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Stanley Cup Playoffs: Key questions, answers

Best-of-7 series, one team from each division reaches semifinals, U.S.-Canada border question remains

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

The 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs begin Saturday. Here are answers to frequently asked questions as the NHL continues to adapt amid the coronavirus pandemic:

What's the format?

Sixteen teams. Four rounds of best-of-7 series.

The top four teams from each division qualified for the playoffs. They will play within their divisions in the first two rounds, seeded by order of finish in the regular season (using tiebreakers, if necessary). No. 1 will play No. 4, No. 2 will play No. 3.

The four teams that advance to the Stanley Cup Semifinals will be seeded by their order of finish in the regular season (using regular-season tiebreakers, if necessary). Again, No. 1 will play No. 4, and No. 2 will play No. 3.

What are the matchups in the Stanley Cup First Round?

In the Honda West, the No. 1 Colorado Avalanche will play the No. 4 St. Louis Blues. The No. 2 Vegas Golden Knights will play the No. 3 Minnesota Wild.

In the Discover Central, the No. 1 Carolina Hurricanes will play the No. 4 Nashville Predators. The No. 2 Florida Panthers will play the No. 3 Tampa Bay Lightning.

In the Scotia North, the No. 1 Toronto Maple Leafs will play the No. 4 Montreal Canadiens. The No. 2 Edmonton Oilers will play the No. 3 Winnipeg Jets.

In the MassMutual East, the No. 1 Pittsburgh Penguins will play the No. 4 New York Islanders. The No. 2 Washington Capitals will play the No. 3 Boston Bruins.

Will there be a bubble?


Unlike the 2020 postseason, a 24-team tournament played with no fans in attendance and strict protocols in Toronto and Edmonton from Aug. 1-Sept. 28, teams will play in their home arenas and travel between cities, as usual.

Each United States-based team already has hosted fans to some degree, after applying for increased capacity under NHL protocols and local regulations. Capacities rose during the regular season. NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said he expects that to continue during the playoffs.

No Canada-based team has hosted fans.

Teams continue to operate under NHL protocols, which have been relaxed for teams that have 85 percent of its traveling party fully vaccinated.

A Canada-based team is guaranteed to make the Stanley Cup Semifinals?


No Canada-based team has made the Stanley Cup Final since 2011, when the Vancouver Canucks lost to the Bruins in seven games. No Canada-based team has won the Cup since 1993, when the Canadiens defeated the Los Angeles Kings in five games.

What about the border?

Quarantine requirements at the Canada-United States border were the main reason the NHL realigned temporarily and played only within divisions this season.

Daly said the NHL applied for a national-interest exemption with the Public Health Agency of Canada and the federal government of Canada that would allow a United States-based team to cross the border into Canada and a Canada-based team to return from the United States without quarantining during the semifinals and, if necessary, the Final.

Daly said the principal basis of the application is an extensive document of health and safety protocols, which must be designed to limit interaction between team members and the general public. The NHL will make adjustments to the protocols, if necessary, to make sure authorities are comfortable.

The League hopes to know the status of the application by the end of the first round.

"I think the obvious Plan B is that if we can't do that, we'll find a market, a host market, in the United States where the Canadian team would play out of," Daly said.

Will the two Stanley Cup finalists receive trophies? 

No. Unlike a traditional season when the Eastern Conference champions are awarded the Prince of Wales Trophy and the Western Conference champs get the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl, nothing will be handed out at the end of the Stanley Cup Semfinals. 

How late can the playoffs go?

The last possible day of the Final is scheduled for July 14, but could be moved back a few days if necessary.

Protection lists for the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft are due July 17 at 5 p.m. ET, and the Seattle Kraken will make their selections July 21 in anticipation of their debut in 2021-22.

The 2021 NHL Draft will be held virtually July 23-24.

Is the NHL considering adding more divisional play and changing the playoff format in the future?

The NHL hopes to be as close to normal as possible next season. The League and the NHL Players' Association have agreed to return to the previous alignment, with the Kraken in the Pacific Division and the Arizona Coyotes moving to the Central. The schedule matrix and playoff format will be as they were in 2018-19, the last full season before the pandemic, assuming the Canada-United States border situation is solved.

Daly said the NHL has canvassed the general managers on their longer-term views regarding the scheduling matrix and playoff format.

"We're still in the process of gathering that information from all the various clubs," Daly said. "We're going to have to discuss it obviously internally and also with the Players' Association. That's why it's not happening as early as '21-22. We'll put all that information together, process it, discuss it as we need to hopefully over the course of the summer and maybe be in a position to say what that looks like for '22-23 before the start of the '21-22 season."

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