The greatest tournament in sports begins tonight, as the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs commence as 16 teams clash for two months to take home the Cup. The Calgary Flames aren’t in this year’s tournament – but they still have a week of games left before the off-season – but we’ve put together a quick-and-dirty primer of the opening round.
Toronto vs. Montreal
Season Series: Toronto won 7 of 10
Ex-Flames: TJ Brodie, David Rittich [Toronto]; Paul Byron, Michael Frolik, Brett Kulak [Montreal]
Toronto was near the top of the North Division all season, but the success of the Leafs’ core group will be judged by the post-season. This feels like a make-or-break year for the Buds, as they made some key additions – including ageless wonder Joe Thornton – in an effort to shore up their group. Montreal has a lot of young up-and-comers, like Cole Caufield, but it feels like the Leafs are just too deep and talented. Goaltending may be the X-factor here, though.
Pick: Toronto in six
Edmonton vs. Winnipeg
Season Series: Edmonton won 7 of 9
Ex-Flames: James Neal, Alex Chiasson, Kris Russell, Mike Smith [Edmonton]; none (unless you want to count Laurent Brossoit) [Winnipeg]
So, uh, Edmonton’s pretty good. They have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who are objectively great NHL players. They have Mike Smith, who has bounced back from injury and age to be the goaltender Edmonton needed him to be this season. Edmonton’s defensive group isn’t perfect, but it’s probably a little bit better than Winnipeg’s. Heck, if you compare position to position, the Oilers are arguably better than Winnipeg across the board.
Pick: Edmonton in five
Colorado vs. St. Louis
Season Series: Colorado won 5 of 8
Ex-Flames: none [both]
Colorado won the Presidents’ Trophy and boasts everything except great goaltending. St. Louis is a scrappy bunch, but isn’t quite as good as they were when they won the Cup a few years back. This seems like an obvious pick.
Pick: Colorado in five
Vegas vs. Minnesota
Season Series: Minnesota won 5 of 8
Ex-Flames: Cam Talbot [Minnesota]; none [Vegas]
The big question is whether Playoff Vegas shows up. The Golden Knights are missing a few key bodies or will get them back right as the playoffs start, and who knows if the chemistry will be there right away. If Vegas is at 100%, this is their series to take, but Minnesota will make this interesting either way.
Pick: Vegas in six
Carolina vs. Nashville
Season Series: Carolina won 6 of 8
Ex-Flames: Dougie Hamilton [Carolina]; none [Nashville]
This might be the most fun series to watch from a pure hockey standpoint. Nashville isn’t nearly as deep as they once were, but they have a few fun pieces. And Carolina? Well, the Bunch of Jerks has a really deep, young, fast, fun team. They were among the top teams in the NHL all season. Let’s see if they can translate it to the post-season.
Pick: Carolina in four
Florida vs. Tampa Bay
Season Series: Florida won 5 of 8
Ex-Flames: Sam Bennett, Ryan Lomberg [Florida]; Curtis McElhinney [Tampa Bay]
This could be a war. The Panthers were slightly better in the regular season and have gotten a nice boost from the acquisition of Playoff Sam Bennett. The Lightning won the friggin’ Cup last year, but haven’t trotted out their full (scary) lineup due to cap issues and injuries. The margin between these two teams is razor-thin and it could go either way, especially if Tampa’s chemistry isn’t there yet.
Pick: Tampa Bay in seven
Pittsburgh vs. NY Islanders
Season Series: Pittsburgh won 6 of 8
Ex-Flames: Austin Czarnik [NY Islanders]; Mark Jankowski [Pittsburgh]
This might be the under-the-radar series, as the Islanders are a solid team that could surprise and the Penguins are still the Penguins. It feels cut-and-dried, but the Isles may surprise.
Pick: Pittsburgh in five
Boston vs. Washington
Season Series: each team won 4 of 8
Ex-Flames: Curtis Lazar [Boston]; Garnet Hathaway [Washington]
This is gonna be a weird, fun series. Both teams have stars who can score and tilt a series. Both teams have had injury issues. It’s more or less a question about which team can get their game going full-tilt the fastest. It’s effectively a coin-toss, one I give slightly to Boston based on their top line and a slight advantage in goaltending.
Pick: Boston in seven
Who do you like in the first round? Sound off in the comments!