Updated: Jan 14, 2022
Over the weekend, the NHL Playoffs began in the most untraditional of NHL Seasons we may ever see. For those who don’t follow hockey closely, the league realigned all 31 teams into four new divisions: North, Central, East, and West. Because of international border restrictions during the pandemic, all seven Canadian teams played in the North, and the remaining U.S. based teams were split geographically into divisions with eight teams. Each team only played against the other teams in their own division, removing all interleague play and largely limiting travel.
Stranger yet, due to a major covid outbreak within the Vancouver Canucks organization, the regular season will end during the week on May 19, even though the other divisions are playing playoff hockey and have been since May 15. Each division will play their own two round tournament between the top four teams until only one team remains. Then, the four remaining teams, one from each division, will be re-seeded in the Stanley Cup semi-finals, potentially creating matchups that were never possible under the traditional East/West format.
Before we get too far into these divisional playoff games, we want to look at some of the teams we believe to be top contenders:
Colorado Avalanche (+350)
The Avalanche are the betting favorites to lift the cup, but their success largely depends on the health of their star center Nathan MacKinnon. When healthy, Mackinnon plays on what could be the best line in hockey, along with Gabriel Landeskog, and Miko Rantanen. Some credit also belongs to Colorado’s top defenseman, Calvin Makar, who was the only defenseman in the league to average a full point per game. In this untraditional season, Colorado has enough high end talent to lift their first Stanley Cup since 2001.
Tampa Bay Lightning (+550)
Last year’s champions lifted the Stanley Cup only eight months ago. It was a short offseason for everyone, but after a strong start the Bolts find their roster thin from injuries to start the playoffs. They are at risk to lose in the first round to rival, Florida Panthers, but if they can get through, the Bolts have a the best goaltender in hockey, in Andrei Vasilevskiy, and a good chance to repeat as champions.
Toronto Maple Leafs (+650)
Toronto has not won a playoff series since 2004, but if there ever was a time for the Leafs to overcome their struggles, it might just be during this untraditional season. Austin Matthews, the NHL’s leading goal scorer, leads a Stanley Cup caliber roster, but the most important thing for the Leafs in the playoffs will be their goaltending. If Jack Campbell is able to maintain the form he found after filling in for the injured goaltenders ahead of him, the Leafs could end up lifting the cup for the first time since 1967.
Carolina Hurricanes (+850)
Carolina looked like one of the best teams in hockey all season and winning the top seed in a division which includes the defending Stanley Cup champions is definitely of note. The Hurricanes best strength might be their depth. Six players who do not play on their top line finished the regular season with double-digit goals. This team is always a threat to score goals, regardless of which line they are playing. The Canes will have a chance to lift the cup for the first time since 2006.
Vegas Golden Knights (+900)
The Knights, who might be the deepest team in hockey, will have a difficult test in the first round against a Minnesota Wild team that got the better of them in the regular season. The Wild are a very good defensive team and are capable of an upset, but we like the Knights’ experience to be the difference in the series and the sensational goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury to carry them deep into the playoffs. The Knights were our midseason pick to lift the trophy and we still like their chances to win it all for the first time in their short existence.
*This preview does not represent our final picks for the playoffs. For our full set of picks, check out our Game Picks section!