Stanley Cup playoffs: Who to watch and what to expect

The chase for the Stanley Cup is back underway, with the NHL’s top 16 teams left to duke it out through four gruelling rounds.

It’s also arguably the most wide open the post-season has been in years, if not decades. Nearly everyone who qualified has a chance to win it all, with no prohibitive favourite as the first round begins on Saturday:

The matchups

In the East: The New York Rangers vs. the Washington Capitals; the Carolina Hurricanes vs. the New York Islanders; the Boston Bruins vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs; and the Tampa Bay Lightning vs. the Florida Panthers.

In the West: The Dallas Stars vs. the Vegas Golden Knights; the Winnipeg Jets vs. the Colorado Avalanche; the Vancouver Canucks vs. the Nashville Predators; and the Edmonton Oilers vs. the Los Angeles Kings.

Click to play video: 'Edmonton Oilers fans getting ready for 1st round of Stanley Cup playoffs'

Edmonton Oilers fans getting ready for 1st round of Stanley Cup playoffs

Who to watch

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Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov go into the playoffs after becoming just the fourth and fifth players in league history to record 100 assists in a season. Toronto’s Auston Matthews scored 69 goals, the most of any player since Mario Lemieux in 1995-96, and Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon and the Rangers’ Artemi Panarin each had MVP-calibre seasons.

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While McDavid, Kucherov, MacKinnon and Panarin are in their primes, there are plenty of old guys to root for who haven’t yet won the Cup, from Dallas’ Joe Pavelski to Carolina’s Brent Burns.

Who are the favourites?

The betting favourites to win the Stanley Cup are Carolina, Florida and Dallas (in order), according to BetMGM Sportsbook.

When is the Stanley Cup Final?

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The playoffs begin April 20 to open three rounds of seven-game series before the final starts in early June. If the final goes the distance, Game 7 could go as late as June 24.

Go deeper

The Hurricanes won 16 of their final 21 games, many of them after acquiring Jake Guentzel and Evgeny Kuznetsov at the trade deadline. They’re in the playoffs for a sixth consecutive year under Rod Brind’Amour, their 2006 Cup-winning captain who has created a winning culture.

Dallas, the top seed in the West, is among the top contenders with a mix of veterans and young players clicking at the right time. The Stars could face a second-round challenge from Winnipeg, a big, tough team and the league’s stingiest in terms of goals allowed.

Expect full buildings after a new record for attendance and fans filling arenas to 97 per cent of capacity this season. It’s another result of the NHL’s booming business.

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Fans who like fights on the ice have watched the brawls dwindle in recent years and they are a rarity in the post-season. Like tradition? Rest easy: The NHL has no plans to change its 16-team playoff format.

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