NHL Playoff Picture 2021: Analyzing Postseason Races, Standings and Bracket

Jake RillFeatured Columnist IMay 13, 2021

NHL Playoff Picture 2021: Analyzing Postseason Races, Standings and Bracket

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    As the NHL regular season winds down, the 16 teams heading to the Stanley Cup playoffs are set. And 12 of them know their first-round opponents.

    There's still some uncertainty in the West, where the division title is still up for grabs. But everything will be clear after Thursday night.

    If the Colorado Avalanche defeat the Los Angeles Kings, they will win the West Division title and move up to the No. 1 seed. If they lose, then the Vegas Golden Knights will hold on to the top spot. And considering Colorado and Vegas could face off in the second round, home-ice advantage for that series would be huge.

    Because of the division realignment for the 2020-21 season, the first two rounds of the postseason will comprise matchups between teams from the same division, just as it's been throughout the regular season. Here's a division-by-division look at the NHL playoff picture.

East Division

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    No. 1 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 4 New York Islanders

    No. 2 Washington Capitals vs. No. 3 Boston Bruins

    It's been clear for a while that these were the top four teams in the East Division this season, and it was a close battle for seeding. However, the Penguins won nine of their final 11 regular-season games to end up as the No. 1 seed.

    This was by far the closest division race, as only six points separated Pittsburgh and New York, feeding the notion that any one of the four could be the last one standing from the East.

    The Islanders are going to be hungry for revenge against the Penguins after going 2-6-0 against them during the regular season. The teams haven't played since March 29, but New York has been struggling of late, having lost seven of its past 10 games.

    The key to whether the Capitals can beat the Bruins is likely their health. Top offensive players Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom recently returned from injuries, but Washington has also been without forward T.J. Oshie and defenseman John Carlson. If the Caps remain banged up, Boston could be favored to emerge from the teams' opening-round series.

North Division

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    Peter Power/Associated Press

    No. 1 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. No. 4 Montreal Canadiens

    No. 2 Edmonton Oilers vs. No. 3 Winnipeg Jets

    There hasn't been a Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup since the 1992-93 Montreal Canadiens. This season, because of the realigned divisions, it's guaranteed that one team from Canada will be among the final four teams.

    It's highly likely that Toronto and Edmonton will advance to battle it out in the second round. Winnipeg lost nine of its final 11 regular-season games, while Montreal enters the postseason on a five-game losing streak.

    The Maple Leafs are going to be tough for any team to beat. Center Auston Matthews scored an NHL-high 41 goals this season (eight more than the Oilers' Connor McDavid, who ranked second), powering a Toronto offense that ranked sixth in the league (and first in the North) with 3.35 goals per game.

    If any team from this division can knock off the Leafs, it would be the Oilers, who are scoring on 28.1 percent of their power plays, which ranked first in the NHL. That isn't to mention the prodigious play of McDavid, whose 104 points are 21 more than the next-best record, which belongs to Oilers teammate Leon Draisaitl. Be ready to watch these teams battle it out in the second round.

Central Division

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    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    No. 1 Carolina Hurricanes vs. No. 4 Nashville Predators

    No. 2 Florida Panthers vs. No. 3 Tampa Bay Lightning

    Although the Hurricanes ended the regular season with back-to-back losses to the Predators, they had already clinched the Central Division title. Things are likely going to be different when Carolina and Nashville return to the ice to open the postseason.

    Before those final two meetings, the Hurricanes had won their first six games against the Predators this season. Now that the stakes are raised, Carolina should look more like that team than the one that scored only one goal over its last two regular-season games.

    The Panthers-Lightning series provides an intriguing matchup. While Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup last season, Florida hasn't won a playoff series since 1996, when it reached the Stanley Cup Final during the franchise's first trip to the postseason.

    It could be time for the Panthers to end their recent playoff woes, as they enter the postseason on a six-game winning streak and have been much improved this season. But the Lightning have an experienced team that knows what it takes to win in the playoffs. It's arguably the standout series of the entire first round.

West Division

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    No. 1 Vegas Golden Knights vs. No. 4 St. Louis Blues

    No. 2 Colorado Avalanche vs. No. 3 Minnesota Wild

    There's a strong chance that the Avalanche will win the No. 1 seed Thursday. They beat the Kings 6-0 on Wednesday to move to 6-1-0 against L.A. this season. Los Angeles has nothing to play for, while Colorado is highly motivated to try to win the division title.

    Either way, a matchup between the Avalanche and Golden Knights seems likely for the second round. The Wild are a solid team that could play a competitive series against anyone on their day, but they are probably not going to have enough to knock off either of the West's top two.

    Meanwhile, the Blues had a down season, finishing with a 26-20-9 record and a minus-five goal differential. There wasn't much competition from the bottom half of the West Division standings, though, so St. Louis made the postseason for the ninth time in the past 10 seasons. But the Blues aren't likely to be a contender.

    So if the Avalanche win the West, they will not only have a lighter first-round matchup, but they would have home-ice advantage for a potential second-round series against the Golden Knights. And with how well Colorado has been playing (seven wins in its past eight games), it's going to be a team to watch this postseason.

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