With the pandemic altering all aspects of life, the 2020-21 NHL season has had to adapt as well. Part of the adjustment includes a division realignment, which has placed all Canadian teams in the North Division. These changes have also influenced the Stanley Cup Playoff format. Sixteen teams will still make the playoffs, but the first two rounds will be interdivisional and the final four will consist of one team from each division (for a clearer understanding, check out the NHL’s explanation).
With no Eastern or Western Conference this season, it’s possible that the two teams that face each other in the Stanley Cup Final would not normally be feasible. Here are five of the most exciting possible Stanley Cup Final matchups that can only happen this season.
Atlantic Division Superiority (Bruins Vs Lightning)
The Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning have been the class of the Atlantic Division in recent years. They have finished with the best two records in the division every season since 2017-18 and have represented the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final in each of the last two seasons.
Both teams are star-studded, well-coached, and have deep rosters. Many consider them to be the two best teams in the NHL and Stanley Cup favorites – according to Vegas Insider, the Lightning have 15/2 odds to win the Cup and the Bruins have 14/1 odds, both top-five marks.
The Lightning will be without Nikita Kucherov, who will miss the season with a hip injury, and the Bruins will be without Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara. However, both have strong enough rosters to win their division and make a deep playoff run. A Lightning versus Bruins matchup would bring the rivalry of the two best teams in the Atlantic Division to the biggest stage and this year, with the Bruins in the East Division and the Lightning in the Central Division. This matchup is a real possibility.
John Tavares Revenge Cup (Maple Leafs Vs Islanders)
In the 2018 offseason, long-time New York Islander, John Tavares signed as a free agent with his hometown team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Many Islanders fans were distraught by his departure and are still bitter. New York would love nothing more than to beat the former fan-favorite. As for the Maple Leafs, their passionate fans would love to see the team win the Stanley Cup regardless of who they play, though Tavares might love to defeat the team that drafted him in the process.
The likelihood of the two teams meeting in the Cup Final is high. The Islanders traded Devon Toews, Johnny Boychuk retired, and Thomas Greiss left in free agency this offseason, but Barry Trotz has the team trending in the right direction.
The Maple Leafs also have a contending team, led by Tavares, Auston Matthews, and a deep, talented roster. However, they will have to overcome their recent playoff demons, which include first-round exits in back-to-back years to the Bruins and then losing the play-in series to the Blue Jackets in last season. This matchup would also be exciting since it can end a long drought regardless of who wins. Usually, both teams are in the Eastern Conference, but this season Toronto will only play Canadian teams until the playoffs while the Islanders will only play in the East Division.
Jets Vs Original Jets (Coyotes)
The Arizona Coyotes are the original Winnipeg Jets (started in 1972 as part of the World Hockey Organization until they relocated in 1996). The Winnipeg faithful were itching for a team after the original Jets left for Arizona and they finally got one in 2011 when the Atlanta Thrashers moved north. Aside from winning the Stanley Cup, Jets fans would love to see their team defeat the one that abandoned them.
The Winnipeg Jets are expected to compete for the Stanley Cup this season, with one of the most talented rosters in the league, and will play in the all-Canadian North Division. The Coyotes aren’t as good, especially after losing Taylor Hall in the offseason, but the goaltending duo of Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta could carry them to the Cup Final, especially out of a weaker West Division. We have seen great goaltending lead to playoff runs before. It’s not the likeliest matchup but it would be a fun one.
Lightning Vs Capitals
Both are premier teams in the Eastern Conference and among the top teams in the NHL, including a Stanley Cup Championship for both franchises in the past three seasons. In 2018, these teams met in an epic Eastern Conference Final, which went seven games and propelled the Capitals to erase their legacy of playoff failures and collapses.
The Capitals and Lightning both have to overcome a tough offseason. The Lightning were forced to trade Cedric Paquette and Brayden Coburn to help stay under the salary cap (on top of losing Kucherov). Meanwhile, the Capitals lost Braden Holtby in free agency and their newly signed goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist, was forced to step away from the game for medical reasons. Both teams are still poised to win their divisions, and this season, if the Lightning win the Central Division and the Capitals win the East Division, we might see the two in the Stanley Cup Final.
A Drought Must End Cup (Maple Leafs Vs Sabres)
The Maple Leafs last won the Stanley Cup in 1967, which is the longest drought in the NHL. The Buffalo Sabres were founded in 1970 and have yet to win the Cup, a 50-year drought that ranks second. The city of Buffalo has never experienced a championship, which would make a Cup victory that much sweeter. A Toronto vs. Buffalo Cup Final would ensure the end of one drought and give a loyal fanbase a much-treasured championship.
The Maple Leafs have high expectations heading into this season. The Sabres might not be one of the best teams, but they surprised many when they won the Taylor Hall sweepstakes. With Jack Eichel continuing to grow into one of the best in the NHL, the Sabres might be ready to compete in the realigned East Division.
What About an Ideal Final Four?
We looked at some Stanley Cup matchups that would be exciting and only possible for this season, what would be the ideal final four?
What about a “No Cup” final four? This would automatically give us a first-time Stanley Cup champion. For this to happen, the Jets would have to win the North Division, the Coyotes or Minnesota Wild would have to win the West Division, and the Central Division would have to be won by the Columbus Blue Jackets. While all teams in the East Division have reached the Stanley Cup Final, the Sabres have only appeared in the Stanley Cup Final once and lost, so they would be the final team.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November but has been a journalist for multiple blogs since the end of the 2019-2020 NHL season. While not following any specific team, Mike covers the New York Islanders for The Hockey Writers, a team that has turned themselves into legitimate cup contenders with Barry Trotz as the head coach.