The Tampa Bay Lightning are seeking to become the first team to win three straight Stanley Cups since the early ’80s Islanders. But 15 other teams and four rounds of playoffs stand in their way.
Let’s answer some questions about the NHL playoffs as they get set to begin.
When do the playoffs start?
Monday at 7 pm Eastern time when the Boston Bruins play the Carolina Hurricanes. Three other series start on Monday and the other four on Tuesday. A full first-round schedule can be found here.
How do they work?
In each of the two conferences, the top three teams from each division and two wild cards qualified. In the first round, the wild cards play the division winners, while the second- and third-place teams in each division play each other.
After a second round of divisional play, the four survivors will meet in the conference finals, and the Stanley Cup finals follow. All four rounds of the playoffs are best-of-seven-game series. The better-seeded team in each series gets the advantage of playing four of the seven games at home.
Where can I watch the games?
Games will be shown in the United States on TNT, TBS, ESPN and ABC. Streaming is available on ESPN Plus and Hulu.
In Canada, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Sportsnet will broadcast the games. Sportsnet Now will stream the games.
When are the finals?
Because of the uncertainty of the length of the earlier rounds, it is not clear when precisely the finals will start. In a typical season, they begin about six to seven weeks after the playoffs start.
Who’s going to win?
As in every year, that’s difficult to say. It is not uncommon for lower seeds to win playoff series in the NHL Last season, five of eight lower seeds won in the first round. The eventual winner, the Lightning, had the eighth best record in the regular season, and the other finalist, the Montreal Canadiens, had the worst record of any playoff team.
There is a strong Eastern Conference contingent in particular this season, with all of the entrants finishing the season with more than 100 points for the first time.
The Florida Panthers won the Presidents’ Trophy for the top record in the league. But the trophy winner hasn’t won the Stanley Cup since 2013, and only four times this century.
As of now, the Colorado Avalanche are the betting favorites at about 4 to 1 after landing the top seed in the West. The Panthers are second at 6-1. Following them, all in the 10-1 range, are the Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs, Lightning and Hurricanes.
The Flames ‘and Leafs’ high rankings are significant. Although about half of the league’s players are Canadian, and interest in the sport is feverish there, no team from Canada has won the Stanley Cup since the Canadiens in 1993.
Who are the players to watch?
Auston Matthews of the Maple Leafs became the league’s first player to reach the 60-goal mark since 2012 and is the leading candidate for MVP
The perennial star Connor McDavid and his linemate Leon Draisaitl are again a formidable one-two punch for the Edmonton Oilers, who are another candidate to end Canada’s Cup drought.
Igor Shesterkin of the Rangers has been the consensus goalie of the season with a goals-against average just barely over 2.
The legends Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals are still going strong as well.
Before this season, the Vegas Golden Knights had qualified for the playoffs in all four years of their existence and made a Cup finals and two more conference finals. But this year they missed out on a close battle for the wild card.
The Winnipeg Jets had also made the playoffs for four straight seasons until this one.
What’s so special about the Stanley Cup?
The Cup has a long and glorious history that dates to 1893. Back in the day it was open to teams from a variety of leagues, and its champions have included the likes of the Montreal Shamrocks, the Vancouver Millionaires, the Toronto St. Patricks and the Seattle Metropolitans, the first American team to win it, in 1917.
There is a long tradition that allows players on the winning team to get one day each with the Cup. They will often use their time to take the hallowed silverware to special and sometimes curious locations in their hometowns, like Red Square in Moscow, a strip club, a party thrown by the actor Matthew Perry and a baptism.
Who was ‘Stanley’ anyway?
Sir Frederick Arthur Stanley, the 16th Earl of Derby, was the governor general of Canada in the late 1800s. He made a smart move that has kept him far better remembered than most of the other Earls of Derby: Excited by ice hockey because his sons played it, he ponied up 10 guineas for a trophy in 1892.
What’s with all the beards?
Many NHL players superstitiously do not shave for as long as their team is in the playoffs. (Some teams in other sports, like baseball, have embraced this tradition as well.) By the time of the Stanley Cup Finals, the lineups can start looking pretty shaggy.
And the handshakes after the games?
After a playoff series has concluded, both teams line up to shake their opponents’ hands. It’s a custom much beloved by hockey fans: Expect to hear an announcer call it “a marvelous tradition.”
Why are overtime playoff games so special?
In the NHL regular season, overtime ends after five minutes. But in the playoffs they just keep playing until someone scores. That could mean one, two, three or more overtimes. Last season, the Oilers and Jets played a three-overtime game. The season before, the Lightning and Columbus Blue Jackets went to five. In 1936, the Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Maroons went to six.
Overtimes in Game 7s – with both teams knowing a single goal will instantly eliminate or advance them – are by consensus one of the most exciting events in sports. It happened most recently in 2020 when the Dallas Stars beat the Avalanche in the second round on a Joel Kiviranta goal.
The finals have gone to overtime in Game 7 only twice, in 1950 and 1954, both won by the Red Wings.
What is the Conn Smythe Trophy?
The MVP award of the playoffs. While the winner almost always comes from the Cup-winning team, it is actually awarded based on performance over the entire playoffs, not just the Cup finals.
Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy won it last season for the Lightning and defenseman Victor Hedman the year before. Both are still key players for the team.