How will NHL playoffs work in 2021? Teams, format, bracket for Stanley Cup chase

The 2021 NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs are here.

But that’s the only normal thing this year. 

For one, the regular season and the postseason are overlapping as the North Division wraps things up after an almost three-week-long COVID-19 pause for the Canucks. That happened in late March/early April, well after things already were switched up regarding the divisions. 

With the road to lifting Lord Stanley’s Cup beginning on Sat., May 15, here’s a quick look at the who, the what and the why for 2021.

How was the 2021 NHL season structured?

Now that the 2021 season is (almost) done, a quick reminder of how things got here.

First off, the season was a 56-game sprint that began on Jan. 13 with 10 teams hitting the ice, including the 2020 Stanley Cup champion Lightning. Fun fact: Two of those games also featured the same matchup in the first round of this season’s playoffs; the Maple Leafs beat the Canadiens 5-4 in overtime and the Blues beat the Avalanche 4-1.

Teams were divided into four brand-spanking-new (but only for this season) divisions because of the Canadian-U.S. border closure (which was extended through May 21, for now) and to limit travel. The games were kept to inter-divisional play with teams facing their division foes eight to 10 times. The East, Central and West played each member of their division eight times; the North was a little lopsided but fans got to see 10(!) Battles of Alberta. 

East Division: Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals

North Division: Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks, Winnipeg Jets

West Division: Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues, San Jose Sharks, Vegas Golden Knights

Central Division: Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, Tampa Bay Lightning

Which teams are in the 2021 NHL playoffs?

Gone is the qualifying round of summer bubble hockey. The normal number of teams advanced to the Stanley Cup in 2021, with 16 clubs raring to go. 

These are the team’s that will compete for the Stanley Cup and their seeding.

East Division: (1) Penguins (2) Capitals (3) Bruins (4) Islanders

North Division: (1) Maple Leafs (2) Oilers (3) Jets (4) Canadiens

West Division: (1) Avalanche (2) Golden Knights (3) Wild (4) Blues

Central Division: (1) Hurricanes (2) Panthers (3) Lightning (4) Predators

Who won the 2021 Presidents’ Trophy?

It came down to the Avalanche’s last game, but thanks to a 5-1 win over the Kings, Colorado snagged the franchise’s third Presidents’ Trophy. The other two times? Back in 1997 and then in 2001, which also happens to be the last time the team won the Stanley Cup. 

With the win, the Avalanche bypassed the Golden Knights for the top spot (thanks to 35 regulation wins). And, while the game was maybe not as entertaining after the Avs began to demolish the Kings, Vegas netminder Robin Lehner’s tweets kept things light.

2021 Stanley Cup bracket

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How will the 2021 NHL playoffs work?

With the tweaks to the divisions, things look a little different this year. One normal element is that each series will be a best-of-seven. 

Here’s the breakdown:

The match-ups:

East Division: (1) Penguins vs. (4) Islanders; (2) Capitals vs. (3) Bruins 

North Division: (1) Maple Leafs vs. (4) Canadiens; (2) Oilers vs. (3) Jets

West Division: (1) Avalanche vs. (4) Blues; (2) Golden Knights vs. (3) Wild 

Central Division: (1) Hurricanes vs. (4) Predators; (2) Panthers vs. (3) Lightning

The first seed of each division will play the fourth-place team while the No. 2 and No. 3 teams will meet.

The winners of these first-round meetings will then face off to crown a division winner.

Once the divisions wrap up their play, the four remaining teams advance to the Stanley Cup semifinals. The four teams will be re-seeded based on their regular-season point totals with the team with the most points facing the team with the fewest. The winners of the semis battle it out in the 2021 Stanley Cup Final. 

Sorry, but there will not be an awarding of the Prince of Wales Trophy or Clarence S. Campbell Bowl in 2021.

Are fans allowed?

The 12 teams in the United States have been allowing fans into their buildings for a while, with some teams upping their capacity recently. In Canada, like the regular season, fans will not be in attendance.

Where will the North Division winner play?

Because of the border closure between the United States and Canada, and Canada’s quarantine requirement upon arrival, there have been some discussions regarding whether the team will need to be relocated. If cross-border travel is not allowed by the Canadian government, it sounds like the Canadian division champ will relocate to an NHL city (whose team did not make the playoffs) south of the border. 

ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski reports that the NHL has told the Canadian government that it will need to know by June 1, which is one day after the first round can end, if it goes the distance. 

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