The puck drops Saturday for the NHL's traditional 16-team postseason run to the Stanley Cup. There are some twists, including one team from Canada guaranteed entry to the final-four semifinals and one 2020 Cup finalist not making the cut.
Let's drop the WaFd Bank Weekly Warmup puck on this special Playoffs Preview edition:
Scouting Future Rivals
The reality of the Kraken playing in the NHL's Pacific Division draws closer and closer. Consider this: The next time division rivals Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks play a regular-season game, the Kraken will be doing the same.
Among Pacific division foes for next season, only Vegas and Edmonton qualified for the pending Stanley Cup Playoffs. As it turns out, Vancouver and Calgary will still be playing what are meaningless games in the standings through May 19, but nonetheless contests important to the NHL and the teams themselves to finish regular season games earlier postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
First-Round Matchups Set
With Colorado's 5-1 win over Los Angeles Thursday, the Avalanche clinched first place in the West division and finished first overall in the NHL. As the league's top team, Colorado wins the regular-season Presidents Trophy and will hold home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Avs finished with 82 points in 56 games, the same as Vegas but Colorado took first in the West and NHL by merit of the regulation-wins tiebreaker (besting Vegas by five games in the category). Colorado gets 2019 Stanley Cup champion St. Louis in the first round; Vegas will face the surprisingly strong Minnesota Wild.
By Thursday, the other divisions were square on matchups. No. 1 Toronto plays No. 4 Montreal and No. 2 Edmonton sees Winnipeg in the North (all-Canada).
In the Central, No. 1 Carolina starts with No. 4 Nashville, which is riding a late-season surge and held off Dallas, the 2020 Western Conference champion. The other Central matchup is the first ever postseason series between intrastate rivals, No. 2 Florida and No. 3 Tampa Bay.
In the East, No. 1 Pittsburgh draws the No. 4 New York Islanders, while the No. 2 Washington versus No. 3 Boston will be the first playoff series to start, facing off Saturday (NBC, 4:15 p.m.). NBC carries two more opening games Sunday (NYI@PIT, 9 a.m.; MIN@VGK, noon) plus another on NBC Sports Network (TBL@FLA, 4:30 p.m.).
Channeling Playoff Hockey
NBC and NBCSN will carry the majority of postseason games in the U.S. with some contest airing on other NBC properties when programming and/or simultaneous games conflicts arise, including CNBC and USA Network.
It will be a finale of sorts for NBC, which will have aired 16 straight Stanley Cup finals come July. ESPN/ABC is in "first position" to broadcast the NHL regular season and playoffs (including four Cup finals) starting next season, along with an exclusive slate of games on ESPN+. Turner Sports is in second position to broadcasts regular season games, select playoffs rounds/series and three Cup finals. Both U.S. rights deals have seven-year terms.
Fun Facts: Impress Your Hockey Friends
OK, maybe you don't know the sport like your hockey-playing pals, but you are committed to make some Seattle-volume fan noise (at Climate Pledge Arena, watch parties with friends, cheering at the Kraken Training Center) when the pucks drop in the fall. But that doesn't mean you can't wow your friends with some timely-placed comments when viewing a game or discussing it over a Zoom work call.
Here are some head-turners and conversation-starters:
- Act like you know the Toronto Maple Leafs-Montreal Canadiens series is a big deal. Really big. Both teams are part of the Original Six teams of the NHL (Boston, Chicago, Detroit and New York Rangers are the others).
- Montreal hasn't won a Cup since 1993 after icing dynasty teams over several decades. Toronto last won the Cup in 1967 -- a drought that used to prompt comparisons of the Leafs (never say "Leaves") for a hapless century-plus to pro baseball's Chicago Cubs until that squad broke the curse in 2016.
- Toronto beat Montreal in the 1967 Cup Final. The last playoff series between the two franchises was 1979-42 years ago. Montreal won that one and went on to win the Cup. Possible the winner of this series goes on to take the Cup back to Canada since Montreal was champ in '93?
- At the least for Canada fans, one of the four North teams will make it to the 2021 semifinals or final four squads. That happens way less than most sports fans might think. If Edmonton is playing, interject a comment such as "Holy hockey stick, can you believe [Connor] McDavid busted past 100 points in a 56-game schedule?"
- Washington star Alex Ovechkin appears healthy after recent injuries. He finished the season with 730 career goals. He needs two more next season to be in the top five all-time of goals scored during the regular season. He has another 69 goals in the playoffs.
- The NHL standings list records for last 10 games played. The better teams among the final 16 entering include Pittsburgh, Colorado, Florida and Edmonton, all 8-2. Other No. 1 and No. 2 seeds are also on upward trends. Teams with troublesome win-loss lines over the last 10? The New York Islanders (3-4-3), Montreal (4-4-2) and especially Winnipeg (2-8 or the complete opposite of the team it plays, Edmonton).
Answering the Border Question
Playing all first- and second-round games within the four divisions allows two-plus weeks for the NHL and the country of Canada to work an agreement about border and quarantine guidelines related to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is guaranteed a Canadian team makes the semifinals. With an all-Canada North division, it is equally a sure thing the three teams will be U.S.-based.
That means the Canadian team will have to travel to the States to play some games in a semifinal series. Or the Canada representative might play all of its games in the U.S. with its "home" games at an arena of a non-playoff team. Canada maintains longer quarantine requirements that would make it implausible for U.S. teams to travel to Canada and finish a series in a timely manner.
According to ESPN's Greg Wyshynski, the NHL has asked Canada for a firm answer about border travel by June 1. ESPN reported earlier this week the league expects "a positive resolution" before the third round (semifinals) begin.
"The conversations are ongoing," said Steve Mayer, NHL chief content officer, told Wyshynski Friday. "We're pretty confident. The conversations have been good ones with [the Canadian government]. We're not there yet, but they haven't said no."