The 2021 NHL season was a campaign the likes of which we've never seen -- and hope to never see again. The game schedule was limited (both in overall volume and variety of opponents). The fan capacity was limited. Thankfully, the permutations of how the Stanley Cup Final might play out are less limited because the NHL rebrackets the final four once we get to the semifinals.
But way before all that, we have eight fantastic first-round matchups. To help you get ready for the tournament, we tasked our panel with answering a five-pack of forward-looking questions. Click the links below to jump ahead, or read through all five.
Which first-round series are you most excited about?
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: Boston Bruins vs. Washington Capitals. There are just way too many juicy storylines. Taylor Hall going scorched earth to earn a contract with Boston this summer. Zdeno Chara versus the team he captained for 14 years -- after it snubbed him in free agency. Two battle-tested teams, plenty of star power and a playoff series featuring Brad Marchand and Tom Wilson has a potential for some fireworks.
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: Florida Panthers vs. Tampa Bay Lightning. Fun fact: I went to the first Lightning playoff home game ever on April 21, 1996, in front of a crowd of 25,945 at the ThunderDome baseball stadium. From that moment through this season, the Lightning have never faced their state neighbors from Sunrise in a playoff series. The games between these teams have been intense. The Lightning are injured and vulnerable. This could be something special.
Arda Ocal, In The Crease/SportsNation: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Montreal Canadiens. Yes, I'm a little biased, having grown up in Toronto, but these two teams haven't met in the postseason since 1979, although Leafs fans still have the fleeting and painful thought of a 1993 Stanley Cup Final battle against Montreal slipping from Toronto's grasp. This is one of the greatest and oldest rivalries in sports on a stage where it truly counts. Plus, social media will be on FIRE for this one. I can't wait.
Tim Kavanagh, senior NHL editor: Carolina Hurricanes vs. Nashville Predators. No, this doesn't appear to be a particularly close series on paper. But the Preds played with a ferocity befitting their emblem in two games against the Canes to close out the season, so they won't go away easily. Plus, this matchup features two fan bases that make every pregame a college-football-style tailgate. This will be fun.
Ben Arledge, general NHL editor: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Montreal Canadiens. An Original Six, all-Canadian matchup right out of the gate? Sign me up. I'm excited to see how the Leafs' offensive firepower gets going under the playoff spotlight. Simply put, Toronto can't fumble this opportunity to move through the first two rounds against lighter-than-normal competition.
Sach Chandan, fantasy hockey editor: Edmonton Oilers vs. Winnipeg Jets. The Oilers aren't as complete as the other teams on this list, but after Connor McDavid's historic season, I'm expecting fireworks this postseason. His Hart Trophy-winning teammate Leon Draisaitl has also carved up the Jets for seven goals this season. While goalie Connor Hellebuyck and the Jets have had struggles, when he's hot, he's the best goalie in the league. If the Oilers win, it will have been through high-scoring affairs with overs cashing aplenty. If the Jets win, it will be because Hellebuyck recaptures his form and pulls out a few wins.
What's your bold prediction for the 2021 postseason?
Kaplan: The Panthers will upset the Lightning and win their first playoff series since 1996. I initially thought the Panthers were a mirage this season, but they've proved they're legit. Tampa Bay was in a lull to end the season. It's clear Victor Hedman isn't 100%, and I don't know how easy it is for Nikita Kucherov -- who hasn't played all season after December hip surgery -- to jump right in and immediately flip a switch.
Wyshynski: Auston Matthews wins the Conn Smythe. Granted, I might be burying the lede here, as "perennial playoff disappointment wins first Stanley Cup since 1967 with specious goaltending" might be the bolder prediction. But I hit on my Victor Hedman-for-playoff MVP prediction last postseason, so I might as well get granular again: The Leafs win the Stanley Cup on the back of a kid from Arizona.
Ocal: Taylor Hall will lead the postseason in scoring. When I was a host on Devils broadcasts years ago, I saw firsthand the fire in his eyes and his sheer will to drag New Jersey to the playoffs. On many nights he looked unstoppable, piling on points and being everywhere on the ice. I see that same fire since he joined the Bruins at the trade deadline. He looks like the Taylor Hall of old, with highlight-reel goals and an aura of confidence around him that you'd expect from someone of his talents. He once again looks unstoppable.
Kavanagh: All three of the Maple Leafs' goalies will see action within the first two rounds. Typically, teams will go with one option once the postseason begins to ride the hot hand. But the Leafs' goaltending has been anything but typical recently. Jack Campbell had epic success this season, but he has zero postseason experience. Frederik Andersen has that experience -- but it hasn't exactly gone swimmingly for him this season. And just to keep this bold, we'll say David Rittich finds his way into the crease at some point too.
Arledge: Connor McDavid posts the most points in a playoff series of the past 25 years. Bold enough? Alex Ovechkin holds the current mark with 14 against the Penguins in 2008-09, but McDavid just clipped 100 points during a significantly shortened season. I see the potential for some longer back-and-forth series early in the playoffs, first against the Jets and then potentially against the Leafs, which gives plenty of opportunity. McDavid tallied nine points in a four-game play-in postseason series last summer, and he hit 20 points over two separate seven-game stretches this season.
Chandan: Colorado loses in the first round. Presidents' Trophy winners almost never make it out of the first two rounds. The Avalanche have been among the top Stanley Cup favorites since we dropped the puck in January, but they're playing a veteran Blues team that has lost only once in regulation over its past 12 games. Upsets are rooted in special teams, and since the calendar changed to April, the Blues have been second best in the league with a 32.1% power-play rate, while their penalty kill has grown to 83.6% from 74.6%. I'm prepared to eat this L if I'm wrong, but this is a tougher matchup for the Avs than it might look on the surface.
Which No. 4 seed will get the deepest into the playoffs?
Kaplan: New York Islanders. Come on, we've all been burned before. It's a yearly tradition to discount the Islanders ... until they go on a run that forces you to pay attention to them. The Isles have the strongest team identity in the league. They all buy in defensively and can wear teams down in a long series.
Wyshynski: New York Islanders. Yeah, it's the Isles by process of elimination. Carolina and Toronto are far superior than Nashville and Montreal, respectively. The Blues certainly roll into the postseason feeling pretty good about themselves, but face an Avalanche team that has shown it can beat you in a variety of ways. I thought the Islanders could upset the Penguins until their offense apparently decided to move to Belmont Park months before the rest of the team does. "Anti-hockey" alone won't be enough against Pittsburgh.
Ocal: New York Islanders. "You'll have to go through the island" is never a fun proposition for an opponent, especially when the Isles are under the tutelage of Barry Trotz. The Isles are scrappy, suck the soul right out of you and have necessary pieces like solid goaltending and one of the most gifted young players in the game in Mathew Barzal. Not an easy first-round opponent at all for the Penguins.
Kavanagh: St. Louis Blues. Apologies for being a party pooper, but I don't think any No. 4 seeds will win their first-round matchups. However, I do think the Blues can push the Avalanche to a seventh game, thanks to the Jordan Binnington Revenge Tour continuing.
Arledge: New York Islanders. I'll be looking at Semyon Varlamov here to help the Isles pull a first-round upset of the Penguins and potentially even jump past a Caps team that has struggled in goal or a Bruins team that has been streaky. Don't expect a quiet last dance at the Coliseum.
Chandan: St. Louis Blues. I guess I have to say St. Louis, after my bold prediction above. After an uneven start to the season, the Blues appear to have figured things out. Binnington, who won the Stanley Cup as a rookie, has looked better with a .921 save percentage since April, and Mike Hoffman finding his scoring touch on the first power-play unit. Beyond that, I agree with the others that the Islanders are the defensively strong team here, but I can't envision any other 4-seeds making a run here.
Which player will be the biggest X factor for his team this postseason?
Kaplan: Devon Toews, D, Colorado Avalanche. He was acquired for a pair of second-rounders from the Islanders last summer. By the end of the season, he was wearing an "A" for the Avs. Toews has been dominant on Colorado's blue line, maybe the most underrated defenseman in the league.
Wyshynski: Alex Nedeljkovic, G, Carolina Hurricanes. The Canes kept all three of their goaltenders -- Nedeljkovic, Petr Mrazek and James Reimer -- at the trade deadline. They're hoping one of them grabs the reins this postseason. In his past 10 starts, "Ned" is 7-2-1 with a .939 save percentage. Not to get all "time is a flat circle" here, but I do recall the last time the Hurricanes won their division and had a rookie goalie take over the crease in the playoffs, and it ended with a shirtless Rod Brind'Amour lifting the Stanley Cup over a creek.
Ocal: Kirill Kaprizov, F, Minnesota Wild. This flashy, 24-year-old Russian super rookie has been the talk of the Calder Trophy race for pretty much the entire season, and rightfully so. He even cemented himself in the top 10 in goals in the NHL this season (27) and checked off all the performance bonuses in his contract this year. Great for him! But you know what any NHL player will say is better than money? Winning Lord Stanley's mug. Not many people are picking the Wild to get out of the West. But that also means that this No. 3 seed will have less pressure on it. More interestingly, it's a chance to see what "Kirill The Thrill" can do when the games matter the most. Kaprizov has a gold medal at the Olympics and has played well for the Gagarin Cup in the KHL. How will that translate to the NHL?
Kavanagh: Nikita Kucherov, RW, Tampa Bay Lightning. It almost seems unfair that the defending Stanley Cup champs are getting one of the best players in the world back for the postseason, but here we are. Kucherov -- the Hart Trophy winner as league MVP in 2019 -- scored 34 points in 26 postseason games in the 2020 bubble, but hasn't played since raising the Cup on Sept. 28. Will there be any rust after that extended absence? Will Jon Cooper and his staff let him work through that rust if the Panthers go up 2-0 ... or 3-0?
Arledge: Jack Campbell, G, Toronto Maple Leafs. Is there a bigger wild card on any of the 16 playoff teams? Toronto has a Cup-worthy roster, but the goaltending continues to be the pivotal component. If Campbell plays like he did during the regular season -- a 17-2-2 record, .923 save percentage and 2.11 goals-against average -- then the Leafs are in business. But if he struggles in his first career playoff action, or Toronto is forced to look to Frederik Andersen or David Rittich, the team could be in for an early letdown.
Chandan: Alec Martinez, D, Vegas Golden Knights. Martinez was on pace for the best season of his career, scoring at a 0.6 points-per-game clip before his foot injury. But that's not why I'm picking him. When the Golden Knights are up late, his pairing with Shea Theodore is trusted by coach Pete DeBoer to grind out close wins. A veteran of two Stanley Cup-winning teams in L.A., which includes scoring the series-clinching goal in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final, Martinez is listed as questionable on the injury report, and the Knights would feel the loss if he's not ready to go for Game 1.
Who's winning the Stanley Cup?
Kaplan: Washington Capitals. I picked the Caps ahead of the season, so I'll double down. The Caps hired Peter Laviolette this past offseason to instill a sense of urgency, and the team seems to be buying in. As long as Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie aren't too banged up, I see a long run for Washington.
Wyshynski: Toronto Maple Leafs. There's only one way for this bizarre, unprecedented and never-to-be-repeated (hopefully!) season to end, and that's with the Maple Leafs lifting the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1967. They'll need one of their goalies to be competent enough to win four series and a little bit of luck to go their way -- say, avoiding Boston in the last two rounds -- but Toronto should start planning the (socially distanced) parade. Unless, you know, they're just the Leafs again.
Ocal: Tampa Bay Lightning. I picked the Maple Leafs to win at the start of the season, and I think the Stanley Cup winner will come down to the Leafs and Lightning. The Leafs will definitely need solid goaltending throughout the playoffs, and the imminent returns of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov will no doubt bolster Tampa, but the defending champs look unstoppable at times. I'm going with Tampa repeating as champs in the NHL's COVID-19 era.
Kavanagh: Carolina Hurricanes. The Canes are one of the most complete teams we've seen in recent memory, and they play a hard-nosed, 200-foot game that leaves opponents begging for mercy. Plus, I'd love to see what kind of Storm Surge would take place with the Stanley Cup as a prop.
Arledge: Vegas Golden Knights. I picked them in the preseason, and there's really no reason to change it up now. They are among the highest-scoring teams in the league, they have the experience to make a run, and their goaltending has been excellent.
Chandan: Toronto Maple Leafs. If there was ever a year for the Maple Leafs to do this, it's 2021, and they have a Cup-ready roster right now. Of course, we've all seen the misfortune that seems to befall this club every spring, but due to the new format, they will avoid Boston and Tampa until at least the semifinals. As Ben said earlier, if Campbell is in regular-season form, he would solve the last problem left for the Leafs.