NHL 2021: Observations and Playoff Predictions after Week 1

Recap and Playoff Predictions after Week 1

By: Shane Bryant


Bobby Ryan / thehockeywriters.com


We have wrapped up the first week of the NHL season, and we have been able to see all teams in action with the exception of the Dallas Stars. While the reigning Stanley Cup runner-ups get set to begin their season on Friday, we have already learned a lot about the current landscape of the NHL.


 

The Back-to-Back Matchups are a Welcome Twist


Hockey players are plenty used to playing the same team two or more games in a row, even in the same arena. Various minor leagues schedule their games this way to save money on travel costs for the hockey clubs. However, playing an opponent in consecutive games in the NHL has normally been reserved for the postseason.


The rivalries that can spawn from a playoff series are part of what makes the Stanley Cup Playoffs such a joy to watch. Playing as physical a sport as hockey, it is no surprise that the teams may not like each other very much by the second, third, or fourth game in a row between the two teams. The vast majority of NHL games this season will feature a pair of clubs battling it out in consecutive contests played at the same arena.


We have already seen that it is very difficult to beat the same team in consecutive matchups, which is something to keep in mind when betting on the NHL. Sure, a superior team like Tampa Bay can sweep a two-game set against Chicago, who figures to select near the top of the NHL Entry Draft. However, consecutive contests between two evenly matched clubs will be split more often than not.


Realigned Divisions Will Keep Playoff Races Tight Until the End


With travel restrictions still existing between the U.S. and Canadian border, it was clear that the NHL would need to realign the divisions in order to complete a successful season while allowing teams to play games in their home arenas. As a result, an entirely Canadian division was created and titled the Scotia North division. There was some shuffling amongst the three remaining U.S. divisions as well, leading to some fun matchups that were usually only played twice a year.


There are four divisions, and each one will only send four teams to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. There will not be any Wild Card teams for the 2021 NHL season, so the divisional races will be of utmost importance to clubs vying for the postseason. The three U.S. divisions feature eight teams each, which means that each team in the division will meet eight times during the regular season for a 56 game schedule.


 

Honda West Division - Vegas On Top, Kaprizov Shines


Many saw the Honda West division with two clear front-runners in the Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche and a strong third club in the St. Louis Blues. As of Friday 1/22/21, Vegas does sit at the top, but the division has been much more competitive than some may have thought coming into the year.


Colorado and St. Louis met twice to open up the season. They split the two games, though Colorado embarrassed the Blues in the second matchup with an 8-0 victory. It appeared that Colorado was back on track, but they just dropped a 4-2 decision on the road against Los Angeles on Thursday night. It is difficult to beat a team two games in a row. It is even more difficult to win more than five or six against a single opponent in a season. This is why the top teams in the league will still drop games to supposed non-playoff teams on any given night.


Vegas has been impressive to start the year, but they have not been tested to this point. They have faced a young Anaheim team prone to mistakes and an Arizona Coyotes club that was not picked by many to be one of the four teams from the Honda West division to advance to the postseason.


Minnesota has emerged as the favorite to grab the fourth playoff spot in the division, as they currently sit in second place with a record of 3-1-0. Their only loss came on the road at Anaheim when they were blanked by John Gibson. Rookie forward Kirill Kaprizov has been incredibly impressive for the Wild, and he just took home First Star of the Week honors for the NHL’s opening week. He has four assists and an OT GWG in his young career.


Colorado is likely disappointed with its 2-2-0 start, but they will have some much easier matchups on their schedule in the near future. Nathan MacKinnon will likely be in discussion for the Hart Memorial Trophy, while Cale Makar could garner some Norris Trophy talk himself. Fresh off captaining Team Canada during the World Junior Championships, rookie defenseman Bowen Byram made his NHL debut on Thursday night for Colorado. The 19 year-old has much to learn, but when he comes into his own, Colorado’s offensive ability will get even stronger.



Honda West Playoff Predictions:


  1. Vegas Golden Knights

  2. Colorado Avalanche

  3. Minnesota Wild

  4. St. Louis Blues


 

Discover Central - No Kucherov, No Problem for Lightning


The big news leading up to the season was the announcement that RW Nikita Kucherov would miss the entire regular season for the Tampa Bay Lightning with a hip injury. The team announced the news back in December, and it was reported that they were hopeful that Kucherov could return for the playoffs. After the opening week, I am confident that Tampa will have postseason games in which Kucherov has the possibility to return.


Chicago looks like the worst team in hockey after the opening week. After making quick work of the Blackhawks in their first two games, Tampa Bay will still get to face Chicago six more times this season. While Tampa will face better teams than the Blackhawks, the Discover Central division appears to be weak in general.


Detroit, a team that many figured would be selecting in the NHL lottery once again, managed to split its two opening series against Carolina and Columbus. I believe that speaks more to the current state of the Hurricanes and Blue Jackets than it does about the possibility of a drastic improvement for Detroit. However, perhaps the story of the season so far is the resurgence of RW Bobby Ryan, who held the NHL lead for goals with four heading into Thursday’s action. It is a great story for Ryan, who has managed to regain some of his old form after admitting to substance abuse issues during the season last year.


Tampa Bay’s greatest competition in the Discover Central division could be the Dallas Stars, who have yet to take the ice due to Covid-19 issues. The Stars will face Nashville on Friday for their first contest of the 2021 season. It is a tough card to be dealt for the team that just reached the Stanley Cup Final a season ago. They will undoubtedly be a little rusty to start, and their first games will be against teams that have already been in game action for a week. Still, the Stars retained enough talent that they should be able to compete for the division title.


Discover Central Playoff Predictions:


  1. Tampa Bay Lightning

  2. Dallas Stars

  3. Florida Panthers

  4. Carolina Hurricanes


 

MassMutual East Division - Who is going to miss out?


Man, this division is full of teams with high-hopes for the season. There are some great hockey clubs in this division, and I struggled to choose who would emerge from this division and move onto the postseason. Well, I can say that after one week of action, I am none the wiser.


As it stands now, Philadelphia sits atop the division with a record of 3-1-1. The resume to this point is impressive, with an opening series sweep against Pittsburgh, a split against Buffalo, and a shootout loss in the first meeting with Boston. The Flyers are 3-0-0 in games in which they allow fewer than four goals. As long as Carter Hart and Brian Elliott continue to provide solid goaltending, Philadelphia should be in a position to win games in this division.


The Islanders have allowed one goal or fewer in their three wins, with their only loss being a 6-1 defeat at the hands of the New York Rangers. Semyon Varlamov should lead this goalie tandem, and he has been excellent to start the season. Washington is one of six teams in the NHL yet to suffer a regulation loss, but they did drop two to Pittsburgh in games that went past the first 60 minutes. The Capitals will play their third and fourth games of the year against Buffalo before getting into some intriguing matchups against the Islanders, Bruins, and Flyers.


The Rangers have been disappointing to start the season, and the loss of playmaking center Mika Zibanejad is already a big blow to their playoff chances. Boston appears to be missing the services of David Pastrnak, but he is reportedly ahead of his originally scheduled February return. The Bruins will welcome his scoring ability into their lineup after failing to score an even-strength goal through their first three contests.


Though they currently sit in last in the division, I still have high hopes for a Buffalo team that has so much young talent. Up front, Jack Eichel and Taylor Hall have been solid to start the season, but I expect the duo to continue to build chemistry as the season goes on. Buffalo features plenty of promise on the blue line as well with Rasmus Dahlin, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Brandon Montour. They are still my sleeper to make the playoffs if they can overcome their below-average goaltending.


MassMutual East Playoff Predictions:


  1. Philadelphia Flyers

  2. New York Islanders

  3. Boston Bruins

  4. Buffalo Sabres


 

Scotia North - So You Like Goals...


I motion to rename this division as the Scotia Fun Division. Every night, I find myself most intrigued by the matchups in the Canadian division. There is no shortage of scoring ability north of the border at the moment, and every game seems like it is played at an unmatched pace. I guess that should not be a surprise for a division that features Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews. The poor goaltenders in this division are in for a challenge each and every night.


However, tell that to the Montreal Canadiens who sit atop the North division with a 3-0-2 record that can much be attributed to the solid goaltending they have managed in this high-scoring division. The Canadiens have held their opponents to one goal, one goal, and three goals in their three victories. They allowed five goals or more in the two losses that they suffered post-regulation. I would rank the goalie tandem of Carey Price and Jake Allen at the top of the North division, so I expect them to be able to at least limit the scoring damage. Tyler Toffoli has found a new home in Montreal, as he currently leads the NHL in goals and points. Nick Suzuki is the next premier center in the NHL, and I expect Montreal to continue to lead the way in this division loaded with talent.


It feels like a do-or-die season for Toronto, who many felt was the favorite to win this division. It would undoubtedly be a disappointment if Toronto managed to miss out on the playoffs. The Maple Leafs could have the best goaltender in the division in Frederik Andersen, but Toronto may have trouble keeping the puck out of their own net when Freddie is not in goal. Though they are past the prime of their careers, veterans Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds were brought in to mentor the youth on this roster and help propel this team to the playoffs. Unfortunately, Thornton suffered broken ribs and will miss about a month with the injury. In the meantime, Matthews will need to build chemistry with a new linemate and get his team back on track in the competitive division.


Scotia North Playoff Predictions:


  1. Montreal Canadiens

  2. Calgary Flames

  3. Winnipeg Jets

  4. Toronto Maple Leafs

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