We’re now down to 10 days left in the NHL schedule, which means we can start looking ahead to the postseason. Sure, we’ve all secretly been doing that since mid-January,1 but now we can admit it. The playoffs are almost here. And it’s time to start figuring out which matchups to root for.
Since mid-September in Buffalo.
That’s going to be a little bit challenging, since unlike in years past, there’s no absolute sure thing looming. This time last year, we were already 99 percent locked into matchups like Montreal–Tampa Bay and Los Angeles–San Jose.2 This year doesn’t bring anything even close to that level of certainty.
We were also locked into Colorado-Chicago, before the Blues lost six straight and coughed up the division title.
Still, it’s important to start preparing early, since some of these matchups are better than others and we need to know what to root for. So here’s our list of the 10 most likely first-round matchups heading into last night’s action, as provided by the number crunchers over at hockeystats.ca, and ranked in increasing order of potential awesomeness.
10. Canucks vs. Kings: 48.2 percent
While this would be only an OK matchup on its own merits, it holds one key selling point: It’s by far the most likely matchup that involves the Kings actually making the playoffs.
You may or may not view that as a good thing. After all, the Kings have won two recent Cups, and have a nasty habit of barely squeezing into the playoffs before transforming into an unbeatable powerhouse. Maybe you’re tired of that act and would prefer to see somebody else get a shot.
But maybe the defending champions deserve a chance to go out on their shield, and that means they have to make the playoffs first. Besides, Kings playoff runs tend to be fun. Remember, the last team they beat in the first round was so crushed by the loss that it went completely insane and provided us with a good year’s worth of entertainment. And a long run could even get us a rematch of last year’s Hawks-Kings conference final.3 So even though this wouldn’t be an especially great matchup, there’s still good reason to root for it to happen.
In theory, we could get that rematch even earlier, since there’s a slight chance the Kings make it in as a crossover wild card and get sent to the Central.
As for Vancouver, the Canucks have had a surprisingly strong season and probably want no part of a first-round meeting with the defending champs. And that’s fine, because there’s a better matchup looming for Vancouver that we’ll get to down below.
Random old YouTube clip to get you fired up: Jarret Stoll scores in overtime in 2012, eliminating the no. 1–seeded Canucks and starting the Kings’ first Cup run.
9. Canadiens vs. Red Wings: 32.6 percent
This one would certainly have some appeal for history buffs. You’ve got a meeting of two Original Six teams, with all the nostalgia those matchups come preloaded with. And in this case, the pairing is a relatively unique one: These two teams haven’t met in the playoffs since 1978. It’s also two great hockey markets, with lots of championships between them.
You’ll notice I’m not really saying anything about the actual teams. That’s because, on paper, this doesn’t feel like a great fit as far as matchups go. For example, the Canadiens have the best goalie in the league in Carey Price, who’s going to win the MVP. The Red Wings don’t even seem quite sure who their starter is right now. Your gut tells you that that edge alone would be enough to turn this into an easy Habs win.
Your gut is probably wrong, though, since goaltending is voodoo, as this year has taught us. In the year of Devan Dubnyk and Cam Talbot and the Hamburglar, “Carey Price gets badly outplayed by Petr Mrazek” would fit right in as a story line. And there would be more to this series than goaltending, with plenty of star power to go around and the whole “Is this the end of Mike Babcock in Detroit?” subplot.
It’s an OK matchup. I’m sure it would be fine. But there are better possible opponents lurking for both of these teams. The Wings one is coming up a few spots down our list. As for Montreal, the matchup we all want to see is clearly the Boston Bruins — the two teams hate each other, and just about every series between them ends up being memorable. Unfortunately, that matchup isn’t looking likely, thanks in part to the NHL’s weird double-crossover system, which makes it possible for the Bruins to finish fourth in the Atlantic but get shipped off to the Metro instead. Hockeystats.ca has the Habs’ chances of playing the Bruins at only 17.2 percent, just a little better than their odds of getting the Islanders. You suck, crossover.
Random old YouTube clip to get you fired up: A vintage highlight reel of the 1954 “World Series of hockey” between the Wings and Habs.
8. Penguins vs. Islanders: 50.1 percent
OK, let’s get this out of the way first: That sound you hear is every Penguins fan in the world screaming at me to not bring up a certain overtime goal. That would be the one that ended the 1993 series between these two teams in overtime of the seventh game, and that may have also ended the mini dynasty of the Mario Lemieux–era Penguins. To this day, Pittsburgh fans get angry when they even hear the guy’s name.
And yes, that’s a big part of the history between these two teams. But it was also two decades ago, and there’s no point dwelling on the past. So relax, Penguins fans. We’re done rubbing salt in those wounds.
Besides, there’s plenty more to talk about with these two teams. The Islanders are the feel-good story — a young team on the rise that’s just one year removed from a disastrous season, and a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff round in 22 years. They’d be facing a Penguins team that’s spent most of the last decade as a powerhouse, but that has seemed oddly vulnerable in recent years. In fact, this postseason feels like a tipping point for the Penguins, with more than a few whispers that if they can’t make a deep run, it may be time to think about hitting the reset button.
If that isn’t enough, we’d get to focus on the matchup of John Tavares vs. Sidney Crosby, plus an appearance by Isles’ goalie Jaroslav Halak, who almost single-handedly led the Habs to an upset over the heavily favored Penguins back in 2010. It’s not the Islanders-Rangers matchup that we all want — we’ll probably have to wait for Round 2 for that — but it’s not a bad backup.
Random old YouTube clip to get you fired up: I thought this was a really good X’s-and-O’s breakdown of some of tactical factors that would come into play in an Islanders-Penguins series.
7. Bruins vs. Rangers: 41.8 percent
Rangers fans must be thrilled with this one. You rack up a dominant second half, cruise to first place in the Metro, and post quite possibly the best record in hockey. And your reward for all of that is a matchup against … the team everyone was picking to win the conference back in October.
Well, maybe not everyone,4 but you get the idea. On paper, the Bruins seem like they should be a tough matchup. Of course, if you’ve watched them stumble their way through the season, barely fending off also-rans like Ottawa and Florida for the final playoff spot, you’re not so worried. These days, the Bruins don’t look like a threat to beat anyone in a seven-game series, let alone the East’s best team.
But even if the upset potential is low, the fun factor should be reasonably high. For one, it’s Boston and New York in a pro sports contest, so something weird will happen. There are plenty of big names to go around, and Rask vs. Lundqvist would probably be the first round’s best goaltending matchup. This year could also represent the last shot at a Cup for a pair of respected veterans in Martin St. Louis and Zdeno Chara.5
Chara isn’t retiring, but with trade rumors swirling, there’s at least a chance he could be done in Boston.
And if you want to up the stakes a bit more, there’s always the looming specter that a Bruins loss would lead to the franchise deciding to swing a wrecking ball through the whole thing.
Random old YouTube clip to get you fired up: The 1979 Bruins hold an impromptu meet-and-greet for Rangers fans at MSG.
6. Ducks vs. Jets: 52.9 percent
On paper, this one doesn’t sound all that great. There’s no real history here; the teams have never met in the playoffs, and I’m having a hard time coming up with anything memorable that’s happened between them in the regular season. They’re not even in the same division — we’d get this matchup under a crossover scenario, in which the Jets sneak in as the West’s final wild card and temporarily become a Pacific team.
So if there’s not much to this particular matchup, why get excited about it? Because it contains the Winnipeg Jets, that’s why. Winnipeg is still far from a sure thing to make the playoffs, but if it does, it will probably be against the Ducks. And you should want the Jets to make the playoffs, because Winnipeg hasn’t had a playoff team since 1996. That takes you all the way back to the final season of the old Jets, before they moved to Phoenix, then up through the 15 years spent without a team and the last three years of the reborn Jets missing the postseason. I promise you, if the Jets do make it this year, there will not be a louder arena in the league than Winnipeg’s MTS Centre.
Mix in the fact that the Jets are a pretty good little team, plus the palpable “first-round upset special” cloud that hangs over the Ducks — sorry, Anaheim fans, but it’s there — and this could be the first-round series that you start off ignoring and can’t look away from by the end.
Random old YouTube clip to get you fired up: In a cool moment from earlier this year, the two teams take to the ice wearing every Teemu Selanne jersey.
5. Predators vs. Wild: 44.8 percent
There’s no tradition here to speak of, with two relatively new franchises that have never faced each other in the playoffs. But what we’d lack in history, we’d more than make up for in modern-day plotlines.
Let’s start in goal, where you’d have a pair of Vezina candidates facing off. Pekka Rinne’s return after missing most of last year with a hip injury was the single biggest factor in the Predators’ shocking rise from also-ran to Cup contender, and he’s not even the best story on offer. That would be Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk, whose NHL career seemed all but over after he was discarded by the Oilers last year before landing with Arizona, drinking the magical Sean Burke Elixir of Excellence, and then getting traded to the Wild in mid-January. That trade flat-out saved Minnesota’s season; it’s been one of the best teams in the NHL ever since.
In addition to the goaltending matchup, you’ve got a nice subplot in former Predator Ryan Suter facing his old blue-line partner Shea Weber in a battle of franchise defensemen. I’d suggest that Nashville fans might boo Suter off the ice, but I’m not convinced that “off the ice” is actually in his vocabulary.
(Also, the unwritten rule that every set of playoff predictions must include a few upsets means literally everyone will take the Wild in this series. You’ve been warned, Nashville fans.)
Random old YouTube clip to get you fired up: The Predators put six pucks past a pair of Wild goalies on December 20, just a few weeks before Minnesota pulled the trigger on the Dubnyk trade.
4. Penguins vs. Capitals: 26.4 percent
The ticket stubs will say Penguins vs. Capitals, but the league’s marketing will sell this as Sid vs. Ovi. And it should, because while this never quite morphed into the Magic vs. Bird generational rivalry the NHL always hoped it would, it is still one hell of a head-to-head matchup.
Let’s run the numbers. Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin are the league’s two leading scorers of the last decade. They’ve combined to win five MVPs, three Art Ross Trophies, and five Rocket Richards (about to be six, as Ovechkin runs away with another goal-scoring title). Occasional silliness over plus/minus aside, these are the two best players of the cap era, and it’s really not close.
And yet, despite playing in the same division, they’ve met in the playoffs only once, back in 2009. Crosby won that battle, but we’re long overdue for a rematch. And of course, you’d have one hell of an undercard, with Evgeni Malkin vs. Nicklas Backstrom, two first-year coaches, and an intriguing goaltending battle between veteran Marc-Andre Fleury and youngster Braden Holtby.
But yeah, this would mostly be about Sid and Ovi. And that should be more than enough to get hockey fans excited.
Random old YouTube clip to get you fired up: Ovechkin and Crosby trade hat tricks in a wild Game 2 of their 2009 series.
3. Lightning vs. Red Wings: 57 percent
Any series involving the Lightning is going to be worth watching, because they might just be the most entertaining team in the league at this point. They’ve got a ton of offensive talent, most of it young, and it’s all built around one of the league’s top five forwards in Steven Stamkos. Mix in a very good blue line anchored by Victor Hedman and goaltending from Ben Bishop that’s usually very good (but not quite so good that he ever seems truly unbeatable), and you’ve got a recipe for a team that could contend for the Stanley Cup this year, and for years to come. Well, as long as the Lightning are healthy. Which, right now, they’re not.
On the other side, you’ve got the Red Wings — a weird mix of aging superstars and young contributors, coached by a guy with one foot out the door, and possibly in the middle of a late-season goaltending controversy between two guys who keep handing each other the job. And yet despite all of that, they’ve still found a way to make the playoffs this year, because they’re the Red Wings and they make it every year.
So there’s your ready-made storyline: the up-and-coming whiz kids against the one-last-chance-at-glory former champs. That works for me, even if it maybe feels just a little bit forced. And in any other series, that’s what we’d go with.
But in this one, we’ve got something even better: the Steve Yzerman factor. The longtime Red Wings franchise player has been the GM of the Lightning since 2010 and has built them up into a powerhouse.6 So we’re not just looking at what could finally be the Red Wings’ last gasp — we could see their flame get snuffed out by the guy who helped light it all those decades ago.
OK, yes, he inherited Stamkos and Hedman.
Random old YouTube clip to get you fired up: This fan-made Steve Yzerman tribute video starts off with his most famous goal and gets better from there.
2. Canucks vs. Flames: 50.3 percent
The Flames are still in tough to make the playoffs, but if they do, it’s probably going to be against the Canucks. And that’s good news for the rest of us, because this is a fun rivalry with plenty of history. These teams have met in the playoffs six times, and the last three have been decided in overtime of the seventh game.7
Also, they’ve only ever met in the first round, but the winning team has gone on to the Stanley Cup final four times. Just throwing that out there.
More recently, these teams have some history, including the time then-Canucks coach John Tortorella tried to storm the Calgary dressing room. We’re not likely to get quite that level of bad blood in this one, but the odds are good that there will be some sort of blowup somewhere. And it goes without saying: These are two Canadian teams, which means every minor incident will get blown up into a full-scale Big Important Controversy.
This year’s Canucks have been an under-the-radar feel-good story, an aging core making the most of one last run even though we all agreed that their window had slammed shut years ago. Add in the fact that this year’s Flames are quite possibly the most likable team in the league, which will drive Vancouver’s notoriously thin-skinned fan base insane, and you’ve got a recipe for some great drama here.
Random old YouTube clips to get you fired up: I couldn’t pick just one for these two teams, so let’s go with the a trio of Game 7 OT winners: Joel Otto’s maybe-kind-of-kicked-in winner in 1989, Pavel Bure’s sure-thing breakaway in 1994, and Martin Gelinas’s 2004 winner (made possible by the ridiculous final seconds of regulation).
1. Blues vs. Hawks: 53.2 percent
This is the first-round matchup we just can’t shake, even though these two teams are generally considered the Central’s best. We got it last year, when the Blues collapsed at the end of the season to drop out of first place. And we may get it again this year, thanks to the Predators’ surprising surge. (Just back off and don’t ruin this, Wild.)
And that’s great, because it’s one of the oldest and best rivalries in the league. These teams have met in the playoffs 11 times, including a glorious five times in six years during the heyday of the Norris Division. Last year’s series was fun, with the Blues winning the opening two games in overtime before the Hawks roared back to win the series in six.
A rematch this year would come with a decidedly high-stakes feel. The Blues are poised to inherit the Sharks’ title as the consistently good team that can never get over the hump in the playoffs. They spent big to bring in Paul Stastny in free agency, and two straight years of making puzzling midseason goaltending moves suggest a team that’s antsy to finally push through to true Cup contender status. A first-round exit would probably spell the end for coach Ken Hitchcock and could signal major changes to the roster.
Meanwhile, changes are coming to Chicago whether the team wins or not, as salary-cap pressures and other factors appear to be making major roster moves inevitable. That gives this iteration of the Blackhawks — one of the very best teams of the cap era — a “one last shot at glory” feel that lends some added drama. A first-round matchup wouldn’t quite be a loser-leaves-town match between two old rivals, but it wouldn’t be far off.
Random old YouTube clip to get you fired up: Here are the Blues and Blackhawks engaging in a game nicknamed “the St. Patrick’s Day Massacre,” no doubt because they massacred each other with sportsmanship and mutual respect.