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NHL playoff predictions: With first round starting Saturday, who wins Stanley Cup?

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The 2021 NHL playoffs will have a much different look from 2020.

No bubble environment. Teams playing in their home arenas, many with fans in attendance. Teams traveling back and forth again. No conference vs. conference final. A Canadian team guaranteed to make the semifinals for the first time since 2018.

Edmonton Oilers runaway points leader Connor McDavid, Toronto Maple Leafs goal-scoring leader Auston Matthews and Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby are in the spotlight after they were knocked out in the qualifying round last year. Washington Capitals defenseman Zdeno Chara, the former Bruins captain, is trying to knock Boston out of the playoffs. There's an all-Florida series as the Lightning and Panthers meet for the first time in the playoffs, and Toronto and Montreal are making their first playoff meeting in 42 years.

USA TODAY Sports NHL staffers try to make sense out of all that with their playoff predictions, which will include our first-round choices:

Jimmy Hascup

Pittsburgh vs. N.Y. Islanders: Penguins in 6. Hard to ignore the fact that the Penguins have lost six times since April, a span of 20 games, while the Islanders have won six times in their last 16.

Washington vs. Boston: Bruins in 6. Too much uncertainty for the Capitals, while Taylor Hall (eight goals, 14 points in 16 games) has added another dimension for Boston.

Carolina vs. Nashville: Hurricanes in 5. The Predators' season turnaround was impressive, but Carolina is simply too deep and skilled.

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Colorado Avalanche left wing Gabriel Landeskog (92) celebrates his goal with center Nathan MacKinnon (29) earlier this season against the Minnesota Wild.
Colorado Avalanche left wing Gabriel Landeskog (92) celebrates his goal with center Nathan MacKinnon (29) earlier this season against the Minnesota Wild.

Florida vs. Tampa Bay: Lightning in 6. The defending Stanley Cup champions will likely have Nikita Kucherov (out all year) and Steven Stamkos (out since April 8) back.

Toronto vs. Montreal: Maple Leafs in 5. Too much offensive firepower for the Maple Leafs, who have seen Jack Campbell seize the No. 1 job in net.

Edmonton vs. Winnipeg: Winnipeg in 7. Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen or Connor Hellebuyck? Even though Hellebuyck hasn't been as dominant this year, Winnipeg will win because of the edge he provides.

Colorado vs. St. Louis: Colorado in 5. A look under the hood underscores how dominant the Avs have been: an expected goals-for percentage of 60% along with a scoring-chances for mark of 60%, compared to 46% and 48%, respectively, for the Blues, per naturalstattrick.com.

Vegas vs. Minnesota: Vegas in 6. Minnesota is headed in the right direction and its season has been a major surprise, but Vegas' battle-tested group has only gotten stronger with Alex Pietrangelo.

Division winners: Hurricanes, Bruins, Maple Leafs, Avalanche

Stanley Cup Final: Hurricanes vs. Avalanche

Champion: Avalanche in 7. This series will become epic as one that is fun, well played and high scoring. And did I mention fast? I picked the Avs in the preseason and I will stick with them here.

Conn Smythe: Gabriel Landeskog

Mike Brehm

Pittsburgh vs. N.Y. Islanders: Penguins in 6. The Islanders play excellent defense, but they can't match the Penguins' offense, especially now with Jeff Carter in the mix.

Washington vs. Boston: Bruins in 6. The Capitals are banged up and the Bruins are more than a one-line team now with Hall.

Carolina vs. Nashville: Hurricanes in 5. Carolina is in the top 3 in power play and penalty killing. Among playoff teams, Nashville is near the bottom in those categories and last in scoring.

Florida vs. Tampa Bay: Lightning in 7. This will be one of the best first-round series. The Lightning's championship experience will get them past their in-state rival.

Toronto vs. Montreal: Maple Leafs in 5. The Maple Leafs haven't been to the second round since 2004. They have too much finishing power and the Canadiens have been slumping.

Edmonton vs. Winnipeg: Oilers in 5. McDavid averaged 2.4 points a game against the Jets this season, and Oilers goalie Mike Smith gave up only 2.06 a game.

Colorado vs. St. Louis: Avalanche in 6. The Avalanche tied for the league lead with 22 home wins and the Blues had 12. Colorado has too much firepower for the Blues.

Vegas vs. Minnesota: Golden Knights in 6. As well as Wild goalie Cam Talbot has played this year, he has only two wins and an .857 save percentage in his last six games. One of those wins was against the Golden Knights, but Robin Lehner was in the Vegas net. Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, meanwhile, has won nine in a row with a .943 save percentage in that span.

Division winners: Lightning, Bruins, Oilers, Avalanche

Stanley Cup Final: Avalanche vs. Lightning.

Champion: Avalanche in 7. I predicted an Avalanche-Lightning championship matchup in the preseason. Nathan MacKinnon and Victor Hedman missing time recently worries me, but if they're good to go, these teams can go far. I thought the Avalanche would win it all last year. Their excellent season amid injuries and COVID-19 pauses shows they're ready to do it this year.

Conn Smythe: Mikko Rantanen

Jace Evans

Pittsburgh vs. N.Y. Islanders: Penguins in 7. Barry Trotz's grinding style has proven quite successful in recent playoffs but the Pens have shown plenty of grit of their own this season.

Washington vs. Boston: Bruins in 6. Boston had a strong close to the season after acquiring Taylor Hall, and the Capitals have too much uncertainty in net.

Carolina vs. Nashville: Hurricanes in 4. Though the Preds won the last two matchups, they lost their first six games against the Hurricanes in largely one-sided fashion. Carolina is too solid in all facets of the game.

Florida vs. Tampa Bay: Panthers in 7. Though most of the Lightning's big guns should be back in the lineup, it's unclear how effective they will be. Florida has home ice advantage and something to prove in the first playoff series between these in-state rivals. They haven't won a playoff series since 1996.

Toronto vs. Montreal: Maple Leafs in 7. Toronto is significantly more talented, but I'm banking on weird things happening in this historic rivalry. The Habs' puck possession ability could keep this one close but in the end the Leafs will finally kick their elimination game woes and advance to Round 2 for the first time in 17 years.

Edmonton vs. Winnipeg: Oilers in 6. Winnipeg had no answers for Connor McDavid this season, which was a major reason why Edmonton won seven of nine meetings. Still, Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck is good enough to steal a few games in this series.

Colorado vs. St. Louis: Avalanche in 5. The Avs are the highest-scoring team in the NHL with Stanley Cup aspirations. The Blues ... not so much. Frankly, it would be stunning if this series became a long one.

Vegas vs. Minnesota: Golden Knights in 7. The Wild have gotten the better of the Golden Knights this year but Vegas is built for another long postseason run. It should be a hard-fought series but home ice will help the Knights in the end.

Division winners: Hurricanes, Bruins, Maple Leafs, Avalanche

Stanley Cup Final: Maple Leafs vs. Avalanche

Champion: Avalanche in 5. The Presidents' Trophy winners have fallen just short of the conference finals each of the past two seasons but with the NHL's No. 1 offense and a defense that finished third in goals against, they seem primed for a breakthrough. They're dangerous up front, with a devastating first line, have gamebreakers like Cale Makar and Samuel Girard in the back and have an underrated goalie in Philipp Grubauer. They have the pieces to win Colorado's third Stanley Cup.

Conn Smythe: Nathan MacKinnon

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NHL playoff picks: First round and Stanley Cup predictions