With just six days left in the regular season, it’s getting tough to not look ahead to the playoffs. So today, let’s do exactly that, with a ranking of the 10 best realistic first-round matchups that we could be on the verge of seeing.
Of course, your definition of “realistic” might vary, but let’s draw a line in the sand at 10 per cent (based on the odds as calculated by Sports Club Stats). That means that some matchups won’t make the cut, even if they’re still technically possible and would be completely amazing. And yes, I’m talking about the Islanders and Rangers. Look, I’m still not over the way that all fell apart on us over the last few weeks.
Just give me a minute.
For the rest of the candidates, we’ll be considering a variety of factors. We’ll of course be looking for great hockey between two elite teams. A compelling storyline or two always helps. And any sort of rivalry or bad blood, recent or long-term, is a major bonus.
Granted, if you’re a fan of a team headed to the post-season (hello, Americans!), you’d probably just prefer the easiest matchup possible and be done with it. But for the rest of us, here are the 10 best matchups to root for over the season’s final week.
Contender status: Up until a few days ago, the Lightning looked like an Eastern favourite, but injuries to Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman have devastated those expectations. Meanwhile, the Red Wings have their hands full just making it to the post-season.
Potential storylines: Can a team that went all the way to the final last year be considered a scrappy underdog this time around? Given the Lightning’s injuries, they might have to be. Meanwhile, the Wings would have the sentimental story of trying to make a run in what could be Pavel Datsyuk‘s last season.
Rivalry factor: The two teams faced each other for the first time last year, in what turned out to be an excellent series in which the Wings nearly pulled off the upset. As an added bonus, there’s always the Steve Yzerman factor.
Bottom line: It would be a matchup between two teams that a lot of us are writing off this week, one of which would be moving on to the division final.
Contender status: Um… well… anything can happen in the playoffs, right?
Potential storylines: Both teams have more likely matchups – the Panthers are at 43.9 per cent to face the Islanders, while the Bruins would be 38.9 per cent to get the Lightning. But we’ll pair them together here because
we want to get them both out of the way of some intriguing storylines. There’s the Shawn Thornton factor, as the veteran enforcer faces the team he won a Cup with five years ago. Jaromir Jagr is a former Bruin, although that’s not all that exciting because at this point he’s a former almost-everyone. And maybe most intriguing, you get Roberto Luongo‘s rematch with the Bruins from the 2011 final.
Rivalry factor: Minimal, although there was some minor bad blood in a game a few weeks ago. They also met back in the 1996 playoffs, making the Bruins the only team the Panthers have ever beaten in the opening round.
Bottom line: Whoever they play, the Panthers are looking like a fun bandwagon team. Matching them up against a team that embraces the villain role as effortlessly as the Bruins would be a perfect fit.
Random clip to get you fired up: Can you feel that, Bruins? Can you feel it coming in the air tonight?
Contender status: The Penguins have gone from early-season disappointment to one of the league’s best second-half teams, and should get even better once Evgeni Malkin returns. The Islanders are sputtering, and don’t even technically have their spot locked up quite yet.
Potential storylines: Take your pick. Both teams are racked with injuries. It would be the first playoff action in the Barclays Center, so we’d hear plenty about crowd noise and bad ice. And after six years behind the Islanders’ bench, Jack Capuano could be coaching to save his job.
Rivalry factor: Plenty. As long-time division rivals, they have a playoff history dating back over four decades, including a surprisingly tight series in 2013. And of course, we also had all that nonsense from a few years ago.
Bottom line: The Islanders draw a tough matchup while trying to win their first playoff series in 23 years. Speaking of which…
Random clip to get you fired up: What else could it be? David Freaking Volek.
7. Minnesota Wild vs. Dallas Stars – 80.9%
Contender status: The Wild have struggled through a disappointing season, although they’ve been better since their February coaching change. The Stars are the most exciting team in the league, but questions linger over whether they have the goaltending to be considered true contenders.
Potential storylines: Wow, the high-powered Stars were dominating but Devan Dubnyk stood on his head and stole the series, who could have seen that coming? (Every Dallas Stars fan is nodding grimly right now.)
Rivalry factor: The two teams have never met in the post-season, but there’s certainly some history here: The Stars used to be the North Stars, before abandoning Minnesota for Dallas in 1993.
Bottom line: This feels like a bit of karmic payback brewing, even if the two teams did declare that weird truce at the outdoor alumni game.
Random clip to get you fired up: Relive the magic of the underdog (North) Stars’ stunning 1991 run in the delightfully tacky “Shining Stars”.
6. New York Rangers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins – 72.5%
Contender status: Strong. We’ve covered the Pens already. And while the Rangers have often looked like a flawed team, this is essentially the same core that’s been to the conference final three times in four years, and they’ve still got Henrik Lundqvist.
Potential storylines: We don’t yet know how long Marc-Andre Fleury‘s latest concussion will sideline him for. But if he’s not ready to go for Game 1, we’d get a goaltending matchup pitting a five-time Vezina finalist against a rookie with barely a dozen NHL games under his belt in Matt Murray.
Rivalry factor: Excellent. This would be the third straight season that the two teams have met with the Rangers ending the Penguins’ season in each of the previous years.
Bottom line: The Rangers’ window has felt like it was closing for a while now, and Penguins seem like the sort of team that could finally slam it shut. But that goaltending matchup…
Random clip to get you fired up: Lundqvist and Sidney Crosby go nose-to-nose in 2010.
5. Chicago Blackhawks vs. Dallas Stars – 17.1%
Contender status: We’ve covered the Stars already and we’ll get to the Blackhawks a little further down the list, but suffice it to say, it’s high.
Potential storylines: Hey, remember when the salary cap forced the Blackhawks to trade one key veteran off of last year’s Cup roster and watch another depart via free agency? Where’d those guys wind up again?
Rivalry factor: Partly due to the Stars’ long stopover in the Pacific, the two teams have never met in the playoffs before. The regular-season meetings are usually feisty, though.
Bottom line: The series would feature two excellent teams that play very different styles. Can those styles win in the playoffs? We know one team’s answer.
Random clip to get you fired up: An emotional Patrick Sharp watches as Hawks fans welcome him back to Chicago. (Don’t expect the same treatment in April, Patty.)
Contender status: The Caps have run away with the Presidents’ Trophy, and will go into the playoffs as the prohibitive favourite to come out of the Eastern Conference. The Flyers have been a nice late-season story, but the standings say they won’t have much of a chance here.
Potential storylines: Hey, we all love a good David versus Goliath story, right? And that’s especially true if Goliath has a decades-long history of crushing playoff disappointments. As an added bonus, the Capitals’ reputation for squandering big series leads means this one would bear watching right up until the final horn.
Rivalry factor: The two teams have been division rivals forever, including plenty of nasty moments in the 80s and 90s. They’ve met in the playoffs four times, most recently in a classic in 2008 that ended with Game 7 overtime. There’s been plenty of bad blood over the past few years, including the Ray Emery/Braden Holtby incident. More recently, last week’s matchup in Philadelphia was big kid hockey at its finest.
Bottom line: On paper, this would be a dominant favourite taking the first step on a long playoff journey against a team that should just be happy to be there. Don’t count on it playing out that way.
Random clip to get you fired up: Future Flyers coach Craig Berube runs Don Beaupre in 1991, and eats a blocker for his trouble.
Contender status: Higher than you might think. The Ducks’ credentials have been well-established ever since they shook off a brutal start to emerge as one of the league’s best teams. But the Sharks are a sneaky pick in their own right.
Potential storylines: We can’t talk about the Sharks in the post-season without bringing up all those years of playoff disappointment for Joe Thornton and Co. Here, they’d be facing a team that already has one cap-era Cup to its credit and is built for another.
Rivalry factor: They’ve only met once in the playoffs, back in 2009 when the eighth-seeded Ducks shocked the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Sharks in the opening round. But the regular season has featured plenty of nastiness as part of the three-team California rivalry that ranks as one of the league’s best.
Bottom line: There’s no doubt the Sharks would be underdogs. Then again, maybe that’s what they’ve needed to be all along.
Random clip to get you fired up: Thornton and Ryan Getzlaf go right off the draw to open Game 6 of that 2009 series.
2. San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings – 45.8%
Contender status: The Kings have been pretty good over the years. Pretty sure I read that somewhere.
Potential storylines: You’d get all the Sharks’ baggage from the Ducks entry up above, with the extra weight of their devastating 2014 collapse against the Kings introduced. But don’t overlook the goaltending battle, as Martin Jones faces the team that traded him away last summer. Or does he? With James Reimer in town, the Sharks look like a team that hasn’t completely settled on one guy.
(As a side note, apologies to the Predators, who’ll almost certainly get whichever of the Ducks and Kings don’t face the Sharks and who are the only playoff team who didn’t make this list anywhere. It’s no knock on Nashville, a fun team in their own right that could absolutely make some noise. They just have the bad luck of being in the way of the Battle of California.)
Rivalry factor: They’ve faced each other three times since 2011, including a pair of seven-game battles that were both won by the Kings. Their meetings are usually heated, and this year’s Logan Couture/Milan Lucic dust-up only added to that.
Bottom line: The Kings are two-time champs. But both times, they’ve done it after entering the playoffs with underdog status, which won’t be the case here. How do they like being the hunted instead of the hunter?
Random clip to get you fired up: We’ve harped on the Sharks’ playoff failures enough for now. Here’s Thornton’s all-but-forgotten OT winner from the 2011 series.
1. Chicago Blackhawks vs. St. Louis Blues – 82.1%
Contender status: The Blackhawks are the defending champs. The Blues are tied for the second-best record in the league. Yep, I’d say this one checks out.
Potential storylines: In one corner, you’ve got the closest thing the NHL has to a dynasty. The Hawks look vulnerable, battered by injuries and suspensions as they wobble towards a less-than-impressive finish. But they’ve been counted out before only to find a way. (And when that happens, sources tell me, their fans never let you forget it).
In the other corner, you’ve got a Blues team that’s been a regular season powerhouse for five years but just can’t seem to get over that playoff hump. This feels like a do-or-die season in St. Louis, one that could see everyone from Ken Hitchcock to the roster’s core to the Zamboni driver on the hot seat with a loss.
Rivalry factor: A total of 11 lifetime playoff matchups, most recently in 2014. Toews versus Backes. The Sutter Brothers. The Norris Division. The St. Patrick’s Day Massacre. Other than that, no, not much.
Bottom line: The road to the Stanley Cup goes through Chicago, and the champs are on the ropes. But do the Blues really have what it takes to finish them off?
Random clip to get you fired up: Jonathan Toews‘ gut-wrenching road winner in Game 5 of the 2014 meeting, one of four sudden death games in that series.