The NHL returns, the road to the Stanley Cup

The NHL launched an extended 24-team playoff system in their return to play plan. In the Canadian hub cities of Toronto and Edmonton, NHL players got back to the ice after the five-month delay and immediately started competing for the most coveted trophy in sports—the Stanley Cup. The playoff setup consists of four rounds in each Conference.

The conclusion of the Round Robin series saw the top four teams from each conference compete for playoff seeding. The First Round is a best-of-seven series in each conference. After the First Round, the Second Round, Conference Finals, and Stanley Cup Final series will follow the same best-of-seven format.

Here are the NHL teams chasing the Cup.

Western Conference

Chicago Blackhawks Vs. Las Vegas Golden Knights

Right now, the Windy City and its surrounding communities have a lot to be excited about. The Blackhawks—winners of three Stanley cups in the past decade—have a legitimate shot of representing the Western Conference in the Finals for the first time since 2015. Led by veteran and three-time Stanley Cup champions Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, the Blackhawks were able to defeat the Edmonton Oilers—one of the youngest and most exciting teams in the league—in just four games. The five-month break might have been just what this hungry group needed to make a run.

However, the Hawks certainly have a formidable opponent in the Las Vegas Golden Knights. Drawing fans from TDS communities in Nevada, California, Utah, and Arizona, Las Vegas may very well be the most popular team among TDS circles. Regular-season winners of the Pacific Division in the Western Conference, the Golden Knights carried over their success to the Round Robin series, earning the number one seed with a 3-0 start against the other division leaders. The Golden Knights’ fantastic depth and strong goaltending duo is key to wearing down the Blackhawks strong offensive attack.

Colorado Avalanche Vs. Arizona Coyotes

Considered by many to be the favorites in the Western Conference, the Colorado Avalanche did nothing to disappoint in the Round Robin series, losing only one of three games to Las Vegas in overtime. The Avalanche are led by star forward and MVP finalist, Nathan MacKinnon. The Avs are also loaded with young talent and have a more than capable goaltender in Philipp Grubauer.

Colorado is squaring off against the Arizona Coyotes—a team that ended the regular season with 33 wins and 37 losses. Despite a disappointing regular season, the Yotes are loaded with a great combination of proven veterans—like two-time Stanley Cup Champion Phil Kessel and 2017-18 MVP Taylor Hall—and talented youngsters. After such a long delay, it’s really anyone’s series.

Dallas Stars Vs. Calgary Flames

A third-place finish in the Central Division was enough to give the Dallas Stars a place among the top four teams in the Western Conference. After losing the first two Round Robin games to Las Vegas and Colorado, Dallas was able to end on a high note, defeating the defending Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues in a shootout. The Stars, led by veterans like Tyler Seguin, Joe Pavelski, and Jamie Ben, will look to carry this momentum into the first round.

The Stars will be facing off against the Calgary Flames in round one. Calgary is incredibly deep across the board, and their offense is scorching hot—scoring 16 goals in their four-game series against the Winnipeg Jets. The biggest question for the Flames is goaltending, but Cam Talbot sure looked comfortable in the last series.

Eastern Conference

Boston Bruins Vs. Carolina Hurricanes

Winning 44 of 70 regular season games, the Boston Bruins had the best record in the NHL before the season was delayed due to COVID-19. However, the five month-delay appeared to negatively impact the B’s in the Round Robin series, as Boston went winless in the three games while being outscored 4-9 in the process. As their regular season record illustrates, Boston can heat up on both ends of the ice. The team has a talented offensive group, led by regular season goal leader David Pastrnak. They also have a finalist for the best goaltender in NHL in veteran Tuukka Rask.

The Bruins draw a red-hot team in the Carolina Hurricanes. In the play-in series, the Canes were able to easily sweep the New York Rangers in three games. Like the Bruins, they are talented on both ends of the rink, with one of the best puck-possessing offensive lines in the league to pair with one of the best defensive units. This figures to be an exciting matchup.

Washington Capitals Vs. New York Islanders

After losing star center John Tavares in free agency last season, the New York Islanders continue to prove their doubters wrong and win games. Last postseason, they swept a loaded Pittsburgh Penguins team in four games. In the Qualifying Round last week, they made quick work of the Florida Panthers, defeating them in four games into the best-of-five series. A lot of this success has been due to their ability to play stingy defense and score opportunistic goals. Another interesting storyline: New York Islanders’ head coach Barry Trotz won the Stanley Cup as the head coach of the Washington Capitals just two seasons ago. Get your popcorn, ladies and gentlemen. This will be a good one.

Tampa Bay Lightning Vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

This has the makings of the most intense first round series. When these two teams met in the first round last year, the Columbus Blue Jackets shocked the hockey world when they swept the Tampa Bay Lightning in four games. This beating came after the number one seed Lightning achieved the best regular season record in NHL history.

A year later, not much has changed. The Lightning are still an offensive powerhouse with one of the best goaltenders in the league between the pipes. Columbus will be heavy underdogs once again, but they have a proven tendency to rise to the occasion against skilled teams.

Philadelphia Flyers Vs. Montreal Canadians

The Philadelphia flyers may be the most underappreciated number one seed in recent memory. After finishing just one point behind the Washington Capitals in the Metropolitan Division standings, the Flyers dominated all three games of the Round Robin series to the tune of an 11-3 goal differential. There’s no question they’re hot at the right time.

However, the Canadians could make things interesting. No one expected Montreal to have a shot against Pittsburgh, but they defeated the Penguins in just four games. A lot of this has to do with the presence of Carey Price, one of the best goaltenders in the world. NHL history is chalk-full of instances of hot goaltenders stealing series…Is this another?

By Garrett Seymour, TDS Communications Intern

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