With just over two weeks left until the start of the playoffs, there’s still plenty of time for the matchups to change. But you’re probably checking them anyway, at least if you root for a team that has a good chance at a spot. You can’t help it. Every fan wants to know who their favourite team will end up facing in the first round.
We can’t tell you which specific team you might end up with. But chances are, it’s going to be one of these dozen classic matchups that a hockey fan tends to meet in the first round.
No. 1: The good team that everyone’s picking
The team: They’re really, really good. They’ve got a great record, home-ice advantage, and a roster full of guys with Cup rings. This year, everyone seems to assume that they’ll win it all yet again.
This year’s examples: The Blackhawks and Penguins.
How you feel about it: This is pretty close to the worst possible matchup you can draw in the opening round, since it offers little in the way of hope. If these guys show up to face your favourite team, you can go ahead and start penciling in other plans for late April, because your playoff run is probably ending early.
That said, if you work hard enough you can probably talk yourself into some vague sense of optimism. Hey, you’d have to go through these guys eventually if you want to win a Cup, so you might as well get it out of the way early, right? Maybe they’ll take your team too lightly, or get caught looking ahead to tougher matchups down the line. Or maybe this is just the start of one of those epic underdog runs. This could happen. Why not us? Why not now?
Later, you’ll deny ever believing any of those things when your team loses in five games.
No. 2: The good team nobody’s picking
The team: They’re good. At least, that’s what their record says. They have lots of points and finished near the top of the standings. In theory, they should be right up there with the Stanley Cup favourites.
Maybe it’s because they weren’t expected to be this good, or maybe it’s because they haven’t had any big playoff runs lately. But for whatever reason, nobody’s really feeling it.
This year’s examples: The Blue Jackets, for sure. Probably also the Wild and Senators, and maybe even the Canadiens.
How you feel about it: Great, at first. If you’re a fan of a lower seed and you have to go up against a top team, this is the one you want. You get a decent shot at winning, plus all that fun underdog credibility.
But then the predictions start coming out, and everyone is taking your team as their mandatory upset pick. Suddenly, you don’t feel like underdogs anymore. Wait, now the other team is rallying around the whole “nobody believes in us” thing. Are they allowed to do that? They finished ahead of us in the standings and have home ice, why is all the pressure on us all of a sudden?
Next thing you know, your team has lost the first two games on the road and you’re wishing you’d drawn anyone else.
No. 3: The good team with a history of choking
The team: They had a great season and finished high in the standings. But they do that every year, and it always ends badly.
This year’s examples: The Capitals are the obvious pick. The Blues. The Ducks. The Sharks are still there, too, although they shook some of that reputation with last season’s run to the final.
How you feel about it: You understand that, in theory, the past shouldn’t matter. Something that happened to Peter Bondra or Roman Turek a generation ago shouldn’t have any impact on today. But we all know that’s not quite true – hockey ghosts have a way of haunting teams for decades, and they tend to show up right when they can do the most damage to a fanbase’s psyche.
That doesn’t mean it will happen in the first round, and in fact there’s something to be said for lulling everyone into a false sense of security. So you’re not thrilled to see these guys in the opener. But you’ll take it, because you know you’ll always have a chance, even if you fall behind in the series. Maybe even especially if you fall behind.
No. 4: The not-so-good team (i.e. The Underdog)
The team: They’re not bad. I mean, they made the playoffs, so that’s something. But they’re not all that good either, and nobody is remotely scared of them. They might even just be happy to be there.
This year’s examples: Whoever gets the last wild card in the East, especially if it’s the Islanders.
How you feel about it: Good. You feel good, right? This kind of matchup is the reason your team fights all season for a high seed. It’s going to be a cakewalk. There’s even a good chance you can win in four straight and get some rest before round two.
But then you start to realize that this is the matchup that comes coated in the curse of high expectations. Losing in the playoffs is never good, but losing this matchup can be devastating. This is the kind of thing that very good teams never recover from. The stakes start to feel kind of high.
Still, it should be fine. You’ll take this matchup with confidence. Just as long as you don’t lose that opening game, because at that point you’re allowed to go into full-blown panic mode.
No. 5: The not-so-good team everyone is scared of
The team: This is the flip side of the last category. Their record says they’re nothing to worry about. But their roster and their reputation says otherwise. They were barely in the playoff picture until the final few weeks, when they suddenly flipped the switch and snuck into one of the last spots. They probably also have a superstar player who was injured all year and just came back in time for the playoffs.
This year’s examples: The Lightning if they can sneak back in. The Kings, too, if they somehow claw their way back.
How you feel about it: Existential dread. This may be the single worst team you can run into. You get all the pressure of heavy-favourite status, but none of the benefits.
Note: This will also be the matchup that converts you over to that whole “Top seeds should get to pick their opponents” idea that will never happen.
No. 6: The team you have no history with and don’t really care about in any way
The team: Oh right, those guys. You almost forgot they were even in the playoffs, to be honest. They’re good, but not all that good, and they just had one of those seasons where they were just kind of there. They’ve got to play someone, and this year, that’s your team.
This year’s examples: To be determined based on who’s playing who, although the Predators have a weird habit of being this team.
How you feel about it: Meh. Sure, bring them on, I guess. Not every matchup can be a winner, right?
Note: This series will inevitably end up being the best of the first round, and by the end of it you will hate this new team and everyone who has ever cheered for them with the fire of a thousand suns.
No. 7: The team that has one of the best records in the entire league but is still a wild card for some reason
The team: Wait, what? We finished first in our division and still have to play a team that’s better than us?
This year’s examples: The Rangers
How you feel about it: The playoff format is weird.
No. 8: The team that’s not really good enough to win but might be too young and inexperienced to know that
The team: They’re stacked with young talent and they’re going to be really good… someday. But first, they have to pay their dues, and that means a year or two of heart-breaking playoff losses to toughen them up. Sorry kids, those are the rules.
This year’s examples: The Oilers. The Flames. If they get in, the Maple Leafs would pretty much be the poster child for this category.
How you feel about it: Fine, at first. If anything, you even feel a little bit bad for them. Look at all their bright-eyed little faces, all full of hope and optimism. They have no idea what they’re in for.
But then the series starts, and the kids don’t follow the script. At first it seems like a fluke, but they keep hanging around. Next thing you know they’re piling off the bench for overly enthusiastic celebrations, spouting hashtagged catch phrases and doing postgame interviews wearing funny hats. They actually look like they’re having fun.
Wait, did somebody forget to tell them that they’re not supposed to win? Stupid millennials, they ruin everything!
No. 9: The team that doesn’t seem good but the analytics guys are all picking them
The team: Their record says they’re not very good. But that guy on Twitter who posts a lot of charts and numbers and is unreasonably cranky all the time says differently. Who to believe?
This year’s examples: The Bruins. And if they’d made it, the Kings. It’s always the Kings.
How you feel about it: Fine. You feel fine. What do those numbers guys know? Watch the games, nerds, because you don’t win playoff games with an abacus. When have the stats geeks ever been right about anything?
Yes, right, other than the 2012 Kings Cup run, obviously. And also last year’s Penguins. And the collapse of teams like the 2010 Avalanche, 2012 Wild and 2014 Maple Leafs. And most playoff series, come to think of it, at least relative to any other method.
But other than all that, what do they know? Ha. Not much, right?
You no longer feel fine about this matchup.
No. 10: The hated rival
The team: Maybe they’re good, maybe they’re not, but it really doesn’t matter. There’s a history here, and that means anything can happen.
This year’s examples: The Flames and Oilers. The Canadiens and Maple Leafs. The Canadiens and Bruins. The Blackhawks and Blues.
How you feel about it: Bring it on. Sure, a loss would hurt more than it would in an ordinary series. But by the same token, a win would be so much sweeter. You know the series will be memorable, and probably involve at least a few crazy controversies. And even if your team loses, you can take solace in knowing that you’ll probably get them next time, because that’s just how rivalries work.
Well, almost every rivalry…
No. 11: The hated rival you always lose to (i.e. The Dragon)
The team: An ominous sub-category of The Hated Rival, this is the team that you hate more than any other, because they always win, and each loss is more painful than the last one. This is the team that’s scarred your hockey-fan psyche, because so many of your worst hockey memories involve them. If you’re being honest, there’s a part of you that was really hoping you could just make it through the rest of your days without ever having to see them again.
This year’s examples: The Leafs, if they play the Senators. The Blackhawks, if they play the Wild. The Penguins, if they play the Capitals.
How you feel about it: Hoo boy.
On the one hand, this is the worst-case scenario. You’ll feel like an underdog, no matter what the win-loss records say, and you’ll watch the whole series with a mounting sense of dread. Anyone but these guys. You hate their players, you hate their media and you really, really hate their smug fans. If you lost to them yet again, you’re not sure you could handle it.
But on the other hand… hey, there’s only one way to dull all those painful memories or even erase them outright. You have to face them again, and find a way to emerge with a win. You have to slay the dragon.
The 2011 Canucks don’t get within one game of the Stanley Cup without finally beating the Blackhawks. Last year’s Sharks don’t go to the final until they’ve stared down the Kings. The Red Sox couldn’t end their drought without going through the Yankees.
There’s no bigger high-risk/high-reward series on the menu than this one. Win, and you excise a generation of demons. Lose, and it’s pretty much the most painful exit your team can make. And there’s absolutely no middle ground.
No. 12: The matchup you’re actually happy about
The team: This matchup does not exist.