Things are a little different with this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. Due to COVID, teams were sorted into new divisions and the traditional format was abandoned in order to try to minimize potential outbreaks. That led to a North Division, a West Division, a Central Division, and an East Division being formed without regard to conferences. The four playoff teams from each division will have a knockout tournament amongst their division rivals, and the winners of those divisions will go on to make their own version of the Frozen Four.
Team to Beat – Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh has made it to the postseason for each of the last 15 seasons. The Penguins have been a consistent threat with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin setting the pace, and they have won three Stanley Cups since 2009. Crosby and Malkin are once again the stars of the team, but the real story of the season is how the young players have developed.
Jake Guentzel is coming into his own behind Crosby and Malkin. Bryan Rust is shining on the wing, and Kris Letang continues to be a solid two-way defenseman. Jared McCann and Kasperi Kapanen have emerged as solid offensive options, and the defense has done just enough.
Goaltending could be an issue. Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith have been the backstops this year, but neither Jarry nor DeSmith has been great between the pipes. They will benefit from playing the New York Islanders instead of the Washington Capitals or Boston Bruins in the first round.
Team to Beat – Toronto Maple Leafs
Is this the year that Toronto finally snaps its Stanley Cup drought? The Maple Leafs haven’t lifted the cup since the league expanded from the Original Six in 1967. They have had some decent teams, but they have yet to even win their conference for more than five decades.
Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews have shined. The two young guns are producing at a high level, and Matthews ended up tallying 40 goals in just 50 games. John Tavares, Jason Spezza, and Joe Thornton are all veterans that can provide leadership, but it’s the youngsters that will carry this team in the playoffs. Toronto may have found a hidden gem in goaltender Jack Campbell too.
Team to Beat – Tampa Bay Lightning
The defending Stanley Cup champions have dealt with a lot of injuries this season. Nikita Kucherov didn’t play during the regular season after undergoing hip surgery in the offseason, and Steven Stamkos has been out for over a month. However, both Kucherov and Stamkos are expected to be ready for the start of the playoffs.
That will make the Lightning a tough out as other players have been able to get more ice time and experience. Victor Hedman is still one of the league’s top defenders, and both Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat have had fine seasons. Andrei Vasilevskiy has been the best netminder in the NHL this season, so teams won’t find it easy to get pucks past him.
Team to Beat – Colorado Avalanche
Few teams are as dangerous on offense as Colorado. Nathan MacKinnon is proving himself to be one of the best young centers in the league, and Mikko Rantanen has thrived alongside him. Gabriel Landeskog and Andre Burakovsky have played well on the wing, but the rise of defenseman Cale Makar has helped make this team something special.
Makar won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie last season after recording 50 points in 57 games. He has been even more efficient this season, and he could be in line to beat out Hedman for the Norris Trophy. Makar has the potential to go down as one of the all-time greats when it comes to offensive defensemen.