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First-round preview of the Stanley Cup playoffs

Updated May 15, 2021 - 8:05 am

The NHL playoffs are back, more than seven months after the Tampa Bay Lightning hoisted the Stanley Cup.

This year’s tournament brings another unique format, as teams will play only division foes in the first two rounds. After that, the best of the North, East, Central and West will meet to decide the championship.

Tensions should start boiling quickly. Teams that have played eight regular-season games against each other aren’t going to be friendly. The semifinals and final should provide plenty of intrigue because none of the teams played each other in the regular season.

It should lead to several weeks of exciting hockey. Here’s a look at each first-round matchup:

(All stats through Thursday)

North Division

No. 1 Toronto vs. No. 4 Montreal

Maple Leafs skinny: Toronto coasted to a division title because of center Auston Matthews’ ridiculous goal scoring (41 in 51 games) and the team’s depth.

Canadiens skinny: Montreal started 7-1-2 and is 17-20-9 since. The team has a lot of good players but few true difference-makers.

X-factor: Carey Price. The Canadiens goaltender hasn’t played since April 19 because of a concussion. He could be back for the playoffs.

Last word: The Leafs have made the postseason five straight years and have yet to advance. It could get ugly awful fast in Toronto if they can’t do it this season.

No. 2 Edmonton vs. No. 3 Winnipeg

Oilers skinny: That Connor McDavid guy seems to be pretty good. He has scored 104 points, and his partner in puck, Leon Draisaitl, added 83.

Jets skinny: Winnipeg was a competitive team most of the season but has lost nine of its past 11 games.

X-factor: Goaltending. Mike Smith had a strong season for the Oilers at age 39, but the Jets’ Connor Hellebuyck is one of the NHL’s best.

Last word: Edmonton controlled the regular-season series, winning seven of nine. That’s not a great sign for Winnipeg.

East Division

No. 1 Pittsburgh vs. No. 4 N.Y. Islanders

Penguins skinny: Pittsburgh staved off any thoughts of its Stanley Cup window with Sidney Crosby closing with another strong season despite dealing with injuries.

Islanders skinny: The team was incredible defensively under coach Barry Trotz. The offense might be lacking with captain Anders Lee hurt.

X-factor: The Trotz effect. The Islanders’ low-event style isn’t the flashiest hockey, but it won them four playoff series in the previous two years.

Last word: The Penguins have one playoff win in the last two years and were swept by the Islanders in 2019. They need to show they can bounce back.

No. 2 Washington vs. No. 3 Boston

Capitals skinny: Washington did well under first-year coach Pete Laviolette despite an aging core — its top four scorers, including Alex Ovechkin, are over 30 — and uncertainty in net.

Bruins skinny: Boston entered the season with clear question marks, but general manager Don Sweeney made a lot of improvements at the trade deadline. The Bruins are 12-4-1 since.

X-factor: Taylor Hall. The former Hart Trophy winner has been a key acquisition for Boston with 14 points in 16 games.

Last word: Both teams have a lot of veterans who want one more shot at the Cup. Capitals defenseman Zdeno Chara, the Bruins’ captain for 14 seasons, might have something to prove.

Central Division

No. 1 Carolina vs. No. 4 Nashville

Hurricanes skinny: Carolina came close to the Presidents’ Trophy because of the efforts of center Sebastian Aho, coach Rod Brind’Amour and rookie goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic.

Predators skinny: It looked as if Nashville could be a prime trade deadline seller early on. The Predators then finished on a 20-7-1 tear.

X-factor: Juuse Saros. The Nashville goaltender has a .941 save percentage in his past 26 games.

Last word: The Hurricanes have been one of the NHL’s best teams all season. But are the Predators too hot to handle?

No. 2 Florida vs. No. 3. Tampa Bay

Panthers skinny: Florida improved tremendously under second-year coach Joel Quenneville. Forwards Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov had great seasons.

Lightning skinny: The defending champions had a lot of success but battled injuries all season. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy kept things afloat.

X-factor: Health. Star forwards Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov have been out a long time for Tampa Bay.

Last word: The Lightning probably would be favorites to repeat if they were fully healthy. If they’re not, the Panthers have a chance.

West Division

No. 1 Colorado vs. No. 4 St. Louis

Avalanche skinny: Colorado was a freight train on its way to winning the Presidents’ Trophy. Center Nathan MacKinnon and a blue line full of puck movers have given opponents fits.

Blues skinny: St. Louis had a tough season with injuries, and its goaltending wasn’t great. It did seem to find its stride late in the season.

X-factor: MacKinnon. The Avalanche star sat the final two games. He had 14 points against the Blues this season.

Last word: The Blues play a heavy brand of hockey and have a championship pedigree. But can they keep up with a team this high-powered?

No. 2 Golden Knights vs. No. 3 Minnesota

Knights skinny: They lost the Presidents’ Trophy on a tiebreaker, but they still had the league’s best goaltending. They’re also deep throughout their lineup.

Wild skinny: Minnesota was a surprise because of rookie sensation Kirill Kaprizov and its goaltending. The Wild are on the rise.

X-factor: History. The Knights went 3-4-1 against the Wild this season and won only once in regulation. They’re 5-10-1 against Minnesota all time.

Last word: The Knights’ record versus the Wild isn’t great. The playoffs are a whole new animal, however, and they are the superior team.

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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