The NHL postseason is officially here.
Sixteen teams are set to begin the gauntlet of the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs, and there’s no telling which will be the club to drink out of Lord Stanley’s Cup.
In Canada, four teams from four provinces — Maple Leafs (Ontario), Oilers (Alberta), Jets (Manitoba) and Canadiens (Quebec) — will battle it out to represent the North Division. It has been a while since a Canadian team (Winnipeg in 2018) made the final four, but there will definitely be a team from across the border in the semifinals.
Before that division winner can be crowned — and maybe become the first Canadian team to hoist the Cup since Montreal in 1993 — things finally get underway on Wednesday and Thursday with the first-round series kicking off.
Here’s a look at how Sporting News predicts the opening round in the North Division will shake out:
NHL playoffs bracket 2021
NHL playoffs 2021: North Division predictions
(1) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (4) Montreal Canadiens
The backstory? Oof, the backstory on this one is a long and winding road. It’s an Original Six matchup between two storied franchises. The last time they met in the postseason was in 1979 (yes, before Joe Thornton was born, but not by much). Montreal holds the 8-7 series advantage all time, including a meeting in the 1967 final, when the Leafs won their last Cup. Toronto just wants to make it out of the first round for the first time since 2004.
There’s plenty of fresher stuff in 2021.
Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas and Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin both went all-in for this season. Dubas added a bunch of veterans in Thornton and Wayne Simmonds, while also solidifying the blue line with TJ Brodie in the offseason. He then went out and snagged depth guys Alex Galchenyuk, Riley Nash, David RIttch and legacy Nick Foligno. While the team won its first division crown in 21 years, it did so without a few key guys missing at times due to injury, including Rocket Richard winner Auston Matthews, Zach Hyman and netminder Frederik Andersen.
Bergevin’s team looked stacked when the puck dropped to open the season. Free-agent signee Tyler Toffoli, who went on to exploit every team in the division, led that group. Things went south quickly, and Claude Julien was shown the door. Interim coach Dominique Ducharme has had to deal with injuries to big pieces such as Shea Weber, Brendan Gallagher and Carey Price, but has also seen an insertion of energy from 2019 draft pick Cole Caufield (who will not play in Game 1 per Ducharme).
Toronto won the season series 7-2-1 and outscored their opponent 34-25, with Matthews leading the way with 14 points (seven goals, seven assists) in 10 games. Defenseman Jeff Petry led the way for the Canadiens with 10 points (all assists) in the 10-game set. Jack Campbell, who will start Game 1, started six of those games and earned a .918 save percentage. Andersen started the other four and had a .912 save percentage. Jake Allen started five of the season series (.907 save percentage), and Price started four and posted a .868 save percentage.
X-factor: Carey Price
Don’t let that under-.900 save percentage fool you. If there is any player who could steal this series for the Canadiens, it’s Price. The 2015 Vezina and Hart Trophies winner has been known to turn things up when the lights burn brightest. In last summer’s bubble, he backstopped the Canadiens to a qualifying round upset of the Penguins and went on to go 5-5 with a 1.78 GAA and .936 save percentage. The previous postseason was in 2017, when he had a .933 save percentage and a 1.86 GAA in six games.
The big question around Price is his health: He missed the last 13 games of the season with a concussion, but did get a tune-up game in with Laval.
The big number: 1,680
That’s how many NHL regular-season games, across 23 seasons, in which Thornton has laced his skates. He has never won a Stanley Cup. He is due.
SN’s pick: Maple Leafs in 7
|Date||Matchup||Time (ET) (TV channel)|
|Thu., May 20||at Toronto||7:30 p.m. (NHL Network, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)|
|Sat., May 22||at Toronto||7 p.m. (CNBC, SN, CBC, TVA Sports, OMNI)|
|Mon., May 24||at Montreal||7 p.m. (SN, CBC, TVA Sports)|
|Tue., May 25||at Montreal||TBD|
|*Thu., May 27||at Toronto||TBD|
|*Sat., May 29||at Montreal||TBD|
|*Mon., May 31||at Toronto||TBD|
(* If necessary)
(2) Edmonton Oilers vs. (3) Winnipeg Jets
The other Canadian matchup may not have as much of a long, winding NHL history as Leafs-Canadiens, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less intriguing. These two clubs did battle it out back in the WHA days, but it’s all about the stars of today.
After a few disappointing years, the Oilers have put together a team that not only finished second in the division, but also pumped in 183 goals (seventh in NHL), allowed 154 goals against (tied for 11th-fewest) and had the league’s best power play (27.6 percent). A lot of that can be pinpointed to the play of projected Hart Trophy winner Connor McDavid (who had a historic season of 105 points in 56 games) and 2020 Hart Trophy winner Leon Draisaitl, who chipped in 84 points of his own.
But the Oilers also got production from depth players such as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a rejuvenated Jesse Puljujarvi and Norris Trophy-worthy performance by defensive duo Tyson Barrie and Darnell Nurse. Barrie, by the way, was signed from Toronto in the offseason to a one-year show-me deal. He definitely showed his worth with 48 points, including 23 on the power play.
Winnipeg has had an interesting year. Things started off with trading away disgruntled winger Patrik Laine for Columbus’ disgruntled center Pierre-Luc Dubois. Whether he plays in the postseason, however, isn’t known. Coach Paul Maurice told reporters on Tuesday that Dubois and Nikolaj Ehlers are considered to be game-time decisions for the series opener.
The club also dealt with inconsistency and ended the season on a 3-9-0 run, including seven losses in a row. They won the last two games of the season, one against the Leafs, so that’s a plus. But will they be the team that, due to injuries, was knocked out in the qualifying round in the summer of 2020? Or will they be a team, backstopped by reigning Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck (who had a paltry .877 save percentage against Edmonton in 2021), to pull the upset?
When you look at the season series, it does not favor the Jets. The Oilers dominated with a 7-2-0 record and outscored Winnipeg 34-22, with McDavid potting 22 points. But, as the Oilers captain said on Tuesday: “The regular season is done and that season series is done and now it’s a race to four and that’s all that matters.”
X-factor: Mike Smith
All eyes will be on the Oilers netminder in this one. Which version will show up? Will it be the 39-year-old goalie who was masterful between the pipes in 2021 and boasted a sparkling 21-6-2 record with a .923 save percentage and 13.8 Goals Saved Above Average? Or will it be the guy who went 1-4 with a 3.20 goals-against average when the Western Conference champion Flames, er, flamed out in the 2019 playoffs? He also posted a .783 save percentage in a single bubble game last summer for the Oilers, and never returned to the paint.
Smith had an eye-popping .936 save percentage against the Jets this season. So, you know Dave Tippett is hoping regular season Mike Smith — and not recent playoff Mike Smith — shows up.
The big number: 521
According to Natural Stat Trick, the Jets allowed 521 high-danger chances against 5v5 in 2021. It is the fourth-most in the league and the most among the 16 postseason clubs. Not great when you’re going up against the likes of McDavid and Draisaitl.
The one positive for the Jets: Hellebuyck faced 421 of them and only allowed 49 goals, equaling a .884 save percentage. Not great, but not terrible. Oh, and it’s not like McDavid is 100 percent from high-danger spots; he only scores 54.9 percent of the time.
SN’s pick: Oilers in 5
|Date||Matchup||Time (ET) (TV channel)|
|Wed., May 19||at Edmonton||9 p.m. (NBCSN, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)|
|Fri., May 21||at Edmonton||9 p.m. (NBCSN, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)|
|Sun., May 23||at Winnipeg||7:30 p.m. (NBCSN, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)|
|Mon., May 24||at Winnipeg||9:45 p.m. (SN, CBC, TVA Sports)|
|*Wed., May 26||at Edmonton||TBD|
|*Fri., May 28||at Winnipeg||TBD|
|*Sun., May 30||at Edmonton||TBD|
(* If necessary)
North Division first-round odds
Betting odds courtesy of FanDuel as of May 18.
Sporting News’ 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs predictions
Rounds 1, 2
|(1) Penguins vs. (4) Islanders||Islanders in 6|
|(2) Capitals vs. (3) Bruins||Bruins in 5|
|(3) Bruins vs. (4) Islanders||Bruins in 6|
|(1) Maple Leafs vs. (4) Canadiens||Maple Leafs in 7|
|(2) Oilers vs. (3) Jets||Oilers in 5|
|(1) Maple Leafs vs. (2) Oilers||Maple Leafs in 7|
|(1) Hurricanes vs. (4) Predators||Hurricanes in 5|
|(2) Panthers vs. (3) Lightning||Lightning in 6|
|(1) Hurricanes vs. (3) Lightning||Hurricanes in 6|
|(1) Avalanche vs. (4) Blues||Avalanche in 5|
|(2) Golden Knights vs. (3) Wild||Golden Knights in 6|
|(1) Avalanche vs. (2) Golden Knights||Golden Knights in 7|
Stanley Cup semifinals
|(1) Golden Knights vs. (4) Bruins||Golden Knights in 6|
|(2) Hurricanes vs. (3) Maple Leafs||Maple Leafs in 6|
Stanley Cup Final
|(1) Golden Knights vs. (3) Maple Leafs||Golden Knights in 6|
|Conn Smythe Trophy||Marc-Andre Fleury|
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