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What to know about the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/13/2021 Matt Bonesteel, Neil Greenberg
a group of people standing in front of a crowd: At some point soon, a fan will craft a fake Stanley Cup and hoist it over his or her head. It's a sign that the NHL playoffs have arrived. © Julio Cortez/AP At some point soon, a fan will craft a fake Stanley Cup and hoist it over his or her head. It's a sign that the NHL playoffs have arrived.

The NHL has seen its share of bumps this season, which was shortened to 56 games because of the coronavirus pandemic. Divisions were realigned, and teams played the same opponents over and over again to cut down on travel. Now for the playoffs … they’ll play those same division opponents over and over again for two more rounds before things open up for the Stanley Cup semifinals and finals.

Here is where things stand.

All times Eastern.

How will the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs work?

Because of pandemic travel restrictions, the league temporarily realigned into four eight-team divisions, including the North Division, which is composed entirely of the NHL’s Canadian teams. The top four teams in each division made the playoffs.

The first two rounds consist of divisional matchups: first place vs. fourth place and second place vs. third place, with the winners squaring off in the second round.

For the playoff semifinals, the remaining team with the best regular season point total will be seeded first and play the remaining team with the worst regular season point total while the remaining team with the second-best point total will play the remaining team with the third-best point total. The winners of those two series will play for the Stanley Cup.

With 82 points and more regulation wins than the Vegas Golden Knights (who also finished with 82 points), the Colorado Avalanche won the Presidents’ Trophy and will have home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.

All playoff series will be best-of-seven.

When do the playoffs start, and what is the schedule?

The playoffs began Saturday night, when the Washington Capitals edged the Boston Bruins to open the East Division semifinals. Some parts of the schedule remain in limbo.

The NHL’s regular season was supposed to end May 8, but a number of teams dealt with significant coronavirus outbreaks, particularly the Vancouver Canucks, who suffered through one of the more widespread outbreaks in professional sports and had most of their April games postponed. The Canucks will not conclude their regular season until May 19, well after most other teams and after the American-based teams have begun their playoff series.

Even though Vancouver has been eliminated from postseason contention, the North Division playoffs will not begin until May 19, four days after the first playoff game.

Complicating matters for the NHL is the Summer Olympics, which are scheduled to begin July 23 and — like the Stanley Cup finals — will televised by NBC. The NHL ideally would need to wrap up its postseason before then to ensure that all of the finals games are on NBC and not shunted to a cable network, which would attract far fewer viewers.

Most seasons, the playoffs take about two months to complete, so the delayed playoff start for some teams could be cutting things perilously close.

How does coronavirus impact the playoffs?

For the first two rounds, the higher-seeded team will have home-ice advantage and each team is likely to host games. But the picture still is a little cloudy for the North Division, whose teams all hail from Canada, where more stringent pandemic restrictions remain in effect. Canadian teams also are prohibited from repeatedly traveling back and forth over the U.S. border, which remains closed.

One Canadian team is guaranteed to make the playoff semifinals, and unless Canadian coronavirus rules change in the next few weeks, it seems likely that the remaining Canadian team will be forced to establish a U.S. base of operations and play its semifinal “home” games there.

Deputy commissioner Bill Daly has said the NHL has applied for an exemption with the Canadian government that would allow U.S.-based teams to cross the border into Canada and Canadian teams to return from the United States without quarantining.

On May 8, the NHL and the players’ union announced modifications to the league’s coronavirus protocols for the playoffs. Fully vaccinated players and team officials no longer will have to follow quarantine requirements after exposure to the virus, and testing requirements for fully vaccinated people will be lessened. Players and officials who are fully vaccinated also can now gather in larger groups for social functions, meals, commuting and outdoor activities.

First-round matchups and predictions

Metrics — both conventional and less traditional — can provide clues about which teams deserve to be considered contenders, and which are mere pretenders. The chance for each squad to advance are based on each team’s likelihood of winning a seven-game series using four components: their actual win-loss record; their expected win-loss record based on goals scored and allowed (also known as their Pythagorean win percentage); their expected win-loss record based on expected goals for and against (a metric that takes into account the likelihood a shot becomes a goal based on distance, angle and type of shot); and their regressed win-loss record to account for the small sample size of 56 regular season games.

East Division first round

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

Pittsburgh entered the series with a 68 percent chance to advance.

Special teams should play a big role in how this series is decided. The Penguins’ power play ranked fourth in the NHL this season in large part because of how well Pittsburgh created shots in the high-danger areas such as the slot or crease. The Penguins averaged 23.5 high-danger chances per 60 minutes with the man advantage, the fifth-best rate in the NHL, with Jake Guentzel recording a team-high 27 high-dangers chances on his own.

The Islanders, meanwhile, finished sixth in penalty-kill efficiency, and that includes successfully neutralizing 39 of their last 42 shorthanded situations to close the regular season.

Game 1: Sunday, New York Islanders 4, Pittsburgh 3 (OT)

Game 2: Tuesday, New York Islanders at Pittsburgh, 7:30 p.m., NBCSN

Game 3: Thursday, Pittsburgh at New York Islanders, 7 p.m., NBCSN

Game 4: May 22, Pittsburgh at New York Islanders, 3 p.m., NBC

Game 5: May 24, New York Islanders at Pittsburgh, TBD*

Game 6: May 26, Pittsburgh at New York Islanders, TBD*

Game 7: May 28, New York Islanders at Pittsburgh, TBD*

No. 2 Washington vs. No. 3 Boston


Washington entered the series with a 53 percent chance to advance.

The Capitals have a lot of questions in the postseason. Forwards Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom and defenseman John Carlson missed several recent games with lower-body injuries, and center Evgeny Kuznetsov and goaltender Ilya Samsonov are on the NHL’s covid-19 list. T.J. Oshie suffered a lower-body injury on Saturday and is day-to-day.

Zdeno Chara was Boston’s leader. As the Caps’ Cup pursuit begins, he must face his former team.

Boston, meanwhile, is on the upswing since the trade deadline after acquiring Taylor Hall and Curtis Lazar from the Buffalo Sabres and Mike Reilly from the Ottawa Senators. The Bruins have gone 12-3-1 since the trades and have gotten a big boost from Hall, whose lack of results earlier this season was almost comical compared to how many scoring chances he generated. The former league MVP has eight goals and six assists in 16 games since joining the Bruins. Lazar and Reilly have combined for another 11 points.

Game 1: Washington 3, Boston 2 (OT)

Game 2: Boston 4, Washington 3 (OT)

Game 3: Wednesday, Washington at Boston, 6:30 p.m., NBCSN

Game 4: May 21, Washington at Boston, 6:30 p.m., NBCSN

Game 5: May 23, Boston at Washington, 7 p.m., USA

Game 6: May 25, Washington at Boston, TBD*

Game 7: May 27, Boston at Washington, TBD*

North Division first round

No. 1 Toronto vs. No. 4 Montreal

Video: What to expect in this year’s NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs (


Toronto entered the series with a 76 percent chance to advance.

Aside from Colorado’s duo of Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, no forward pair was more dominant at even strength than Toronto’s Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Matthews and Marner were on the ice for 51 goals for and 27 goals against, giving them the second-highest goal differential in the NHL this season, just one behind Landeskog and Rantanen.

Montreal and Toronto haven’t met in the playoffs since 1979.

Game 1: Thursday, Montreal at Toronto, 7:30 p.m., NHL Network

Game 2: May 22, Montreal at Toronto, 7 p.m., CNBC

Game 3: May 24, Toronto at Montreal, TBD

Game 4: May 25, Toronto at Montreal, TBD

Game 5: May 27, Montreal at Toronto, TBD*

Game 6: May 29, Toronto at Montreal, TBD*

Game 7: May 31, Montreal at Toronto, TBD*

No. 2 Edmonton vs. No. 3 Winnipeg

Edmonton entered the series with a 61 percent chance to advance.

Edmonton’s Connor McDavid ended the regular season with 33 goals (including 24 at even strength) and a league-leading 71 assists, making him the only skater to surpass 100 points. He had a whopping 21 more than teammate Leon Draisaitl, who finished second with 83 points. If we adjust McDavid’s 104 points in 55 games to account for different schedule lengths, roster sizes and scoring environments throughout NHL history, it would be the second-best output of all time, second only to Howie Morenz in 1927-28 and ahead of Wayne Gretzky’s fabled 1985-86 campaign.

Game 1: Wednesday, Winnipeg at Edmonton, 9 p.m., NBCSN

Game 2: May 21, Winnipeg at Edmonton, 9 p.m., NBCSN

Game 3: May 23, Edmonton at Winnipeg, TBD

Game 4: May 24, Edmonton at Winnipeg, TBD

Game 5: May 26, Winnipeg at Edmonton, TBD*

Game 6: May 28, Edmonton at Winnipeg, TBD*

Game 7: May 30, Winnipeg at Edmonton, TBD*

Central Division first round

No. 1 Carolina vs. No. 4 Nashville

Carolina entered the series with a 75 percent chance to advance.

The Hurricanes should have no problem dispatching the Predators. At even strength, Carolina generates more scoring chances, including those from the high-danger areas like the slot and crease, leading to a higher quality of shot. It’s a slight edge but one that should tilt the ice in Carolina’s favor for most of the series.

On power plays, meantime, there is no question the Hurricanes are the better team. Nashville generates 41 scoring chances per 60 minutes with the man advantage, the eighth-lowest mark in the league this season. Carolina generates 58 scoring chances per 60 minutes of power-play time, the NHL’s fifth-highest rate.

Game 1: Carolina 5, Nashville 2

Game 2: Wednesday, Nashville at Carolina, 8 p.m., CNBC

Game 3: May 21, Carolina at Nashville, 7 p.m., USA

Game 4: May 23, Carolina at Nashville, TBD

Game 5: May 25, Nashville at Carolina, TBD*

Game 6: May 27, Carolina at Nashville, TBD*

Game 7: May 29, Nashville at Carolina, TBD*

No. 2 Florida vs. No. 3 Tampa Bay

Tampa Bay entered the series with a 51 percent chance to advance.

The first all-Florida matchup in the Stanley Cup playoffs pits the defending champion Lightning against a Panthers franchise that hasn’t won a playoff series since 1996. And the Lightning should be getting better, with the expected return of forwards Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos from injury.

Kucherov missed the entire regular season after a December hip surgery; he led the NHL with 34 points (seven goals and 27 assists) in the playoffs last season. Stamkos missed the last 16 games of the regular season, but before that he led the team with 17 goals in 38 games. Over the last three seasons, the Lightning have outscored opponents 63-44 at even strength when those two forwards shared the ice, while also scoring 86 power-play goals in 136 games.

Game 1: Tampa Bay 5, Florida 4

Game 2: Tuesday, Tampa Bay at Florida, 8 p.m., CNBC

Game 3: Thursday, Florida at Tampa Bay, 6:30 p.m., USA

Game 4: May 22, Florida at Tampa Bay, 12:30 p.m., CNBC

Game 5: May 24, Tampa Bay at Florida, TBD*

Game 6: May 26, Florida at Tampa Bay, TBD*

Game 7: May 28, Tampa Bay at Florida, TBD*

West Division first round

No. 1 Colorado vs. No. 4 St. Louis

Colorado entered the series with a 82 percent chance to advance.

Colorado has dominated opponents at even strength, outscoring them 138-91 during 5-on-5 play, the best even-strength goal differential in the NHL. No team has tilted the ice more in its own favor, either, with the Avalanche putting six out of every 10 even-strength shots on net. Their shot differential of plus-426 was 107 better than the Boston Bruins, owners of the second-best even-strength shot differential.

Game 1: Monday, St. Louis at Colorado, 10 p.m., NBCSN

Game 2: Wednesday, St. Louis at Colorado, 10:30 p.m., CNBC

Game 3: Friday, Colorado at St. Louis, 9:30 p.m., USA

Game 4: May 23, Colorado at St. Louis, TBD

Game 5: May 25, St. Louis at Colorado, TBD*

Game 6: May 27, Colorado at St. Louis, TBD*

Game 7: May 29, St. Louis at Colorado, TBD*

No. 2 Vegas vs. No. 3 Minnesota

Vegas entered the series with a 67 percent chance to advance.

Marc-Andre Fleury has sparkled in net for Vegas. The 36-year-old stopped 918 of 989 shots faced, earning him a .928 save percentage. Based on the shot quality and volume he faced, he saved 19 more goals than expected, the most among all netminders this season.

Game 1: Sunday, Minnesota 1, Vegas 0 (OT)

Game 2: Tuesday, Minnesota at Vegas, 10 p.m., NBCSN

Game 3: Thursday, Vegas at Minnesota, 9:30 p.m., NBCSN

Game 4: May 22, Vegas at Minnesota, 8 p.m., NBC

Game 5: May 24, Minnesota at Vegas, TBD*

Game 6: May 26, Vegas at Minnesota, TBD*

Game 7: May 28, Minnesota at Vegas, TBD*

What did I miss from the regular season?

The regular season already has had something of a postseason feel, considering the pandemic-related scheduling in which teams often played consecutive games against the same opponent in the same location. Despite these and other measures intended to limit coronavirus spread, a number of teams — the aforementioned Canucks, the Dallas Stars, the New York Rangers — have seen significant outbreaks.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, the NHL’s biggest-city Canadian franchise, haven’t won a playoff series in 17 years, and they haven’t won the Stanley Cup in 54 years. With Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner manning one of the most potent top lines in the league, is this the season the Leafs finally achieve something other than springtime mediocrity?

The Florida Panthers have their own sorry postseason history. The Panthers haven’t won a playoff series since their Stanley Cup finals run in 1996, their third season of existence. But first-year general manager Bill Zito has made savvy personnel moves while keeping the talented core he inherited intact; Coach Joel Quenneville is doing the things that led to three Stanley Cups in Chicago; and suddenly the Panthers are contenders despite the absence of two-time all-star defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who suffered a serious leg injury in March and is almost certainly out for the season.

Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid had himself a stellar season and is pretty much a shoo-in for the Hart Trophy. Through Tuesday’s games, he was averaging 1.889 points per game, which would be the most since the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Mario Lemieux averaged 2.3 in 1995-96. But how much of that was because of the competition in the all-Canadian North Division, which features some of the NHL’s worst defenses? Edmonton went 7-2 and won its last six games against Winnipeg, its first-round opponent. But after that, things are likely to get tougher.

Read more:

Goaltending is the Capitals’ biggest playoff weakness, but Peter Laviolette may provide some hope

Alex Ovechkin returns to the ice as the Capitals turn their focus to the playoffs

Status of Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie among questions as Caps prepare for Bruins in playoffs


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