With the new divisional alignments, the NHL needed to create a playoff format that fits. Canada has its country-wide division intact, and the US will provide the other three. The Golden Knights will be in a division with most of their Pacific buddies, but will also have to deal with two top Central teams in Colorado and St. Louis.
With a mish-mash of divisions and conferences, the NHL decided to come up with a plan to reward the team that preserves from each division. Essentially, the Golden Knights will have to beat two teams from their division to secure a spot in the final four.
Any other season, the Golden Knights would regularly begin the postseason by playing a Pacific division team. In 2018, Vegas swept a first-round series against LA and in 2019, San Jose controversially sent the Golden Knights packing after the opening round. This year though, without wild cards, Vegas will have to be the best in the West to win the Cup.
The new playoff format throws a wrench at tradition. Since divisional realignment in 2014 (with exception of the 2020 postseason), every Stanley Cup champion was forced to defeat two divisional rivals. This season will have more of a twist. Each division will have a four-team playoff to decide one team to advance to the NHL semifinals.
With temporary divisions in place, the Golden Knights may end up having a difficult path to the Finals. Depending on their seeding, Vegas could face both Colorado and St. Louis to reach the semi-finals. Talk about some heavy lifting. If we simply go off paper, the Avalanche, Blues and Golden Knights are the top three teams in their expanded division. Leaving one spot for Anaheim, Arizona, LA, Minnesota, or San Jose.
Of course it’s not a foregone conclusion the Golden Knights will secure one of the four open playoff seats, but I think we all agree it would be a major surprise if they didn’t. Which is why it’s imperative for Vegas to get off to a strong start. A sluggish beginning to a shortened 56-game schedule could mean a lower seed, and a tougher path through the Colorado and St. Louis.
Unlike last postseason, there are no lightweights in the 2021 playoffs.