Lapsed fan’s guide to the NHL playoffs: Everything you might have missed

Sports

We’ve come a long way since the Tampa Bay Lightning won the 2020 Stanley Cup in a bubble in Edmonton, Alberta. New protocols were agreed upon, and many surprises unfolded — both good and bad — as the NHL embarked on a season like no other. Playoff darlings from last year like the Dallas Stars and Vancouver Canucks battled through injuries, underwhelming performances and a schedule impacted by the pandemic, but couldn’t make the cut. Sixteen teams managed to emerge from the most untraditional of NHL seasons.

As a service to fans who have a general interest in the National Hockey League but have no idea what’s happened since last summer’s bubbles, we’re happy to provide this FAQ as a guide to the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs.

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It’s the middle of May and the Stanley Cup playoffs are just starting?

In fairness, it still feels like the last tournament just ended. The Lightning didn’t lift the Cup in the Edmonton bubble until Sept. 28 of last year. The target date to start a truncated 2021 regular season was Jan. 1, but that became impossible due to the time needed to develop COVID-19 protocols, hold proper training camps and because the NHL owners briefly tried to amend a collective bargaining agreement they had settled with the players a few months earlier — which, as you might imagine, the players weren’t too enthused about amending.

The 56-game season instead started on Jan. 13 and was expected to end on May 8. Unfortunately, the NHL had to reschedule 52 games due to COVID-19 outbreaks on teams — and another five games involving the Dallas Stars due to the winter storms that hit Texas — which pushed the end of the regular season into the “cushion” the league built into its schedule in anticipation of such postponements. The regular season finishes up on May 19.

Wait, isn’t the start of the playoffs on May 15?

Welcome to the season where the postseason starts before the regular season ends, and hamburgers eat people.

The Vancouver Canucks had a major COVID outbreak at the end of March, causing the postponement of eight games and keeping the team out of action for 24 days. Instead of just canceling games that were meaningless to the playoff race and using points percentage to determine draft lottery seeding, the Canucks will finish the season with seven games in 10 days, ending at the Calgary Flames in an afternoon game on May 19, the same day as Game 3 of the Boston vs. Washington first-round series. Because of the Canucks’ postponements, the North Division isn’t starting its playoff rounds until the night of May 19.

Sorry, what is a “North Division”?

We have a lot of ground to cover, don’t we?

The NHL’s 31 teams were realigned into the North, West, Central and East Divisions, which were created for this season only. One catalyst was the closure of the Canadian border for international travel, and the quarantine mandates that came with it. The NHL’s solution was to group all seven Canadian franchises in the North Division. The other three divisions had eight U.S.-based teams each, and were organized geographically.

The usual interdivisional schedule was tossed aside, as teams played only against the other teams in their division. This was done to limit travel, both for player safety in the pandemic and to cut down on travel costs in a season where the NHL said it would lose over a billion dollars. That’s primarily due to not having fans in arenas for most of the season — and when those fans did start to return, not having anything close to capacity crowds.

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John Buccigross details the major storylines in the NHL heading into the playoffs.

What’s the playoff format with these new divisions?

Since the North Division spans the entirety of Canada, the NHL dumped the Eastern and Western Conferences for this season, and with them the wild-card format it has used in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the past decade. The playoffs are divisionally based: The top seed plays the No. 4 seed and the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds face each other.

The winners of those series then play for the division title. Each division champion advances to the Stanley Cup semifinals, and that’s where things really get interesting: For the first time since 1981, the NHL is going to reseed its final four teams. That puts a number of “dream matchups” that were unattainable in the conference format on the table, like the Boston Bruins finding a way to prevent the Toronto Maple Leafs from winning the Stanley Cup, except this time in the final round. Wherever those games might be played.

Is there still a travel issue with Canadian teams hosting U.S. teams in Canada, and traveling to the U.S.?

Yes. The NHL, and specifically deputy commissioner Bill Daly, have been negotiating with the Canadian government about getting special dispensations for the North Division champion and its opponents to be able to travel back and forth across the U.S. border without mandatory quarantines. Canada is just emerging from a third wave of COVID, and allowing that kind of freedom of travel for hockey teams, while Canadian citizens remain restricted, is a delicate political issue. The word used by all involved, including the scientific community, is “optics.”

As of Thursday, there was nothing new to report on the issue, but an NHL source tells ESPN that a “positive resolution” to the matter is anticipated. If something can’t be worked out, then the North Division champion will be housed in a U.S.-based arena, likely one that’s geographically close to its semifinal opponent. (Again, due to travel costs.) If that happens and fans are allowed at those games, one can only imagine the lengths a Torontonian would go to see the Leafs play a “home game” for the Cup in person on American soil.

What is the status for fans at games?

The four Canadian franchises in the playoffs — Toronto, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Montreal — are all still prohibited by Canadian government guidelines from having fans at games. By the end of the regular season, all 12 U.S.-based playoff teams had fans back at their games, and are expected to increase capacity for the playoffs.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Vegas Golden Knights will be at 50% capacity. Capacity at Colorado Avalanche home games will jump from 22% to over 42%. Nashville will have a capacity of 12,135 fans for first-round playoff home games. As the postseason continues, those capacities and others should increase — with safety measures in place, of course.

What’s the current COVID situation in the NHL?

The 2021 season was a challenging one for the players due to the social distancing and testing protocols they had to follow at home and on the road. It was mentally draining, as many players have discussed openly. Even with those protocols, well over 100 players missed time after being placed on the NHL’s COVID-related absences list. Yet as of May 13, there were only three players on that list.

There is still daily testing and protocols are in place, but the NHL announced this month that the restrictions would be eased for U.S. teams once 85% of a traveling party is fully vaccinated. That includes being able to gather in groups, such as inside hotel rooms on the road; eating at restaurants with outdoor dining; not having to undergo PCR testing on off days; and not having masks required in the practice facility or in nonpublic areas of arenas for fully vaccinated individuals.

“The playoffs are a grind, just like this season has been, so any type of getting your mind away from it by being around the guys I think will help,” said Rod Brind’Amour, head coach of the division champion Carolina Hurricanes.

The Carolina Hurricanes won their division? What is this, 2006?

Yeah, and you remember what happened that year.

Who are the top contenders for the Stanley Cup this season?

There’s a clear top five for the Stanley Cup, both in public perception and in wagering odds: the Avalanche, Golden Knights, Maple Leafs, Lightning and Hurricanes.

What are the matchups in the first round that are worth watching?

Please indulge us with a brief “Watchability Guide” ranking of the series, from most watchable to least watchable. Keep in mind that “least watchable” is still a Stanley Cup playoff series, which means it’s more watchable than most things in life.

1. C2 Florida Panthers vs. C3 Tampa Bay Lightning. The first ever “Battle of the Sunshine State” between these two neighbors. The Lightning are a banged-up defending champion. The Panthers are looking for their first playoff series win since 1996.

2. W2 Vegas Golden Knights vs. W3 Minnesota Wild. The Wild went 5-1-2 against Vegas and are a very, very tough out in this round, thanks to likely Rookie of the Year Kirill Kaprizov.

3. N1 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. N4 Montreal Canadiens. The first playoff meeting between these Original Six rivals since 1967, when the Leafs defeated Montreal for the Stanley Cup — and haven’t won one since. A mismatch on paper, but the Leafs have an infamous way of making things difficult for themselves in the playoffs.

4. E2 Washington Capitals vs. E3 Boston Bruins. So many storylines. The Bruins have been a different team since trading for star winger Taylor Hall. The Capitals and Alex Ovechkin are seeking a second Cup in four seasons. Washington defenseman Zdeno Chara against his old team! Noted miscreants Tom Wilson and Brad Marchand in the same series! This should be fun.

5. E1 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. E4 New York Islanders. The Penguins are trying to win their first playoff series since 2018 and close out the Nassau Coliseum, as the Islanders move to a new arena next season.

6. W1 Colorado Avalanche vs. W4 St. Louis Blues. The top seed in the NHL tries to avoid an upset bid from the 2019 champions and redemption-seeking goalie Jordan Binnington.

7. N2 Edmonton Oilers vs. N3 Winnipeg Jets. Two words: Connor McDavid. No matter how you feel about these franchises, McDavid is worth the time investment after scoring 104 points in 55 games — 21 more than the next-highest scorer, his teammate Leon Draisaitl.

8. C1 Carolina Hurricanes vs. C4 Nashville Predators. A potentially fun matchup, but one that favors the Hurricanes. Still, it’s a kick to see these two hard-partying markets meet in a playoff series.

So who wins this postseason?

The Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft, most likely.

Oh, you mean the Stanley Cup? You want a prediction, in the single most untraditional, unpredictable, one-of-a-kind season in modern NHL history, never to be repeated?

Look, if ever there was a time for the Toronto Maple Leafs to win the Stanley Cup …

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