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The temporary divisional realignments for this season mean the format will be different compared to previous years. The first two rounds will be intradivisional. In the opening round, the first-place teams will face off against the fourth-place club, while the second-place club takes on the third-place team. Each series will be best-of-seven.
That format should generate plenty of exciting hockey for NHL fans. Depending on how the standings shake out, there’s also the potential for some unique matchups that will be worth watching.
One could see two longstanding Canadian rivals end a 42-year wait to square off in a playoff round. Another could involve the league’s two Florida-based franchises facing off for the first time.
Here’s a look at five series we would like to see in the opening round of the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs.
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A year ago, the Colorado Avalanche were a team on the rise in the Western Conference. The Minnesota Wild, meanwhile, got a helping hand into the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs because of the temporarily expanded format brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Avs fell in the second round in a hard-fought seven-game series against the Dallas Stars, while the Wild were eliminated from the qualifying round by the Vancouver Canucks.
This season, the Avalanche are considered a Stanley Cup contender. They have got one of the NHL’s top lines in Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog, a deep blue line led by Cale Makar and a possible Vezina Trophy candidate in goaltender Philipp Grubauer.
The Wild, however, surprised many observers with their improvement this season, challenging the Avalanche for second in the Honda West Division. They possess a strong goalie tandem in Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen, a solid defense corps and rising young forwards like Kevin Fiala, Jordan Greenway, Joel Eriksson Ek and potential Calder Memorial Trophy candidate Kirill Kaprizov.
These two clubs have a bit of playoff history between them. The Wild’s first playoff series win was against the Avalanche in 2003, and they defeated them again in an entertaining first-round series in 2014. The Avs defeated them in their 2008 conference quarterfinal series.
It would be the clash of the Cup contender and a hungry underdog looking to make a name for itself. The Avalanche took five wins in their eight-game regular-season series. They would enter this series as the favorite but could suffer an upset if they take the Wild lightly.
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This series features two teams that have never faced each other in postseason play. It would be a matchup between a Stanley Cup contender in the Vegas Golden Knights and a former champion trying to regain its former glory in the St. Louis Blues.
The Golden Knights have an impressive resume in their short history. Their inaugural season was capped by reaching the 2018 Stanley Cup Final. Two years later, they advanced to the Western Conference Final before falling to the Dallas Stars.
A 1967 expansion club, the Blues finally won their first Stanley Cup in 2019. They finished the 2019-20 season atop the Western Conference but were upset in the opening round of last year’s playoffs by the Vancouver Canucks.
As this regular season draws to a close, the Golden Knights sit atop the Honda West Division and the NHL’s overall standings. The Blues, meanwhile, struggled through an injury-ravaged campaign that sees them trying to fend off the Arizona Coyotes for the division’s final playoff berth. The Knights have also won four of their six games this season, with two games remaining between them.
The Golden Knights would enter this series as the favorite. They have got depth in goal with Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner and a potent offense led by wingers Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone. Adding spice to this matchup is defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. He captained the Blues to the Cup but now patrols the Golden Knights blue line.
Despite their struggles this season, the Blues still have the heart of a champion in captain and 2019 playoff MVP Ryan O’Reilly. Despite Pietrangelo’s departure, most of their championship roster remains intact. They know what it takes as a team to win the Cup. That experience, and the opportunity to defeat their former captain, would make this a must-watch series.
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The Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning joined the NHL in the early-1990s, but they’ve never faced each other in the Stanley Cup playoffs. This year, however, the state rivals could square off in the opening round if they remain in their current positions. The Lightning and Panthers respectively sit in second and third place in the Discover Central Division.
During the early years of their rivalry, it was the Panthers with the early success. Joining the NHL in 1993-94, they reached the 1996 Stanley Cup Final and qualified for the postseason in 1997 and 2000. The Lightning, who entered the league in 1992-93, were a laughingstock throughout the ’90s. They qualified for the playoffs only once, in 1995-96.
Since the turn of the century, however, the Lightning have enjoyed greater success. They have won two Stanley Cups and been a dominant NHL franchise since 2014-15. The Panthers, meanwhile, have reached the playoffs just twice and were eliminated during last year’s qualifying round.
This season, both clubs are among the league’s best, jockeying with the Carolina Hurricanes for first place in the division. They have split their season series at three games apiece, with the final two games slated for May 8 and 10. Those contests could provide a tasty appetizer for an entertaining first-round series.
The Lightning are the defending Stanley Cup champions. They are led by well-known stars such as forwards Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, defenseman Victor Hedman and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Panthers, however, have a core of talent like Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau who are hungry for playoff success.
It would delight the Lightning to begin the defense of the Stanley Cup by eliminating their closest rival. For the Panthers, bouncing the Bolts from the first round would signal their arrival as a contender.
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It’s hard to believe that the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens last faced each other in the Stanley Cup playoffs 42 years ago. It took the formation of an all-Canadian division for this season to potentially bring about this long-overdue postseason clash between these longstanding NHL rivals.
When these two clubs last met in the playoffs, the Canadiens were a dynasty en route to winning their fourth straight Stanley Cup while the Leafs were a middle-of-the-pack club in the Prince of Wales Conference. Led by Hall of Famers Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson and Ken Dryden, the Habs swept the Leafs out of the quarterfinals.
This time, it’s Toronto that’s the powerhouse and Montreal the marginal playoff contender. Thanks to a potent scoring punch led by young superstars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, the Leafs lead the Scotia North Division with 71 points. The Canadiens, meanwhile, hold the fourth and final playoff berth with 55 points.
At first glance, this should seem like an easy series for the Leafs. They are the better team, having defeated the Canadiens in five of their seven meetings this season. Along with their young scorers, they have experienced veteran leaders such as Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza. They shouldn’t have much difficulty getting motivated for this series against a hated rival.
Despite their regular-season success in recent years, however, the Leafs haven’t won a playoff round since 2004. If sidelined Canadiens stars such as goaltender Carey Price, Shea Weber and Brendan Gallagher return in good health for this series, the Habs have a shot at an upset.
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The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals have a longstanding playoff rivalry stretching back to their first series 30 years ago. It grew in intensity over the past 15 years after Sidney Crosby joined the Penguins and Alex Ovechkin debuted with the Capitals in 2005-06.
During the Crosby-Ovechkin era, the two clubs have clashed four times in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Penguins won three of those series, while the Capitals were the winners in 2018 en route to their first Stanley Cup championship.
Crosby and Ovechkin remain among the NHL’s elite stars but are approaching the tail ends of their respective careers. We won’t get many more opportunities to watch these two rivals face off in the heat of playoff battle.
Both clubs are jostling for first place in the MassMutual East Division. The Penguins took six out of eight games during their season series despite a rash of injuries decimating their blue line throughout the schedule, not to mention center Evgeni Malkin’s sidelining. The Capitals overcame the loss of Ovechkin, center Evgeny Kuznetsov and goalie Ilya Samsonov to COVID-19 protocols earlier in the season.
For the Penguins and Capitals to meet in the opening round, however, the New York Islanders must overtake them in the standings over the next two weeks. If that doesn’t happen, perhaps we will get to see these great rivals tangle in the second round.