2021 NHL Playoffs: B/R Staff 1st-Round Predictions
Sixteen NHL teams have punched their tickets to the 2021 NHL playoffs and have the chance to battle for the most iconic trophy in sports: the Stanley Cup.
All eight first-round matchups will be filled with intrigue as the teams raise the intensity level for what is going to be one of the most unique playoff campaigns hockey fans will ever see.
Will Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid continue his regular-season dominance in the postseason against the Winnipeg Jets? Can the rejuvenated Tampa Bay Lightning find their form from last season's playoffs to overcome the in-state rival Florida Panthers? Are the Toronto Maple Leafs in for a rude awakening when they take on the Montreal Canadiens?
The B/R NHL staff is here to answer those questions and more as we break down every first-round series and provide you with our expert predictions.
MassMutual East Division: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Islanders
There was once a time when Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin made the Pittsburgh Penguins one of the most feared teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Now the fear is that the duo may not be playing in many more postseasons as they head into the twilight years of their illustrious careers.
However, Sid and Geno are still two of the best in the world, and they do make the Penguins a formidable postseason opponent. Pittsburgh was successful without Malkin for much of the season while he was sidelined with a knee injury, so adding him into the equation will only make the Penguins more dangerous.
Conversely, the Penguins' first-round opponent doesn't have any big stars like Crosby and Malkin. For the New York Islanders, the system is the star. The mark of a Barry Trotz team is structure and discipline. The Islanders may not score a whole lot of goals, but they sure can defend, and they have a deep lineup with a lot of toughness. The 402 high-danger scoring chances the Isles allowed were the eighth-fewest in the NHL this season, per Natural Stat Trick.
Center Mathew Barzal is the Islanders' biggest star and their points leader (45), but he wasn't forced to shoulder the offensive load alone when captain Anders Lee went down. General manager Lou Lamoriello returned to New Jersey to bring in two players: center Travis Zajac and winger Kyle Palmieri.
The one question mark for New York is goalie Semyon Varlamov, who left Monday's game against the Boston Bruins with an undisclosed injury. The Islanders did not practice Friday, so we will find out whether he's good to go for Game 1 on Sunday.
The Penguins are one of the best rush teams in the league, and the Islanders are a staunch defensive team. In a seven-game series, I'm taking defense over flash and flair.
PREDICTION: Isles in 6
MassMutual East Division: Washington Capitals vs. Boston Bruins
Though many have questioned Taylor Hall throughout the past few seasons, there was never any reason to doubt the 2018 Hart Trophy winner.
Way back when Hall was drafted in 2010, as NHL Central Scouting's No. 2-ranked player, he thought he would end up in Boston. It wasn't the right timing, then, but it sure is now. Hall has regained his MVP ways since being traded to the Bruins from the Buffalo Sabres at the deadline.
Hall looks like he's played with David Krejci and Craig Smith for years, and he may well end up playing with them for years. After putting up 14 points in 16 games, team president Cam Neely said the club is trying to work out a long-term contract.
The Washington Capitals were banged up to end the season, but captain Alexander Ovechkin has returned in time for the playoffs and the club got a lucky break when winger Tom Wilson was only handed a fine for his role in a scrum with the New York Rangers at the start of May. Controversial as it may be, Washington is better when Wilson is on the ice, though the other team may not be as safe.
There are more questions surrounding the Caps than the Bruins. Anthony Mantha has gone 10 games without a goal, and netminder Ilya Samsonov only recently came off the COVID-19 protocol list.
The goaltending depth favors the Bruins, with rookie phenom Jeremy Swayman playing behind veteran Tuukka Rask.
These are two heavy hockey teams, and this will be a heavyweight fight.
PREDICTION: Bruins in 7
Discover Central Division: Carolina Hurricanes vs. Nashville Predators
For fans of the Nashville Predators, it's a double-edged sword.
Happy your team found its groove in early spring and rode the wave to a postseason berth?
What you may be a bit less thrilled about is facing the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Hurricanes all but owned the Predators in the season series, winning five times in regulation and once in overtime through the first six meetings before Nashville captured wins in the final two games of both the series and the regular season—outscoring Carolina 8-1 in doing so.
But while folks in western Tennessee may call those evidence, it's hard to make a case anywhere else.
The Hurricanes were 10 places above the Predators in overall team scoring—11th in the league to 21st—and the trio of Alex Nedeljkovic (15-5-3), James Reimer (15-5-2) and Petr Mrazek (6-2-3) combined for a 2.39 goals-against average that was tied for fourth compared to Nashville's 2.75 in 12th
Carolina also has distinct advantages in both power-play and penalty-killing success and had seven players produce more overall points than the Predators' leading scorer, defenseman Roman Josi (33).
Can Nashville goalie Juuse Saros swipe a game on his own?
But not more than that.
PREDICTION: Hurricanes in 5
Discover Central Division: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Florida Panthers
This is the first postseason clash between the NHL's two Florida-based franchises. While the Tampa Bay Lightning are the Stanley Cup champions, the Panthers won five of the eight games during the teams' regular-season series.
The Lightning's deep talent corps provides the team with a considerable edge in postseason experience over the Panthers. Andrei Vasilevskiy is arguably the best goaltender in the league. However, they enter this series with a banged-up core. Sidelined captain Steven Stamkos and winger Nikita Kucherov are returning to action, but top defenseman (and 2020 playoff MVP) Victor Hedman is nursing a lower-body injury.
Led by forwards Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, the Panthers are itching to eliminate their closest rival. Head coach Joel Quenneville has done a fine job in turning this once-moribund club into a solid playoff contender. They have coped well since March despite top defenseman Aaron Ekblad's absence with a fractured leg. Trade-deadline acquisition Sam Bennett has provided a big boost to their offense.
The Lightning are a tough opponent, but the Panthers are a rising force hungry for playoff success.
PREDICTION: Panthers in 6
Scotiabank North Division: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Montreal Canadiens
Toronto Maple Leafs. Montreal Canadiens. Playoffs.
Need we say more?
The hockey-mad fans from Canada's two most hockey-mad cities will be in competitive bliss for the next couple weeks as their teams lock horns in the chase for the Stanley Cup for the first time in 42 years.
On paper, it's a mismatch.
The Leafs have been the class of the North for much of the season and these days find themselves five points ahead of second-place Edmonton and a full 18 up on Montreal. The fourth-seeded Canadiens, meanwhile, started strong but soon hit a tailspin that cost coach Claude Julien his job in late February.
Scoring has not been a primary concern for either thanks to the prolific output of Toronto's Auston Matthews (41 goals) and Montreal's Tyler Toffoli (28 goals). But goaltending might be after injuries sidelined starters Frederik Andersen and Carey Price for significant parts of the season.
The Leafs turned to Jack Campbell (17-2-2, 2.11 goals-against average) in the interim, while Canadiens have Jake Allen (11-12-5, 2.68). Both Andersen and Price have returned to health, though it is not quite clear who will take the crease once this best-of-seven series begins Thursday.
Regardless, for the Habs to have a chance, it will have to be a hot Price or Allen that provides it.
PREDICTION: Leafs in 5
Scotiabank North Division: Edmonton Oilers vs. Winnipeg Jets
For the first time in 31 years, the Edmonton Oilers are meeting the Winnipeg Jets in the playoffs. The Oilers took seven of nine games during their regular-season series.
The Jets have a dangerous top line in Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor and solid goaltending in 2020 Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck. However, the loss of top-six winger Nikolaj Ehlers to an upper-body injury contributed to a seven-game losing skid down the stretch. Their blue-line depth remains suspect.
Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid's offensive exploits dominated the headlines but also overshadowed his club's overall improvement. Leon Draisaitl sits second in league scoring behind his captain, goaltender Mike Smith is having a superb season at age 38 and their depth players are more seasoned. The Oilers' special teams are also among the league's best, with the power play ranking first and the penalty kill 10th.
The Oilers never lost to the Jets in their six previous playoff series. Expect that streak to be extended to seven.
PREDICTION: Oilers in 6
Honda West Division: Colorado Avalanche vs. St. Louis Blues
The Colorado Avalanche, winners of the Presidents' Trophy, are the most formidable team the NHL has seen in years. Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen are bona fide superstars up front. Cale Makar, Devon Toews and Sam Girard are far and away the best defensive trio in league. General Manager Joe Sakic has done a brilliant job filling out the rest of the roster with astute prospect development and savvy free-agent signings.
The closest thing they have to an Achilles' heel is in goal. Although Phillip Grubauer has played well in Colorado, he's benefitted from easy workloads his entire NHL career and missed nearly three weeks in April because of COVID-19 protocols.
The Blues, meanwhile, limped into the playoffs and are a shell of the 2019 team that won the Stanley Cup. Vladimir Tarasenko, Colton Parayko and Vince Dunn have taken nosedive, and Torey Krug has been a massive downgrade from Alex Pietrangelo. The team also lacks depth.
The Blues' narrow path to a series victory is through goaltender Jordan Binnington. He struggled to start the year but has rediscovered peak form in the latter half of the season. The Blues will lean hard on center Ryan O'Reilly and defenseman Justin Faulk. If the goaltending pendulum swings in St. Louis' direction, then they have a fighting chance. Otherwise, it should be Colorado in a rout.
PREDICTION: Colorado in 4
Honda West Division: Vegas Golden Knights vs. Minnesota Wild
The COVID-19 pandemic-influenced playoff format has done neither the Vegas Golden Knights nor Minnesota Wild any favors, as each team deserves an easier path out of the first round than this matchup provides.
The Golden Knights kept most of the team's core from last season, when they made the Western Conference Final. Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty are living up to their reputations, Chandler Stephenson has surged since his acquisition from Washington in late 2019 and Shea Theodore continues to assert himself as a No. 1 defenseman. Marc-Andre Fleury caught a second wind and has arguably been the top goaltender in the league this season. An underachieving Alex Pietrangelo, the team's blockbuster offseason signing, is still a better defenseman than most.
In one season, Minnesota has transitioned from the stalest team in the league to an entertaining outfit. Kirill Kaprizov made his long-awaited move from Russia and took the league by storm with 51 points in 55 games. Mats Zuccarello has rediscovered his New York Rangers-era magic. They have also fixed their goaltending issue. The last month of the regular season aside, Cam Talbot's season was a success. He has his work cut out for him against Vegas but thrives in high-shot frequency environments.
Vegas has a slight advantage at even strength but pulls away from Minnesota on special teams.
PREDICTION: Vegas in 6
B/R NHL App Community Poll Results
We couldn't just let our experts have their say without gauging the NHL app community's thoughts.
Here are the results from our app polls on which teams you think are going to be victorious in Round 1!
Boston Bruins: 57.6 percent
Washington Capitals: 42.4 percent
Pittsburgh Penguins: 65.7 percent
New York Islanders: 34.4 percent
Tampa Bay Lightning: 57.9 percent
Florida Panthers: 42.1 percent
Carolina Hurricanes: 72.5 percent
Nashville Predators: 27.5 percent
Toronto Maple Leafs: 73.5 percent
Montreal Canadiens: 26.5 percent
Edmonton Oilers: 72.7 percent
Winnipeg Jets: 27.3 percent
Vegas Golden Knights: 55.4 percent
Minnesota Wild: 44.6 percent
Colorado Avalanche: 69.9 percent
St. Louis Blues: 30.1 percent
Disagree with the results or our experts' predictions? Submit your comments in the app and make your voice heard!