the No. 1 seed in the West Division.
"We've still got a lot of business to take care of over the next two weeks," Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said, per the Associated Press (h/t ESPN). "It sets us up where our destiny is in our own hands."
If the Golden Knights keep playing the way they have been of late, they may prove too much for anyone to stop.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The latest team to clinch a playoff berth is also one that's greatly in need of postseason success. While the Maple Leafs are heading to the playoffs for the fifth year in a row, they haven't won a postseason series since 2004.
Perhaps this will be the year that Toronto's fortune changes. The Maple Leafs are re-establishing some momentum, having won three straight games since snapping a five-game losing streak, and they are looking to now hold on to the top spot in the North Division.
Toronto has one of the top stars in the NHL in Auston Matthews, who has scored a league-high 35 goals this season. But it also has some veterans, such as the 41-year-old Joe Thornton and the 37-year-old Jason Spezza, who could help provide invaluable experience in the postseason.
"We're playing with a couple living legends," Matthews said of Thornton and Spezza, per the Associated Press (h/t ESPN). "It's pretty awesome at this stage of their career how passionate they are about the team, about winning, about performing every night."
Keep an eye on the Maple Leafs as they look to keep things rolling once the playoffs get underway.
Alex Ovechkin has won the Stanley Cup just once during his incredible NHL career. Maybe it's time to make that two.
The Washington Capitals rarely have trouble getting into the playoffs during Ovechkin's time with the team. They are closing in on their 13th postseason appearance in the past 14 campaigns, but they have only made it past the second round once during that stretch—in 2018, when they won the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
Washington is going to get back to the playoffs this year, and it may even be the No. 1 seed in the East Division. But the competition will continue to be tough, with the other three postseason teams out of the division likely to be the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Islanders and Boston Bruins.
Whether or not the Caps can have success in the playoffs this year may come down to their goaltending. Rookie goaltender Vitek Vanecek has emerged as a solid player (2.68 goals-against average and .910 save percentage in 32 games), while Ilya Samsonov (2.67 goals-against average and .903 save percentage in 18 games) has won 13 of his 17 starts this season, his second in the NHL.
Vanecek and Samsonov are inexperienced, and neither has played in the postseason before. But if they keep performing well, it could help Washington make a deep playoff run.