The NHL playoffs are less than a week away, and we’re starting to get a clearer picture of exactly which teams will be involved.
But while several are locked into a playoff spot, there’s still plenty of uncertainty over what the actual first-round matchups will be. So this seems like a good time to start thinking ahead to some potential pairings.
We’re not necessarily going to worry about the most likely scenarios, just the potentially best ones. To keep from veering too far into wishful thinking, we’ll limit it to matchups that have at least a 15 percent chance of happening, according to Sports Club Stats.
Here are a dozen possible playoff matchups that hockey fans can start getting excited about.
Red Wings vs. Blackhawks
Chances of it happening: 55.3 percent
Why it would be great: Because it’s easily one of the NHL’s all-time great rivalries. The two teams have met in the playoffs 15 times, including five times within a decade during the heyday of the old Norris Division.
But it’s a matchup we haven’t seen much lately, with only one postseason meeting in the past 18 years. More significantly, it’s a matchup we might never have a chance to see again, with the Red Wings slated to move to the Eastern Conference next season.
Old YouTube clip to get you fired up: This 1987 brawl features multiple heavyweights, mismatches, and cheap shots, and is completely out of control. In other words, it’s what pretty much every shift in Norris Division history looked like.
Islanders vs. Capitals
Chances of it happening: 38.4 percent
Why it would be great: The two teams don’t have much recent playoff history, since the Islanders don’t have much recent playoff history with anyone. But in the 1980s, an Islanders-Capitals series was an annual tradition. They met five straight years between 1983 and 1987, and added a sixth matchup in 1993 (which still stands as the most recent first-round series the Islanders have won).
Those series produced two of the most famous playoff moments in NHL history. In 1987, they played the “Easter Epic,” a quadruple-OT Game 7 classic. Pat LaFontaine finally ended it with a spinning slap shot past a screened Bob Mason in the game’s 129th minute.
The other famous moment also involved a series-clinching goal by an Islander All-Star, in this case Pierre Turgeon. But it was what happened afterward that made it memorable.
Old YouTube clip to get you fired up: Never turn your back on Dale Hunter.
Kings vs. Sharks
Chances of it happening: 18.4 percent
Why it would be great: The two California rivals have coexisted for more than 20 years, but have only met once in the playoffs (a 2011 first-round matchup that the Sharks won in six). As an added bonus, there’s even a decent chance that the winner could move on to play the state’s third team, the Anaheim Ducks.
Beyond geography, the matchup would pit a relatively young defending champ against an aging team whose core could be taking their final shot at a title before the window slams completely shut.
Old YouTube clip to get you fired up: Here are the Sharks roaring back from a 4-0 deficit to take Game 3 of the 2011 series in overtime.
Blues vs. Canucks
Chances of it happening: 16 percent
Why it would be great: With apologies to Cliff Ronning or Sergio Momesso, this one doesn’t have the history of some of our other matchups. These two teams have met in the playoffs only three times, with Vancouver winning each time (twice in Game 7s), and haven’t combined for all that many memorable moments.
But what it does have is two teams in almost eerily similar situations. Both were preseason Cup favorites. Both have had somewhat disappointing seasons. Both have dealt with odd goaltending situations (the Roberto Luongo–Cory Schneider soap opera in Vancouver, and Jaroslav Halak’s injuries combined with Brian Elliott’s up-and-down season in St. Louis).
And, of course, both teams are looking to shake reputations for being able to get it done in the playoffs. Despite icing consistently strong teams, the two franchises have combined for zero Stanley Cups in 40-plus years. If they meet in the playoffs, one team will take a big step toward ending that drought, while the other will spend the summer getting hammered by critics.
Old YouTube clip to get you well, maybe not fired up, but marginally interested: Pavel Bure and the Canucks finish off the Blues in the final minutes of Game 7 of their 1995 meeting.
Islanders vs. Penguins
Chances of it happening: 19.4 percent
Why it would be great: Because we’d all get to watch the David Volek goal over and over, and it would make Penguins fans sad.
Old YouTube clip to get you fired up: While things have cooled off over the past two seasons, these teams have had some recent beef.
Senators vs. Penguins
Chances of it happening: 33.4 percent
Why it would be great: There’s some playoff history here — the two teams met in the first round three times between 2007 and 2010. But the main attraction would be the lingering bad blood over the Erik Karlsson injury, which the Senators tried (and failed) to avenge on Monday night. Karlsson is set to return to action months ahead of schedule, so he’d have a chance to directly dish out some payback in the form of a first-round upset.
With Senators owner Eugene Melnyk still waiting on the results from his personal forensics squad, and Ottawa columnists already practicing their “hey, look at me” shtick, this matchup might lead the league in pure sideshow potential.
Old YouTube clip to get you fired up: This is the most popular YouTube clip in Ottawa over the past few months, which is weird since it doesn’t even involve the Senators.
Maple Leafs vs. Canadiens
Chances of it happening: 59.1 percent
Why it would be great: For all the reasons we covered last week.
Old YouTube clip to get you fired up: An underrated classic: Pat Burns returns to the Forum in 1993, featuring one of the all-time great coaching fist pumps.
Maple Leafs vs. Bruins
Chances of it happening: 24.4 percent
Why it would be great: Well, “great” might be pushing it, since it could be a one-sided matchup. Let’s go with “interesting.”
These two teams have plenty of recent history, most of it one-sided and much of it off the ice. The key figure would be Phil Kessel, who orchestrated his way out of Boston in 2009 and has never been forgiven by Bruins fans. And let’s not forget that Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask was drafted by the Leafs but traded for Andrew Raycroft. That worked out great!
The Bruins have dominated the Leafs since those deals, including wins last year by scores of 7-0 and 8-0, with Kessel struggling badly against Zdeno Chara. It’s possible that Kessel could write a nice redemption story if he could lead the Leafs to an upset win. It’s also possible that I’ll get a pony for Christmas.
Old YouTube clip to get you fired up: Future Leafs coach Pat Quinn says hello to Bobby Orr.
Blue Jackets vs. Blackhawks
Chances of it happening: 21.5 percent
Why it would be great: It probably wouldn’t be, to be honest. There’s no real history here, Chicago would be a massive favorite, and it would probably be a four-game sweep.
Still, it would be fun to see the Blue Jackets get in and try for their first playoff win in franchise history, and this would almost certainly be their matchup. And what’s that old hockey wisdom about big upsets just needing a hot goalie?
Old YouTube clip to get you fired up: Like I said, there’s really not much history here. So instead, here’s TSN’s Jay Onrait yelling BOBROVSKY for three straight minutes.
Islanders vs. Bruins
Chances of it happening: 24.8 percent
Why it would be great: Four words: Surprise Tim Thomas comeback.
Old YouTube clip to get you fired up: I miss Tim Thomas.
Wild vs. Ducks
Chances of it happening: 55.5 percent
Why it would be great: In addition to featuring four players (Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, and Corey Perry) whose recent contracts are worth well over $300 million combined, this series would include Teemu Selanne. Anything that includes Teemu Selanne is, by definition, awesome.
It would also be a rematch of their conference finals meeting from a decade ago, which you have zero recollection of. In fact, you think I’m making that up just so I’ll have an excuse to mention these two teams on the list. You’re going to go check it on Wikipedia right now. No, that’s all right, you go right ahead, I’ll wait here.
Old YouTube clip to get you fired up: I accept your apology.
Rangers vs. Bruins
Chances of it happening: 25.4 percent, unless NBC executives have a say, in which case 100 percent
Why it would be great: It would be an Original Six matchup, which is always great, and would feature two cities with an intense and well-documented sports rivalry. It would also pit the 2011 Cup champs against the 2012 Eastern Conference top seed, with plenty of star talent on either side.
And somewhat amazingly, despite the two teams always playing in the same conference, this would be the first Rangers-Bruins playoff meeting in 40 years.
Old YouTube clip to get you fired up: Easily the greatest fight in Boston–New York history.