Battle for Lord Stanley begins

The Stanley Cup is the biggest prize in ice hockey, but who's names will be engraved on it this year?

It ultimately comes down to the final 16 and this weekend, the battle for the Stanley Cup begins.

Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins will kick off the first of the play-off action and in a season that has been disrupted by coronavirus cases, the road to Lord Stanley will finally be underway.

When you consider the ties have been split into four divisions – North, East, West and Central – to minimise travel in the early stages, it shows there are still problems on that front.

The North Division, comprising the four Canadian qualifiers, will have to overcome each other first – again a consequence of the border measures in place because of the virus, but will have to wait while Vancouver Canucks finish their regular season schedule.

As a result, the league have applied for a national-interest exemption with the Public Health Agency of Canada, should this be granted the North Division winner will be allowed to play games in their arena after the Second Round. 

Washington Capitals host Boston Bruins in the first play-off game of 2021 (PHOTO: NHL)

If the application is denied the last remaining North Division team will play home games in a neutral NHL city somewhere in the U.S.

As for the line-up itself, there are eight interesting ties ahead and the opener between the Caps and the Bruins already serves a manner of intrigue.

Their eight meetings this season have yielded four wins each and Washington may have the psychological edge after winning 2-1 over Boston on Wednesday to finish their regular season, with Michael Raffl scoring with three seconds to go.

From there, the East Division complete their game ones as Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders come together and Penguins can take heart from the fact that they’ve won the last two home games against the Islanders.

Vegas and Wild meet in their play-off (PHOTO: Star Tribune)

More interesting is the fact the home team have won five in the last six in this fixture and given Penguins’ pedigree both in their roster and in the play-offs, would be fancied to take the win.

Next is Vegas Golden Knights hosting Minnesota Wild on Sunday night and keen to bounce back after seeing their seven-game winning run ended by Colorado Avalanche 2-1 on Tuesday.

They’ve kept their record up of qualifying for the post season since they entered the NHL in 2017, which is a positive thing and their run of four wins in their last five puts them in a good place.

Minnesota are hurting after two straight losses to St Louis Blues, but they’re in the last 16 proper this year which is already a step better than the qualifying round, where they fell to Canucks in 2020.

WEEKEND STANLEY CUP FIXTURES (UK times listed)

Sunday:

Washington Capitals vs Boston Bruins (12.15am – East Division)

Pittsburgh Penguins vs New York Islanders (5pm – East Division)

Vegas Golden Knights vs Minnesota Wild (8pm – West Division)

Monday:

Florida Panthers vs Tampa Bay Lightning (12.15am – Central Division)

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