.CHILLIN’ WITH AC – MAY 13
By Andrew Cioffi

2021 PLAYOFF PREVIEW FOR LORD STANLEY’S CUP

The shortened National Hockey League season is coming to an end and teams are gearing up for their playoff runs. With 8 games left, each of the 16 playoff spots has been decided. There are four teams from the Mass Mutual East Division, four teams from the Honda West Division, four from the Discover Central Division and four teams from the Scotia North Division who have all clinched playoff berth. Although the 16 teams that will enter the playoffs is still uncertain or how they will play out has not been determined  The NHL still has a lot of things to figure out.

It has been a very different season for the NHL as each team only played the other teams in their division throughout the season. The main reason for this was because of the quarantine requirements at the United States-Canada border. The result is that it created many new rivalries that previously did not exist and truly sets the stage for an exciting post season. Although the NHL seems geared up for the playoffs, there are still many different questions that remain about how the rest of the season will play out. One question is will the rest of the Stanley Cup Playoffs start when the regular season still isn’t completed?  Due to Covid breakout north of the border, the Canada-based North Division won’t conclude until May19th. The Discover Central Division finished their regular season Monday. The MassMutual East division completed play on Tuesday night, and the Honda West Division will end later tonight. Each team will be ready to start playoffs before the North Division completes their regular season. Another question is, will teams be allowed to cross the United States-Canada border without quarantining before the semifinals and possibly even the Stanley Cup Final?  I hope someone has the answer because I don’t think the NHL does.

Although nothing is set in stone, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly announced their plan for play regarding these things and their plan for the first and second round. Although the North Division regular season will not be completed, the NHL plans on starting the playoffs for the American teams. The MassMutual East Division starts their playoffs on Saturday May 15th, as the Boston Bruins (33-15-7) face the Washington Capitals (35-15-5). The first and second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs will consist of a semifinals and finals series between teams in their respective divisions. Following the divisional rounds, Bill Daly said that, “We would hope that we’re in a position, maybe by the end of the first round of the playoffs, to know where we’ll be come the third round of the playoffs.” (NHL.com) That all hinges on the NHL and Canadian health officials figured out a plan. It is still uncertain what will happen, but the bracket is set and teams are preparing for their opponents.

The first division to start the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs is the MassMutual East Division. The first game will take place on Saturday as the No.2 Washington Capitals take on the No.3 Boston Bruins to kick off the Stanley Cup Playoffs. At the end of the season these teams were only separated by 4 points. They have played each other 8 times this season and the season series is tied at 4-4. This series will be an absolute battle as these teams have been dead even this past season. I predict that the Boston Bruins will win this series in 7 games.

The second matchup from the MassMutual East Division is between the No.1 Pittsburgh Penguins and the No.4 New York Islanders. Although a date has not been determined for when game 1 will take place, each team has finished their regular seasons and are preparing to face each other. Pittsburgh won 6 games out of 8 against the Islanders this year, but that does not mean that they will be taking the Islanders lightly. This is the second time in three seasons the Penguins will face the Islanders in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. With the experience from the Penguins core players, I predict that the Pittsburgh Penguins will win this series in 5 games.

One of the biggest stories in the NHL this season has come from the Discover Central. Specifically, the battle of Florida between the No.3 Tampa Bay Lightning and the No.2 Florida Panthers. The Panthers and Lightning will make history with the first all-Florida playoff matchup in Stanley Cup Playoff history. The Lightning are defending Stanley Cup Champions and the Panthers have not won a playoff series since 1996. The Panthers have actually outplayed the Lightning this season as they are 5-2-1 against them. These two teams have developed a strong rivalry against each other this season as they averaged 41:59 penalty minutes per each of their eight games. This series is going to be very entertaining as the Lightning look forward to getting captain Steven Stamkos and winger Nikita Kucherov back in the lineup. These teams definitely do not like each other and I expect this to be a long, tough playoff series battle. Although this series will be very close, I predict that the defending Stanley Cup Champions will win this series in 7 games.

Another great storyline this season has been about the Carolina Hurricanes success. They are currently the No.1 seed in the Discover Central division and No. 3 in the NHL super 16 rankings. Carolina has not been the No.1 in their division since 2006. They face the No.4 Nashville Predators in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in NHL history. The Hurricanes went 6-2 against the Predators this season and will have the home ice advantage in this series. One concern for the Hurricanes is that they have not practiced for almost a month since they clinched the division on April 27th. The Predators have bounced back from almost last in their division to reach the final 4th seed spot in the playoffs. Although the Hurricanes are favorites to win this series, there is no guarantees for the NHL playoffs. With being in the top five for all of the NHL regular season, I predict that the Carolina Hurricanes will sweep the Predators in 4 games.

The strongest division this year has been the Honda West division as three out of their top four teams have been in the top three the NHL super 16 rankings for the majority of the season. Their regular season wraps up tonight as the St. Louis Blues take on the Minnesota Wild and the Colorado Avalanche take on the Los Angeles Kings. If both the Wild and Avalanche win then the Avalanche will take the No.1 seed. As of right now, the No.1 Vegas Golden Knights are set to take on the No.4 St. Louis Blues in the first round of the NHL Playoffs. St. Louis won the Stanley Cup in 2019 but they are separated by 20 points from the strong Vegas Golden Knights team. The Knights are 6-2 against the Blues this season and seemed to have handled them without too much difficulty. I believe that the Golden Knights are the best team in the NHL right now and they will sweep the Blues in 4 games. That being said, this series is not set in stone because if both the Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild win their remaining games then Colorado will take the first seed in the division.

The next series that will take place in the Honda West division is between the No. 2 Colorado Avalanche and the No.3 Minnesota Wild. The Colorado Avalanche sit just two points back from the division leader Golden Knights and have been in the top five of the NHL super 16 rankings the whole season. The Avalanche goal differential is +60 for the season as the Wild is +25 on the season. The Colorado Avalanche have many guys on their team who can score goals and that truly sets them apart from the Wild. The Avalanche have won four out of six games against the Wild this season and they hope to keep up their good play. Colorado has one more game tonight and, if they win and the Wild win their last game, then Colorado will take the first place Presidents Trophy for the league. If that happens, these teams will not face each other in the first round of the NHL playoffs. If these teams do end up playing each other, I predict that the Avalanche will sweep the Wild in four games.

One of the coolest features about this NHL was the all Canadian Scotia North Division. It was the first time all of the Canadian teams were in a separate division from American Teams. With travel restrictions put in place at the Canadian American border, it was determined that the Canadian teams would only play each other. Although their regular season will end until Tuesday, each team has clinched their spot in this division. The No.1 Toronto Maple Leafs are set to take on the No.4 Montreal Canadians in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Leafs are up 18 points on the Canadian’s and are 4-2 against them this season. The Leafs have a very strong team and are favorites to win the Cup this year. The Canadians have a -6 goal differential and have had problems with their defense all season. I believe that this series is a no brainer, and the Leafs will sweep the Canadians in four games.

The more interesting series of the two in this division will be between the No.2 Edmonton Oilers and the No.3 Winnipeg Jets. The Oilers have won six straight games against the Jets and finished 7-2 against them in the regular season. They outscored them 34-22 in the nine games. With, arguably, the best line in the league containing Connor McDavid and Leon Daraistl, the Oilers are planning to far in the playoffs. McDavid leads the league with 104 points and has been absolutely unstoppable this past season. No discredit to the Jets, but it is evident that the Oilers have a lot more fire power than the Jets. The Jets top player, Xander Scheifele, has less points than the Oilers third ranked scorer. The Jets have some strong goal tending to depend on with Hellebuyck who has a .915 save percentage this season. I do not believe that this will be enough for the Jets and I predict that the Oilers will win the series in five games.

Overall, this has been a very weird season in the NHL, but the league seems geared up for an exciting and successful 2021 Stanley Cup Playoff.  Meet you around the TV to see how it plays out.

Editors Note : Andrew Cioffi will be posting a regular column every Thursday.