What we know and don't know about the NHL playoff picture
Most matchups are set; Canadian division still awaiting a start date
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The NHL playoff picture is taking shape
The original plan called for the 2021 NHL regular season to end this past Saturday and the Stanley Cup playoffs to open Tuesday night. That went out the window after many games were postponed due to coronavirus-related issues — most notably the team-wide outbreak that sidelined the Vancouver Canucks for more than three weeks. At the start of this week, we still had no idea when the playoffs would start, only two of the eight matchups were confirmed, and the full 16-team field wasn't even set.
But the playoff picture gets clearer every day. Here's what we know and don't know as the 56-game regular season enters its final days:
First, a quick reminder of the playoff format: In order to avoid the quarantine rules involved in crossing the Canada-U.S. border, the NHL realigned its four divisions and had teams play all their regular-season games within their division. That will continue for the first two rounds of the playoffs. In the first round, the top seed in each division plays the No. 4, and No. 2 faces No. 3. The winners of those series meet to determine the division champion. The four division champs are then reseeded based on regular-season points, with No. 1 facing No. 4 and No. 2 vs. No. 3. The winners of those series play for the Stanley Cup. All series are best of seven.
The 16-team field is now set. By picking up a point in Monday's overtime loss to Edmonton, Montreal clinched the final playoff spot. They'll join the Oilers, Toronto and Winnipeg in the all-Canadian North Division's bracket. The West playoff teams are Vegas, Colorado, Minnesota and St. Louis. In the Central, it's Carolina, Florida, defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay and Nashville. In the East, Pittsburgh, Washington, Boston and the Islanders. Notably absent is Dallas, which fell four points short in the Central after making it all the way to the Stanley Cup final in September.
Three quarters of the first-round matchups are locked in. In the Central, which completed its regular-season schedule Monday, top seed Carolina will play No. 4 Nashville, while No. 2 Florida and No. 3 Tampa Bay face off in the NHL's first-ever all-Sunshine State playoff series. In the East, whose regular season ended Tuesday, it'll be No. 1 Pittsburgh vs. the No. 4 Islanders, and No. 2 Washington vs. No. 3 Boston. The North's regular season doesn't end until next Wednesday, but the matchups are set: No. 1 Toronto faces No. 4 Montreal, and No. 2 Edmonton plays No. 3 Winnipeg. The West, which wraps up its schedule Thursday night, is still fluid: Minnesota and St. Louis are locked into the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds, respectively. But Colorado can overtake Vegas for the No. 1 seed (and the Presidents' Trophy) by beating L.A. on Thursday night.
The NHL released the full first-round schedule on Thursday. The Edmonton-Winnipeg matchup starts Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET, while the Toronto-Montreal series opens the next night at 7:30 p.m. ET. The first playoff game, which had already been announced, is the Washington-Boston opener Saturday at 7:15 p.m. ET. The Pittsburgh-Islanders and Florida-Tampa Bay series both start Sunday, Carolina-Nashville begins Monday, and the two West series (matchups TBD) get going Sunday and Monday. See the full schedule and TV info for every series here.
The North champion might have to move to the U.S. for the semifinals. Daly said the NHL has asked the Canadian government for a national-interest exemption to its border restrictions that would allow the North winner to continue playing in its home arena and, along with its U.S.-based opponent, travel in and out of the country without quarantining. If the request is denied, Daly said, the North champ will likely be relocated to one of the NHL's U.S. cities.
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