As the NHL re-aligned its divisions for a shortened 2020-21 season, the changes were made to limit travel between teams. Calling this division the “Central” may have been a bit of a questionable one, as this division features as many old Atlantic Division teams as it does from the old Central. In addition to that, there’s as many teams from the old Central (more if you count the soon to be bumped Arizona Coyotes) in this season’s Pacific Division.
In spite of that geographical oddity, the four teams looking to survive the Discover Central Division bracket are probably the most fun group out of the four divisions. Rangers fans might struggle to find someone to cheer for in the East Division bracket, but there shouldn’t be any similar issues within this bracket full of non-traditional markets.
Since bursting out as every neutral fan’s favorite team during their run to the Eastern Conference Finals two springs ago, the Hurricanes have come a long way from the plucky underdogs they were back then. The team secured their first division title since their championship season of 2005-06, and posted their best regular season points percentage in franchise history.
Rod Brind’Amour has his squad playing their usual brand of suffocating, puck dominant hockey they’ve been playing for years. Backed a stellar goaltending trio of returning faces James Reimer and Petr Mrazek, as well as a likely Calder Trophy finalist in Alex Nedeljkovic, the Hurricanes are primed for a deep playoff run. Having been knocked out by the Boston Bruins each of their last two trips to the postseason, Carolina won’t worry about having to see them until at least the semi-finals.
A pair of former Blueshirts will look to win their first championship as members of Raleigh’s team this spring. Brady Skjei, who the Rangers dealt to Carolina at the 2020 trade deadline, has been bandied about as a possible selection by the Seattle Kraken in the upcoming expansion draft, but he’ll look to help his current team win the Stanley Cup before that happens. Jesper Fast, who was knocked out of Game 1 of New York’s qualifying round series by Skjei last summer, is also skating for Carolina this time around. This group may not be the bunch of jerks that made the team famous two years ago, but it’s still a solid team.
The biggest surprise of the season, the Panthers were thrown into the gauntlet that was this season’s Central Division, and have come out on the other side with home ice advantage against the defending Stanley Cup champions in the first round. Much like Carolina, Florida had its most successful season in terms of point percentage, and is coming into the playoffs with all the momentum in the world.
Ending their season with a pair of games against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Panthers needed to win both contests in order to clinch home ice against their in-state rivals to open the playoffs. They did so convincingly, thumping the Lightning by scores of 4-0 and 5-1 and ensuring the Bolts will have to play four consecutive games in Sunrise between the final two regular season contests and the start of the playoffs. Coach Joel Quenneville has taken the Panthers to a new level.
Keith Yandle, he of the longest active ironman streak in the league at 922 consecutive games played and counting, is the most prominent former Ranger currently skating for Florida. Anthony Duclair, a key piece in the trade that saw the Rangers acquire Yandle from the Arizona Coyotes in 2015, appears to have found a long term home as a secondary scorer in Sunrise. Anton Stralman was waived by the Panthers earlier this season as the team went fishing for cap relief, but he’s still hanging around.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Call it the revenge of the Southeast Division. Carolina, Florida, and Tampa Bay never all made the playoffs in the same season during their 14 seasons together in the league’s charity division prior to realignment. Now, all three teams are legitimate threats to make a run at the Stanley Cup. The Lightning will look to win their second consecutive championship after emerging from last summer’s playoff bubble as the best team in hockey.
Besmirched by injuries since even prior to the start of the season, Tampa Bay is getting healthy now. Nikita Kucherov missed the entire regular season, but is expected to be in the lineup when the puck drops for Game 1 against Florida. Steven Stamkos missed the final month of the regular season, and he’ll be back in action for the playoffs as well. Victor Hedman is the leading candidate to win the NHL’s lifetime achievement award for defenseman, otherwise known as the Norris Trophy. Their regular season finish may not indicate it, but the Lightning are still a force to be reckoned with.
Kevin Shattenkirk left Tampa after earning a ring last summer, but former Blueshirts’ captain Ryan McDonagh is still around. In addition to him, Daniel Walcott, a former Rangers’ draft pick who was traded to Tampa following their clash in the 2015 playoffs, made his NHL debut during the regular season finale. There might not be much love for the reigning champions, but there’s not much to hate either.
In a division with traditional hockey powerhouses like Detroit and Chicago, it’s exciting to see a fourth non-traditional market in Nashville join the aforementioned trio of Raleigh, Sunrise, and Tampa in the chase for the Stanley Cup. After bowing out of last year’s playoffs in a qualifying round upset to the Arizona Coyotes, the Predators are back in the mix.
This is a team that looked dead in the water midway through the season. Mikael Granlund and Mattias Ekholm were being bandied about as the top rental pieces ahead of the trade deadline. Having won only 11 games at the halfway point of the season, the Predators appeared destined to miss the playoffs for the first time since the 2013-14 campaign. However, a second half surge that saw the team win 20 of their final 28 games proved to be enough to propel them past last year’s Stanley Cup runner up, the Dallas Stars, and secure the fourth and final playoff spot in the Discover Central Division.
The Predators got dealt a tough hand with their matchup against the division champion Hurricanes. Through the first six games of the season series, Nashville lost all six matchups by a combined score of 23-9. Nashville ended the season series on a high note with a pair of victories by an 8-1 margin over Carolina in the last two games of the regular season, so they’ve got that going for them. No active Predator has skated for New York previously, so there’s a lack of connection in the personnel department between the two teams.
While Rangers fans might be annoyed at the thought of watching Tampa Bay lift the Stanley Cup for a second consecutive season, any team from this division winning it all would be an inoffensive outcome. Florida and Nashville are still in search of their first championship, while the Hurricanes one and only Cup came immediately following the lockout. With familiar faces dotted around the division, this should be a fun bracket to watch from afar.
Who would you like to see emerge from the Discover Central Division playoff bracket?
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Tampa Bay Lightning