Sometime in the last however many days (or perhaps years, maybe even centuries, for some, as it felt) the calendar went from reading “March 2020” to “March 2021”, then April and now May.
Between then and now, the Tampa Bay Lightning were crowned Stanley Cup champions in the 2020 Stanley Cup Final over the Dallas Stars in six games after last year’s playoffs were held inside a bubble (well, technically two bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto before coming together in the former).
Then a somewhat regular-looking 56-game 2020-21 season took place as the National Hockey League and the rest of the world started returning to a sense of normalcy from January through now– getting vaccinated and seeing the light at the end of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic tunnel.
Resiliency in life cannot be understated.
That– even after so much loss and millions of deaths around the world– the course of nature goes on.
There is still a lot of grieving to be done, a pandemic ongoing and tensions rising around the globe, yet here we are, arguing over who will win one game– the next four games, a series– the Stanley Cup.
We, as hockey fans, have regressed to the mean. Our veins are pulsing as we hit “tweet” arguing between Toronto Maple Leafs and Montréal Canadiens fans for the first time since 1979.
Our humanity goes on.
Make no qualms about it, the 2020-21 season was one of the hardest seasons on all of the players in the NHL.
Their seemingly lavish lifestyles were disrupted by isolation on road trips, isolation in COVID protocol and isolation from so many family members and friends that may not have been able to go see them play or be around at home due to local rules, regulations or the mere fact that a player is single and living on their own.
No, there are no heroes. Only people.
Even hockey players.
As the dawn of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs arises, we’ll call their clutch goals, big hits and key saves “heroic”, but after all, we’re just watching 10 skaters and two goalies on the ice at any given time play a game at the highest level that so few are ever so privileged to play.
They’re making memories among their teammates on the ice that we’ll never be able to experience.
We’ll never be able to see it from their eyes– until, at least, nano camera technology that can be worn in a contact lens becomes mainstream in sports anyway– but we’ll watch the game with our own eyes and try to memorize every little detail of a play as we try to recreate it in driveways, streets and ice rinks in our own town or others.
Let’s hockey together, friends.
Four teams in each division made the postseason.
The best team facing the fourth best team, the second best team taking on the third best team– the winners of the First Round will face each other in the Second Round staying within their own division as they’ve done through 56 regular season games.
Each division will produce one winner heading to the Stanley Cup Semifinal in light of a Conference Finals round in usual years.
The Semifinal will reseed based on how the four remaining teams finished in regular season points standings with the first best team taking on the fourth, as well as the second best team facing the third best team in a series narrowing down the field to the 2021 Stanley Cup Finalists as a result.
Neither the Prince of Wales Trophy nor the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl will be awarded this year.
No trophies, just vibes (until the Stanley Cup, that is).
(1) Pittsburgh Penguins (37-16-3, 77 points) vs (4) New York Islanders (32-17-7, 71 points)
Pittsburgh: 56 games played, .688 points percentage, 29 regulation wins.
N.Y. Islanders: 56 games played, .634 points percentage, 24 regulation wins.
The Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders are facing each other for the sixth time in a Stanley Cup Playoffs series with the Islanders holding the lead in all time series wins, 4-1.
New York beat Pittsburgh in seven games (4-3) in the 1975 Wales Conference Quarterfinal, in five games (3-2) in the 1982 Patrick Division Semifinal, in seven games (4-3) in the 1993 Patrick Division Final and in four games (4-0) in the 2019 First Round.
The Penguins beat the Islanders in six games (4-2) in the 2013 Eastern Conference Quaterfinal, meanwhile.
The Pens are making their 36th postseason appearance, while the Isles enter their 27th postseason in franchise history.
Pittsburgh was led by Sidney Crosby (24-38–62 totals in 55 games played) in the regular season, with Jake Guentzel (23-34–57 totals in 56 GP) and Kris Letang (7-38–45 totals in 55 GP) rounding out the top-three scorers on the Penguins’ roster in 2020-21.
Crosby and the Pens cruised to an 8-2-0 record in their last 10 games and an impressive 22-4-2 record on home ice this season, which bodes well for their return to the playoffs after missing out on First Round action last season thanks to an early exit on behalf of the Canadiens in four games (3-1) in the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifier.
Among active members of the current roster, Crosby leads the Penguins with 68-121–189 totals in 168 career Stanley Cup Playoff games, while Evgeni Malkin– suffering from a lower body injury as of late– has 63-106–169 totals in 166 career postseason games.
Letang brings up the rear to round-out the top-three playoff performers currently on the roster with 80 points (21 goals, 59 assists) in 136 playoff games.
In the regular season, Pittsburgh relied on Tristan Jarry for a 25-9-3 record as a starter in 39 games played (38 starts) and two shutouts, as well as a 2.75 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage.
Casey DeSmith (11-7-0 in 20 games, 17 starts, 2.54 goals-against average, .912 save percentage, two shutouts) served as Jarry’s backup and even Maxime Lagacé made an appearance, recording a win in his only start, as well as a shutout.
When it comes to playoff experience, only Jarry has ever touched the ice in a Stanley Cup Playoff game– earning one start in a loss, as well as a 1.02 goals-against average and a .952 save percentage.
At the other end of the rink, the Islanders were led by Mathew Barzal in scoring with 45 points (17 goals, 28 assists) in 55 games, as Josh Bailey (8-27–35 totals in 54 games) trailed the prolific 23-year-old center with the second-most points on the team in the 2020-21 regular season.
Brock Nelson (18-15–33 totals in 56 games) and Jordan Eberle (16-17–33 totals in 56 games) were tied for the third-most points in team scoring for New York.
Isles captain, Anders Lee, had his season cut short by a knee injury that will keep him out of contention through the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Islanders went 3-4-3 in their last 10 games as they backed themselves into the postseason.
Among active players on New York’s current roster, Bailey leads his teammates in postseason scoring with 10-27–37 totals in 52 career Stanley Cup Playoff games, while Nelson (16-13–29 in 48 games) and newcomer, Travis Zajac (11-17–28 totals in 57 games) round out the top-three playoff performers entering the Islanders’ 2021 postseason run.
Zajac was acquired along with Kyle Palmieri from the New Jersey Devils ahead of the 2021 trade deadline back in April.
In the crease, Semyon Varlamov led the way for the Islanders with a Vezina Trophy worthy season, amassing a 19-11-4 record in 36 games played (35 starts) to go with seven shutouts, a 2.04 goals-against average a .929 save percentage.
Varlamov and Colorado Avalanche netminder, Philipp Grubauer, led the league in shutouts in 2020-21, while Vegas Golden Knights duo, Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner took home the William M. Jennings Trophy, having allowed the fewest goals against this season.
Meanwhile, Ilya Sorokin served as Varlamov’s backup in his first NHL season and had a 13-6-3 record in 22 games played (21 starts), as well as three shutouts, a 2.17 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage.
As Sorokin just completed his first season at the game’s highest level of competition, only Varlamov has had postseason experience and is expected to be New York’s starter in their 2021 First Round matchup with Pittsburgh.
Varlamov has a 24-20 record in 46 career Stanley Cup Playoff games (44 starts), as well as four shutouts, a 2.38 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage in that span.
The Penguins went 6-2-0, while the Islanders went 2-4-2 in their eight games against one another this season with Pittsburgh outscoring New York, 26-19, in that span.
That alone should give a good indication of how Pens head coach, Mike Sullivan, is back on his regular routine and how Isles head coach, Barry Trotz, will need to get crafty to drag Pittsburgh’s offense down a bit more to the level of New York’s “defense first” mentality.
Though it might be easier to slow down Crosby’s game than it is to ease Edmonton Oilers phenom, Connor McDavid, from his carousel around opponents, Pittsburgh has a deeper roster than New York’s stagnant core.
Jeff Carter alone has made a bigger impact on the Pens so far than Palmieri and Zajac combined for the Islanders.
That said, New York has the historical high ground over the Penguins in the playoffs– especially in light of their 2019 First Round sweep.
This time around, however, expect Pittsburgh to get the job done in six games– just long enough to get a rhythm going into an epic clash with either the Washington Capitals or Boston Bruins in the Second Round.
Regular season outcomes:
4-3 NYI at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Feb. 6th
4-3 F/SO PIT at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Feb. 11th
4-1 PIT at PPG Paints Arena on Feb. 18th
3-2 PIT at PPG Paints Arena on Feb. 20th
4-3 F/OT PIT at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Feb. 27th
2-0 NYI at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Feb. 28th
6-3 PIT at PPG Paints Arena on March 27th
2-1 PIT at PPG Paints Arena on March 29th
5/16- Game 1 NYI @ PIT 12 PM ET on NBC, SN, TVAS
5/18- Game 2 NYI @ PIT 7:30 PM ET on NBCSN, SN, CBC, TVAS
5/20- Game 3 PIT @ NYI 7 PM ET on NBCSN, SN360, TVAS
5/22- Game 4 PIT @ NYI 3 PM ET on NBC, SN, TVAS
5/24- Game 5 NYI @ PIT*
5/26- Game 6 PIT @ NYI*
5/28- Game 7 NYI @ PIT*
(2) Washington Capitals (36-15-5, 77 points) vs (3) Boston Bruins (33-16-7, 73 points)
Washington: 56 games played, .688 points percentage, 29 regulation wins.
Boston: 56 games played, .652 points percentage, 25 regulation wins.
The Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins are meeting each other in a playoff series for the fourth time with the Capitals holding the lead in all time series wins, 2-1.
Washington beat Boston in six games (4-2) in the 1998 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal and in seven games (4-3) in the 2012 Eastern Conference Final.
Prior to the last two postseason series meetings between the two clubs, the Bruins swept the Capitals (4-0) in the 1990 Wales Conference Final.
The Caps are making their 31st appearance, while the B’s are set to embark on their 74th appearance in the postseason in franchise history.
Washington was led by Nicklas Backstrom (15-38–53 totals in 55 games played) in scoring this season, while John Carlson had the second-most points and T.J. Oshie rounded out the top-three in team scoring.
Carlson had 44 points (10 goals, 34 assists) in 52 games, while Oshie notched 22-21–43 totals in 53 games for the Capitals in 2020-21.
While battling injury at times this season, Washington captain, Alex Ovechkin, and Co. went 7-2-1 in their last 10 games of the regular season, amassing a 17-8-3 record on home ice.
Ovechkin leads his current teammates in active career postseason scoring with 69-62–131 totals in 136 Stanley Cup Playoff games (all with the Capitals), while Backstrom is second and former Bruin captain, turned Washington defender, Zdeno Chara, has the third-most career Stanley Cup Playoff points on the Capitals’ current roster.
Backstrom has 107 points (36 goals, 71 assists) in 128 career playoff games, while Chara has 18-52–70 totals in 195 career postseason games between the Ottawa Senators (45 games) and Boston (150 games).
In the regular season, Washington relied on the emergence of Vitek Vanecek as their starter with Ilya Samsonov serving as the Caps backup and Craig Anderson getting a handful of appearances mixed in.
Vanecek led the team with a 21-10-4 record in 37 games (36 starts), two shutouts, a 2.70 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage, while Samsonov amassed a 13-4-1 record in 19 games (18 starts) as Vanecek’s backup.
Samsonov had a 2.69 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage to go along with a pair of shutouts, while Anderson went 2-1-0 in four games played (two starts) and yielded a 2.13 goals-against average, as well as a .915 save percentage in that span.
Though Anderson is the only goaltender on the roster with previous playoff experience– including a 23-22 record in 46 games (46 starts) to go along with four shutouts, a 2.35 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage in the process– Vanecek will likely be the starter for the Caps for the foreseeable future.
Especially with Samsonov still in COVID protocol on Friday (at the time of this writing).
Brad Marchand led the Bruins in scoring with 29-40–69 totals in 53 games this season, while Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak were tied for the second-most points with 48 points each.
Bergeron had 23-25–48 totals in 54 games, while Pastrnak had 20-28–48 totals in 48 games after getting a late start to the season due to offseason surgery.
Meanwhile, David Krejci, for those wondering, had 8-36–44 totals in 51 games and had the fourth-most points on the roster this season.
Boston’s current career postseason scoring leaders shapes up to be exactly what you expect– Krejci leads over Bergeron and Marchand.
Krejci has 40-75–115 totals in 145 career Stanley Cup Playoff games entering 2021, while Bergeron has 111 points (42 goals, 69 assists) in 149 playoff games and Marchand has 95 points (37 goals, 58 assists) in 121 postseason games.
The trio of Bruins define an era of consistent success not seen since the days of Phil Esposito in the spoked-B and are in search of their second Stanley Cup ring.
Boston utilized four goaltenders this season due to injury and COVID protocol effecting the season as Tuukka Rask led the team with a 15-5-2 record in 24 games (24 starts)– amassing a 2.28 goals-against average, a .913 save percentage and two shutouts in the process.
Rask’s “average” season was balanced out by Jaroslav Halak’s “average” season as a backup– posting a 9-6-4 record in 19 games (17 starts), as well as a 2.53 goals-against average, a .905 save percentage and two shutouts in that span.
Despite Halak’s best efforts, the emergence of Jeremy Swayman has led to Swayman moving up in the depth charts from surefire starter in Providence (AHL) to current NHL backup (with the ultimate goal of taking over for Rask someday as the Bruins transition from their franchise goaltender to their 22-year-old first year professional).
Swayman had a 7-3-0 record in 10 games (10 starts) and put up a 1.50 goals-against average, two shutouts and a .945 save percentage in his first taste of the NHL.
Dan Vladar, meanwhile, contributed where it mattered most and, despite one, 8-1, loss on the second night of back-to-back games against Washington, managed to have a 2-2-1 record in five games played (five starts) with a 3.40 goals-against average and an .886 save percentage for Boston.
With Halak relegated to the third string goaltender role, his 17-20 record in 39 postseason games (37 starts) and 2.48 goals-against average, as well as his .919 career playoff save percentage should remain untouched.
Sure, Vladar made a relief appearance in the 2020 Second Round, but Rask is Boston’s starter, after all.
And for good reason too– since Rask has a 51-42 record in 93 career Stanley Cup Playoff games (93 starts), as well as seven shutouts, a 2.20 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage in that span.
No. 40 in black and gold is two wins away from tying Gerry Cheevers for the most postseason wins in franchise history (53).
The Capitals went 4-4-0, while the Bruins went 4-2-2 in their eight games against one another this season with Boston outscoring Washington, 26-25, in that span.
As noted, don’t let too many results in their head-to-head matchups from this season fool you.
The Bruins dressed the equivalents of their AHL affiliate (Providence Bruins) about two times against the Capitals this season.
The first time was due to a ton of injuries and the second time happened to be another final night of a back-to-back matchup in Boston’s schedule and the end of the regular season with both teams having clinched a playoff berth and not eligible for mobility in the standings.
That said, the B’s and Caps are pretty evenly matched.
Vanecek has the chance to ride the waves of his breakout season, while Rask is the steady hand that’s been the model of consistency in the crease this time of year.
Bruins head coach, Bruce Cassidy, should get the most out of Krejci, Craig Smith and Taylor Hall to round out his top-six forwards, while Peter Laviolette can rely on Chara’s past knowledge of Boston’s systems to utilize as a strength for Washington.
That said, the Bruins should try to wrap things up in six games and move on to the Second Round before worrying about what a Game 7 would look like on the road for the first time since 2011.
Regular season outcomes:
4-3 F/OT WSH at Capital One Arena on Jan. 30th
5-3 BOS at Capital One Arena on Feb. 1st
2-1 F/SO WSH at TD Garden on March 1st
5-1 BOS at TD Garden on March 5th
4-2 BOS at Capital One Arena on April 8th
8-1 WSH at TD Garden on April 11th
6-3 BOS at TD Garden on April 18th
2-1 WSH at Capital One Arena on May 11th
5/15- Game 1 BOS @ WSH 7:15 PM ET on NBC, SN, CBC, TVAS
5/17- Game 2 BOS @ WSH 7:30 PM ET on NBCSN, SN, CBC, TVAS
5/19- Game 3 WSH @ BOS 6:30 PM ET on NBCSN, SNE, SNO, SNP, SN360, TVAS
5/21- Game 4 WSH @ BOS 6:30 PM ET on NBCSN, SNE, SNO, SNP, SN360, TVAS
5/23- Game 5 BOS @ WSH*
5/25- Game 6 WSH @ BOS*
5/27- Game 7 BOS @ WSH*