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The lapsed fan's guide to the 2021 NHL playoffs: Top storylines, Stanley Cup favorites, series watchability rankings

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The Stanley Cup Playoffs are here and it's time for a refresher (1:12)

Greg Wyshynski breaks down the NHL playoff format this season and how it differs from years past. (1:12)

We've come a long way since the Tampa Bay Lightning won the 2020 Stanley Cup in a bubble in Edmonton, Alberta. New protocols were agreed upon, and many surprises unfolded -- both good and bad -- as the NHL embarked on a season like no other. Playoff darlings from last year like the Dallas Stars and Vancouver Canucks battled through injuries, underwhelming performances and a schedule impacted by the pandemic, but couldn't make the cut. Sixteen teams managed to emerge from the most untraditional of NHL seasons.

As a service to fans who have a general interest in the National Hockey League but have no idea what's happened since last summer's bubbles, we're happy to provide this FAQ as a guide to the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs.

More: Playoff schedule | Series previews
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It's the middle of May and the Stanley Cup playoffs are just starting?

In fairness, it still feels like the last tournament just ended. The Lightning didn't lift the Cup in the Edmonton bubble until Sept. 28 of last year. The target date to start a truncated 2021 regular season was Jan. 1, but that became impossible due to the time needed to develop COVID-19 protocols, hold proper training camps and because the NHL owners briefly tried to amend a collective bargaining agreement they had settled with the players a few months earlier -- which, as you might imagine, the players weren't too enthused about amending.

The 56-game season instead started on Jan. 13 and was expected to end on May 8. Unfortunately, the NHL had to reschedule 52 games due to COVID-19 outbreaks on teams -- and another five games involving the Dallas Stars due to the winter storms that hit Texas -- which pushed the end of the regular season into the "cushion" the league built into its schedule in anticipation of such postponements. The regular season finishes up on May 19.

Wait, isn't the start of the playoffs on May 15?

Welcome to the season where the postseason starts before the regular season ends, and hamburgers eat people.

The Vancouver Canucks had a major COVID outbreak at the end of March, causing the postponement of eight games and keeping the team out of action for 24 days. Instead of just canceling games that were meaningless to the playoff race and using points percentage to determine draft lottery seeding, the Canucks will finish the season with seven games in 10 days, ending at the Calgary Flames in an afternoon game on May 19, the same day as Game 3 of the Boston vs. Washington first-round series. Because of the Canucks' postponements, the North Division isn't starting its playoff rounds until the night of May 19.