After the NHL staged a 24-team, bubble-based tournament to determine the Stanley Cup winner in 2020, we’re back to a more traditional 16-team event in 2021 — with a significant twist.
The first two rounds of the 2021 playoffs will be intradivisional. After a winner is crowned from the four divisions, the “final four” will be rebracketed based on their regular-season records, with No. 1 taking on No. 4 and No. 2 facing No. 3. The winners of those series will square off in the Stanley Cup Final.
That could result in some dream matchups for the Cup — Bruins–Maple Leafs anyone? — but before we get there, it’s time for eight divisional series to kick things off, starting on Saturday.
How will the matchups play out? Let’s take an in-depth look at each first-round matchup and make our picks for which teams will advance.
Note: Emily Kaplan previewed the East and Central, while Greg Wyshynski did the honors for the North. West matchups will be found here once those series are finalized. Advanced stats are from Hockey Reference, Natural Stat Trick and Evolving Hockey
More: Check out the full NHL postseason schedule here.
East: PIT-NYI | WSH-BOS
Central: CAR-NSH | FLA-TB
North: TOR-MTL | EDM-WPG
Regular-season series: 6-2, Penguins.
First line: It’s been a running theme throughout Sidney Crosby‘s career of just how many linemates he’s had, but Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust are a well-oiled machine at this point. In 822:55 minutes together this season, they have outscored teams 71-37 with a 61.1% expected goals for percentage. In New York, the top line is not as defined. Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle have seen a rotating cast of wingers, with Barry Trotz turning to Leo Komarov often. Barzal and Eberle are solid but can’t keep up with the production of Pittsburgh’s trio. Advantage: Pittsburgh
Forward depth: Thanks to additions of Jean-Gabriel Pageau in 2020 and Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac in 2021, the Isles are deeper than they have been recently at forward. There’s not much dropoff on New York’s middle lines, as they all play with a similar identity. But the Penguins still have more punch throughout their lines, including enviable center depth with Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jeff Carter and Teddy Blueger down the middle. Advantage: Pittsburgh
Defense: The Islanders are known for their defensive structure — often playing in low-scoring games, with forwards always coming back to help on the backcheck — but they also have a true No. 1 pairing in Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock. In more than 775 minutes together at 5-on-5, the duo have a 59.96% expected goals for percentage, per Natural Stat Trick. The Penguins have scored 3.25 goals per game against New York this season, much better than most teams. Pittsburgh has been buoyed by surprise performances from Mike Matheson and especially Cody Ceci. The Penguins have a solid defense, but not quite as strong as New York’s. Advantage: New York
Goaltending: The Islanders’ tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin have the third-best 5-on-5 save percentage in the league (.931), which is about what you’d expect from a team coached by Barry Trotz and Mitch Korn. It is more surprising to see the Penguins’ duo of Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith ranking sixth in the same category (.925). Health can be a concern, as both Jarry and DeSmith were banged up toward the end of the season. The Penguins say they’ll be fine for the postseason, but it’s still something to monitor. Also, Jarry has played in only one career postseason game, while Smith has zero. Advantage: New York
Coaching: This matchup pits two of the best bench bosses in the game against each other. Barry Trotz and Mike Sullivan are Stanley Cup winners, though Trotz has had more recent success, winning the Stanley Cup in 2018 (with the Capitals), earning the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year in 2019 and taking the Isles deep in the bubble last summer. Sullivan did a wonderful job with the injury-riddled Penguins this season, but given that Pittsburgh has won only one postseason game over the past two years, the edge goes to Trotz. Advantage: New York
Health: The Islanders’ biggest loss is captain Anders Lee, who has been out since March (ACL). Lee won’t be back for the postseason, but New York added Palmieri and Zajac at the deadline to help replace him. The Penguins have been dealing with injury issues all season but seem to be getting healthy at the right time. Malkin returned to get four regular-season games in (and notched four assists). Defenseman Matheson and forwards Brandon Tanev and Evan Rodrigues were all injured the past few weeks as well but are trending for returns. Advantage: Pittsburgh
Special teams: The Penguins have a top-five power play (23.7%), while the Islanders are 21st (18.8%). The Penguins are bottom-six in penalty kill (77.4%), which is where the Isles thrive, finishing in the top six (83.7%). Over the past six weeks, the Isles have allowed just four power-play goals in 43 opportunities (90.7%). Advantage: Even
Series pick: Islanders in seven. While the Penguins’ speed could present challenges for New York — as it did in the regular season — the Islanders’ defensive structure thrives at this time of year. It’s now a yearly tradition: discounting the Islanders until they go on a playoff run that forces you to pay attention.
Regular-season series: Tied, 4-4.
First line: The Capitals trot out Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on their top line. In the playoffs, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Tom Wilson on their right wing, or Anthony Mantha. When Backstrom and Ovechkin have been on the ice together this season, they have outscored teams by 14 goals. Ovechkin had been nursing a lower-body injury toward the end of the season but should be OK for the playoffs.
Against most teams, the Caps would have an edge on the top line, but the Bruins have arguably the best trio in the entire league in Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron. In more than 783 minutes together, they have outscored teams by 29 goals and have a 73.23% expected goals for percentage. You don’t need to know fancy stats to understand that is quite good. Advantage: Boston
Forward depth: The best pickup for any team at the trade deadline was Boston landing Taylor Hall for a second-round pick. The 2018 Hart Trophy winner helped Boston supplement its forward depth, scoring eight goals in 16 games, which is more than he had in 37 games with the Sabres. Yet bottom-six production — and lack of 5-on-5 scoring — was a recurring issue for Boston all season. Washington also got a trade deadline addition in Mantha, who has been solid, with eight points in 14 games, albeit not as productive as Hall. Washington’s forward depth, overall, is stronger than Boston’s. A guy like Daniel Sprong could be sneaky-impactful for Washington this postseason. Advantage: Washington
Defense: In a season when the Bruins’ defense was supposed to regress — thanks to significant turnover — it didn’t really. Credit young players for stepping up, but also Charlie McAvoy for owning the No. 1 role. McAvoy’s performance so far against the Caps, where he was often paired against Washington’s top players, should inspire confidence. When McAvoy was on the ice against Ovechkin at 5-on-5, the Bruins outscored Washington 5-0 and had a plus-12 edge in shot attempts. Washington has a more veteran-led blue line, including longtime Bruins captain Zdeno Chara manning the third pairing. The Capitals’ defense might not be the X factor in many games, but it also won’t lose them many games either. Advantage: Even
Goaltending: Tuukka Rask has played 93 career playoff games, and that type of experience typically matters this time of year. He posted a .913 save percentage in the 2021 season but was limited to only 24 games because of injury. He should be rested heading into this postseason. If he stumbles, the Bruins will turn to 22-year-old rookie Jeremy Swayman, who earned the backup role with a .945 save percentage and two shutouts in 10 starts. Speaking of inexperience, the Caps’ tandem is two youngsters: Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek. Though they performed well enough to persuade GM Brian MacLellan not to acquire a veteran goalie at the deadline, it’s important to remember the Caps initially signed Henrik Lundqvist this season because they figured they would need insurance. Advantage: Boston
Coaching: Peter Laviolette and Bruce Cassidy are two of the best in the game. Laviolette has the Stanley Cup (with the Hurricanes, in 2006), but Cassidy has familiarity with his team. The Caps were feeling out Laviolette to begin the season, adjusting to a new system — which is predicated on getting defensemen involved and more pucks to the net. Meanwhile, Cassidy has been coaching this group since 2016, including 55 playoff games and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2019. Advantage: Even
Health: Boston had to shuffle its lineup quite a bit this season due to injuries and COVID-19 absences. However, it should enter the playoffs with a mostly intact roster. Charlie Coyle missed the final four games with an upper-body injury, but Cassidy said he should be cleared for Game 1. Keep an eye on Ondrej Kase, who returned from a 52-game absence only to exit the season finale against Washington. His status is unknown. Both Boston (Kevin Miller) and Washington (Michal Kempny) have a regular defenseman who is out for the season. With the Caps, Ovechkin was resting toward the end of the season thanks to a minor injury, which also might have been precautionary. John Carlson and T.J. Oshie might also be nursing minor injuries. Advantage: Even
Special teams: The Bruins had the second-best penalty kill in the league this season, operating at 86%. It’s going to be a treat watching it operate against Washington’s usually potent power play — where Oshie and Ovechkin have combined for 22 power-play goals — which is third in the league at 24.8%. Washington’s penalty kill is also very good, ranking fifth in the league. The Bruins have the league’s ninth-best power play. Advantage: Even
Series pick: Caps in seven. When Washington hired Laviolette ahead of the season, it wanted to light a fire under the group and instill urgency. This series is going to be a tight one. The last time these two met in the postseason, in 2012, there were seven one-goal games.
Regular-season series: 6-2, Hurricanes.
First line: Teuvo Teravainen missed a bulk of the season as he recovered from a concussion, but now he’s back. In his absence, his regular linemates Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov posted a 56.00% expected goals for percentage. With Teravainen — who had three goals in his first five games back — they’re even stronger. Aho had 16 goals and 37 points over his final 33 games. Meanwhile, Filip Forsberg, a staple on Nashville’s top line, had 32 points in 39 games — which made him the Predators’ most productive forward this season. Top center Ryan Johansen‘s production has dipped from 0.80 points per game two years ago to 0.46 points per game this season. Advantage: Carolina
Forward depth: The Hurricanes have enviable depth. Six players outside of their top line hit double-digit goal totals. They live in a world where all four lines can feasibly score, but to coach Rod Brind’Amour‘s identity of hard-nosed hockey. The line of Martin Necas, Nino Niederreiter and Vincent Trocheck (57.89% expected goals for percentage) could feasibly operate as Nashville’s top line. The Predators have finally inserted young players into the lineup. Tanner Jeannot, Mathieu Olivier, Eeli Tolvanen and Yakov Trenin have proved that the Preds do have some talent in the pipeline, but they’re just not as seasoned as Carolina’s group. Nor as talented. Advantage: Carolina
Defense: Here’s where the Predators finally can go toe-to-toe with the Canes. Nashville boasts a top four featuring Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis and reigning Norris Trophy winner Roman Josi. They’ve made life easy for Alexandre Carrier, a rookie who earned a bigger role midway through the season, and has played mostly with Ekholm. The Canes also have elite defenders. In more than 766 minutes at 5-on-5, Dougie Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin have tilted the ice with a plus-19 differential in goals and plus-57 delta in high-danger chances, per Natural Stat Trick. On the second pairing, Brett Pesce has quietly been outstanding for the Canes, with nearly the same expected goals for percentage at 5-on-5 as Hamilton. Advantage: Even
Goaltending: The passing of the torch is finally happening in Nashville. After starting every game in the 2020 bubble, Juuse Saros had 14 more starts than Pekka Rinne this season. The 38-year-old Rinne’s contract expires this summer, and he is likely done in Nashville — where he will be remembered as the greatest player in franchise history thus far. The Predators are comfortable starting either goalie, but Saros (.945 save percentage at 5-on-5, best among goalies with at least 15 starts) is the No. 1 option. Right behind Saros on that 5-on-5 save percentage list is Carolina rookie Alex Nedeljkovic, who has emerged as a pleasant surprise and supplanted James Reimer as the Canes’ No. 2; Nedeljkovic might even be Carolina’s No. 1 at this point. Petr Mrazek has been excellent, but missed two months in the middle of the season with a thumb injury. Advantage: Nashville
Coaching: The Predators went on a remarkable run to even make it to the playoffs, going 19-7-1 since March 15. Coach John Hynes deserves some credit there, but so do the players. Rod Brind’Amour is a favorite to win the Jack Adams as Coach of the Year in 2021, as he had the Canes operating on a high level for the entire season. He has also recently taken this team on a run to the Eastern Conference finals in 2019. Advantage: Carolina
Health: Viktor Arvidsson missed the final five games of the season, though Nashville lists him as “day-to-day” with an upper-body injury. The Predators activated Olivier from injured reserve before the end of the season, and while Dante Fabbro and Colton Sissons were banged up, they appear to be ready for the series. The Canes had Brock McGinn and Cedric Paquette sidelined with injuries toward the end of the season. After missing eight games, forward Jordan Martinook got a regular-season game in and should be good for the playoffs. Advantage: Even
Special teams: The Canes have the second-best power play in the league, trailing only the Oilers, clicking at 25.6%. Six players have double-digit power-play points, with Aho, Trocheck and Hamilton leading the pack with 18 apiece. Nashville’s penalty kill is third worst in the league (75.4%), so this is a mismatch. The Canes have the third-best penalty kill in the league, while Nashville’s power play ranks 24th — another sizable mismatch. Advantage: Carolina
Series pick: Hurricanes in five. The Predators shouldn’t be discounted, but we need to look at this matchup for what it is: a fringe playoff team versus a deep and talented squad that has looked strong all season and captured the division crown from the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Regular-season series: 5-3, Panthers.
First line: Florida’s top line is all about Aleksander Barkov, one of the best two-way players in the game — but really, just one of the best players in this game. He could get some love in the MVP voting this season, after scoring 26 goals and 58 points in 50 games. Carter Verhaeghe and Anthony Duclair likely flank Barkov. While they are great complements, they’re not necessarily game-breakers.
The Lightning are expected to welcome both Nikita Kucherov (out all season) and Steven Stamkos (out the last month) back to the lineup. Kucherov should probably slide back to the top line with Ondrej Palat and Brayden Point, a trio that was dynamite in last year’s playoffs, combining for 85 points in 25 games. Assuming Kucherov is fully healthy and as dynamic as usual, the Lightning should have the edge here. Advantage: Tampa Bay
Forward depth: When the Lightning won the Stanley Cup last year, they were lauded for their trade deadline acquisitions of Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow. Both were revelations on Tampa Bay’s third line. Florida might have made its own shrewd move this time around. Sam Bennett has been a seamless fit since coming over from Calgary, specifically thriving alongside Jonathan Huberdeau. In more than 106 minutes at 5-on-5 together, the duo has a whopping 73.62% expected goals for percentage, outscoring opposing teams 10-1. Bennett’s arrival slid players down the lineup and only strengthened the bottom six (which has some decent players, including Nikita Gusev, whose performance has improved after a forgettable stint in New Jersey). Advantage: Florida
Defense: When Aaron Ekblad was lost for the season, Florida’s defensive outlook appeared much more gloomy. Then MacKenzie Weegar stepped up, showing he can play as a true No. 1 too. Around him, Florida’s defensmen have all leveled up, including Brandon Montour, who looks revived after coming over in trade from Buffalo. On paper, the Lightning should have a big edge, but injuries are a concern for two of their top defensemen, Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh. David Savard hasn’t yet made the impact Tampa Bay had hoped, but he was acquired to make a difference in the playoffs, and he still can (and has the experience). Given the strides Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev continue to make, the Lightning’s group is stronger overall. Advantage: Tampa Bay
Goaltending: The Panthers might have committed $70 million to Sergei Bobrovsky, but the Lightning have the best goalie in the game, full stop. Andrei Vasilevskiy looks like he will win his second Vezina Trophy in three seasons (he has finished as a finalist in each of the past four seasons) after going 31-10-1 with a .925 save percentage. Vasilevskiy’s backup, Curtis McElhinney, doesn’t inspire much confidence, but the Lightning don’t expect to use him much anyway. Vasilevskiy can be a workhorse, and he will be.
For Florida, it’s a bit more complicated. The Panthers created a “goaltending excellence department” this season, headed by Roberto Luongo, and have seen 26-year-old Chris Driedger totally overachieve. They also signed their top prospect Spencer Knight, and after posting four wins and a .919 save percentage in four starts, the 19-year-old could be an X factor. Bobrovsky has played well enough lately to earn the start in this series, but Florida has options if he falters early. Advantage: Tampa Bay
Coaching: Typically, Joel Quenneville — a three-time Stanley Cup winner, who ranks second all time in coaching wins, behind only Scotty Bowman — is the automatic choice here. Plus, he has this Panthers group overachieving, despite modest expectations, and very well could win the Jack Adams Award. But Jon Cooper is one of the best in the game right now, the man Canada is likely to tap as its 2022 Olympic coach. Oh, and he led nearly this exact group to a Stanley Cup last year. Advantage: Even
Health: There’s a laundry list of injury issues for the Lightning. Hedman’s health is of concern, especially after a precipitous drop off in performance to end the season. Sportsnet reported Hedman (lower body injury) is putting off surgery until the offseason. Stamkos (lower body injury) has been out since April 8 and is hopeful to be ready for the series, but it’s troubling to hear him say all of his injuries are somewhat connected. He has had procedures now on his knee, leg and core. Goodrow is out indefinitely with an upper body injury. McDonagh and Palat are also nursing injuries, while Jan Rutta is on injured reserve. And bear in mind that while Tampa expects Kucherov back, he hasn’t played in a game since last summer.
Florida is in better shape. Verhaeghe (upper body injury) missed 13 games but got a regular-season game in before the playoffs. Previously banged-up Bennett, Patric Hornqvist and Huberdeau all looked poised for Game 1, also. The Panthers are hoping to have Ekblad back at some point this postseason, but it’s iffy for this series. Advantage: Florida
Special teams: Not a huge difference between the power play for the Panthers (20.5%) and the Lightning (22.4%), though Kucherov’s presence could be an X factor. Since entering the league, Kucherov is top 10 in power-play points — and that’s despite missing this entire season. The Lightning’s penalty kill is marginally better than the Panthers’ (84.2% versus 79.8%). Advantage: Tampa Bay
Series pick: Lightning in seven. The Panthers were one of the best stories of the 2021 season, and have all the right pieces in place to have sustained success. But Tampa Bay has already been through its growing pains; its time is now. As long as health holds up, the Lightning should win this.
Regular-season series: 7-2, Maple Leafs.
First line: When Zach Hyman returns to the lineup, he should reunite with Auston Matthews (40 goals in 50 games) and Mitch Marner (1.24 points per game) to form one of the NHL’s best lines. In 35 games this season, the trio had a 64.9% expected goals percentage. Their offense was the Leafs’ best defense, too: Toronto goalies had a .932 save percentage when the line was on the ice.
The Canadiens are also hoping to get their top line healthy again, as Brendan Gallagher (fractured thumb) and Phillip Danault (concussion) could reunite with Tomas Tatar. That line had a nice 69.0% expected goals percentage with outstanding underlying defensive numbers. It can’t be stressed enough how important Gallagher is to this team: They were 17-9-9 with him and 7-11-0 without him. The Habs’ trio is great. The Maple Leafs’ top line has a generational goal-scoring savant. Advantage: Toronto
Forward depth: John Tavares and William Nylander hold down the second line for Toronto, with trade deadline addition Nick Foligno joining them. Riley Nash, Alex Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev are one depth line; the other features more than 3,800 combined games in the NHL, with Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds all chasing their first Stanley Cup. Reclamation success story Alex Galchenyuk is in the mix too.
For Montreal, Tyler Toffoli brought as much joy to the Canadiens as his departure brought pain to Vancouver, scoring 28 goals this season. He has played with Joel Armia and dynamic center Nick Suzuki, who bounced back from a midseason offensive swoon. Josh Anderson and Corey Perry chip in offensively — Anderson, a key offseason pickup, is a negative-3.1 goals scored above average. Paul Byron, Artturi Lehkonen, Michael Frolik and Jake Evans play their roles. Montreal’s lineup got a boost from star prospect winger Cole Caufield. The opposite happened with the trade for Eric Staal, who had three points in his first 21 games in Montreal. Advantage: Toronto
Defense: Like Toffoli with the Canadiens, T.J. Brodie was one of the most impactful signings of the offseason for the Leafs. The defensive defenseman’s pairing with Morgan Rielly has a 56.1% expected goals percentage this season. Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl continued their strong play that began last season. Travis Dermott has been a constant on the third pairing, with Rasmus Sandin, Ben Hutton and Zach Bogosian, working back from a shoulder injury, in the mix.
Jeff Petry was a revelation for Montreal this season, with 42 points in his first 55 games, skating 22:44 per game on average. Paired with Joel Edmundson, he could be a Norris Trophy contender. The towering Shea Weber, who was a frequent partner of Ben Chiarot, had his production slip this season. Brett Kulak, rookie Alexander Romanov and trade deadline addition Jon Merrill are also options. Advantage: Toronto
Goaltending: The Leafs just got Frederik Andersen back from injury. Notice that we didn’t say “starter” Frederik Andersen, as Jack Campbell went 17-2-2 with a .923 save percentage to potentially take the crease for the postseason. David Rittich, acquired from Calgary at the trade deadline, is insurance. The quality of the Montreal goaltending boils down to one question: Which Carey Price, assuming he’s healthy, will the Canadiens get? The middling “Price In Name Only” that they’ve seen in the regular season? Or the goalie who posted a .936 save percentage and two shutouts in the bubble last postseason? If not, the other option is Jake Allen, who outplayed Price in the regular season but is only 28th in goals saved above average. Advantage: Even
Coaching: Sheldon Keefe deserves coach of the year consideration for helping to turn the Leafs into a solid defensive team that limits high-danger chances from opponents. He has also managed a packed roster well. Dominique Ducharme replaced Claude Julien after 18 games, and managed to sneak the Canadiens into the playoffs despite several injuries down the stretch. The interim coach doesn’t have much of a sample, but he might have done enough to earn the job, provided GM Marc Bergevin returns. Advantage: Toronto
Health: The Leafs should get Hyman, Foligno and Nash back for the start of the playoffs. Zach Bogosian last played on April 22, and the prognosis was he would return in four weeks with a shoulder injury; we’re coming up on that benchmark. For Montreal, Gallagher, Price and Weber could all return for the start of the series. Forward Jonathan Drouin remains out of the lineup for personal reasons, with no determination on his return. Advantage: Even
Special teams: The Maple Leafs had the 16th-best power play in the NHL (20.3%) and the 24th-best penalty kill (77.7%) through 54 games. They’re first in expected goals on the power play (7.99 per 60 minutes). The Canadiens have the 19th-best power play (19.3%) and the 18th-best penalty kill (79.3%). Advantage: Toronto
Series pick: Maple Leafs in five. The first playoff meeting between these franchises since 1979 will undoubtedly be intense and physical, as the Canadiens try to brutalize and goad the Leafs with physical play. The infusion of reinforcements to the Canadiens’ lineup, especially Gallagher, will be a boost to Montreal. But the Leafs are rolling, and are clearly the better of the two teams here. Every postseason for Toronto centers around the new and exciting ways it’s going to blow it — this is a team that hasn’t won a playoff series since 2004. A five-game series win over the kind of team that would normally upset the Maple Leafs would be a declarative statement that this time, things are different.
Regular-season series: 7-2, Oilers.
First line: The Jets’ top line is well established: center Mark Scheifele (61 points in 55 games), flanked by wingers Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler. An old, reliable trio that can produce offense but has been rolled defensively at 5-on-5 this season, giving up over 3.5 goals per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time. Wheeler, who reportedly played through a rib injury earlier this season, in particular, has struggled. At risk of incurring another analytics rant from coach Paul Maurice, Wheeler has been sub-replacement (negative-2.6 goals scored above average) level this season.
The Oilers’ top line is tougher to define, except to say that “it’s the one with Connor McDavid.” The phenom had 104 points through 55 games this season, one of the most dominant runs for an offensive player in NHL history when adjusted for era. (But not adjusted for division, detractors will say.) He has had linemates ranging from Dominik Kahun and Jesse Puljujarvi (an effective 61.8% expected goals percentage) to Leon Draisaitl to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to Kailer Yamamoto. In another season, the Jets’ line gets the nod. But at this point, the Oilers could put McDavid in with the equipment manager and the mascot and they’d be the best line in the game. Advantage: Edmonton
Forward depth: The Jets were dealt a massive loss when Nikolaj Ehlers suffered an upper body injury in late April, as he was having a career year. Pierre-Luc Dubois, acquired from Columbus for Patrik Laine earlier this season, had 20 points in 40 games. Paul Stastny, who recently passed 1,000 career games, has 29 points in 55 games playing in a variety of roles. Andrew Copp, Mathieu Perreault, Trevor Lewis, Nate Thompson and Mason Appleton are also in the mix.
When he’s not skating with McDavid, Draisaitl is holding down his own line, usually with Nugent-Hopkins and Yamamoto. Among the other forwards are James Neal (five goals), Alex Chiasson (eight goals), Devin Shore, Tyler Ennis, and Jujhar Khaira. Kyle Turris is also an option. So, to paraphrase “The Simpsons,” whenever McDavid and Draisaitl aren’t on the ice, all the other players should be asking “Where are McDavid and Draisaitl?” Advantage: Winnipeg
Defense: The Jets’ Josh Morrissey was a massive disappointment this season, with a negative-6.1 goals scored above average. He has been paired with Dylan DeMelo, who has had a much more effective season. Neal Pionk (32 points in 53 games) was the Jets’ leading scorer among blueliners. Logan Stanley, Tucker Poolman, Derek Forbort, Sami Niku and trade deadline addition Jordie Benn are options. The wild card is Ville Heinola, a 20-year-old blue chip defenseman, but he’s inexperienced.
For Edmonton, the pairing of Tyson Barrie (48 points in 55 games) and Darnell Nurse (36 points in 54 games) has excelled offensively. Nurse in particular has had a great two-way season, and was in the Norris Trophy conversation. Adam Larsson has been a mainstay on the second pairing, playing with Kris Russell, Caleb Jones and Dmitry Kulikov at different times this season. Ethan Bear and William Lagesson are also in the mix. Bear saw time with Nurse this season too. Advantage: Edmonton
Goaltending: Connor Hellebuyck won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender last season, and has once again carried the defensive load for the Jets. He had a .915 save percentage and a 2.60 goals-against average in winning 23 of 44 games. For the third straight season, Hellebuyck led the NHL in shots faced and saves made. The Oilers were widely ridiculed for bringing back 38-year-old Mike Smith, with many claiming that backup Mikko Koskinen deserved more playing time. Instead, Koskinen has struggled while Smith posted a .924 save percentage in 31 games, placing 12th in goals saved above average (14.6). Advantage: Winnipeg
Coaching: Two veteran coaches squaring off here. Winnipeg’s Maurice is sixth in career wins and has done a solid job with a team that has had its share of change and challenges. Edmonton’s Dave Tippett is 18th in career wins and deserves credit for helping the Oilers improve defensively this season. But credit’s hard to find when everyone thinks you just put some McDavid and Draisaitl on anything that ails the team. (Spoiler: He does, as he should.) Advantage: Edmonton
Health: The Jets have been without Ehlers since April 26, but he’s skating again and could be back for this series. If so, that’s an enormous lift for the Jets — he had eight points in seven games against the Oilers this season. For Edmonton, Zack Kassian has resumed skating after being out with a lower body injury. Advantage: Even
Special teams: The Oilers have the league’s best power play (27.4% in 54 games) thanks to McDavid and Draisaitl. Their penalty kill (10th, 82.2%) isn’t bad either. The Jets have the NHL’s sixth-best power play (23.1%) and its 14th-best penalty kill (80.3%). Advantage: Edmonton
Series pick: Oilers in five. The Jets were really spiraling down the stretch, while the Oilers and a next-level McDavid were steamrollering through teams. Still, the return of Ehlers could be key, and Hellebuyck is capable of a win on his own. That’s the optimistic view. The realistic view is that Hellebuyck had a .877 save percentage and a 3.96 goals-against average in going 2-5-0 against Edmonton this season; and whatever Ehlers brings to the lineup, it’ll be offset by McDavid’s utter dominance of the Jets, to the tune of 14 points in nine games. McDavid hasn’t won a playoff round since 2017. He’s playing in a way that makes you believe he’ll remedy that.