The new-look and condensed NHL regular season has finally been completed, almost, and the playoffs have begun in earnest for the biggest prize in Ice Hockey, the Stanley Cup.
Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks still have their regular-season business to complete – due to coronavirus-enforced postponements – but as neither is able to accumulate enough points to reach the playoffs, we already know the 16 teams battling for the Cup.
Due to the pandemic, the campaign was set up in an unusual format, with teams placed in four new divisions (West, Central, East and North) and only playing a combination of 56 games against opponents from the same division.
Avs the Team to Beat
Colorado Avalanche beat Los Angeles Kings 5-1 in their final regular-season game to win both the West Division and the Presidents’ Trophy over Vegas Golden Knights, securing the honour courtesy of more regulation wins after the two sides finished level on 82 points.
It is no surprise to see Colorado installed as favourites to go all the way, but
15/4 may seem on the short side to some, with Vegas offering a touch more value at
17/2, given they shared the same points tally.
Minnesota Wild claimed third in the West behind those two while 2019 Stanley Cup winners St Louis Blues finished fourth, and have the unenviable task of taking on the Avs in the first round of the playoffs.
Carolina Hurricanes perhaps surprised a few by taking Central honours from Florida Panthers, with defending champions Tampa Bay Lightning only third ahead of Nashville Predators – meaning last year’s runners-up, Dallas Stars, missed out on the post-season.
Pittsburgh Penguins edged out Washington Capitals for top spot in the East, with Boston Bruins and New York Islanders also qualifying for the play-offs in what was arguably the tightest division with only six points separating the top four sides.
The North Division, made up entirely of Canadian franchises due to US-Canada travel restrictions, was won by Toronto Maple Leafs, with Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg and Montreal Canadiens also through to the post-season.
So What of the Playoff Structure?
Like the regular season, there are changes to the structure of the playoffs with no Conference championships for starters, although all series will be best-of-seven.
The opening two rounds will also remain intra-division so the four sides through will face off against each other once again, with the top seed taking on the fourth seed while second faces third, with the respective winners then fighting it out for the divisional title.
The divisional winners will then be through to the semi-finals, with ties/seeding decided by the regular-season finish, again with first against fourth and second against third. Obviously the two victors will then be through to the Stanley Cup finals.
The delays to regular-season completion in the North mean those opening two rounds of the play-offs in that division will be behind their American counterparts, while the divisional winner may have to relocate to an American base to complete their Stanley Cup involvement due to cross-border travel restrictions currently enforced.
A Sign of Things to Come?
The playoffs got underway on Saturday and three of the four games were won by the lower seed, with the Wild shutting out the usually free-scoring Golden Knights in a 1-0 victory in Sin City as they maintained their season-long upper hand over Vegas, while the Islanders overcame the Penguins 4-3 at the PPG Paints Arena.
The defending champions may have only qualified in third in the Central Division but two key players returned for the post season, Nikita Kucherov, out since December 29, and Steven Stamkos, who missed the last 16 games – and the Lightning were able to overcome the Panthers 5-4.
It is also worth noting that three of the four games also needed over-time to find a winner, although best-of-seven series mean plenty of time to recover for those beaten sides.
It certainly pays to keep abreast of the injury situation at each club when assessing matches, with Colorado superstar Nathan MacKinnon having missed some action of late while there is a potential goaltender issue developing at Washington, with Vitek Vanecek suffering an injury in the opening win over the Bruins, while Ilya Samsonov has been unavailable recently due to COVID-19 protocol.
Injuries to key players could ultimately turn out to be series deciders so pay attention to the latest news, with Craig Anderson set to line up in goal for the Caps in Game 2 against the Bruins on Monday night, with Boston
6/5 to level up the series.
Carolina also open up their round-one series against Nashville Predators on Monday night, while Colorado are
10/19 to win in regulation when they get their post-season campaign underway against St Louis, with McKinnon set to play.
*All odds correct at time of writing