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Column: Here is why Stanley Cup champion Lightning will lose in first round of playoffs

The Toronto Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews skates against the Vancouver Canucks on March 6, 2021.
Auston Matthews will try to lead the Toronto Maple Leafs to their first playoff series win since the 2003-04 season and first Stanley Cup since 1967. Expectations are high for the team.
(Rich Lam / Associated Press)

The NHL launched the Stanley Cup playoffs Saturday, four days before its regular season will end. It’s just another bizarre moment in a bizarre, COVID-influenced season that led the league to shorten the schedule to 56 games, temporarily realign its divisions, and limit teams to intradivisional play.

More than 50 games were postponed for reasons related to COVID-19 and health protocols. The last of those games — all involving North Division teams — will be played even though none will affect playoff matchups. By the time Calgary and Vancouver play the regular-season finale Wednesday, several playoff series will have completed two games.

The league’s haste to start postseason play means playoff teams won’t sit around long and helps bring the Cup Final to an end by the projected July 15 last possible date. NBC is airing the playoffs — the last games of its broadcast contract — and doesn’t want hockey to overlap with its coverage of the Tokyo Olympics, which begin the following week.

The Avalanche clinched the West Division and the top overall seed in the NHL playoffs with a 5-1 win over the Kings on Thursday.

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The NHL ditched the play-in round it staged last season, a decision Lakers star LeBron James undoubtedly would endorse. The first two rounds of best-of-seven series will be played within each division and the four winners will be reseeded according to their regular-season records. The playoffs won’t be conducted in bubbles; the NHL has eased restrictions on gatherings and group outings for teams that reach a vaccination rate of 85% for their traveling party.

However, COVID restrictions that limit travel between the United States and Canada might result in the winner of the all-Canada North Division setting up shop in the U.S., as the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and Major League Baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays have done.

Woe, Canada: The Toronto Maple Leafs could end a Cup drought for Canadian teams that began after Montreal’s 1993 win over the Kings but might have to do it far from the Great White North.

A look at each series, with a projected winner:

West

Nathan MacKinnon, pictured May 10, 2021, helped the Colorado Avalanche win the Presidents' Trophy.
Nathan MacKinnon helped the Colorado Avalanche win the Presidents’ Trophy for the NHL’s best record in the regular season.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

1 Colorado Avalanche (39-13-4, 82 points) vs. 4 St. Louis Blues (27-20-9, 63 points)

The Avalanche had two lengthy COVID pauses but won their last five games to finish with the NHL’s best record and win the Presidents’Trophy (most points), which has been more of a curse than a blessing. Starting with the first winner in 1985-86, only eight teams that had the top overall record went on to win the Cup, among them the 2000-01 Avalanche. Colorado has the depth to defy that trend, but Nathan MacKinnon (65 points in 48 games) must be recovered from a late-season lower-body injury. The Blues made the playoffs on grit and physicality and despite a minus-one goal differential (169 goals scored, 170 against). David Perron (19 goals, 58 points in 56 games) should lead their offense, but it’s worrisome that Vladimir Tarasenko missed the last six games because of a lower-body injury. Prediction: Avalanche in five.

2 Vegas Golden Knights (40-14-2, 82) vs 3 Minnesota Wild (35-16-5, 75)

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The Golden Knights face a happy goaltending dilemma. Marc-Andre Fleury lost the starting job in last season’s playoffs to Robin Lehner, but Fleury (1.98 goals-against average, .928 save percentage) had a spectacular season and the duo shared the Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals (124). Vegas had a league-best +67 goal differential too, and is capable of scoring in bunches. Minnesota is led by rookie scoring leader Kirill Kaprizov (27 goals, 51 points). The Wild are among the few teams that can match the Golden Knights’ fast pace, but Minnesota’s goaltending has been inconsistent. Prediction: Golden Knights in six.

Ryan Miller concluded his 18-season career by making 21 saves for the Ducks, who rallied to force overtime Saturday but lost to the host Minnesota Wild.

Central

The Tampa Bay Lightning's Nikita Kucherov is pictured March 7, 2020, in Boston.
The Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov, shown last season, had hip surgery in December but is expected to play in the playoff opener against the Panthers on Sunday.
(Winslow Townson / Associated Press)

1 Carolina Hurricanes (36-12-8, 80) vs 4 Nashville Predators (31-23-2, 64)

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The Hurricanes won a division title for the first time since 2006, the year they won the Cup. They had the NHL’s second-best power play, at a 25.6% success rate, and were third in penalty killing efficiency at 85.2%. If those trends continue, they could make this a quick series. The Predators struggled most of the season and didn’t get going until March and they closed with a 7-2-1 push. Their special team statistics are terrible: they ranked 23rd in power play efficiency at 17.6% and 29th in penalty killing, at 75.4%. They need goalie Juuse Saros (2.28, .927) to be nearly perfect to have a chance. Prediction: Hurricanes in five.

2 Florida Panthers (37-14-5, 79) vs 3 Tampa Bay Lightning (36-17-3, 75)

This will be the intrastate rivals’ first postseason meeting. The Panthers haven’t won a playoff series since they reached the Cup Final in 1996; the Lightning are the defending champions. Still, there are reasons to believe this will be a close and nasty series. The Panthers won their last six games and eight of their last 10, and the Lightning has been coping with injuries. Right wing Nikita Kucherov, who led playoff scorers last season with 34 points, had hip surgery in December but is expected to play in the playoff opener Sunday. Steven Stamkos is expected back after missing 16 games because of a lower-body injury, but he and Kucherov might need time to adjust to a heightened playoff pace. Jonathan Huberdeau (20 goals, 61 points in 55 games) leads an aggressive Florida offense that was boosted by the acquisition of forward Sam Bennett (15 points in 10 games). Prediction: Panthers in seven.

Mikko Rantanen scored his 30th goal of the season and Cale Makar had a goal and an assist as the Colorado Avalanche defeated the Kings, 3-2.

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East

The Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby plays against the Philadelphia Flyers on May 4, 2021.
The Penguins’ enviable depth at the center position starts with Sidney Crosby.
(Matt Slocum / Associated Press)

1 Pittsburgh Penguins (37-16-3, 77) vs 4 New York Islanders (32-17-7, 71)

The Penguins’ enviable depth at center with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and former King Jeff Carter could prove decisive. Carter fit in well after the Kings traded him to Pittsburgh, scoring nine goals and 11 points in 14 games. His experience on the Kings’ two Cup championship teams is another major asset. Goaltending could be a question, with Tristan Jarry recovering from a late-season injury and Casey DeSmith injured in the days before the playoffs began. The Islanders are always sound structurally and tight defensively and they’ll be tested by the Penguins, who ranked second in goals with 193. The Islanders won only three of their last 10 games, but they weren’t under pressure. Their team goals-against average of 2.23 was the NHL’s second-best. Prediction: Penguins in six.

2 Washington Capitals (36-15-5, 77) vs 3 Boston Bruins (33-16-7, 73)

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A big story line is Capitals defenseman Zdeno Chara facing the team that employed him for 14 seasons, but there are other intriguing angles. The Capitals won the Cup in 2018 but lost in the first round each of the last two seasons and they’re ready for another run. Injuries limited Alex Ovechkin (24 goals, 42 points) to 45 games and his contract expires after the season. He said he’s not worried about his next deal and he has incentive to shine. The Capitals ranked third in power play percentage (24.8%) and tied for fourth in overall scoring by averaging 3.36 goals per game despite a flurry of injuries. The Bruins ranked fourth-best in goals-against per game (2.39) and second in penalty killing (86%). Forward Brad Marchand, who has given up licking opponents’ faces, ranked third in league scoring with 29 goals and 69 points in 53 games. Trade deadline acquisition Taylor Hall had eight goals in 16 games with the Bruins after scoring only two goals in 37 games with Buffalo. Prediction: Capitals in seven.

Nic Dowd’s overtime goal lifted the Washington Capitals over the Boston Bruins 3-2 in their series opener as the Stanley Cup playoffs began Saturday.

North

Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews during a game against the Ottawa Senators on Feb. 15, 2021.
The Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews scored an NHL-leading 41 goals in 52 games this season.
(Peter Power / Associated Press)

1 Toronto Maple Leafs (35-14-7, 77) vs 4 Montreal Canadiens (24-21-11, 59)

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A traditional rivalry will be rekindled when these Original Six teams meet in postseason play for the first time since 1979. Toronto is a clear favorite for many reasons, starting with Auston Matthews’ league-leading 41 goals in 52 games and continuing with Mitch Marner’s fourth-ranked 67 points and the team’s average of 3.32 goals per game, compared to Montreal’s 2.77. The Maple Leafs haven’t won the Cup since 1967 and haven’t won a playoff series since 2003-04, but expectations are high. Their likely Game 1 goalie is former King Jack Campbell (2.15, .921) and that would be his playoff debut. Frederik Andersen has been slowed by an injury and his stats (2.96, .895) weren’t good but he has extensive playoff experience. Montreal fired coach Claude Julien in February when the team was 9-5-4 and promoted assistant Dominique Ducharme. He got them into the playoffs, though goalie Carey Price has missed considerable time because of a concussion and the team had a minus-nine goal differential. They don’t have the scoring depth to match up, though former King Tyler Toffoli (28 goals, 44 points) can do damage and former Duck Corey Perry has been his old abrasive self. Prediction: Maple Leafs in five.

2 Edmonton Oilers (35-19-2, 72) vs 3 Winnipeg Jets (30-23-3, 63)

First glance says the Oilers should romp. Connor McDavid will win the scoring title with 105 points, Leon Draisaitl will be the runner-up with 84, and defenseman Tyson Barrie scored 23 of his 48 points on the Oilers’ league-leading power play. Second glance also says they should romp, because Winnipeg limped to the finish and won only three of its last 10 games. But the Oilers surprisingly lost in the qualifying round last season, so it ain’t over until it’s over. That said, the Jets lost the last six games of the teams’ season series and McDavid scored 22 points in nine games. Goalie Connor Hellebuyck must be sensational and Oilers goalie Mike Smith would have to totally collapse for the Jets to have even a small chance. Prediction: Oilers in five.


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