It’s too early to start thinking ahead to how the 2018 playoffs could play out. It’s always too early. Even when you’re down to the final week of the season, it’s too early. As soon as you start looking forward to a matchup that’s all but locked in, the hockey gods will notice your happiness and reach down to smite it.
Remember a few years ago when we were all but assured of the first Toronto/Montreal matchup in 34 years, and then it all fell apart on the season’s final day? That’s because somebody out there got excited and ruined it. (That was me. I did that.)
So if your knee-jerk reaction to the premise of this post is “It’s too early, dummy,” then yes, you’re right. But we’re doing it anyway, if only so we can squeeze some enjoyment out of what might happen before we’re hit with the inevitable letdown of what actually does.
Because here’s the thing: The 2018 playoffs are shaping up to be fantastic. With a break here or there, we could get some truly amazing matchups. And not just in the first round, but all the way through. So today, let’s go through the realistic scenarios and try to settle on the best possible way that the entire tournament could play out.
We’re coming at this from the perspective of a neutral fan — obviously, your ideal playoffs would be the one where your team wins the Cup by going 16-0. And the matchups have to be plausible, so we can’t move anybody up or down too many spots in the standings just to create a dream pairing. But as we’ll see, we don’t really have to. With just a few tweaks to the current standings, things get really interesting in a big hurry.
The matchup: #3 Maple Leafs vs. #2 Bruins
Let’s start with an easy one, since this matchup has felt like it was inevitable for most of the season. There’s plenty to like here. It’s an Original Six matchup, it’s two good teams who’ve had some entertaining games recently, and there would be some fun matchup questions, like Auston Matthews vs. Patrice Bergeron.
And of course, the ghost of 2013 would hang over everything. The Maple Leafs’ legendary collapse in that series would be front and centre, even though most of the current roster wasn’t around for it and Mitch Marner doesn’t even look like he was born yet. Toronto fans will get sick of hearing about “It was 4–1” pretty much immediately, but it will add plenty of extra drama for everyone else.
Ideal outcome: This is a little trickier. If you’re someone who doesn’t like the Maple Leafs — and lord knows, there are plenty of you — then your ideal outcome here is a seventh game in which Toronto blows a 5–1 lead, followed by all their fans abandoning society forever and going off to live in the woods. But we’re trying to build the best possible tournament, so we’ll give the Maple Leafs a redemptive win.
The matchup: #WC2 Panthers vs. #1 Lightning
Florida’s late-season charge to an unlikely playoff berth rolls on. They were a dozen points out in January, but have stormed back to make things interesting. They’re a fun underdog story, led by the ageless Roberto Luongo. And if they go on a run, we all get to throw rats at people.
But here’s the best part. If they sneak into the last wild-card spot, look what’s waiting for them in the first round: The first ever Battle of Florida. The two teams have been in the same division for nearly a quarter of a century and have never met in the playoffs. Our ideal post-season makes it happen.
Ideal outcome: Underdog stories are great. Also great: the Lightning, who should win the series easily. Sorry, Panthers.
The matchup: #2 Penguins vs. #3 Flyers
This is a good rivalry that could use some rekindling, and there’s no better way to do that than with a first-round matchup.
These two teams have met in the playoffs three times during the cap era, but not since 2012. You might remember that as one of the crazier playoff rounds in recent memory, featuring games that ended with finals like 8–4, 8–5 and 10–3, and plenty of bad blood along the way.
A repeat performance is too much to ask for, but anything that even came close would be fantastic.
Ideal outcome: As much as the Flyers would love to be the ones to end the Penguins’ reign, we’re going to send the defending champs a little deeper into this bracket. Pittsburgh wins.
The matchup: #WC1 Devils vs. #1 Capitals
Look, they can’t all be dream matchups. But Devils/Caps would give us a nice old-school Patrick Division pairing, not to mention a fun Taylor Hall vs. Alex Ovechkin head-to-head, which would lead to a bunch of “best left winger in hockey” takes that would make Johnny Gaudreau fans really mad.
But if you wanted to swap in the Blue Jackets or Hurricanes here, go ahead. It won’t really matter, because…
Ideal outcome: The Capitals have to advance for the second-round matchup we all know is coming.
The matchup: #2 Jets vs. #3 Wild
Like the Battle of Florida, this is another natural geographic rivalry that’s never actually happened in the post-season. This year looks like the year that changes, with the odds of these teams meeting in the first round creeping past the 50-percent range.
Ideal outcome: Sorry, Minnesota, but this year’s Jets are way too much fun to only last a round.
The matchup: #WC2 Flames vs. #1 Predators
Realistically, you could pair just about any team with the Predators and end up with a great series, because the Predators are as entertaining as they come. If you want to swap in Dallas or the underdog Avalanche here, that works, too.
So why are we going with the fading Flames instead? Is this some sort of blatant Canadian homer pick, thanks to this post appearing on the website of the league’s national-rights holder?
[Glances nervously at Sportsnet TV executive hovering nearby.]
Uh, no. We just really like the Flames. Simple as that.
Ideal outcome: We can’t have an ideal post-season without at least one major first-round upset, and it’s tempting to slot that in here. After all, the Predators did it to the Blackhawks last year, and a Calgary win here would set up a classic Smythe Division showdown with the Jets in round two. But since we’re already pushing things by having the Flames here at all, we’ll concede that the loaded Predators can’t leave the party this early. Nashville moves on.
The matchup: #2 Sharks vs. #3 Ducks
The three-way Battle of California has been fun for years. These two teams have actually met only once in the playoffs, back in 2009 when the underdog Ducks knocked off the Presidents’ Trophy–winning Sharks in the opening round. That series is probably best remembered for how Game 6 got started.
But even with just the one post-season matchup, the games between these two always seem to feature some extra intensity.
Ideal outcome: Nearly a decade after the Ducks broke their hearts, let’s give the Sharks their payback win.
The matchup: #WC1 Kings vs. #1 Golden Knights
We saw these two teams hook up last month in an old-fashioned home-and-home that was all sorts of fun. The Kings won both of those games, but would go into this series as heavy underdogs.
Ideal outcome: The Kings pull off the upset.
I know, I know. I’m going to lose some of you here. The Knights have been one of the season’s best stories. They’re not just the best expansion team in NHL history — they’re probably the best ever in any sport.
But that’s why an upset here works. To borrow a local term, the Knights are already playing with house money. Do you really want to see an expansion team win the Cup? Maybe, since that would be a hilarious own on the other 30 teams that let it happen. But it would feel like too much, too soon, and the backlash would probably be ugly.
No, it’s better for all of us if the Knights get to continue being the lovable overachievers. And that means they have to eat some early playoff disappointment, if only to give them something to overcome next year. And a shocking loss to the Kings would give Vegas their first honest-to-goodness rivalry.
Let’s not get greedy. The Knights have been great, but it has to end sometime.
The matchup: #3 Maple Leafs vs. #1 Lightning
You’d have the best team in the league against its biggest market. Steven Stamkos against the team he spurned. Steve Yzerman against his old Norris Division foes. Jon Cooper’s humour against Mike Babcock’s scowl. And an absolute ton of offensive young talent that could turn this into a track meet.
Other than the two teams having the same uniforms, it would be just about perfect.
Ideal outcome: I’m a Leafs fan, so of course I’d want to see Toronto pull off the upset. There’s plenty of reason to think they could do it, too. And I feel like there may be other factors that I’m missing.
[Notices that Sportsnet TV executive is ominously cracking his knuckles.]
…Right. That, too.
But still, this year feels like it’s a little early to pull the trigger on the Leafs making a full-fledged Cup run. The team is young, and while windows are hard to predict, they should have plenty of time. The Lightning are young, too, but they’re a team built for right now. Having them win a close series here would inject a little adversity into the feel-good Leafs’ story, and raise the stakes on a rematch or two down the line.
Toronto fans starved for a championship push already have the Raptors to rest their hopes on. We can make them wait one more year for the Maple Leafs to get to that level. The Lightning get the nod here.
The matchup: #2 Penguins vs. #1 Capitals
The Pens/Caps rivalry is starting to feel like a cruel social experiment. How many times can you have the same team face the same opponent with the same results before they crack? We thought we might find out last year, when there were rumblings that the Capitals might blow it all up after another crushing loss to the Penguins. But cooler heads prevailed, at least temporarily. Do we even want to find out what would happen if the Caps lost to the Penguins yet again?
Ideal outcome: Yes, yes we do. Pens in seven. Preferably on an Ovechkin own goal in overtime.
The matchup: #2 Jets vs. #1 Predators
You’ve got two teams loaded with skill and speed. One is trying to get back to the final after falling just short of a championship a year ago, while the other would be trying to get out of the second round for the first time ever. And it would all play out in front of quite possibly the two loudest fan bases in the entire league, playing “Can you top this?” with the decibel levels as the series went back and forth.
And if you’re still not sold, did you see that game a few weeks ago?
Hook it into my veins.
Ideal outcome: Seven games, end-to-end action, and a whole bunch of sideline reporters holding the smouldering remains of sound-level meters in their hands.
[Looks up at Sportsnet executive now tapping a baseball bat in his palm.]
Also, the Jets win.
The matchup: #WC1 Kings vs. #2 Sharks
Round two of our post-season Battle of California, and this one is the main event. It would be the fifth time in eight years that these two teams crossed paths, including the 2014 series that saw the Kings come back from 3–0 down on their way to their second Cup win. So you’ve got history, lots of bad blood, and two equally matched teams.
Ideal outcome: Assuming he’s back by this point, Joe Thornton would be easily the league’s best Old Guy Without a Cup story. The Kings already have their rings, so let’s nudge Jumbo at least a little closer to his.
The matchup: Penguins vs. Lightning
What would happen if you took roughly half of the best players in the league and dumped them all into one playoff series, with a trip to the Stanley Cup final on the line? Hockey heaven, pretty much. We got this exact matchup in the 2016 conference final, and it turned into a seven-game classic. But that one still felt like it left something on the table, so bring on the rematch.
Ideal outcome: This one really depends on whether you’re getting sick of the Penguins’ mini-dynasty, or would want to see them take a run at the first three-peat in 35 years. Symmetry says we should give the Lightning the nod here, as payback for their 2016 loss, and that would work well. But while you really can’t go wrong with either team, we’re going to send the Penguins back to the final one more time.
The matchup: Sharks vs. Jets
This would be a dream matchup for fans of musical theatre–based puns, not to mention an opportunity for Thornton and Brent Burns to take Patrik Laine aside and deliver some hard truths about beard maintenance. But it would also make for a great series, with the up-and-coming Jets facing a Sharks team that’s running out of chances.
But there’d be another layer to this matchup. Remember back in January when some Sharks players called Winnipeg the league’s worst city to play in? Winnipeg fans sure do. And while that whole controversy felt a little bit contrived, it led to some genuine bad feelings that the rest of us would make sure to dredge up during a playoff series.
Ideal outcome: Here’s a secret about Canadian hockey fans: We don’t actually want another Canadian team to end the country’s Cup drought. We want our team to win. If that can’t happen, the last thing we want is to see some other Canadian city get to be the one that brings the Cup home. That’s what makes the annual “Canada’s Team” story so lame — it misses the point of how bitter and vindictive most of us are.
But it feels like the Jets could be the one exception to the rule. The team is good enough that a Cup run wouldn’t feel like a fluke, but not so good that their fans are already spoiled. They wouldn’t have bought their way to a title thanks to a big market, but also haven’t lucked into a bunch of lottery wins that make their success feel underserved. They’re an entertaining team, but they don’t get shoved down your throat by the national media. Plus, it’s Winnipeg. Who hates Winnipeg? (Other than the people who live there.)
Within a year or two, the Jets will be so good that they’ll be easy enough to hate. But this year feels like their window. If any team could actually unite the country’s fans behind them – or at least, not unite us all against them — this feels like the one.
Let’s find out. Winnipeg wins and heads to the Stanley Cup final.
STANLEY CUP FINAL
The matchup: Jets vs. Penguins
Sidney Crosby has been to four Stanley Cup finals, but never against a Canadian team. That could end this year, in a matchup between two of the league’s highest-scoring teams. In a way, this one would feel a lot like those Oilers/Islanders finals in the early ’80s, with the veteran champs fighting to hold onto the torch rather than pass it to the young heir apparent. But would it be like ’83, with the grizzled vets teaching the kids a lesson in how to win? Or ’84, with the new generation stakeing its claim?
Ideal outcome: That’s your call. Our job here was to deliver the 15 best matchups we could find, and that’s what we’ve done. Whether that dream tournament ends with Crosby and the Penguins raising a third straight Cup or with the Jets earning their first can be up to you. There’s no right answer here.
(Sure there is: Jets in seven.)