The central has been hockey’s powerhouse division since the season began. Carolina and Tampa Bay have been Stanley Cup contenders with their roster depth and coaching. The Florida Panthers upgraded defensively, and announced they’re a solid Stanley Cup contender at the trade deadline acquiring Sam Bennett from Calgary. One of these three teams who comes out on top in the central has a great chance of not just going to the finals, but winning the championship.
This is a unique season where the top four teams of each division play each other until one team remains. The remaining four teams play each other in the conference finals. Without further delay, here’s the playoff predictions for the 2021 central division.
#1 Carolina Hurricanes v. #4 Nashville Predators
No matter what happens, congratulations to Nashville for making it to the playoffs. John Hynes’ club was considered dead in the water, about to sell at the trade deadline. Depth scoring propelled the Predators past the Chicago Blackhawks and Dallas Stars. This team fights hard and plays great defense.
They’re rewarded with a first round series against a top three team in the NHL record-wise. The Hurricanes should be thrilled to not face the Boston Bruins in this year’s re-alignment. Nashville had to win one of their games against a deeper and more talented Carolina team to clinch a playoff berth. Now the Hurricanes know every move the Predators make first round.
Carolina has to take Nashville out fast. The Battle of Florida won’t go four games. The Hurricanes have home ice advantage throughout the central. If they can sweep the Predators, they’ve gained a bigger advantage resting players a few more days while watching their next opponent.
Prediction: Carolina wins series 4-0
#2 Florida Panthers v. #3 Tampa Bay Lightning
The first ever Battle of Florida playoffs matchup. This is the most exciting series for playoff hockey. Both teams score when they want and solidified defensive play. All but two games played against each other the winner put up at least five goals. Now we’ll see who the better team is when it matters most.
The Lightning’s two best players in Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov finally return from long-term injured reserve to lead their team. Tampa goes from needing every available player, to long-term depth past their third line. Their success in previous playoff series (minus last year’s championship) puts them in a great position to make another deep run. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy will show us why he’s a Vezina finalist against an offensively deep rival.
Joel Quenneville’s second year in Florida is reminiscent of his second year in Chicago. The Panthers will have the extra home game and know how to beat the Lightning with or without Stamkos playing. Sergei Bobrovsky has played much better than last year, but the Florida defense has been the highlight. Mackenzie Weegar, Gustav Forsling, Anton Stralman and Keith Yandle have taken the next steps to being an elite defense without Aaron Ekblad.
Series matchup: Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Carter Verhaeghe and Frank Vatrano v. Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev
The Panthers’ offensive firepower runs on their captain Barkov and his counterpart Huberdeau, but both Vatrano and Verhaeghe have elevated their games to levels analysts and opposing coaches didn’t expect. These are Florida’s top scorers. While there’s great veteran presence and solid depth on the third and fourth line, this core sets the tempo in the first two periods of play.
Tampa’s defense is lead by the best defenseman in hockey, Victor Hedman. McDonagh and Cernak have improved and crafted better play since they won a championship. Sergachev and even the addition of David Savard at the trade deadline are the right counter to a deep and layered Panther offense…this year at least.
Prediction: Tampa Bay wins series 4-3
Regular Season Playoff Picks: 3-1