For the second time in 10 months, we’re kicking off the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Unlike past editions of the tournament, one of the biggest questions heading into the 2020 and 2021 dances has been, “How does this work again?”
Last summer, 24 teams made the post-season and we had best-of-five NHL series for the first time since 1986. This time out, we’ve got two rounds of inter-division play (all best-of-seven) before the final four get re-seeded in the semifinals according to their regular season point totals. Of course, those Round 3 contests will mark the first time any of those squads have seen each other since last season.
Naturally, a lot is up in the air in terms of which teams will emerge from this year’s format and snag the Cup. With that in mind, here’s one question for each of the 16 clubs in 2021’s second season.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Can the power play get it cranked back up?
Nobody was more dangerous with the man advantage than Toronto through the first month of the season. But since mid-February, the ultra-talented Leafs have the league’s 28th-ranked power play, converting at a 14 per cent clip. For reference, the Buffalo Sabres are at 17 per cent.
Who, from the supporting staff, can step up?
We know Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl will be lethal. Can Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, on the verge of free agency, find another gear? Jesse Puljujarvi? Kailer Yamamoto? The Big 2 can’t carry this team for much more than a round.
How do they pull out of this tailspin?
Winnipeg had lost nine of its past 11 games before winning a meaningless season finale versus the Leafs on Friday night. Surrendering high-danger chances continues to be an issue for this team dating back to last season.
Is an eight-day break a gift from the Hockey Gods for the beleaguered Habs?
The Montreal infirmary was stuffed as the club limped to the finish line, but everybody save for Jonathan Drouin (away from the team for personal reasons) is expected back for Game 1 versus Toronto. Montreal also had an extra-crunched schedule after being on hiatus for a week when Joel Armia caught a COVID-19 variant in late March.
Is it time for the third act?
The Penguins have won just a single playoff series since taking the 2017 Cup. It’s not quite the same slump they had between championships in 2009 and 2016, but Pittsburgh is now nearly five years removed from being on top of the hockey world. Deadline acquisition Jeff Carter looks great centering the third line and Sidney Crosby has that on-a-mission vibe about him.
Ilya Samsonov? Vitek Vanecek? Craig Anderson?
Okay, technically those are names, not questions, but it’s safe to say there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Capitals crease. Since March 1, only the Philadelphia Flyers have a worse high-danger save percentage.
Can they trade for Jack Eichel before the playoffs?
Just kidding. Boston is already benefiting from a deal with Buffalo, as Taylor Hall has been a great fit in black and gold. Is this the year the Bruins get lots of secondary scoring to support the top line they lean on so much?
New York Islanders
Can they find enough scoring?
It’s the question that dogs the gritty Islanders every year. Overall, New York finished with 2.71 goals-per-game, but that number dropped to 2.40 during the final six weeks of the season.
Can Nazem Kadri step up again?
Kadri had an awesome 2020 playoffs, registering nine goals and the same amount of assists in 15 games for 18 points. After a regular season in which he played at a 47-point pace, it would be massive for Colorado to see Kadri take that post-season step again to support the big three of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog.
Vegas Golden Knights
Will coach Pete DeBoer stick with alternating goalies?
If Marc-Andre Fleury has the net, how long is his leash? Even with his amazing, Vezina-calibre bounce-back year, you have to think Lehner will get his shot if Fleury turns in even one shaky performance.
Do they simply have the Golden Knights’ number?
Minnesota went 5-1-2 versus Vegas this season and freshman sensation Kirill Kaprizov led the way, netting six goals in eight outings against one of the best teams in the league.
St. Louis Blues
Are they anything more than first-round fodder?
No playoff team had a worse expected goals percentage than the 2019 champs (46.09).
Can special teams be the difference for this club?
Carolina enters the playoffs with the second-best power play in the NHL and the third-ranked penalty-killing. Also, could rookie goalie Nedeljkovic be the second coming of Cam Ward, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as a freshman in 2006?
Tampa Bay Lighting
How much time does Nikita Kucherov need to get up to speed?
The 2019 scoring champ and league MVP missed the entire regular season recovering from hip surgery, but is ready to go — as is injured captain Steven Stamkos — for Game 1 of the playoffs.
Can you sit a $10-million goalie?
Sergei Bobrovsky’s contract certainly suggests he should be the Cats’ best goalie, but the actual statistics are very much tilted in favour of Chris Driedger and his .942 five-on-five save percentage, which is the third-best mark in the league among goalies with 1,000 minutes in the crease.
With apologies to the Islanders, are the Predators actually the best No. 4 seed in the tournament?
Since March 15 — so, essentially, half the season — Nashville has the second-best points percentage in the league at .732. Just for fun, let’s point out that when the Predators made the 2017 Cup Final, they entered the post-season as the West’s No. 8 seed.