2021 NHL Eastern Division Playoff Predictions

Sports fans and analysts knew before the season started the Eastern division seemed the most difficult deciding who would make the playoffs. Questions about all three New York and both Pennsylvania teams arose. Analysts questioned if Washington would look anything close to their championship run three years ago especially on defense.

Those questions are answered. In fact, the east became the first division to have all four teams clinch specific seeds before May 11th. Pittsburgh has home ice advantage and a chance to take out a team they’ve had success against, while Washington and Boston have gone opposite directions in scoring depth since the trade deadline.

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 eastern division.

#1 Pittsburgh Penguins v. #4 New York Islanders

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan was under fire for the team underperforming in the first two months of the season. He’s silenced critics, guiding the team to a number one seed in the division.

Pittsburgh is the most consistent team in this division all year, so it makes sense they’re the number one seed as playoffs begin. Coach Mike Sullivan gave both goaltenders Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith time off, and Evgeni Malkin should return in the first game against New York, a team they beat six times.

New York has dipped since the trade deadline. The additions of Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac haven’t played to the offense’s strengths as hoped, and the Islanders don’t have time to figure it out. The defense has been stellar, but the Penguins have given coach Barry Trotz headaches during the regular season. Unless the offense starts scoring consistently, they’ll be an easy out.

Prediction: Pittsburgh wins series 4-0

#2 Washington Capitals v. #3 Boston Bruins

Boston’s trade for Taylor Hall at the trade deadline is their biggest win of the season. They went from barely holding on to the fourth seed to climbing up to third.

Before the trade deadline, the Capitals’ scoring depth was the teams strength. Washington almost cemented first place in the East. Boston struggled to find a depth scorer outside of Nick Ritchie. Since the trade deadline, the Bruins have been white hot while Washington is trying to find scoring past their second line.

It couldn’t be more polar. Boston’s acquisitions of Taylor Hall and Curtis Lazar solidified the second and third lines, relying more on depth than just the flawless first. Lost in the offensive improvement is the rise of goaltender Jeremy Swayman, who stepped up when both Jaroslav Halak and Tuukka Rask were out with lower body injuries.

The Capitals will always find ways to score with Alex Ovechkin’s first line, but Ovechkin himself has to come back healthy for the Capitals to counter one of the best defensive lines in hockey. The Tom Wilson debacle, injuries, and the shaky play of Vitek Vanecek has contributed in why the Capitals slipped to second place. Carlson and Backstrom’s return matters just as much because they create better chemistry and scoring chances.

Despite the issues on offense, the series comes down to goaltending. It would be better if 40 year old veteran Craig Anderson started in net. Ilya Samsonov isn’t ready to start the series and Vanecek isn’t a solid number one option. The goaltending issues will prove the difference in this series.

Capitals goalie Vitek Vanecek’s been shaky against playoff contending teams this season. Washington should consider playing more than just Vanecek in more than four games.

Prediction: Boston wins series 4-2

Regular Season Playoff Picks: 3-1

NHL Hot Topics: Things on Everyone’s Mind Before the Regular Season Ends

Fight night on ice, a 32nd team, and records galore, the 2021 NHL regular season hasn’t been boring. None the less, the blog’s creator Justin Minckley has received questions on different topics from his Ottawa Senators to the ire of Tom Wilson. This is for Justin to answer questions and bring objectivity to hockey topics people are looking for.

First, let’s start with what happened Wednesday with fight night in Madison Square Garden. Six fights in less than five minutes. Your thoughts on these past two games between the Rangers and Capitals, and where we go from here.

Fight night on NBCSN featuring the Washington Capitals and the New York Rangers

We won’t remember the final scores years from now. We’ll remember the fights and how the league has dealt ineptly with Tom Wilson. Wilson should be banned from the NHL for what he’s pulled off. When sports broadcaster Kenny Albert says, “Wilson should’ve been suspended multiple games”, that magnifies how NHL executives failed to de-escalate malicious contact.

So where do we go from here? Don’t get me wrong, Pavel Buchnevich deserves a suspension too for cross-checking Anthony Mantha’s face, but natural fights and physicality are a part of the game even if it’s not as common as it was ten years ago. Sometimes you need that spark to get back in a game. There’s a difference between Barclay Goodrow knocking someone out because his team is down by three versus calculated targeting.

That brings me to another question: is what the Rangers president John Davidson and GM Jeff Gorton said about the NHL not doing enough to Wilson a reason why owner James Dolan fired them?

This is a very good question because it’s not being covered as much by media outlets and it should be. I think it is a reason. Dolan doesn’t want to fight Gary Bettman right now especially with playoffs coming. That would be a bad business move. The Tom Wilson issue has to be addressed by the league itself, then by teams if the response isn’t good enough.

I do think there are more issues than just this, and it has a certain amount of roster moves attached. Fans are still mad Henrik Lundqvist got the shaft, while Alexandar Georgiev had his no-trade clause revoked last year. It seemed they had no idea who would be starting in net besides Igor Shesterkin. Those moves have made the progress of getting Jacob Trouba and Artemi Panarin cancel out.

Speaking of legendary goaltenders, unfortunately with what happened Wednesday, it hasn’t been talked much how Marc-Andre Fleury is officially third all-time in wins by an NHL goaltender, passing Roberto Luongo. How great is Fleury when we’re talking about all-time best goalies?

Blocking shots is what Marc-Andre Fleury (29, white) does best, as he’s now third in all-time wins by an NHL goalie

Decades from now we’re going to look back and ask (if we aren’t now) how Sergei Bobrovsky won multiple Vezina awards but Marc-Andre Fleury hadn’t in two decades. Fleury will be remembered as Mr. Golden Knight himself who drew people to T-Mobile Arena. He’s made hockey popular in the state of Nevada, an accomplishment seldom talked about.

He’s top-five all time, and can cement himself as top three if he can surpass Roy’s win total before retiring. Treasure every game this man plays.

As we know, the Vegas Golden Knights have been a top team in the NHL since their league debut. They have a great shot of making the Stanley Cup Finals. Who can go a best of seven series against and top them?

A lot of people will throw the Colorado Avalanche here because of division rivalry and how they’ve gone punch-for-punch with Vegas when they’ve played. I think the Avs could face injury problems if they play a best of seven late May/early June. If I had to pick one or two teams, they’re both in the Central division. The Tampa Bay Lightning will get my vote of confidence because they’re the reigning Cup champions. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos coming back will have Vegas’ first two lines on their heels. Tampa’s got the best third line in the NHL with Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde and the aforementioned Goodrow. They do everything to perfection they don’t need coach Jon Cooper to motivate them. You don’t hear of that of a third line in this league.

I do think Carolina could do the same because this is the best chance they have. With Andrei Svechnikov’s future in doubt after this season, no playoffs against the Boston Bruins and Petr Mrazek back at full health, the Hurricanes will be the hardest team to play against.

Andrei Svechnikov is the real prize in this year’s restricted free agency class

You brought up Svechnikov and since he’s a restricted free agent (RFA) at the end of they year, he’ll be eligible to be targeted by the Seattle Kraken, as could Coach Rod Brind’Amour since his contract expires after the season. Could the Kraken get both?

Andrei Svechnikov is the prize RFA, so I expect this to be Seattle’s first contest. They’re getting former Hurricanes play-by-play broadcaster John Forslund to call their games when they start play. While I see them prying Svech away from Carolina, it’s a new level of nasty if they take Rod away too. I don’t think the Tar Heel State will like the Kraken at all those first few years.

Let’s pivot to the Kraken targeting some Senators players. Ottawa has a load of restricted free agents entering the offseason. Who would the Kraken eye?

The difference between franchises like the Capitals and Kings decades ago was the lack of power they had coming into the league. Seattle and Vegas have the juice and rules in place to take better players, that’s what separates taking a player like Colin White v. Brady Tkachuk.

Tkachuk, Ryan Dzingel, Artem Zub, Filip Gustavsson and Drake Batherson are RFAs. Four of the five are young and are great for further development. I see Ottawa retaining most of these players, but they won’t be able to keep everyone. It’s possible the Kraken get a great player for years to come from Ottawa, which let’s be honest, who hasn’t since the Senators are a league pipeline.

The Ottawa Senators should make retaining Filip Gustavsson (32) a priority this offseason.

Since you mentioned Gustavsson, this brings up the goalie question of who stays with Matt Murray and who gets released/unsigned after the season. Who could be let go, or more importantly, how do you view this situation?

I mean, this goes back to why Davidson and Gorton were fired in New York. They mis-managed the Lundqvist-Georgiev-Shesterkin trio and the Rangers have paid for it on ice. I have no problem with the five goalies the Senators have put out this season. In fact, I think it’s the best problem and best depth a team could have. Both teams in Alberta would kill for more than one good goalie, and the Leafs and Canadiens have been trying to catch up depth-wise since Anton Forsberg became the fifth goalie to start.

The Senators have more goalie prospects such as the 6’7(!) Mads Sogaard, so I believe general manager Pierre Dorian has a great idea of when to move on from some of the goalies already on the roster. If there’s an odd man out, it’s Marcus Hogberg for multiple reasons: he tends to start slow and makes a few gaffes each game, even if he plays lights out. Outside of him, I don’t think the Senators should let anyone else go. They believe in Murray and extended Forsberg, but I think Gustavsson and Joey Daccord are too valuable to let go, especially if the former is taken by the Kraken.

Finally, the Senators have the third best record in the North division since February 12th. When do you think this team will be a true threat in the league?

They’ve proven they can hang with all but one of the Canadian teams, but we need to see how this roster plays against the American teams, especially those who are in the middle like Philadelphia, Dallas and Arizona. I think this team needs one more year before they make the playoffs. There’s a lot of guys to re-sign, but there’s more to tweak with the roster especially skilled veteran presence.

2020-2021 NHL First Half Analysis

What a wacky and one-of-a-kind first half of the season. This is a later start than usual with no All-Star game and division-only play between seven to eight teams in four new divisions. There’s no solid Cinderella story of the year, but there is a bitter and competitive focus since every team has to face the other six or seven at least eight times. Here’s what we’ve seen in the first half of this unusual and once in a life-time regular season.

The Central Division is the NHL’s powerhouse

Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy (88, white) and Blake Coleman block a shot from Anthony Duclair. The winner of the Battle of Florida games has scored at least five goals.

Most fans and analysts knew the Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes would be two of the top teams in this year’s re-aligned Central division. Most didn’t think the Florida Panthers would be close to Tampa’s level. Those three teams have some of, if not the best winning percentages in the NHL.

Two of these teams will play each other in the first round, while the division winner will either play the Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators or Chicago Blackhawks. As of March 29th, Tampa Bay would win the division and we’d be treated to the two best playoff matchups.

The Winnipeg Jets are Canada’s most complete team

Jets coach Paul Maurice has improved his squad and coached up a lot of the depth. Winnipeg is one of the three teams in the North division competing for first place.

Despite splitting with the Calgary Flames this past weekend, Winnipeg is still the best team in Canada to advance to the conference finals/final four. The addition of Pierre-Luc Dubois will pay off in the playoffs, and the amount of physical play they bring will wear down on teams who play them for more than one week.

One of the more promising parts about the Jets this year is the increased depth once captain Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele aren’t on the ice. The Paul Stastny addition on left wing is a big help, but Andrew Copp, Nikolaj Ehlers, Mason Appleton, Kyle Connor and Mathieu Perreault have grown and evolved with added roles and time. That’s a big credit to coach Paul Maurice, who should be in the Jack Adams (coach of the year) conversation.

The Western division has the most thrilling playoff race.

In one of the most memorable moments of this season, Nathan MacKinnon scored one of the best goals of the season on Marc-Andre Fleury (29, red) in an outdoor game on NBC.

Before the season, the conversation about the West had the Vegas Golden Knights, Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues making the playoffs. After those three, it was open to who would sneak into the fourth spot.

Well, mid-season it’s a much different conversation. Kirill Kaprizov and Kaapo Kahkonen have the Wild comfortably in the third spot, while St. Louis sits in fourth. The Blues’ defense continues to show problems it displayed in the first round of last year’s playoffs against Vancouver, and it could be their undoing if a team like the Los Angeles Kings or Arizona Coyotes catch up. It’s possible the Wild or Blues fizzle out, but it’s likely they stay in their current seeding. Either way, it’ll make for a fun second half and playoff season.

31 Takes for 31 Teams

Now for what each team can improve on or keep doing right in the second half of the season.

Anaheim: The Ducks have played 36 games and have earned 28 points, eleven through wins. Goaltender John Gibson is in his prime and looks great whenever he plays, but he can’t get wins because the offense is non-existent or the defense can’t give him help. Shut him down for the rest of the year and let veteran backup Ryan Miller finish the season. It’s better to see what depth there is heading into next year.

Arizona: Goaltender Darcy Kuemper is again injured (shocking, I know). Antti Raanta’s lower body injury isn’t too serious, but it’s glaring long-term. If the playoffs came down to the top six teams in the west (one of the two not competing is the aforementioned Ducks), the Coyotes miss out at fifth. They don’t have enough offense to keep up, even against Los Angeles, who’s right behind them. Management needs to sit down and decide what they want long-term, because this roster isn’t it.

Boston: We’ve known that the Bruins have problems scoring when their Perfection Line (Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak) doesn’t score, but it’s alarming to see how many goals this team has scored this season. They’ve scored 81 this season, 36 by that line. Their fourth best scorer shouldn’t be Nick Ritchie. Boston has to trade some defense for a scorer who can get the second or third line going.

Buffalo: I think we’re all glad we don’t have to watch the Sabres play for a while, especially against Boston. There’s no way this franchise can improve without causing more pain. At least the fans don’t totally hate Terry Pegula since he owns the Bills.

Calgary: If the problem with Geoff Ward was how soft he was with the team, I can get why Flames management fired him. The problem is who replaces him. Darryl Sutter’s dirt came out the same time Bill Peters was fired in 2019. Three coaches in three years looks bad, and further alienates the roster. If the Flames aren’t active at the trade deadline, they need to analyze how good the roster is to keep together. That holds weight if they don’t make the playoffs.

Carolina: Since November 16, 2019, nobody’s had a better a save percentage total than James Reimer, who’s also Petr Mrazek’s backup. Despite that surprising stat, Reimer’s struggled against Tampa Bay and Columbus in March, and the only team currently in the top four they can beat looks to be Florida. Thankfully Mrazek should return in April, and the Hurricanes could play better defensively long-term.

Chicago: The Blackhawks finally beat the Florida Panthers, and swap spots with Columbus to close out March. If they make any trades, they’ll need a defenseman who can make sure team defense doesn’t fall apart against a high-caliber offense. There’s not much else you can ask from this team performance-wise.

Colorado: Everyone’s going giddy over the hot streak the Avalanche are on, but the hype needs to slow down a bit. Just like the criticisms with certain Canadian teams, there are valid ones up in Mile High. This roster cannot stay healthy and hasn’t made it past the second round of the playoffs in seven games two years straight because of it. Goalie Philipp Grubauer could be exhausted if backup Pavel Francouz isn’t ready by early May, and that could cause problems against a team like St. Louis if that’s who they draw first round.

Columbus: the hot topic is the April trade deadline, but the more important question of will John Tortorella return after this season is pivotal for a franchise rising with a lot of great young players. The Blue Jackets need a plan in place past 2021.

Dallas: I stated in my season predictions that the injuries to Tyler Seguin and Ben Bishop were valid reasons why the Stars wouldn’t come close to a repeat Stanley Cup run. Other injuries to stars like Alexander Radulov, Radek Faksa and Roope Hintz have made this a season to forget. While they’re still in the playoff race, it’s better for Stars management to pull the plug on key players to avoid more injuries.

Detroit: Respected starting goaltender Jonathan Bernier is rumored to be on the trade block, and a prize pickup for any team needing a goaltender heading into the playoffs. Bernier’s in his prime at 32 and should have the chance to be on a championship contending team. General manager Steve Yzerman knows this team will need at least five years to accomplish a true re-build.

Edmonton: I’m surprised Dave Tippett isn’t in the coach of the year conversation with how the Oilers have bounced back after their playoff failure. It’s also shocking how starting goalie Mike Smith isn’t in the Vezina talk either. Despite the regular season MVP talk on Connor McDavid, the Oilers aren’t close in the first place North division standings if Smith isn’t starting.

Florida: Blackhawk fans should be tuned in to what the Panthers are up to during Joel Quenneville’s tenure in the Sunshine State. It’s almost the same process he had his first four years in Chicago. The Panthers aren’t in their peak yet, but in two years, they could replace their inner-state rivals as the NHL’s best and most complete team.

Los Angeles: Among the seven teams that didn’t play in the bubble last year, the Kings benefitted from it most. Jonathan Quick looks like his old, championship caliber self, with Calvin Petersen a great backup if Quick needs time off. They’re in sixth however because they took two steps back after beating Vegas for the first time this season, dropping two games to a bad Sharks team. If they don’t make the playoffs, we’ll look at that as a reason why. Todd McLellan should be a candidate for coach of the year for developing the roster faster than expected.

Minnesota: Like the Blackhawks, the Wild have exceeded all expectations this season. They have a great shot at knocking the Vegas Golden Knights out of the playoffs if they face off in the first round. Building around Kirill Kaprizov and maybe adding another goalie should be the objective after this season.

Montreal: The Claude Julien firing has to be the worst of the season. If the controversial goalie interference call in their game against Ottawa is what got him fired, this franchise is not the place for players to be. Nevertheless, Montreal is in the strange position of what to do moving forward. They’re fourth out of seven spots in the North division, but only because the other three teams below them are re-building or a mess. This team isn’t going to go far in the playoffs especially in a four game series against either Toronto or Winnipeg. It may be best to blow the roster up and start fresh.

Nashville: Lost in all the Mattias Ekholm talk is how the Predators have played better with a lot of their core veterans not starting or on the second line. As I stated in my predictions at the beginning of the year, coach John Hynes needs players like Rocco Grimaldi and Calle Jarnkrok to step up, and for the most part they have. I don’t think unloading veterans will weigh Nashville down as many people think.

New Jersey: Brian Lawton said it best, “if Jack Hughes wasn’t the number one pick in the draft, he would’ve played in the minors last year.” Hughes looks like the number one pick the Devils wanted. Even better is the duo of Mackenzie Blackwood and Scott Wedgewood in net. Kyle Palmieri’s name has been put out there as a possibility for the trade deadline, and it would be smart for New Jersey since they won’t make the playoffs. They’ll need more scorers in the offseason and free agency will be loaded with them.

New York Islanders: like New Jersey, this team could use more offense, especially with captain Anders Lee out for the rest of the season. Some guy named Kyle Palmieri is available from what I hear…

New York Rangers: They’re five points back of the fourth seeded Bruins. If Keith Kincaid and Chris Kreider drag the Rangers into the playoffs, they could play spoilers against a Capitals team they’ve pestered this season.

Ottawa: Most fans and analysts had the Senators at the bottom of the North division. What most didn’t expect was how competitive they’d look outside of a rocky regular season start. Coach DJ Smith has shown who’s reliable and who should be sent packing before April. The team needs more defense to help whoever’s in net next season and players who maximize the play of Tim Stuetzle and Drake Batherson.

Philadelphia: There’s this guy named Mattias Ekholm who could be traded by April 12th. They should probably get him and any person alive who can play defense.

Pittsburgh: Another team who could be in the Kyle Palmieri sweepstakes with Evgeni Malkin on injured reserve. They should dump Cody Ceci while they’re at it.

San Jose: Like Montreal, this team needs to decide what it wants to do. Their defense is abysmal, and the offense is among the five worst. Silly to think the Sharks won the Eric Karlsson trade almost three years ago.

St. Louis: It isn’t talked as much as Philadelphia, but the Blues defense is putrid. Despite a six year extension, Jordan Binnington hasn’t looked solid since COVID-19 shut down league play. It doesn’t help a great defenseman left in the offseason but you’d think with Craig Berube being a solid coach they could improve on something.

Tampa Bay: Andrei Vasilevskiy should be a Hart trophy finalist (MVP nominee). Nikita Kucherov’s May return makes them the favorite to repeat.

Toronto: It’s possible they’ve fixed the backup goaltender situation with Jack Campbell, but if Toronto has to play either Washington or Tampa Bay in the final four, they don’t stand a chance. The lack of defensive talent in the North division is hiding the fact they can’t play tough/physical against quality playoff opponents.

Vancouver: You wouldn’t think losing Tyler Toffoli would be an issue especially when the Canucks were outstanding on defense last year. It’s possible general manager Jim Benning thought the re-build was over and decided to go from there. He needs to add some depth scorers this offseason.

Vegas: An expert gambler knows when to put all their chips in. The Golden Knights aren’t there yet because of Colorado’s peak, but once the Avs face injuries and adversity, expect Vegas to go for the jugular (as long as they don’t play the Minnesota Wild).

Washington: Off the ice, the big conversation after the trade deadline is how many years will Alex Ovechkin want on his next contract with the Capitals. On the ice, it’s who starts in net when playoffs come. If Peter Laviolette let’s his team play defense while keeping the offense running well, Tampa could have some competition in the conference finals.

Winnipeg: Despite his first shutout against the Canucks, Connor Hellebuyck hasn’t looked like his 2020 self, despite some defensive improvements. Meanwhile, backup Laurent Brossoit has taken major steps to being a solid backup. One has to think what decision Paul Maurice makes if Hellebuyck’s 2021 gets bumpier.

2020-2021 NBA First Half Analysis

Whether it’s luck, ignorance or a blessing (or a combination of all three), the National Basketball Association has played the first half of the 2020-2021 season despite COVID problems. Unlike last year’s first half analysis, death of significant figures hasn’t lingered. However, issues such as league parity have grown and will need to be addressed in the offseason/second half.

Here’s what we’ve learned throughout the first half of this year’s NBA regular season.

Last year there was no clear winner for Coach of the Year. This year there’s no clear winner for League MVP.

Giannis Antetokounmpo decisively won MVP the past two years, but it’s unlikely by audiences and analysts alike he’ll win it this year. Outside of this thinking, the choices are muddled. 38 year old LeBron James and Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid are the top considerations for the award, but they’re not the only names who should be in the running. Without Stephen Curry, the Warriors would be the worst team in the league. Golden State is in the race for the eighth seed because of Curry.

Bradley Beal (left) and Steph Curry (right) should be in the conversation for League MVP because of how far they’ve been pushing their teams closer to the playoffs.

Bradley Beal should be the other name in this category. The Wizards, like the Warriors, should be the dregs of the league especially after John Wall was traded to Houston. They aren’t because Beal’s 32.9 PPG, 4.8 APG and 1.4 Stl. per game have kept Washington sub .500.

Whoever of the four wins league MVP will deserve the award. It’s worth wondering if the award could be split since there’s no clear choice.

The Houston exodus benefitted everyone except the Rockets

The Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets are neck and neck in the Atlantic division, but they both have prominent members in their organizations who were with the Houston Rockets last season. Daryl Morey is the president of basketball operations for the Sixers, while James Harden was traded in a blockbuster deal to the Nets. Brooklyn isn’t just the most interesting team to watch, they’re the funnest because of the lack of league parity they use. Harden’s role changes every other night because of who sits out (Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving due to whatever).

The breaking report Daryl Morey left the Rockets because he saw a Harden trade request inevitable proves he made the right move at the right time.

The Rockets meanwhile have lost 13 straight, dropping to second to last in the western conference. Steve Silas is a good hire, and that showed with how early he handled turmoil at the beginning of the season, but the drop-off was coming and now, it’s a free-fall. At least they have first round draft picks after the season.

For one season, Michael Jordan can shut critics up with his management of the Charlotte Hornets

Something that hasn’t changed the past ten years are the criticisms on how owner Michael Jordan runs the Charlotte Hornets. Much of that criticism is valid, and this past offseason looked no different. Hornets management decided it was a good move to walk away from franchise star Kemba Walker and go after injury prone small forward Gordon Hayward. They added Terry Rozier and drafted LaMelo Ball with the third overall pick in the draft.

Terry Rozier is the second leading scorer on the Charlotte Hornets, averaging over 20 points a game. Meanwhile, his former team the Boston Celtics are one game over .500

All three moves have turned out to be home runs. LaMelo Ball will probably win rookie of the year, while Hayward and Rozier are the top scorers and defenders. While they’re in second place in the worst division in basketball, they might make the the playoffs as the eighth seed, possibly facing Philadelphia in the first round. Even if they lose that round, the future is bright and there are good cornerstones to build on.

Now for what each of the 30 teams can do to improve upon or keep doing right the remainder of this season.

Atlanta: If Lloyd Pierce was fired because the Hawks blew over 11 fourth quarter leads, then that was the right move. Looks like there’s one team in Georgia that wants a divorce from giving wins away.

Boston: Brad Stevens has to give Tacko Fall more minutes. Daniel Theis the starting power forward trails Fall in both blocked shots and field goal percentage. Theis is in his third year and the only constant is Boston’s need for a big man. It wouldn’t be bad to move on from Kemba Walker midseason. He’s not helping the team as much as was anticipated.

Brooklyn: The Nets have held under five teams to under 100 points five times this year, but three were last month and two of those were in two weeks before March. If they can hold four teams to under 100 in March (looking at their schedule it’s likely), we could see a dangerous and almost complete Brooklyn squad heading into the playoffs.

Charlotte: Strangely, there are talks of trading Terry Rozier for additional players. Charlotte shouldn’t move Rozier for someone unless they know what they’re getting is better. This is a team that can and should sneak into the playoffs, then keep building in the offseason.

Chicago: The Bulls are where a lot of people expected them to be: finding good rhythm at the right time. Coach Billy Donovan will still needs more than a season to implement his system, but the Bulls are much better than last year.

Cleveland: After their hot start, they’ve lost enough games to be the third worst team in the East. With rookie guards and some positive center depth, they could use some forwards this offseason and shop Kevin Love. Their re-build has to be thorough.

Dallas: Stunning how they didn’t start the season better, but it could be how much Kristaps Porzingis was missed. If he and Luka Doncic finish the season healthy, the Mavericks won’t have too much to address outside of bench depth.

Denver: Unlike the past few seasons where they’ve dominated the first halves of regular games, the Nuggets are adapting and seem to want better production heading into the playoffs. They’re learning lessons from past postseason failures. Rookie backup shooting guard Facundo Campazzo and second year center Isaiah Hartenstein will be tested when that time comes.

Detroit: They finally reached double digit wins. Hurray. Now to pressing matters. Dwane Casey has to go. The roster and the Pistons have gotten worse in his tenure. Granted there are five rookies and notable players injured, but what can we say during Casey’s tenure that we like what he’s done?

Golden State: It might be time to let Steve Kerr go. There’s no ill-will towards Kerr or anger now that the Warriors aren’t in the Finals anymore. The Warriors have lost three games they should have won against Orlando, Charlotte and last night Portland. That’s on coaching especially when those losses occur after double digit leads. It leads to quick exits in the playoffs.

Houston: P.J. Tucker and Victor Oladipo figured out early there’s no reason to stay with the Rockets for a full re-build. This will be a long second-half season for the franchise. Steve Silas is a great coach to keep moving forward. He just came in at a conflicting time.

Indiana: Coach Nate Bjorkgren is a clear downgrade from Nate McMillan, and they traded away Victor Oladipo to the Rockets in the blockbuster James Harden trade. If self-sabotage is the goal they’re doing great.

Los Angeles Clippers: Didn’t think Tyronn Lue would be this good coaching the Clippers, but it’s a pleasant surprise. Outside of playing the Lakers, the team still struggles to beat quality opponents on a consistent basis, especially when Paul George plays a lot of minutes. Despite the upgrade at coach, keep watch of how well the Clippers perform in the postseason.

Los Angeles Lakers: The only knock against this team is Frank Vogel’s unwillingness to learn offense. As we’ve seen since Anthony Davis’ injury, the Laker offense is anemic if he’s not on the court starting. Dennis Schroder was a great point-guard pickup while Wesley Matthews has run out of gas just like Danny Green did last year.

Memphis: They’ll need to fill out the roster more (especially bench depth), but pending a second half collapse, they’ve shown improvement this year. Taylor Jenkins was a great hire for this franchise.

Miami: The Heat’s March schedule is the kindest of the first three in 2021. The clear favorite in the pitiful Southeast division, they’ve found their groove the longer the season’s continued. Just like the Chicago Bulls, this is where we expected them to be.

Milwaukee: With very few changes made even to the defense, it’s inevitable Mike Budenholzer will get the boot at the end of the year. If the Bucks get a great option at coach this offseason (because they will be bounced out of the playoffs), they’ll take the next steps towards winning a championship.

Minnesota: There are two teams that no matter what they do, no matter who they add, no matter the stats or efforts, they’re just awful and hard to watch on a regular basis. The Timberwolves are one of those two teams.

New Orleans: Since that awful start to the season, the Pelicans have gone 10-10. They’ll have another good start to March, but the second half would be easier if they weren’t climbing out of the western conference hole. Disappointing too with the roster that’s been constructed.

New York: Truly unexpected. Tom Thibodeau has coached the Knicks to the fifth seed in the East. While they need depth at center behind Nerlens Noel, forwards RJ Barrett and Julius Randle are pushing the team forward. The addition of Derrick Rose helps at point-guard and helps the team believe more in Thibodeau’s defense-first philosophy.

Oklahoma City: Fans and analysts didn’t expect much of the Thunder this year. They’re only better than the Rockets and Timberwolves in the west, but it’s free-agency and the draft that will show how well the Thunder make their moves.

Orlando: If the New York Knicks are the pleasant surprise, this is the downtrodden disappointment. Dead last in field goal percentage, they’ve cratered due to injuries involving Evan Fournier, Markelle Fultz, and Aaron Gordon. One of the few times we’re left wondering if a team will trade or cut players at the end of the season or bring everyone back. It’s a franchise changing decision.

Philadelphia: Doc Rivers has made the 76ers a much more disciplined and better team on the court. It’s important for them to win the number one seed in the East since the Brooklyn Nets could be the better team at home in the post-season. Point guard Ben Simmons has to improve scoring in the second half and heading into the playoffs.

Phoenix: Nick Nurse did deserve to win the coach of the year award last year, but Monty Williams could’ve won it too. The big addition the Suns made was bringing in Chris Paul, a former Williams player who helped the New Orleans Hornets to multiple playoff berths. The Suns should be able to make the playoffs, but it’s important they keep pushing this season to get the best seed possible. The Suns have a shot at knocking out some good teams in the playoffs thanks to their quality leadership.

Portland: If you’ve listened to any of the sports shows I’ve recorded or aired in the past few months, you’re familiar with a topic I brought up to my partner Wesley Woods about the Trailblazers, leading to a thought-provoking conversation. Portland had one of the worst defenses in the league before CJ McCollum injured his left foot. Since that injury, the Trailblazers have ascended to the fifth seed in the west and look much better on defense.

It’s not that Damian Lillard and McCollum can’t play well together. They’ve shown great chemistry for years. However, one has to wonder if McCollum could be the leader of the second string behind the starters. It would help the Blazers preserve most of their leads and would be a problem for playoff contending teams to try and match up against. It probably won’t happen, but it’s something coach Terry Stotts should consider heading into the playoffs.

Sacramento Kings: There are two teams that no matter what they do, no matter who they add, no matter the stats or efforts, they’re just awful and hard to watch on a regular basis. The Kings are the second of those two teams.

San Antonio: Despite news of COVID scares, the Spurs haven’t been talked about much this season. That is surprising since they have a better record than both Nicola Jokic’s Nuggets and Doncic’s Mavericks. The chances for them making the playoffs are 50/50 but they’re re-building faster than most people thought.

Toronto: Nick Nurse can only do so much with a depleted roster and the team re-locating to Tampa for the season. While the Raptors are in last place in the Atlantic, they’re the eighth seed if the postseason started. They’re one of the few teams who could make excuses this season but aren’t. That’s something to feel good about when they’re knocked out of contention.

Utah: In order for this team to show they’ve taken the next few steps in winning a championship, they need to win a series against a quality opponent in the playoffs. The Jazz blew a lead and lost in overtime to the Philadelphia 76ers after splitting their Florida and Los Angeles Clippers series. Considering Utah is the best team in the NBA record-wise, this isn’t a good look. If they draw a team like Dallas or Denver in the first round, the smart money goes to those two teams until the Jazz prove otherwise.

Washington: As was stated after last year’s first half analysis, Scott Brooks has to get the axe in D.C. Bradley Beal is a worthy candidate for Most Valuable Player this year. Sadly, it’s being wasted on a team that should be vying for the number one pick. The Wizards need to trade Beal and acquire a fortune to rebuild right after the season.

2021 AFC Championship Game

Three games. Four teams, with two in each conference. The remaining two in the AFC are the AFC East division winning Buffalo Bills and the AFC West division winning and conference leading Kansas City Chiefs. Both teams have potent offenses, young and talented quarterbacks, solid defenses, and brilliant coaches. Time to determine who will advance to the Super Bowl.

#2 Buffalo Bills v. #1 Kansas City Chiefs

Two different stories on their successes this season, both teams have a good chance to not just go to the Super Bowl, but win it. This game comes down to which defense makes the most stops in the second half.

Buffalo’s offense has frustrated defenses because offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has used every receiver to quarterback Josh Allen’s advantage. If star receiver Stefon Diggs draws double or triple coverage, John Brown, Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis will be primary targets. Davis’ emergence as a receiver who makes difficult catches near sidelines makes him a threat to Kansas City’s cornerbacks playing closer inside. At the line of scrimmage Buffalo’s offensive line nullifies even the best pass rush (just ask the Pittsburgh Steelers). Tackles Dion Dawkins and Daryl Williams should give Josh Allen enough time to throw passes around a four second average.

Gabriel Davis (white) makes a great catch early in the season against the Los Angeles Rams. No one’s been working the sideline receptions in the playoffs more than Davis.

While a lot of people have focused on Patrick Mahomes passing concussion protocol, there hasn’t been as much focus on his toe injury earlier in the game against Cleveland. That could be an issue if Mahomes tries to scramble for a bigger play or run for yardage. The Chiefs have a great receiver duo who can make up some of those mistakes/negatives, but the offensive line hasn’t been solid, and it showed against a Browns defense that has a good pass rush and not much else. While Kansas City’s running game is the opposite of Baltimore’s because it features more runningbacks and not much read-option, Buffalo can stop the run well early in games.

Prediction: Buffalo Bills win the AFC Championship 44-34

Divisional Round Record: 1-3, 168-92 overall this season

2021 NFC Championship Prediction

Three games. Four teams, with two in each conference. The remaining two in the NFC are the NFC South wild-card Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the NFC North division winning and conference leading Green Bay Packers. Both teams have potent offenses, Hall of Fame quarterbacks, solid defenses, and brilliant coaches. Time to determine who will advance to the Super Bowl.

#5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers v. #1 Green Bay Packers

It’s fitting the NFC title comes down to Tom Brady v. Aaron Rodgers. These two never played against each other in the playoffs, so viewers are in for a great game. Nose tackle Vita Vea finally returns to Tampa Bay’s starting lineup. Vea is a player who gave Green Bay’s interior offensive line problems in the regular season matchup.

The Packers held a ten point lead before the Buccaneers scored 38 unanswered. An unexpected outcome, that shouldn’t happen again since the Packers spent a lot of time watching the film and working more on offense.Green Bay’s offensive line got better and fixed their issues the following weeks. Tampa Bay’s offensive line on the opposite should be able to control the pace if they run the ball early with Ronald Jones II and Leonard Fournette.

Ten years ago, Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers celebrated his first and only championship hugging the general manager who drafted him, Ted Thompson. With Thompson’s passing this past Thursday, one can expect Rodgers, runningback Aaron Jones and star receiver Davante Adams to have a performance of a lifetime this Sunday.

Green Bay has multiple advantages including playing at home, better control of personnel and no trash-talking. Teams are winless trash-talking opponents heading into games, and some of Tampa’s defensive players such as Devin White haven’t held back on their views of the Packers from last time. Coach Matt LaFleur and quarterback Aaron Rodgers have more motivation to win this matchup since the meltdown in October. Although it could be a shootout, the Packers have enough to pull out the win.

Prediction: Packers win the Conference Championship 38-35

2021 Central Division Playoff Picks.

2021 will be a year unlike any other in the NHL. Commissioner Gary Bettman and the National Hockey League split up all 31 teams into four new divisions. In these divisions, seven to eight teams will play each other throughout the season. The top four teams will try to win their respective divisions and make it to the final four. Those final four teams play to advance for the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Central division is a mix of teams in three previous divisions. With COVID-19 still an issue, the Central teams will be closer and will play only each other to eliminate any elongated quarantine time. The Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings, Carolina Hurricanes, Dallas Stars, Florida Panthers, Chicago Blackhawks, Nashville Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning will compete for the top four spots in this division. Who of the eight have the best chance of not just clinching a top four spot, but a trip to the final four?

#1 Tampa Bay Lightning

The reigning Stanley Cup Champions received a major tradeoff this offseason. Former Hart trophy winner (the NHL’s version of league MVP) Nikita Kucherov was placed on injured reserve and will miss most if not all of the regular season. However, captain Steven Stamkos is back at full health and should make up most of Kucherov’s impact.

Former Vezina trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy is currently the best goaltender in all the NHL, and even with losses of Brayden Coburn, Cedric Paquette and Kevin Shattenkirk, the Lightning retained most of their core, especially the gritty and physical third line. With a divisional realignment, the Lightning are the favorite to take first.

#2 Carolina Hurricanes

Captain Jordan Staal can lead the ‘Canes to a division title if they play top-notch hockey most of the season and the Lightning slip.

The recent Stanley Cup Champions and Carolina Hurricanes are by far the best two teams in the Central. The latter couldn’t get past the Boston Bruins the last two years. Fortunately Carolina doesn’t have to play them unless it’s the final four. The goalie combination of Petr Mrazek and James Reimer can take Carolina far in the playoffs.

The Hurricanes retain the same depth at both center and forward they had last year. The defensive pairs of Jaccob Slavin, Brady Skjei, Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce make them an easy team to pencil in for the Central’s four best.

#3 Columbus Blue Jackets

Despite a solid roster and determined amount of veteran players, the Blue Jackets are anchored by phenom goaltender Joonas Korpisalo. It’s up to him to keep the Columbus alive as long as possible.

John Tortorella’s physically and mentally tough unit should make the final four this year. Columbus can’t have a slow start heading into Valentine’s Day. The Dallas Stars have yet to take the ice and the Jackets lost a pair of games against the Nashville Predators . They’re known to play better the longer a season goes on, but must stay alive before going on a run.

The Pierre-Luc Dubois situation will either result in a great amount of depth brought in the next few years or make Dubois consider staying with the team. The Blue Jackets’ depth on defense isn’t an issue, but the amount of offense they can string together remains a concern. Center Max Domi was their big free agent acquisition, and will be a big part of the offensive scoring chances in every game.

The Jackets get the nod for either the third or fourth spot available for a few reasons: Dallas may not make the playoffs because of the injuries to assistant captain Tyler Seguin and starting goalie Ben Bishop. That will hurt on special teams. If they play Columbus, they’ll have a hard time scoring against their defense on the power-play. The Red Wings and Blackhawks aren’t good enough to compete against most of this division. The Predators and the Panthers are Columbus’ real threats. Speaking of the Panthers and Predators…

#4 Nashville Predators

The Predators have the best defensemen duo in the league with Ryan Ellis (left) and Roman Josi (right) anchoring all sides of the puck. Nashville’s defense plays hard and should be good enough to squeak into the playoffs.

The Predators have what the Florida Panthers still lack: consistent defense. Florida’s offense is among the best in the league, but unless Sergei Bobrovsky is pulled, the Panthers will be on the outside looking in. Juuse Saros looks better as a starter over time and at worst, Pekka Rinne can close out games or play a few for Saros to get rest.

On offense, players like Matt Duchene have to adjust to coach John Hynes’ system. Can Rocco Grimaldi, Yakov Trenin, Calle Jarnkrok, and Mikael Grandlund increase their production this year? Given the better defensive play and how the first three lines can create chances, they’re definitely a bet to make the third or fourth spot.

2021 Western Division Playoff Picks

2021 will be a year unlike any other in the NHL. Commissioner Gary Bettman and the National Hockey League split up all 31 teams into four new divisions. In these divisions, seven to eight teams will play each other throughout the season. The top four teams will try to win their respective divisions and make it to the final four. Those final four teams play to advance for the Stanley Cup Finals.

The former Pacific division will add three new teams with the five remaining U.S. teams. With COVID-19 still an issue, the Pacific teams will be closer and will play only each other to eliminate any elongated quarantine time. The San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, Vegas Golden Knights, Arizona Coyotes, St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild will compete for the top four spots in this division. Who of the eight have the best chance of not just clinching a top four spot, but a trip to the final four?

#1 St. Louis Blues

It’s Ryan O’Reilly’s team now with the departure of captain Alex Pietrangelo. The Blues have a great chance to be a serious contender again, possibly claiming the number one spot in the Western division.

The big three contenders will be the St. Louis Blues, the Vegas Golden Knights and the Colorado Avalanche. Vegas was exposed by the Dallas Stars playing bad defense in front of the goalie. The Blues, like the Stars, are fantastic on defense and physical on offense. They can expose that problem further against the all-out offense of Peter DeBoer’s Knights. The Avalanche have injury and health issues, despite being neck-and-neck with St. Louis. Barring interruption in the season again, the Blues are the most complete team in this realignment.

Until starting goalie Jordan Binnington and coach Craig Berube crash like they did in last year’s postseason, they’re the best bet to advance to not just the final four, but the Stanley Cup Finals. The Blues couldn’t hang on to team captain Alex Pietrangelo, but they added Mike Hoffman, Torey Krug, and Zach Sanford. They’ll be dangerous to keep up with for 56 games.

#2 Vegas Golden Knights

Mark Stone (right) and Max Pacioretty celebrate after scoring early last season. Two of the best first-line pairings in the NHL will cause havoc in the West this year.

This comes down to the health of the Avalanche v. the exposed middle front of the Vegas defense, and that favors the Golden Knights. DeBoer will have a full season of goaltenders Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner, and defense was boosted by signing Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo.

The offense is a handful for any team (just ask Travis Green’s Canucks) with Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, Alex Tuch and much more. At least three teams are re-building or on the rise, and the Knights will expose every weakness to rack up goals and points. It’ll take perfect defense and constant offensive pressure to beat them.

#3 Colorado Avalanche

The Coyotes and Avalanche will see a lot of each other this year, and that means more Nathan MacKinnon-Christian Fischer fights.

The third of the three-headed monster in this division, health will determine where Colorado goes, and that will be decisive later in the season. Star player Nathan MacKinnon looks to take the next step and become the best player in the NHL. Additions Devon Toews and Brandon Saad are boosts to both offense and defense when the first two lines can’t get going.

Coach Jared Bednar needs to find ways to get the Avalanche into the final four this year with the amount of talent on this roster. There’s more pressure given how Colorado got to the second round of the playoffs and lost in game seven for two straight years. If he can’t lead this team to the final four when Nathan MacKinnon is peaking, management could take action.

#4 Anaheim Ducks

If the Ducks have any hope of advancing to the top four in the West, it’s because phenom goaltender John Gibson plays Vezina-like defense, which he’s done for the past two years.

A dark-horse pick for any of the top four spots in the four divisions, there are good reasons why the Anaheim Ducks can sneak into the four team playoffs in the West. Let’s start with what the Ducks have over the remaining four.

  • The lights-out play of goaltender John Gibson. He’s faced more high-risk shots than any other starting net-minder in the past two years, and has stopped more of those shots than any other. He stays healthy too at 27, so if he’s in net, Anaheim has a shot.
  • Added veteran depth with David Backes and Kevin Shattenkirk. Both have played in deep postseason runs, with Shattenkirk winning two Stanley Cups.
  • Like the other two California teams, Anaheim hasn’t played in almost a year. A lot of their defensemen are young and needed to adapt to the NHL style of play during the break. Rookie Kodie Curran will be learning with Andy Welinski and Jani Hakanpaa on how to make Gibson not stress about high-risk shots.
  • Teams such as San Jose and Arizona will have injury issues like they have the past few seasons with their rosters mostly intact. Anaheim can outlast both teams and stay in the middle of the pack at worst.
  • Minnesota and Los Angeles are re-building most of their rosters. While Jonathan Quick could be back at full health, the Kings will struggle on offense compared with Anaheim. Minnesota’s depth isn’t as solid nor tenured on their third or fourth lines as the Ducks have focused on.

The Sharks and Wild have little to offer at goaltending. The Kings and Coyotes could present the toughest challenge, but how will they score consistently outside of a few franchise players? They won’t be a pretty choice, but they’re the best team to play 56 games without injury problems to sneak into the final four.

2021 Canadian Division Playoff Picks

2021 will be a year unlike any other in the NHL. Commissioner Gary Bettman and the National Hockey League split up all 31 teams into four new divisions. In these divisions, seven to eight teams will play each other throughout the season. The top four teams will try to win their respective divisions and make it to the final four. Those final four teams play to advance for the Stanley Cup Finals.

To make this simpler: the Canadian teams are in three of the four divisions before this realignment. With COVID-19 still an issue, the Canadian teams, from Vancouver to Montreal, will play only each other to eliminate any elongated quarantine time. The Canucks, Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets will compete for the top four spots in this division. Who of the seven have the best chance of not just clinching a top four spot, but a trip to the final four?

#1 Edmonton Oilers

Leon Draisaitl and Co. look to have a historic, and this time uninterrupted year in Canada.

In the Pacific division, the Vegas Golden Knights reign supreme, but if we’re talking the Canadian teams, Edmonton’s the best and most talented. Coach Dave Tippett will look to build on the progress made from last year’s season, and continue to tweak line changes.

Edmonton has the edge over the Flames, Leafs and Canucks because of their overwhelming offense, special teams advantages, and pesky defense. While Vancouver is ahead of schedule, they don’t have Conor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl (the reigning league MVP) reaching their prime. Most defenses of the other five Canadian teams are shaky at best.

#2 Vancouver Canucks

Vancouver Canucks goalies Thatcher Demko, left, and newly-signed Braden Holtby, right, appear supportive of each other as they vie for starts this season. (The Canadian Press)

Anyone supporting the Canucks couldn’t feel more positive going into the season. The combination of general manager Jim Benning and coach Travis Green have the team ahead of schedule contending for a championship. Quinn Hughes is a spectacular defenseman. Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson and depth at the forward position make the Canucks a real threat to advance to the final two in the Canadian division.

To have a playoff run, the Canucks have two great goaltenders in Thatcher Demko (who is the starter and presumed 1A), with Stanley Cup champion Braden Holtby as 1B/backup. Holtby should be relieved to play with a better defense this year, getting back to his better days when playoff runs were expected. While Edmonton is the presumed favorite, Vancouver won’t be far behind.

#3 Toronto Maple Leafs

The stars of the Toronto Maple Leafs look on as Columbus advanced to the playoffs. This year should be better for a unit that’s known for scoring and some defensive improvements…right?

After the Canucks, there’s a drop-off in quality play in the North. The Canadiens need more offense, the Jets need more defense, and the Senators are still re-building. That leaves Toronto and Calgary as the two attractive options left. Between the Flames and the Leafs, the Leafs are the better team.

Toronto will be an offense-first team with the talent and stars they have. They overwhelm opponents with Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander on offense. The improvements on defense should solidify. T.J. Brodie comes over from the Flames to anchor a top defense spot with Morgan Reilly. Zach Bogosian signed with Toronto in the offseason after winning a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay. Jack Campbell is an interesting choice at backup behind goaltender Frederick Anderson, though he’s a better option than Aaron Dell.

The Leafs need improved coaching, better and consistent physical play and to win the games they need to early on, such as opening night in Montreal. They should take the positive step this season.

#4 Calgary Flames

Jacob Markstrom (blue) is familiar with Mikael Backlund (11) and Calgary’s offense. This year, he’ll integrate with the defense more in order to get the Flames to the playoffs.

The Flames could go as far as Cam Talbot took them, and that dropped off after their third game against the Dallas Stars. After an ugly series loss, the Flames signed Vancouver Canucks starting goalie Jacob Markstrom to a six year deal, while Talbot signed with Minnesota.

The offense, coaching and defense are solid, but Calgary has a lot to prove and work through this season. The Bill Peters saga is over and Geoff Ward will have a better philosophy with the players. They can’t afford season ending injuries when the other three teams will scrape what they can for the fourth spot. While the Flames will get the fourth spot, this could be a long season for the team and fans.

2021 AFC Wild Card Weekend.

The seven playoff seeds in the American Football Conference are finalized! In this new playoff format, the top seeded Kansas City Chiefs will have a week off, while the other six teams (Indianapolis Colts, Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans, Pittsburgh Steelers and Buffalo Bills) play this upcoming weekend. Three teams will advance to the divisional round and inch closer to the Super Bowl. Time to decipher which three teams have the best shot of advancing to the next round.

#6 Cleveland Browns v. #3 Pittsburgh Steelers

This is the least interesting playoff game of the weekend. The Browns barely beat Mason Rudolph and a backup defense last weekend in Cleveland.

Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski finally got the Browns into the playoffs, but it may be short-lived since COVID-19 is hurting the team.

With no head coach and COVID-19 still a factor in who plays for the Browns, Pittsburgh is in a good position to advance. They’ll be playing with their starting defense and Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback instead of Rudolph. The Cleveland defense isn’t a threat against a serious Steelers squad.

Prediction: Steelers win 31-13

#5 Baltimore Ravens v. #4 Tennessee Titans

Like the Bears-Saints game, this is a re-match of an earlier season win (by the Titans) which went to OT. The Raven offense, like the Bears offense, has surged and fixed their issues, making their teams look like threats heading into the weekend.

For the Ravens to be a threat in the post-season, Lamar Jackson needs to have the dazzling performances he does in the regular season.

The Ravens offense might have the same issues Titans head coach Mike Vrabel presented last year. Vrabel’s defense might have a porous secondary, but they’ve forced quarterback Lamar Jackson to throw the ball precisely on the outside instead of the middle of the field.

The Ravens offense is designed to play ahead and run points up. This works against opposing offenses that can’t score every drive. The Titans are one of the teams that can score every possession if needed. Behemoth runningback Derrick Henry is a nightmare the Ravens defense doesn’t want to see again. Ryan Tannehill has dependable receiving options and the offensive line is pretty solid.

Upset Prediction of the Week: Titans win 40-34 (OT)

#7 Indianapolis Colts v. #2 Buffalo Bills

Bills head coach Sean McDermott is seen by many fans as the coach of the year. He needs a playoff win to prove he’s more than just a regular season winner who turns teams around.

The best game this weekend will be the first one aired. MVP candidate Josh Allen will face one of the best defenses in the NFL, while the Bills defense has a sizable task in containing the Colts running game.

The Bills are the hottest team right now, destroying a desperate Miami Dolphins team where their starters played only the first half and still scored 56. They’re getting receiver John Brown back at the right time to pair with Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley. Zach Moss has turned into a reliable runningback, the last piece the Bills needed before they went on a run.

The Bills won’t steamroll through Indianapolis’ defense if linebacker Darius Leonard has any say in it.

The Colts on the other hand will miss Anthony Castonzo on the offensive line. Philip Rivers has a lot of pressure to get to the Super Bowl since this could be his last season. Jonathan Taylor can help take the pressure off, but the Bills could play their best if Rivers drops back to pass.

Prediction: Bills win 21-20