2021 NHL playoff bracket preview

The first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs was a wonderful appetizer to the remaining courses, the first of which begins on Saturday with the Boston Bruins hosting the New York Islanders at 8 p.m. ET.

As a reminder, this season’s first and second rounds are intradivisional. Once the postseason division champs are crowned, the final four teams 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.

How will the matchups play out? Let’s take an in-depth look at each second-round matchup and make our picks for which teams will advance.

Note: Emily Kaplan previewed the East and Central, while Greg Wyshynski handled the West (and will also preview the North, once that series is set). Advanced stats are from Hockey Reference, Natural Stat Trick and Evolving Hockey.

More: Check out the full NHL postseason schedule here.


East DivisionThe Isles will have their hands full trying to slow down Brad Marchand and the Bruins’ top line. Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Regular-season series: Islanders 5-3

First line: Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle are the constants on New York’s top line, and against the Penguins, their most regular linemate was Leo Komarov. The trio wasn’t that productive, accounting for only two goals (both by Eberle) and a 39.98% expected goals for percentage, per Natural Stat Trick.

Depending on whom you ask, Boston has the top line in the league (and no reasonable hockey person would rate them lower than second; they’re literally called the Perfection Line). With Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, you know what you’re going to get: dominance. The trio accounted for eight goals against the Capitals and posted a 72.30% expected goals for percentage, plus a 14-5 edge in high-danger chances while on the ice; both stats show just how much they drove play. Advantage: Boston

Forward depth: For a chunk of the regular season, depth scoring was a huge concern for Boston. It’s not that Taylor Hall came to town and fixed all of the woes, but his arrival did coincide with a massive turnaround. Hall, Craig Smith and David Krejci have been terrific on the second line, but there’s some inconsistency behind them, especially with third-line center Charlie Coyle having a down year.

The Islanders have a more balanced forward group, with their second line of Josh Bailey, Anthony Beauvillier and Brock Nelson popping off for eight goals in six games against the Penguins. Jean-Gabriel Pageau centers the third line, which features trade deadline acquisition Kyle Palmieri, who had just two goals and four points in 17 games with New York in the regular season but three goals in six games against the Pens. New York has a much more defined and experienced checking fourth line. Advantage: Tie

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Defense: When you talk about the Islanders and defense, it’s not just their defensemen. The entire team backchecks well and plays a sound, structured game. The top pairing of Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock is strong, but behind them there’s been some shuffling, especially when Nick Leddy and Scott Mayfield struggled at times against the Pens. Bruins blueliner Charlie McAvoy is the best overall defenseman in this series, and he mans the top pairing with Matt Grzelcyk. Not enough is being said about how good Mike Reilly (a trade deadline acquisition from Ottawa) has been on the second pairing with Brandon Carlo. There’s a decent drop-off to Boston’s third pairing. Advantage: Tie

Goaltending: Tuukka Rask is the veteran who has been here before. In 2020, he was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, and he put up solid numbers in 2021. That’s not to mention his .941 save percentage against the Caps, and most important, his 98 games of playoff experience. The Islanders are riding a hot rookie in Ilya Sorokin, who posted four wins in four starts and a .943 save percentage against Pittsburgh. Sorokin is not your typical rookie. He’s 25 and has several years of professional experience in the KHL, including being named 2019 KHL playoff MVP after a 16-4-0 run with a 1.19 GAA, .947 save percentage and five shutouts. He also has experience in world championships and has an Olympic appearance. If Sorokin falters, the Islanders can always fall back on trusted veteran Semyon Varlamov. But Rask gets the edge. Advantage: Boston

Coaching: New York’s Barry Trotz is just three years removed from winning the Stanley Cup in Washington. His players all buy into his defensive structure — which can be demanding — and they’re always well prepared. They have a strong team identity. Bruce Cassidy has seen a lot of success in Boston and coached the Bruins to success this season despite many expecting a drop-off after a bit of roster turnover. Advantage: New York

Health: The one thing the Bruins have going for them is time. They wrapped up their series with the Capitals on Sunday, giving them nearly a full week of rest. They’re more banged up than New York is, though it’s mostly with depth defensemen. Ondrej Kase has been shut down for the rest of the season. Jeremy Lauzon sounds close to returning, with Jakub Zboril right behind him. Kevan Miller still isn’t skating yet. For New York, Oliver Wahlstrom was held out of New York’s Game 6 with an injury, so he’s one to monitor. Advantage: New York

Special teams: The Bruins’ power play looked sharp against Washington, scoring on 5 of 19 opportunities (26.3%). New York was less successful, scoring on 3 of 16 chances (18.8%). The Bruins spent nearly twice as much time short-handed per game as New York did in the first round, but Boston’s penalty kill did well, allowing only three goals on 21 opportunities against what’s usually a very potent Caps power play. New York also allowed three power-play goals but on 12 opportunities. Advantage: Boston

Series pick: Bruins in seven. Expect a heavy, tightly contested series. The Islanders made it to the Eastern Conference finals in 2020; the Bruins made it the year before (and advanced to the Stanley Cup Final). Ultimately, Boston has higher-end skill players, which will carry it through.

Central DivisionThough neither team has a shortage of high-end skill, the Hurricanes-Lightning series promises to be full of physicality as well. Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images

Regular-season series: Tied 4-4

First line: Carolina’s Teuvo Teravainen was sidelined for 35 games this season while recovering from a concussion. He returned for the final eight games of the regular season and has been reunited with Andrei Svechnikov and Sebastian Aho in the playoffs, forming one of the best, most dynamic young lines in the league. Against the Predators, where they played mostly together, the line posted a 63.13% expected goals for percentage at 5-on-5, per Natural Stat Trick. They also scored seven goals, including Aho’s two in the Game 6 overtime clincher. The Lightning, however, trot out a world-class duo in Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov. They are most often flanked by Ondrej Palat, who complements them well. Against Florida, the trio posted a 53.38% expected goals for percentage at 5-on-5 and scored nine goals. Advantage: Tie

Forward depth: This is where Tampa Bay separates itself from most teams, as GM Julien BriseBois (and his predecessor, Steve Yzerman) built one of the deepest teams in the league. Tampa’s second line of Anthony Cirelli, Alex Killorn and Steven Stamkos put up nine goals against Florida, while Yanni Gourde is as good of a third-line center as you will find. There’s also grit and physicality throughout the forward group; Tampa Bay believes adding that “sandpaper” is why it broke through for the Cup last year. Plus, the Lightning have a cadre of players (Gemel Smith, Alex Barre-Boulet, Ross Colton) who can step in when needed. The Hurricanes’ forward depth is nearly as good, just not quite on Tampa Bay’s level. They also play with jam, and they have a trio of middle-six forwards (Martin Necas, Vincent Trocheck, Jordan Staal) with the capacity to do some damage offensively. Advantage: Tampa Bay

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Defense: The Hurricanes’ Jaccob Slavin is nursing an ailment that kept him out for Games 2-4 in the first round. He has returned, and while he’s playing through the pain, he’s looking quite effective on the top pairing with Dougie Hamilton, forming one of the top duos in the league. There are few flaws with Carolina’s blue-line group. They’re mobile, they’re physical, they get pucks on net (Hamilton and Brett Pesce alone accounted for 49 shots in the first-round series). Tampa Bay has the league’s top defenseman in Victor Hedman, though toward the end of the season it became apparent that he’s playing through an injury, and word is that he’s putting off surgery until the offseason. Hedman is soldiering through, and the left side is quite strong overall, as he is flanked by Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev on the depth chart. The right side is a little less so, especially if Erik Cernak — who left Game 6 with an injury — isn’t 100 percent. Advantage: Carolina

Goaltending: The Canes went into the series against the Predators knowing they would use either Petr Mrazek or Alex Nedeljkovic. Carolina turned to the rookie, Nedeljkovic, in Game 1 and hasn’t looked back since. He’s been steady, posting a .922 save percentage. But let’s be honest, he’s no Andrei Vasilevskiy. Vasilevskiy is the most consistently elite goaltender in the NHL today. Though he allowed four or more goals twice in the Florida series, Vasilevskiy was facing a ton of high-danger shots. He still ended the series with a .929 save percentage, and he enters this series coming off a 29-save shutout in the Game 6 clincher. Advantage: Tampa Bay

Coaching: Rod Brind’Amour has his team playing all out just about all the time (which is pretty much his identity as a coach, too). The Canes don’t give other teams much time or space. But it’s hard to discount Jon Cooper, who is the reigning Stanley Cup-winning coach. Both coaches have well-prepared teams and depth players ready to step up at a moment’s notice. Advantage: Tie

Health: Both teams are a little banged up and will be managing injuries throughout the series. The biggest two injuries are to Slavin and Hedman, though they’re both playing through it. As of now, no key players are ruled out. Advantage: Tie

Special teams: When it’s clicking, the Lightning’s power play is downright dangerous. Tampa Bay connected for eight goals on 20 opportunities (40%) against Florida. Carolina scored four goals in 19 opportunities (21.1%) against Nashville, and the power play was a point of frustration in that series (as well as a general lack of calls). Carolina’s penalty kill (88.5% in the first round) can be dynamite, so anytime the Lightning are on a man advantage, that’s a matchup we’ll be giving close attention. Advantage: Tampa Bay

Series pick: Lightning in seven. This one could be razor-thin. In the regular season, Tampa Bay scored 17 goals against Carolina. The Canes scored 18 goals against Tampa Bay. Expect physicality, and a ton of speed. Goaltending gives Tampa Bay the edge if this comes down to the wire (which it should).

West DivisionIn a matchup for which we’ve all been hoping since the realigned division plan was announced, the Avalanche and Golden Knights will square off for the West Division crown. Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images

Regular-season series: Tied 4-4, including one Avalanche victory in the game played at Lake Tahoe.

First line: The Golden Knights’ top line was reunited in Game 7 against Minnesota, as Max Pacioretty returned from injury to rejoin center Chandler Stephenson and right wing Mark Stone. The trio had a 57.9% expected goals percentage at 5-on-5 in the regular season. Pacioretty had 24 goals in 48 games, and Stone remains one of the best two-way forwards in the NHL.

The Avalanche have, for our money, the best line in the NHL in Nathan MacKinnon flanked by Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. They had an expected goals percentage of 66% in the regular season, then continued their roll in the postseason as the team’s three leading scorers. MacKinnon had nine points in four games against the St. Louis Blues, including a Game 2 hat trick. They top the Vegas line in expected goals for and against per 60 minutes. Advantage: Colorado

Forward depth: The Knights’ second line could easily be their first. Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith and William Karlsson have been an effective trio since the franchise’s inaugural season, playing with speed and tenacious forechecking. The line of Alex Tuch, Nicolas Roy and Mattias Janmark was a difference-maker in Game 7 with Janmark — a trade-deadline acquisition this season — scoring a hat trick. The fourth line with Ryan Reaves and William Carrier is a physical tone-setter.

The Avalanche’s forward depth will be impacted to start the series as center Nazem Kadri continues to serve an eight-game suspension for an illegal check to the head of Blues defenseman Justin Faulk. Kadri has served two games of the suspension and has filed an appeal with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. If Bettman upholds the suspension, Kadri can further appeal to a neutral arbitrator in the hopes of getting it reduced. With Kadri out, J.T. Compher moved up to play between wingers Andre Burakovsky and Joonas Donskoi. Tyson Jost centers Brandon Saad and Valeri Nichushkin. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Carl Soderberg anchor the fourth line. Rookie Alex Newhook, 20, is in the mix, and speedy rookie Sampo Ranta could also get a look soon. Advantage: Vegas

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Defense: The Golden Knights are blessed with two elite defensemen. Free-agent coup Alex Pietrangelo partners with veteran Alec Martinez. Shea Theodore, who had 42 points in 53 games in the regular season, has partnered with Brayden McNabb; when McNabb joined the NHL’s COVID-related absences list, Theodore played with Nick Holden. Vegas’ third pairing of Nicolas Hague and Zach Whitecloud had a quietly outstanding season (58.9% expected goals percentage).

Colorado’s defensive corps doesn’t have the experience that the Knights’ group has, but it’s dynamically talented. Cale Makar had three points in the first round after averaging a point per game in the regular season. His partner is Devon Toews, who plays steady defense while also contributing some offense (31 points). Samuel Girard was an analytics darling in the regular season, and he pairs well with Ryan Graves. The third pairing is Conor Timmins and Patrik Nemeth, who had a 61.1% expected goals percentage in the regular season. Bowen Byram, 19, is waiting in the wings. Advantage: Vegas

Goaltending: It’s Marc-Andre Fleury’s team again. The Golden Knights’ regular-season MVP, he posted a .931 save percentage and a 1.71 goals-against average in seven games against Minnesota — including a shutout on the road in Game 4. Robin Lehner, the primary starter last postseason for Vegas, hasn’t played since May 10.

Colorado goalie Philipp Grubauer got plenty of help but had a stellar series against the Blues, posting a .936 save percentage with a 1.75 goals-against average. Vegas has the distinct advantage in goalie depth, however: The Avalanche have Devan Dubnyk (.886 save percentage, 3.26 GAA) behind Grubauer. Advantage: Vegas

Coaching: With the win over the Wild, Vegas coach Pete DeBoer improved to 6-0 in Game 7s. He’s been behind the bench for deep runs in the playoffs and certainly loves the gamesmanship of the postseason. (Just try to get him to confirm a starting goaltender before puck drop.)

Avalanche coach Jared Bednar is one of those coaches whose greatness is taken for granted because he stands behind the bench of a phenomenal team. After failing to make the playoffs in his first season, Bednar’s Avalanche made the postseason in three straight seasons and had the best regular-season record (.661 points percentage) in that span. He juggles the lineup well and has the Avalanche playing a dominating puck possession game. Advantage: Vegas

Health: Vegas defenseman McNabb has lingered on the NHL COVID list since the tail end of the season. The Avalanche have been without defenseman Erik Johnson and forward Matt Calvert since March. Goalie Pavel Francouz missed the season. Advantage: Vegas

Special teams: The Golden Knights had the best penalty kill in the NHL this season (86.8%), and they were especially good against the Avalanche, killing 20 of 21 Colorado power plays. The Avalanche had the eighth-best power play (22.7%) and eighth-best penalty kill (83.1%) in the regular season. The Golden Knights struggled to 22nd in the NHL on the power play in the regular season (17.8%), but they had four power-play goals in 23 opportunities vs. the Wild. Advantage: Colorado

Series pick: Avalanche in six. Kadri’s absence is a concern, as is the disparity in deep playoff experience. But Colorado’s puck possession game and the MacKinnon line will find ways to defeat a very good Golden Knights team.

Published: 2021-05-30 12:51:49

Tags: #NHL #playoff #bracket #preview


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