What we know and don’t know about the NHL playoff picture

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The NHL playoff picture is taking shape

The original plan called for the 2021 NHL regular season to end this past Saturday and the Stanley Cup playoffs to open tonight. That went out the window after many games were postponed due to coronavirus-related issues — most notably the team-wide outbreak that sidelined the Vancouver Canucks for more than three weeks. At this time yesterday, we still had no idea when the playoffs would start, only two of the eight matchups were confirmed, and the full 16-team field wasn’t even set.

Today, the playoff picture looks a little clearer. Here’s what we know and don’t know as the 56-game regular season comes to a close over the next nine days:

First, a quick reminder of the playoff format: In order to avoid the quarantine rules involved in crossing the Canada-U.S. border, the NHL realigned its four divisions and had teams play all their regular-season games within their division. That will continue for the first two rounds of the playoffs. In the first round, the top seed in each division plays the No. 4, and No. 2 faces No. 3. The winners of those series meet to determine the division champion. The four division champs are then reseeded based on regular-season points, with No. 1 facing No. 4 and No. 2 vs. No. 3. The winners of those series play for the Stanley Cup. All series are best of seven.

The 16-team field is now set. By picking up a point in last night’s overtime loss to Edmonton, Montreal clinched the final playoff spot. They’ll join the Oilers, Toronto and Winnipeg in the all-Canadian North Division’s bracket. The West playoff teams are Vegas, Colorado, Minnesota and St. Louis. In the Central, it’s Carolina, Florida, defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay and Nashville. In the East, Pittsburgh, Washington, Boston and the Islanders. Notably absent is Dallas, which fell four points short in the Central after making it all the way to the Stanley Cup final in September.

Half of the first-round matchups are locked in. In the Central, which completed its regular-season schedule last night, top seed Carolina will play No. 4 Nashville, while No. 2 Florida and No. 3 Tampa Bay face off in the NHL’s first-ever all-Sunshine State playoff series. In the East, whose regular season ends tonight, it’ll be No. 1 Pittsburgh vs. the No. 4 Islanders, and No. 2 Washington vs. No. 3 Boston. The West, which wraps up its schedule Thursday night, is still fluid: No. 4 St. Louis is the only team locked into its seed. Vegas and Colorado are still battling for first, and Minnesota can still move up to second. In the North, whose regular season won’t end until next Wednesday, we know Toronto is the No. 1 seed and Edmonton is No. 2. But No. 3 Winnipeg and No. 4 Montreal could still flip spots, which would take away the first Leafs-Habs playoff series since 1979.

There will be at least one playoff game this weekend. Game 1 of the Caps-Bruins series is set for Saturday at 7:15 p.m. ET. That’s the only playoff game scheduled at the moment, but NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly indicated yesterday that other all-U.S. matchups could start before the North completes its regular season with three meaningless Vancouver-Calgary contests on Sunday, next Tuesday and next Wednesday. Daly said the North playoffs could open as soon as that Wednesday night.

The North champion might have to move to the U.S. for the semifinals. Daly said the NHL has asked the Canadian government for a national-interest exemption to its border restrictions that would allow the North winner to continue playing in its home arena and, along with its U.S.-based opponent, travel in and out of the country without quarantining. If the request is denied, Daly said, the North champ will likely be relocated to one of the NHL’s U.S. cities.

Auston Matthews and the Leafs have clinched the North’s top seed, but they don’t know their first-round opponent yet. (Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Quickly…

The Lightning’s Daniel Walcott, Mathieu Joseph and Gemel Smith made NHL history. Tampa Bay’s starting forward trio for last night’s regular-season finale against Florida is believed to be the NHL’s first all-Black line. It’s also one of the few in the history of pro hockey. Earlier this season, the Los Angeles’ Kings AHL affiliate dressed an all-Black line of Akil Thomas, Quinton Byfield and Devante Smith-Pelly. Thomas said that his father, Khalil Thomas, once played on a minor-league team that started five Black skaters. Herb Carnegie, his brother Ossie Carnegie and Manny McIntyre also formed an all-Black line on some pro teams back in the 1940s. Read more about the Lightning’s historic line here.

The Raptors are officially eliminated from post-season contention. Toronto’s slim chance of qualifying for the Eastern Conference’s play-in tournament died last night when Indiana beat Cleveland. With four games left in their regular season, the Raptors (27-41) can no longer reach 10th place — the last of four spots that qualify for the play-in. It’s been a tough year for the 2018-19 NBA champs, who were forced to play their home games in Tampa because of border restrictions and endured a coronavirus outbreak in March that knocked them down the standings and effectively ruined their season. This is the first time in eight years that Toronto has missed the playoffs. Read more about the challenges the Raptors faced and coach Nick Nurse’s thoughts on the season here.

Canadian bowler François Lavoie rolled his way into the semis of the PBA playoffs. The 28-year-old from Quebec City will face top-seeded American Kyle Troup on Saturday after knocking off defending champ Bill O’Neill in a tie-breaking roll-off in the quarter-finals. Lavoie, who’s seeded fourth, is having a big year. He won one of the PBA Tour’s five majors, then beat the other four major winners in the Super Slam event, which earned him $100,000 US. If Lavoie upsets Troup on Saturday, he’ll play for the PBA playoffs championship on Sunday afternoon.

And finally…

The curling season is in fact not over yet. The women’s world championship, which wrapped up Sunday, was the final event in the Calgary bubble and the last big conventional curling tournament of 2020-21. But, contrary to what I wrote in yesterday’s newsletter, the season is not quite done. The mixed doubles world championship starts Monday in Scotland. Kerri Einarson and Brad Gushue will represent Canada, which has never won the tournament (it’s been held 12 times). A top-seven finish guarantees Canada a spot in the mixed doubles event at the 2022 Olympics, where it would defend the gold medal won by Kaitlyn Lawes and John Morris in 2018.

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