NHL playoffs bracket 2021: Central Division series predictions, odds, breakdowns, Stanley Cup predictions

The NHL postseason is officially here.

Sixteen teams are set to begin the gauntlet of the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs, and there’s no telling who will be the last club standing and drinking out of Lord Stanley’s Cup.

The Central Division saw eight teams battle for four spots. The Hurricanes and Predators are squaring off alongside the first Sunshine Showdown. Who will move one step closer to fulfilling their Cup dreams by advancing to the second round?

Here’s a look at how Sporting News thinks the first round in the Central Division will shake out:

NHL playoffs bracket 2021

(SN Illustration)

NHL playoffs 2021: Central Division predictions

(1) Carolina Hurricanes vs. (4) Nashville Predators

The backstory

The last time the Hurricanes won a division title was in 2006. It was also the last year they won the Stanley Cup. Will history repeat? That’s still to be determined, but this is the strongest the team has been up and down the lineup in a long time. It’s a mix of veterans and kids led by Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov, Vincent Trochek and Jaccob Slavin. Head coach Rod Brind’Amour, who just happened to be the captain of that ’06 squad, has his team all-in. 

The Predators’ season started out so badly that many thought head coach John Hynes would be shown the door after just a little over a year in Nashville. Instead, things settled down and the club began to turn it up halfway through the year. The turnaround has been backstopped by Vezina Trophy-candidate Juuse Saros, who posted a career-best 21 wins and .927 save percentage in 2021.

X-factor: Dougie Hamilton

The defenseman was on a roll last season until he broke his leg. He returned for the bubble, playing in five games, but he failed to relocate his game. In 2021, he found it. He posted 42 points in 55 games. If he can put up the production he did in March and April (27 points in 30 games) along with the better defensive game he showed, then he’ll be a key asset for the Canes.

The big number: 3

What’s the correlation? To the fact that the Canes have three players they can count on between the pipes. Goaltending has been an issue for Carolina in the past few years but the club now has Alex Nedeljkovic, James Reimer and Petr Mrazek to settle things down. 

SN’s pick: Hurricanes in 5

PREVIEW:  Canes broadcaster Tripp Tracy talks Stanley Cup playoffs and more

Series schedule

(* If necessary)

(2) Florida Panthers vs. (3) Tampa Bay Lightning 

The backstory

Finally! It’s the battle we never knew we wanted: the Sunshine Showdown. These two clubs are evenly matched up top, with lots of grit. Both teams have studs in net, too, with the Bolts leaning on Vezina Trophy contender Andrei Vasilevskiy and the Panthers sporting Sergei Bobrovsky. Florida, by the way, also has Chris Driedger, his 14-6-3 record and his .927 save percentage. 

The reigning Stanley Cup champion Lightning got a boost when Nikita Kucherov made his season debut in Game 1 and Steven Stamkos returned after missing a few weeks with an injury. They’ll need these point-producing stars to compete with the Panthers, who averaged 3.36 goals for per game (fourth-best in the NHL).

X-factor: ‘Playoff’ Sam Bennett

If you don’t know “Playoff” Sam Bennett, do you know hockey? How the forward revs up his game in the postseason is hockey lore. Like clockwork, Bennett becomes a points-producing, hitting machine in the postseason. With the Flames in 2019, he tallied five points in five games; in 2020’s bubble, it was five goals and eight points in 10 games. He had just 12 points in 52 games during the 2019-20 regular season.

Bennett has been a beast since his deadline trade to the Panthers: 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in 10 games. He had 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in 38 games this season for the Flames.

The big number: 31

The Lightning franchise played 56 games and won 36 of them in 2021. Vasilevskiy started 42 and won 31 of those. Wow.

SN’s pick: Lightning in 6

Series schedule:

(* If necessary)

Central Division first-round odds

Betting odds courtesy of FanDuel as of May 16.

Sporting News’ 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs predictions

Rounds 1, 2

Stanley Cup semifinals

Stanley Cup Final

Source: Read Full Article