• First-round Battle of Alberta still in play
• Two top-four teams could go head to head
• Will Leafs get a rematch vs. B’s?
We’re down to five days left in the regular season, and it’s starting to look like we could be in for an anticlimactic finish. Most of the playoff spots are spoken for, the individual scoring races are pretty much set, and only one division title is really still in play.
But for fans, there’s still something important to keep an eye on: the first-round matchups. Let’s face it: The opening round of the playoffs is pretty much the best time of the entire year, as we get a firehose of high-intensity hockey for two straight weeks.
That’s especially true when we get great matchups. So today, let’s look at the best first-round pairings that are still realistically in play. We’ll define “realistic” as 25 per cent or better, using the odds as calculated by Sports Club Stats.
Unfortunately, that rules out series like Leafs/Habs or Capitals/Penguins, which will have to wait for round two. But it still leaves us with plenty of potential matchups to get excited about, and we’ll break them down here.
No. 10: Capitals vs. Bruins (37.5%)
Contender status: Excellent on one side, as the Capitals will probably win the Presidents’ Trophy. The Bruins, not so much, although there are still some numbers-oriented types who think they’re underrated.
Rivalry factor: Minimal, although they did meet in the playoffs five years ago in what turned out to be a great series.
Potential storylines: With apologies to whoever the Caps end up playing, most of the focus in their opening round will be on Washington. Is this the year they can finally shake off all that baggage and win a Cup? Or is there another heart-breaking collapse right around the corner?
Bottom line: None of the potential Capitals matchups really jump out at you; they’ll almost certainly end up getting the second wild card, which will be an Atlantic crossover team. That could still make for a decent series, but if you’re looking for a can’t-miss Capitals matchup, you’ll probably have to wait for round two.
Random clip to get you fired up: Joel Ward’s game-seven winner knocks out the defending-champion Bruins in 2012. If this goal happened today, the replay review for goalie interference would last roughly three days.
No. 9: Sharks vs. Oilers (52.6%)
Contender status: Not bad. The Sharks looked like the Pacific favourite a month ago, but they’ve been fading ever since. On the other hand, the Oilers are red hot, and have entered sneaky dark-horse territory.
Rivalry factor: Minimal. They’ve met in the playoffs once before, but that was 11 years ago.
Potential storylines: This would be the classic matchup between two good teams headed in opposite directions. The Sharks are the valiant veterans, trying to claw their way to one more run at the Cup after falling just short last year. They’d be facing a young Oilers team that’ll do plenty of winning over the next decade, but may not be quite ready yet. Given where each team is at, the sight of a baby-faced Connor McDavid taking the opening faceoff against Joe Thornton‘s anthropomorphic beard might be a little too on-the-nose.
On top of that, there’s also the Todd McLellan factor, as the Oilers coach would be facing the team that fired him in 2015.
Bottom line: Remember in the 1980s, when the young Oilers had to face the grizzled Islanders to truly learn what it took to win a Stanley Cup? This would be like a watered-down reboot of that concept.
Random clip to get you fired up: Like all great rivalries, this one features a Mike Vernon fight. Sort of. OK, not really. Like I said, the history here isn’t all that rich, so we take what we can get.
No. 8: Wild vs. Blues (96.5%)
Contender status: Evolving. Heading into the season, the Blues were viewed as Cup contenders while the Wild were on shakier ground. By mid-season, St. Louis was a mess and Minnesota was one of the league’s best teams. More recently, the Blues are back on track while the Wild are free-falling. Check back next week for further bulletins.
Rivalry factor: Decent. They met in the playoffs two years ago, a series the underdog Wild won in six games. And of course, the two cities go back even further, with the Blues and North Stars having plenty of history during the crazy Norris Division days.
Potential storylines: In a way, these two teams feel like they’re in similar places. Both have new coaches. Both have had up-and-down seasons. Both are trying to transition to a younger core while keeping a Cup-contender window open. And maybe most important from a drama perspective, both would have to view the season as a failure if they went out in the first round.
You’d also have an interesting goaltending subplot, pitting a youngster coming off a shaky season in Jake Allen against a once-discarded veteran who looked like a Vezina favorite until a late slump in Devan Dubnyk.
Bottom line: This one’s basically a lock at this point.
Random clip to get you fired up: Vladimir Tarasenko scores a hat trick in game two of that 2015 series.
No. 7: Maple Leafs vs. Bruins (42.7%)
Contender status: Iffy. The No. 2–vs.–No. 3 matchup in the Atlantic, however it shakes out, will be the weakest in this category, at least on paper.
Rivalry factor: High. These are two Original Six teams, they’ve been division rivals for almost two decades, and they’ve made a handful of major trades over the years, including the one that put Tuukka Rask in Boston. I feel like there may have been something else but it must have slipped my mind.
Potential storylines: Oh, right, the 2013 series. You may remember it. The Leafs fought back from a 3–1 series deficit to force a game seven, shocked the Boston crowd by taking a 4–1 lead in the game, and then suffered an epic collapse that sent the Bruins on their way to a Cup final and left Leafs fans catatonic. That series might come up once or twice if we get this matchup.
Bottom line: It was 4–1. But it’s cool, I’m over it. Really, it doesn’t hurt anymore. It’s fine. No, that hole in my wall was always there. Can we move onto the next series please?
Random clip to get you fired up: You think you’re getting the Bergeron goal here, don’t you, Bruins fans? Fat chance. Enjoy Pat Quinn KO’ing Bobby Orr.
No. 6: Blackhawks vs. Predators (58.2%)
Contender status: Chicago will go into the playoffs as the Western favourite, and maybe even as the top pick overall. Meanwhile, the Predators have quietly put their season back together after a rough start and would be capable of pulling off an upset.
Rivalry factor: They’ve met in the playoffs in 2010 and 2015, with the Blackhawks winning both series in six. The Blackhawks went on to win the Cup each time.
Potential storylines: It’s the Blackhawks, so you know you’ll be getting all sorts of dynasty talk, and the league will make sure that Chicago is front and centre at all times. The series would feature plenty of star power and should make for some great hockey. Plus, P.K. Subban would probably scratch his cheek or something, kicking off a week-long controversy.
Bottom line: As with Washington, finding matchups worthy of a top seed can be tricky, since the favourite tends to be considered a sure thing and that can diminish interest. But Nashville would give Chicago a good run.
Random clip to get you fired up: The Predators have the young Blackhawks on the ropes in 2010, on the power play and sitting seconds away from taking a 3–2 series lead back to Nashville. But Chicago ties it, kills off the major and wins it in overtime. Bonus points for the overly dramatic music.
No. 5: Rangers vs. Canadiens (100%)
Contender status: Pretty good. While the Metro’s Big Three get most of the attention, this would be a pretty darn good matchup between 100+-point teams. And with whoever comes out of the Atlantic’s No. 2–vs.–No. 3 matchup waiting in the next round, there’s a clear path to the final four waiting for the winner here.
Rivalry factor: It’s another Original Six matchup, so there’s all sorts of history to draw on, including 15 playoff matchups. The most recent of those came in 2014, and featured Chris Kreider slamming into Carey Price and taking him out of the series.
Potential storylines: It’s two of the very best hockey cities in the world, and it would be fun to listen to Habs fans boo Kreider every time he got neat the puck. Price facing Henrik Lundqvist would give us a matchup between two of the best goaltenders of their generation. Alain Vigneault would be facing the team he broke in with. And if the Rangers end up with more points than Montreal, we could listen to New York fans complain about the playoff format for two weeks.
Bottom line: This one’s been locked in for a while now, and playoff format oddities aside, we should be glad for it. As far as wild-card crossovers go, this one is about as good as it gets.
Random clip to get you fired up: Price gets a little bit of revenge on Kreider with a nice shoulder behind the net.
No. 4: Maple Leafs vs. Senators (41.7%)
Contender status: Another No. 2–vs.–No. 3 matchup in the Atlantic, so not great.
Rivalry factor: Through the roof… 15 years ago. The Battle of Ontario provided more than a few memorable moments, especially when the Leafs and Sens met in the playoffs four times in five years. But the rivalry has been largely dormant since the 2005 lockout, and other than Chris Neil, there’s really nobody left in either organization that was around for the height of it.
Still, the fans remember, and it’s fair to say that these two fan bases don’t like each other. Even if the action on the ice stayed tame, the same wouldn’t necessarily be true in the stands, not to mention sports bars, offices, schoolyards and even kitchen tables around Ontario.
Potential storylines: The Leafs’ roster full of rookies would get plenty of attention, as always – remember, Auston Matthews’ four-goal debut came in Ottawa. But the Senators have some solid stories themselves, including another brilliant year from Erik Karlsson and an inspiring season from Craig Anderson.
Bottom line: Chances are, a series between these two wouldn’t live up to the heights of the vintage Battle of Ontario. But it would still have a shot at being really good, featuring two equally matched teams that few expected to see in the post-season.
Random clip to get you fired up: Daniel Alfredsson drills Darcy Tucker and then scores the winner in 2002, leaving Pat Quinn “quite frankly full of anger.”
No. 3: Ducks vs. Sharks (43.3%)
Contender status: Reasonably solid. Between them, the two teams have led the division for most of the year, although San Jose’s recent struggles have taken some of the shine off of their season and the Ducks have had their doubters all season.
Rivalry factor: Excellent. The three-way Battle of California is one of the best rivalries in the league, and with the Kings bowing out early, that leaves the Ducks and Sharks in the spotlight. These two teams don’t like each other, whether it’s the regular season or the playoffs (or even pre-season).
Potential storylines: Normally, when you talk about teams that are perennial playoff disappointments, the Sharks are near the top of the list. But after last year, that burden may be shifting towards the Ducks, who fired Bruce Boudreau after another tough loss and have bowed out in a seventh game four straight years. If the Capitals can make a deep run, one of these teams might be left as the league’s undisputed “can’t win the big one” title holder.
Bottom line: Bad blood, high stakes and plenty of big names. It should be a can’t miss, just as long as the Sharks can shake off whatever’s been going on over the last month or so.
Random clip to get you fired up: Sure, we used it last year, but it remains the signature moment between the two teams. So let’s head back to their only playoff matchup back in 2009, as Joe Thornton and Ryan Getzlaf come out swinging.
No. 2: Penguins vs. Blue Jackets (99.1%)
Contender status: Off the charts. In terms of total points, this has a chance to be literally the best first-round matchup we’ve ever seen.
Rivalry factor: Strong, although it depends which side of the aisle you’re coming from. The Penguins are probably the Blue Jackets’ biggest current rival. That’s not quite a two-way street – Penguins fans are more focused on teams like the Flyers, Capitals and Rangers. But one playoff matchup could change that real quick.
Potential storylines: Other than two of the league’s best four teams meeting in the first round? How about Rocket Richard winner Sidney Crosby facing potential Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky? Or a battle between two of the league’s best rookies, Matt Murray and Zachary Werenski? Or John Tortorella against his former assistant Mike Sullivan?
Or we could go bigger picture, and paint this as a classic David-vs.-Goliath pairing. In one corner, the defending champs, with four Cup wins and near-permanent golden-boy status as one of the league’s marquee teams. In the other, a long-time afterthought that’s never so much as won a playoff round, and has spent all season being dismissed by just about everyone even though their record says they’re right there with the league’s best.
Bottom line: Yes, fine, any playoff format that serves up this matchup in round one has some problems. Fix it in the summer if you must. But in the meantime, this series would be so good.
No. 1: Oilers vs. Flames (27.3%)
Contender status: Probably better than everyone thinks, but that’s not the point.
Rivalry factor: Right up there with anyone else in the league. There was a time when the Battle of Alberta was the league’s very best rivalry; the two teams met in the playoffs five times between 1983 and 1991, and were often two of the league’s very best teams over that period. The games had it all – speed, skill and plenty of bad blood.
Amazingly, the two teams haven’t met in the post-season in over 25 years. But unlike the Leafs and Senators, it’s never really felt like the rivalry cooled all that much. They don’t clear the benches anymore, because nobody does, but they never seem to like each other, and that’s included this season.
Potential storylines: Both teams are young and talented, and this matchup would feel like the opening act in what could be a long story arc. Oilers fans feel like they’ve endured a decade of suffering to get to this point, and now have a new arena, a new franchise player and a new sense of optimism. Flames fans are sick of hearing about it and would love nothing better than to ruin the whole thing.
Connor McDavid and Johnny Gaudreau would take turns doing ridiculous things. Matthew Tkachuk would be involved in some sort of controversial play. Brian Burke and Kevin Lowe would fight in a barn. This needs to happen.
Bottom line: Sure, the odds are against it, but when have the odds ever mattered when it comes to the Oilers?
Random clip to get you fired up: Mark Messier and Gary Roberts get things started in a classic ’80s Battle of Alberta clash.