The Best Possible NHL First-Round Matchups — Ranked!Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images
With 10 days left in the season, the NHL’s playoff picture is coming into focus. Over the past few weeks, we’ve spent plenty of time looking at the various bubble teams that are scrambling to earn the final playoff spots. But today we’re going to shift focus slightly and concentrate on the teams that are already in. Specifically, we’ll look at the matchups those teams will have in the first round.
So here’s what we’re going to do: Let’s take the 10 most-likely first-round matchups as of Wednesday. (All odds are from Sports Club Stats projections, which are based on current standings as well as strength of schedule over the rest of the year.) And then, let’s rank each series based on how excited we’d be to see it.
Of course, by “we” I mean “me,” and this is all completely arbitrary. But that doesn’t mean I’m not right. Here we go.
10. St. Louis vs. Dallas (44.8 Percent Chance of Happening)
The Stars have won three straight and are starting to pull away from the Phoenix Coyotes in terms of odds, if not in the actual standings (the two teams are tied at 85 points), based largely on their two games in hand and their edge in the ROW tiebreaker.
And that’s not exactly a bad thing, because Dallas seems like it could be a fun team to watch in the playoffs. It has young stars Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin up front, Kari Lehtonen in net (plus the possibility of a Tim Thomas sighting), and a fun cast of “Oh yeah, I forgot he was even still in the league” veterans like Ray Whitney and Sergei Gonchar. After seeing them paste the Capitals 5-0 on Tuesday, you could get behind the idea of watching these guys for a round. Unfortunately, a round is all they’d get if they end up drawing the Blues, who would beat them in five games.
Sorry, Dallas fans. That paragraph kind of took a turn on you at the end. I probably should have eased into that more.
Random old YouTube clip to get you fired up: Here’s former Blues star Brett Hull scoring his first postseason goal as a Dallas Star against his old team during their second-round matchup in the 1999 playoffs. It’s one of three times the two teams have met in the playoffs, and the only time the series didn’t end in a sweep. (The Stars won in six, on their way to winning the franchise’s only Stanley Cup.)
9. Anaheim vs. Minnesota (52.7 Percent)
These odds may seem high, given that the Ducks are still dueling the Sharks for first place in the Pacific, but Sports Club Stats thinks they’re pretty much a lock, so who am I to argue? But for our sake we’ll hope they ended up being wrong, because there’s not much to get excited about in this matchup.
These two teams have met twice in the playoffs, once in the first round in 2007 and once in the conference final in 2003. If you have no recollection of that latter meeting, it may be because the Wild set an NHL record by scoring only one goal in the series.
This series might not be much better, but at least it would have more Teemu Selanne in it.
Random old YouTube clip to get you fired up: This is the first YouTube result that came up when I searched for “wild + ducks.” I’m not completely sure it’s any less entertaining than this series would be.
8. Columbus vs. Pittsburgh (24.3 Percent) or Boston (42.6 Percent)
I’m going to bend the rules a little and include both of the Blue Jackets’ possible matchups, because if they can hold on to their wild-card spot, they could end up playing either division leader, and both matchups would be similar: Columbus would be facing a star-studded team, it would go into the series as a heavy underdog, and you probably wouldn’t watch.
And I don’t say that as a shot at Columbus, because I’m fully behind the idea of hopping on the Blue Jackets postseason bandwagon. Their fans have suffered for more than a decade and deserve something to cheer about. It’s just that there’s not a lot to get excited about in either of these options.
It’s unfortunate that it’s probably too late for the Blue Jackets to move up into the Metro’s no. 2 vs. no. 3 bracket, because that would set up a far more intriguing series. We’d either get to see them face ex–Blue Jackets captain Rick Nash and the Rangers, or a Philadelphia Flyers team that dumped Sergei Bobrovsky right before he won a Vezina in Columbus.
There’s always a chance we could see those matchups in the second round. In the meantime, we’ll have to try to get excited about Nathan Horton vs. the Bruins.
Random old YouTube clip to get you fired up: This highlight video of the Blue Jackets’ first season is strangely fascinating. When Geoff Sanderson is your star player and Lyle Odelein is your captain, you know you’re not exactly set up for short-term success. But look at them. They’re so full of hope for the future. It’s almost heartbreaking.
7. Montreal vs. Tampa Bay (98 Percent)
As the odds would imply, this one is already a lock, though we don’t know yet which team will host Game 1.
And as matchups go, it’s … fine, I guess. Both teams are good stories. You’ve got the fabled history of the Canadiens, who will probably be Canada’s only playoff team. Carey Price has played well, and already has a gold medal this year. Thomas Vanek has been a nice fit. And P.K. Subban is pretty much the most entertaining player in the league. Meanwhile, the Lightning are a nice underdog story led by a healthy Steven Stamkos and Vezina front-runner Ben Bishop. It’s a close matchup, with three of their four games this year going to overtime. And there’s even some bad blood after Tuesday night’s game, in which Douglas Murray KO’d Mike Kostka with an ugly elbow.
And yet, am I crazy or is it hard to get especially excited over this series? There’s no history here, and neither team really seems like a legitimate Cup contender. Compared to potential second-round matchups like Habs vs. Bruins, or a Steve Yzerman–themed series between the Lightning and Red Wings, this one just doesn’t seem to click.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that this will probably end up being the best matchup of the first round, and fans of both teams will make sure I’ll never hear the end of it. Mostly in French.
Random old YouTube clip to get you fired up: It’s usually not a good idea to try to fight a guy who’s 6-foot-7 and wearing a mask and 50 pounds of equipment.
6. Boston vs. Detroit (27.3 Percent)
This one would certainly have the novelty factor going for it; the two teams have not met in a playoff series in more than half a century. That would be the 1956-57 semifinals, in which Milt Schmidt and the Bruins upset Gordie Howe and the top-seeded Red Wings in five games. It was a great series, according to Daniel Alfredsson, who had just completed his rookie season at the time.
The modern-day matchup wouldn’t have quite the star power as the last one, though it wouldn’t be far off, especially if Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are back in the lineup for Detroit. (The former seems likely, while the latter might be a stretch.) The Bruins will go into the playoffs as a heavy favorite in the Eastern Conference and would be a consensus pick against the Wings, but it wouldn’t be the first-round bye they may be hoping for.
The two teams played Wednesday night, with the Red Wings scoring twice in the third period for a comeback 3-2 win. It was a good game, and it wouldn’t take much to talk hockey fans into watching six or seven more of them.
Random old YouTube clip to get you fired up: Most early ’90s bench-clearing brawls were fun. This one was not fun. This one was completely out of control. Bob Probert was legitimately terrifying.
5. St. Louis vs. Minnesota (38.6 Percent)
Much like the Dallas matchup, this series would heavily favor the Blues and would probably be over fairly quickly. (They’ve won all four matchups against Minnesota this year, with the Wild managing just four goals in those games.) But it moves up a few spots based on an intriguing story line for this series: goaltending. And more specifically, goaltending acquired at the trade deadline.
Both teams felt they needed an upgrade, and the Blues went big, acquiring former Vezina winner Ryan Miller in a blockbuster that stands out as the biggest trade of the season. The Wild went the discount route, acquiring Ilya Bryzgalov from Edmonton for a fourth-round pick. That seemed like a risky move, given that the long-term absences of Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom meant the Wild needed a starter more than the Blues did, but Bryzgalov has been decent since he arrived. If he led Minnesota to an upset over Miller and the Blues, the second-guessing in St. Louis would be off the charts.
(Harding rejoined the team this week and his return to action would spoil the story line, which would be fine because if you’re not sincerely rooting for Harding at this point then you’re an awful person.)
Random old YouTube clip to get you fired up: These two teams have never met in the postseason, but the old Minnesota North Stars shocked the Blues in the second round of the 1990-91 playoffs on their way to one of the greatest Cinderella Stanley Cup finals runs in hockey history. It was a fun series and a huge upset, and as best I can tell, there is zero footage of this series on YouTube. How is that even possible? What happened in that series that they don’t want us to know about? WHAT IS GARY BETTMAN HIDING?
Anyway, here’s those two teams playing a regular-season game from 1993 instead.
4. Pittsburgh vs. Detroit (64.4 Percent)
This series would have a lot going for it. It would feature two popular teams that boast plenty of big-name talent. It would be the first playoff matchup for Pittsburgh and Detroit since their back-to-back meetings in the Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and 2009. (Each team won once.) And it would be a divisional crossover series, which would cause maximum confusion among the majority of fans who still have no idea how this new system works.
So could the Red Wings pull off the upset? I think they could. The Penguins are top-heavy with elite talent, but their lack of depth and spotty recent postseason history makes it seem like they’re vulnerable to being knocked off in the early going. A second-round exit seems more likely, but the Wings would have a shot here.
Besides, who wouldn’t want to watch a series that prominently featured the undisputed best player in the entire league? (And when Gustav Nyquist wasn’t on the ice, we could still watch Sidney Crosby.)
Random old YouTube clip to get you fired up: Here’s Marc-Andre Fleury winning the Stanley Cup by making a diving save off Nicklas Lidstrom in the dying seconds of Game 7 of the 2009 finals. This play was kind of insane, and I feel like we don’t appreciate it enough. Also, somebody apparently told Fleury “you’ll never make another playoff save like that again in your life” and he took that person literally.
3. New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia (86.6 Percent)
This one has seemed pretty much set for the past few weeks, and it’s exactly the sort of first-round matchup that the new playoff format is supposed to ensure: two long-time rivals with bad blood and legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations.
I’m not exaggerating that last part. With all due respect to the Penguins, you could make a case for these two teams being the best non-Bruins squads in the East. Both had slow starts to the season that led to plenty of “What’s wrong with the …”–style columns, but both managed to get back on track in time to cruise to a playoff spot.
And both teams look a lot different now than they did to open the year. The Rangers traded captain Ryan Callahan but acquired Martin St. Louis. Meanwhile, the Flyers replaced coach Peter Laviolette with Craig Berube, who’ll likely earn some Jack Adams votes. And after a tough start to the year, Claude Giroux has been on fire.
If you’re an NBC executive, this is your uncontested dream matchup. If you’re a regular fan, it’s probably not far off.
Random old YouTube clip to get you fired up: These two teams were featured on the 2012 season of HBO’s 24/7. I don’t quite remember these scenes, but apparently they were in there.
2. Colorado vs. Chicago (99.2 Percent)
So you’re the 2013-14 Colorado Avalanche. You’ve been terrible for years, you picked first overall in the most recent NHL draft, and you just hired two star players from the franchise’s championship years as coach and president of hockey ops, in what seemed like a transparent attempt to generate good PR to distract from all the losing everyone expects you do.
And then … you turn out to be good. Not just a little bit good, but really good, as in “not all that far off from the Presidents’ Trophy” good. You’re one of the best underdog stories of the season, if not the entire salary-cap era.
And here’s your reward: You get to play the defending Stanley Cup champions in the first round. Yikes. Good luck with that.
And to make matters worse, the Avs will probably have to do it without leading scorer Matt Duchene, who’s expected to miss a month with a knee injury. The Blackhawks lost two stars of their own in Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, though both are expected back in time for the playoffs.
Literally everyone is going to pick the Blackhawks in this series. Then again, we all picked the Avs to miss the playoffs, so what do we know?
Random old YouTube clip to get you fired up: The two teams have only met in the playoffs twice, in back-to-back years in 1996 and 1997. Here’s Game 2 of their 1997 quarterfinal series.
1. San Jose vs. Los Angeles (94.8 Percent)
Again, these odds may strike you as a bit high, but it’s hard to argue that this series is looking more likely every day. And that’s just fine, because it’s going to be fantastic.
In one corner, you’ve got the Sharks, a team that spent the season’s first month absolutely crushing every team in sight, and that on their best night still looks just about unbeatable. And if you like your combatants served up with a ready-made narrative, you’re all set: The Sharks have been legitimate contenders almost every year since the turn of the century, making the postseason every year but one and winning 12 playoff rounds over that time. They’ve been to the conference finals three times, and their roster features one star who’s a future Hall of Famer in Joe Thornton and another in Patrick Marleau, who’s probably closer than you think. And yet they’ve never been able to get over the hump and go to the Cup final. This was supposed to be the year that the window slammed closed, but instead they’re as good as they’ve ever been. But it might just be their last chance.
In the other corner are the Kings, two years removed from winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. They’ve struggled off and on all year, including some extended stretches when they couldn’t score despite a roster packed with offensive talent. But they’ve been better lately, and have been locked in as the Pacific’s third seed for so long that they’ve often seemed like they were in cruise control, just waiting for the playoffs to kick it in to a higher gear.
Oh, and of course they’re intrastate rivals. And they played a nail-biting Game 7 last year. And they may be one of the league’s most intense rivalries.
This series is going to be great. The only downside is that whichever team wins might not have anything left for the second round.
Random old YouTube clip to get you fired up: Here are the highlights from last year’s Game 7. Here’s hoping we get to see the sequel in a few weeks.
Filed Under: NHL, sean mcindoe, San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, Colorado Avalanche, Chicago Blackhawks, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Red Wings, Hockey, Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues, Dallas Stars, Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, Tampa Bay Lightning, Anaheim Ducks