Watching With Interest: Intriguing Matchups for Early Rounds of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs – Part 1

Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

For the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, both the first round and the second round will consist of matchups between teams in the same division. With teams already very familiar with one another, it sets the stage for some intriguing matchups as the postseason tournament gets underway.

Given the way the final standings played out, some of these matchups are taking place in the first round while others could take place in the second round, provided both participants in the potential matchup are able to advance from the first round.

NoVa Caps takes a look at each possible matchup along with some of the storylines and will start with the Mass Mutual East  Division and the Discover Central Division.  The other two divisions will be covered in a later piece

Mass Mutual East Division Matchups

The MassMutual East Division could be described as the MassMutual Destruction Division. Every combination and permutation of the teams who have made the playoffs (Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, Boston Bruins, New York Islanders) would be a compelling matchup. Three of those teams (the Penguins, Capitals, and Islanders) were rivals in the Metropolitan Division, as well as in the Patrick Division throughout the 1980’s and the Atlantic Division throughout most of the 1990’s. The Bruins and Penguins had been rivals in the Northeast Division throughout most of the 1990’s. Historically speaking, there is already a long contextual history of rivalries, with the accompanying bad blood among all four of those teams.

Washington Capitals vs Boston Bruins

The 2020-21 season is the first season ever that featured the Capitals and Bruins as division rivals. However, the two teams have met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs three times, most recently in 2012, when the Capitals took the series against the then-defending Stnaley Cup champions in seven games, with the teams going to overtime in four games in that series. Overall, the Capitals won two of their three playoff matchups. There are plenty of storylines involving the two teams this time around, with Capitals’ defenseman Zdeno Chara facing the Boston Bruins in the postseason after playing 14 seasons as the team’s captain, helping the club win the Stanley Cup in 2011. Both teams have been considered as heavyweights in the Eastern Conference in recent years, with the Caps generally at or near the top of the Metropolitan Division and the Bruins usually at or near the top of the Atlantic Division. There is plenty of star power, with the Capitals boasting the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie, while the Bruins’ lineup contains names such as David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and newly-acquired Taylor Hall. There is also plenty of bad blood between the teams, including opposing players that are easily disliked, with Caps’ fans disliking the antics of Brad Marchand and Bruins’ fans disliking the play of Tom Wilson.

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Pittsburgh Penguins vs New York Islanders

This is a rivalry that features much bad blood throughout each team’s respective histories. The Pens-Isles rivalry has dated back to the 1980-81 season, when both teams were placed in the Patrick Division, where they remained through the 1992-93, season when they were dispersed into separate divisions. They were then reunited in the 1998-99 season, when realignment placed both the Penguins and the Islanders into the Atlantic Division. They have been division rivals ever since, throughout the history of the Atlantic Division, the Metropolitan Division, and now the MassMutual East Division. The teams have met in the playoffs five times, with the Islanders winning four of those meetings. The teams first met in the playoffs in 1975. In that series, the Penguins got off to a 3-0 series edge, only for the Islanders to come back and win the series. The most recent playoff matchup took place in 2019, in which the Islanders swept the Penguins in the first round.

The remaining matchups would only take place if the teams involved advance to Round 2:

Washington Capitals vs Pittsburgh Penguins

This matchup would only take place if both the Capitals and the Penguins make it out of the first round. The Caps-Pens rivalry is one that needs little explanation but has been strong since 1990-91, when both teams played within the Patrick Division. The rivalry began anew after the lockout of 2005-06, when Ovechkin ascended to stardom for the Capitals at the same time that Sidney Crosby ascended to stardom for the Penguins.  The two teams have faced each other 11 times in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, including three straight from 2016-18. En route to each of the franchise’s Stanley Cup victories, the winner has had to go through the other team in this rivalry. The Penguins were the winner in nine out of those 11 playoff matchups. The storylines for this matchup include the other stars of the team to include Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang for the Penguins and Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom for the Capitals.

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Washington Capitals Pittsburgh Penguins Playoff History

Washington Capitals vs New York Islanders

This would be another matchup of two longtime rivals, with both historical and recent events leading to the creation of any bad blood. Both clubs played in the Patrick Division and were also part of the Metropolitan Division. The teams have met in postseason eight different times, most recently in 2020 in the COVID-19 playoff bubble, a series the Islanders won in five games; in their eight matchups, the Islanders won six of them.  The teams played five series in as many seasons from 1983-1987 to include the Easter Epic of 1987.  Barry Trotz, who coached the Capitals to their Stanley Cup victory of 2018, is currently the Head Coach of the Islanders.

Desert Island Tales Stanley Cup Playoff History Between the Capitals and Islanders

Pittsburgh Penguins vs Boston Bruins

The Penguins and Bruins have met in the playoffs three times. Each time, the winner advanced to the Stanley Cup. The two teams met in the Prince of Wales Conference Finals in both 1991 and 1992, with the Penguins winning both times, advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals and winning the Stanley Cup. They did not meet again in the playoffs until 2013 when they met in the Eastern Conference Finals, in which the Bruins advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals. Plenty of bad blood developed between the teams throughout the years, including an incident involving Cam Neely of Boston and Ulf Samuelsson of Pittsburgh in the 1991 playoffs, and David Savard of Boston and Matt Cooke of Pittsburgh.

Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

History of Hate: Bruins Penguins Rivalry
Bruins Penguins Rivalry Renewed

New York Islanders vs Boston Bruins

This matchup would probably be less intriguing than the other matchups in that division, based on the two teams’ history. From the 1974-75 season through the 2019-20 season, neither team had been divisional rivals, as Boston had been in the Adams Division (1974-75 through 1992-93), the Northeast Division (1993-94 through 2012-13), and Atlantic Division (2013-14 through 2019-20) while the Islanders had been in the Patrick Division (1974-75 through 1992-93), the Atlantic Division (1993-94 through 2012-13), and the Metropolitan Division (2013-14 through 2019-20). They were in the same division, the East Division, during the 1972-73 and 1973-74 seasons at a time in which the Bruins were near the top of the standings and the Islanders were at the bottom. The two teams have only met in the playoffs twice, the Stanley Cup Semi-Finals (Round 3) in 1980 and the second round in 1983. The Islanders won both those times on the way to winning the Stanley Cup.

The main intrigue would be the goalie matchups, with the Bruins using Tuukka Rask, their longtime netminder going up against Semyon Varlamov of the Islanders. The Bruins have rookie Jeremy Swayman as the backup while the Islanders’ backup is rookie Ilya Sorokin.

Discover Central Division Matchups

This division contains teams from the southeastern and central regions of the United States. In an odd coincidence, as far as results are concerned, the teams geographically in the southeast portion of the division outperformed the ones in the northern and/or western portions. The playoff qualifiers are the Carolina Hurricanes, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, and Nashville Predators. The Dallas Stars, in the southwestern corner of the division, missed the playoffs, as did the Columbus Blue Jackets, Chicago Blackhawks, and Detroit Red Wings, the more northerly teams in the division. The Hurricanes, Lightning, and Florida Panthers were all grouped in the Southeast Division since its inception during the 1998-99 season. Meanwhile, Nashville was never in the same division with any of those teams but, due to its relatively southeastern location, they have been regarded as a natural geographic rival for Carolina.

Carolina Hurricanes vs Nashville Predators 

The two teams will meet in the first round in 2019-20. This is the first playoff meeting between the two teams from the two southern states. The two teams are a one-day drive apart from each other along Interstate 40, nearly 550 miles apart. This is a matchup fans of both teams have anticipated, which could include tailgating in the parking lots, especially in Raleigh. There is also the goalie matchup of two young goalies who have taken over the goaltending for their respective franchises, in Juuse Saros for Nashville and Alex Nedeljkovic for Carolina. The former ranks fourth in Save Percentage among goalies who have played in at least 20 games this season, while the latter ranks first in Save Percentage. Admittedly, Saros has played in 36 games while Nedeljkovic has played in 23 games as he has shared the goalie load with James Reimer.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs Florida Panthers

The two teams will meet in the first round in 2019-20. This is the first time that the two NHL teams from Florida have ever met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, despite being in the same division as one another for the entirety of their collective history (the Lightning joined the league for the 1992-93 season while the Panthers joined the following season, 1993-94). The two teams spent this entire season battling it out for supremacy in the Discover Central Division with the Hurricanes, who ultimately ended up with the best divisional record. Their game of Saturday, May 8 could have been a playoff preview. This game, a 5-1 win by the Panthers, was a penalty-filled affair, with 156 penalty minutes doled out.

Joel Auerbach/NHLI via Getty Images

The remaining possibilities would only take place if the teams involved are able to advance past the first round.

Carolina Hurricanes vs Tampa Bay Lightning – If both teams advance past Round 1, this is a matchup of the defending Stanley Cup Champion against the current Central Division winner, who finished just two points shy of winning the President’s Trophy. In addition, it is a series between two teams that used to be part of the Southeast Division. There is plenty of offensive star power for both teams to include Andrei Svechnikov and Sebastien Aho for the Hurricanes and Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov for the Lightning, although both Stamkos and Kucherov are returning from long-term injuries. For defensive star power, there is Dougie Hamilton for the ‘Canes and Victor Hedman for the Lightning. Goaltending would be the veteran star goalie Andrei Vasilevsky for the Lightning and rookie upstart Alex Nedeljkovic. Vasilevsky ranked sixth in Save Percentage this season.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs Nashville Predators – This matchup would only take place if both teams advance past Round 1. The matchup is one that, back when the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs began, many believed it could possibly be the matchup for the Stanley Cup Final, as Nashville had won the Presidents’ Trophy that season and the Lightning had compiled the best regular season record in the Eastern Conference that season.  However, the Predators, who had advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2017 (only to lose to the Pittsburgh Penguins), were eliminated in the second round of the 2018 playoffs, while the Lightning lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Washington Capitals who went on to win the 2018 Stanley Cup.

Carolina Hurricanes vs Florida Panthers – If both teams advance past Round 1, this would match up two teams who both did better than expected this season and were both formerly were part of the Southeast Division.  Carolina recently clinched the division title and could potentially win the Presidents’ Trophy, assuming neither the Vegas Golden Knights nor the Colorado Avalanche get a hot sreak going in their last several games. The Panthers closed the regular season very strong with a record of 8-2-0 in their last ten games and a six-game winning streak.

Florida Panthers vs Nashville Predators – Assuming both teams advance out of the first round, this is probably the least intriguing matchup, based on team history. The two teams were never division rivals and were never in the same conference, until this season’s temporary realignment, caused by the pandemic. Both teams came into the NHL during the 1990’s, with the Panthers entering the league in 1993-94 and the Predators in 1998-99. The main storyline here would be the fact that the Predators had already pulled a major upset by even advancing past the first round and whether they could pull off a second consecutive upset. But that is not unprecedented in the history of the Predators as they performed the same feat in the 2017 playoffs by sweeping the Chicago Blackhawks, who had won the Central Division and had the best record in the Western Conference, in a major upset, and followed that up by knocking off the St. Louis Blues who had finished second in the Central Division.

By Diane Doyle

Further Reading
Divisional Playoff Races Coming Down to Wire
Presidential Candidates: A Look at the Race For the Presidents Trophy
NHL.com: Hurricanes Clinch First in Discover Central Division
Capitals Will Face Bruins In First Round Of 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs; Series Will Open Saturday Night
NHL Announces First-Round Schedule Scenarios Based On Result Of Thursday’s Kings-Avalanche Game

About Diane Doyle

Been a Caps fan since November 1975 when attending a game with my then boyfriend and now husband.
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