It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
Typically that’s a phrase one would hear around Christmas. But for hockey fans, there’s no better time of year to enjoy the game than the playoffs. With storylines galore and the intensity at an all-time high, witnessing 16 teams battling for the right to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup is a sight to behold.
Throughout the postseason, Buffalo Sports Page will provide you with series previews and predictions from the start of round one – which begins this weekend – through the finals. Previews will become more in-depth as the playoffs roll along, but for now here is our analysis of the first round.
MassMutual East Division
(1) Pittsburgh Penguins (37-16-3, 77 points) vs. (4) New York Islanders (32-17-7, 71 points)
Not much has changed for the Penguins in 2020-21. They’re still led by a superb group in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel and Kris Letang, and they remain one of the better offensive outfits in hockey. The acquisitions of Jeff Carter and Mike Matheson and the continued improvement of Bryan Rust, Jared McCann, Kasperi Kapanen and John Marino have also fortified their depth, but one issue to keep an eye on is the talented but inconsistent goaltending tandem of Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith.
After John Tavares’ defection to Toronto three years ago, most believed the New York Islanders would suffer a major downturn. Not so. Talents like Matthew Barzal, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Josh Bailey, Anthony Beauvillier and Brock Nelson have turned the Islanders into Cup contenders and are supplemented by strong defensive talents in Ryan Pulock, Adam Pelech, Scott Mayfield and Nick Leddy. Veterans like Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri were brought in by general manager Lou Lamoriello to help out Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck play in coach Barry Trotz’s smothering defensive system – they were needed more than ever after captain Anders Lee suffered a torn ACL – and Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin have split the starting goaltender duties.
Islanders in six. The Penguins have more offensive firepower, but the Islanders swept the Penguins two years ago in the postseason and know how to make Pittsburgh try to defeat them with players other than Crosby and Malkin. This corner thinks they can do it again.
(2) Washington Capitals (36-15-5, 77 points) vs. (3) Boston Bruins (33-16-7, 73 points)
Despite winning the Cup three years ago, the weight of expectations is back on the Washington Capitals’ backs. Led by the usual suspects – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie and Tom Wilson – the Capitals have rarely struggled for offense, and pickups like Anthony Mantha and Conor Sheary have bolstered their depth. Defensively, they are still led by John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov, and offseason acquisitions like Justin Schultz and former Bruin Zdeno Chara have been nice additions on the back end. Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek have given Washington a makeover in goal after the departure of Braden Holtby. But after back-to-back first round flameouts in 2019 and ’20, the replacing of Todd Reirden with the well-traveled Peter Laviolette has set the team’s sights on winning another championship.
The Boston Bruins have a nice mix of veterans left from their Cup runs of the past decade and youngsters who have come into their own. Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci and Tuukka Rask remain from the old guard while David Pastrnak, Charlie McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk and Brandon Carlo have provided a shot in the arm. Veteran imports like former Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall and ex-Nashville Predator Craig Smith have helped keep the Bruins’ window for contention open.
Capitals in seven. Boston may have the edge in goal, but – with all due respect to Bruce Cassidy – Washington has the better coach.
Discover Central Division
(1) Carolina Hurricanes (36-12-8, 80 points) vs. (4) Nashville Predators (31-23-2, 64 points)
For the first time since the team moved to Raleigh from Hartford, the Carolina Hurricanes have reached the postseason for a third consecutive year. General manager Don Waddel and coach Rod Brind’Amour lead a team characterized by a mix of youth (Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Jaccob Slavin and Andrei Svechnikov) and veterans (Dougie Hamilton, Brett Pesce, Vincent Trocheck and Jordan Staal). So far that mix, plus a trade for Cedric Paquette, has churned out positive results. The goaltending duo of Petr Mrazek and James Reimer, however, has been so-so historically – despite Mrazek’s strong numbers in limited action in 2021 – leading to Alex Nedeljkovic also getting some looks in net.
Nashville appears to be a franchise in decline since their two-year peak of 2016-17 and 2017-18. The signing of Matt Duchene and hiring of former Devils coach John Hynes a year ago was supposed to boost an offense led by forwards Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, Calle Jarnkrok, Mikael Granlund and Viktor Arvidsson, but they have underwhelmed. Luckily for the Predators they boast one of the deepest defense corps in hockey and stalwarts like Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Dante Fabbro and Mattias Ekholm elevated their play to get their team back on track. Longtime goaltender Pekka Rinne has also shown his age the last two years with slipping play, thus ceding more starts to Juuse Saros.
Hurricanes in five. Nashville’s lack of scoring will catch up to them in the playoffs.
(2) Florida Panthers (37-14-5, 79 points) vs. (3) Tampa Bay Lightning (36-17-3, 75 points)
Florida has reached the postseason in back-to-back years for the first time since 1995-96 and 1996-97, and the hiring of future Hall of Fame coach Joel Quenneville a year ago has given the Panthers some much-needed guidance behind the bench. Quenneville didn’t take over a roster that was devoid of talent either, as he inherited a team bolstered at forward by Jonathan Huberdeau and Alex Barkov and bolstered by emerging youngsters like Carter Verhaeghe and steady pros in Patric Hornqvist, Anthony Duclair, Alexander Wennberg and Sam Bennett. Defensively the Panthers are normally paced by Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle, but a fractured leg suffered by Ekblad has forced him to the sidelines – allowing others like MacKenzie Weegar, Radko Gudas, Anton Stralman and Brandon Montour to step up. Former Blue Jacket Sergei Bobrovsky has continued to struggle in net, which has let understudies Chris Driedger and Spencer Knight breathe down his neck.
The reigning champions and a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference over the last decade, the Lightning are deeper than they’ve ever been. Youngsters like Brayden Point, Mikhail Sergachev, Yanni Gourde and Anthony Cirelli and imports like Barclay Goodrow, Blake Coleman and Ryan McDonagh have joined Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn to build a juggernaut. Andrei Vasilevskiy is widely regarded as the best goaltender in the NHL and Victor Hedman is the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner.
Lightning in seven. This may be the most talented group in the Panthers’ history, but the first-ever Battle of Florida will see the defending champions emerge victorious thanks to better depth.
Honda West Division
(1) Colorado Avalanche (39-13-4, 82 points) vs. (4) St. Louis Blues (27-20-9, 63 points)
Few teams in the NHL had such a dichotomy on their team between their offensive and defensive talent over the last few years like the Colorado Avalanche did. Blessed with studs at forward like Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog, the Avs have certainly light up scoreboards. But Colorado didn’t have much on defense, nor much depth at forward. That has changed with reigning Calder Trophy winner Cale Makar, Samuel Girard and Devon Toews arriving, pushing rearguards like Ryan Graves, Erik Johnson, Bowen Byram, Jacob MacDonald and Conor Timmins into ideal roles on defense. Brandon Saad, Andre Burakovsky, Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare have become reliable secondary scorers and the underrated Philipp Grubauer is the Avalanche’s starter in net.
Cup champions two years ago, the Blues fell in the opening round of the playoffs last year and ended the 2020-21 regular season just seven games above .500. Led by Ryan O’Reilly, Vladimir Tarasenko, David Perron, Mike Hoffman, Torey Krug and Colton Parayko, the Blues still have a deep roster but have been beset by the injury bug, as Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, Vince Dunn, Tyler Bozak, Carl Gunnarsson and Oskar Sundqvist have all missed various amounts of time. Jordan Binnington has turned in two good follow-up seasons in goal after a marvelous rookie campaign led to their championship win.
Avalanche in six. The Blues are still a good team, but too many injuries will be their downfall against the President’s Trophy winners.
(2) Vegas Golden Knights (40-14-2, 82 points) vs. (3) Minnesota Wild (35-16-5, 75 points)
The Golden Knights followed up their first three seasons with another strong outing and are clearly one of the better outfits in the Western Conference. Led by William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, the Golden Knights have augmented their core group of forwards with experienced pros like Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty and Chandler Stephenson and are a team that relies on speed and a strong forechecking game. Peter DeBoer has kept this team on course while Robin Lehner, Alex Pietrangelo and Alec Martinez have lightened the loads of headliners Marc-Andre Fleury and Shea Theodore.
The hiring of Bill Guerin as general manager and the release of Bruce Boudreau as head coach last year seemed to indicate that the Minnesota Wild wanted to go in the direction of a rebuild after years of reaching the playoffs but never having success once they got there. Defiantly, Dean Evason’s roster has gotten into the dance anyways for the second straight season. Calder Trophy favorite Kirill Kaprizov led the team in scoring while surrounded by many veterans, including Zach Parise, Mats Zuccarello, Nick Bonino and Kevin Fiala. On defense the Wild are still anchored by Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin, and Cam Talbot is Minnesota’s starter in goal.
Golden Knights in five. While Minnesota had a better-than-expected performance in 2021, it won’t be enough to get past one of the best teams in hockey.
Scotia North Division
(1) Toronto Maple Leafs (35-13-7, 77 points) vs. (4) Montreal Canadiens (24-21-11, 59 points)
The Leafs have reached the postseason the last four years in a row and are trying to win their first playoff series since 2004. Led by their core group of John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Zach Hyman, this roster is a high-flying group that can score in bunches and is augmented by grizzled warhorses in Joe Thornton, Nick Foligno, Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds. Defensively, the Leafs have been good, and are paced by Morgan Reilly, Jake Muzzin and T.J. Brodie, while nominal starting goaltender Frederick Andersen has been underwhelming – combined with the emerging Jack Campbell, this has created a goaltending controversy.
Back in the tournament for a second straight year, the Montreal Canadiens will be looking to make some noise. After an up-and-down beginning to the season, coach Claude Julien was let go in favor of Dominique Ducharme and his charges have continued to be so-so. Up front Montreal is led by Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault, Brendan Gallagher, Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, while the Habs’ headliners on the back end are captain Shea Weber and Jeff Petry. Pickups from outside the organization like Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson, Corey Perry and Eric Staal have given the Canadiens some added scoring punch, but what will make or break the Habs’ chances in the postseason will be the play of Carey Price. Price has endured two of the worst seasons of his career, but if he can rediscover his status as one of hockey’s elite goaltenders, Montreal may pull off an upset.
Leafs in six. Toronto’s been trying to break through to the next level and Montreal is the perfect opponent to do that against. Unless Price gets hot, the Leafs will win the first playoff series between these two Original Six rivals since 1979.
(2) Edmonton Oilers (35-18-2, 72 points) vs. (3) Winnipeg Jets (29-23-3, 61 points)
Edmonton has made it to the postseason for just the third time in the Connor McDavid/Leon Draisaitl era, and this time around the all-world duo has a better supporting cast. With Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Kailer Yamamoto, James Neal, Tyler Ennis, Alex Chiasson and Jesse Puljujarvi in tow, the Oilers do have some secondary scoring threats. The team is held down on the rear by defenders Darnell Nurse and Tyson Barrie, but injuries to Oscar Klefbom, Zack Kassian and Kris Russell have taken some snarl out of the team’s lineup. The Oilers’ goaltending is split between Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen.
Over the last few years, Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and coach Paul Maurice have finally started to reap the benefits of a long, slow rebuild. As a result, the Jets have acquired players like Pierre-Luc Dubois, Kyle Connor, Andrew Copp and Connor Hellebuyck to help veterans like Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Blake Wheeler and Paul Stastny. Losing rearguards like Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba two years ago nearly decimated their defense corps yet imports like Neal Pionk and Dylan DeMelo and improved play by Josh Morrissey have stopped the bleeding.
Jets in seven. With 105 points in only 56 games – which would put him on pace for 154 over a full 82-game season – McDavid is having the best individual scoring year anyone has had since Mario Lemieux’s 161-point campaign in 1995-96. But the Jets have the edge in goal and have better balance in their lineup.