The NHL playoffs are going to look a little different this year, which means we could see some unlikely matchups in the Stanley Cup Final. The bracket is set by the top four teams in each of the newly formed divisions, the East, North, Central, and West divisions (Keep in mind only Canadian teams are in the North division due to travel restrictions). In addition to the new divisions, the NHL this year has opted to move away from an Eastern and Western Conference final, meaning we could be seeing two teams previously in the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final. This means after the first two rounds of competition, the semi-finalists will be reseeded based on their regular-season record, a new rule in 2021. In order to advance to the semi-finals, instead of getting seeded based on overall record within your conference, this year, the seeding goes on within the division. Each division runs its own tournament where the winner advances to the semi-finals.
Right now, the defending champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning are sitting in third place of the central division, comfortably having clinched a playoff spot. Although, their road to repeat is much harder this year as they have to beat the likes of the Carolina Hurricanes who are currently atop of the division at 71 points. There is no clear-cut favorite as we enter May and the start of the playoffs is days away, as teams such as the Washington Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Vegas Golden Knights all sit atop of their respective divisions. However, in the East, Central, and West divisions, the top team’s lead over second-place is less than 4 points. What this means is we could see a ton of competitive series in the first two rounds of the playoffs, as the expanded format and changed divisions mean we will be able to see playoff matchups that many have never seen before. What is especially interesting is that in order to advance to the semifinals, a team must win their divisional bracket. Winning two series back to back against divisional opponents is no easy task, especially when the teams have met each other over 10 times during the season. I think the team with the best chance to come away with the cup is the Colorado Avalanche, who currently sit in second place of the west division behind Vegas. The Avalanche have boasted a +47 goal differential this season and are top 10 in the league in scoring. Led by Nathan MacKinnon, the Avalanche are poised to have a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which start on Tuesday, May 11th.