We’ve still got two months before the puck officially drops on the 2016 playoffs, but the stretch run is rapidly approaching. The All-Star break is firmly in the rear view mirror, and the trade deadline is just under two weeks away. We’re about to get a much clearer picture of which teams will be playing meaningful hockey in April and beyond.
To that end, some intriguing opening round possibilities are coming into focus. So here’s a look at four of the very best. These are based on the standings as of February 6. And remember, these are series we could see at the beginning of the playoffs, not the end. A potentially epic Kings-vs-Blackhawks Western Conference showdown isn’t here because there’s virtually no way they’re meeting in the first round…
1. Washington Capitals (first in the Metro Division) vs Pittsburgh Penguins (fourth, Metro)
Believe it or not, these two clubs haven’t met in a playoff series since 2009. Considering their relative proximity and the frequency with which they each qualify for the postseason, that’s almost inconceivable.
Did the Alex Ovechkin versus Sidney Crosby rivalry get blown out of proportion earlier in their careers? Maybe. But nothing that actually happened on the ice was a disappointment. The league saw a great marketing opportunity with its two biggest stars and pushed that rivalry as much as it could earlier this decade. Can’t blame them, but you also can’t blame the fans of clubs other than Washington and Pittsburgh who got a little burned out on all the hype.
That said, their 2009 playoff showdown was one for the ages. Both Ovechkin and Crosby rose to the occasion, leading the way for their respective teams in a brutal, seven-game grind that ultimately saw the Penguins advance in dramatic fashion, then go on to win the Stanley Cup. Over the seven contests, Ovechkin managed a ridiculous eight goals and six assists — including a hat trick in Game 2. Crosby countered with eight goals and five assists of his own — including a hat trick in the very same Game 2.
Would a rematch seven years later be as good? Who knows? And who wouldn’t want to find out? The two primary weapons might not match those lofty individual stats, but their presence alone would help rally their teammates to new heights — just as it did in 2009. Plus the dynamic is slightly different now. In 2009, the Pens were coming off a Cup loss to Detroit, and were ultimately on a mission to finally hoist the hardware themselves. Now the Caps would be the heavy favorites, though Pittsburgh has plenty of motivation in an underdog role. Especially with Crosby on an absolute tear now, after hearing the rumblings that he was somehow past his prime (at age 28, mind you) because he had the audacity to deliver a sub-par month earlier this season.2. Los Angeles Kings (first, Pacific) vs Anaheim Ducks (third, Pacific)
Los Angeles has won the Cup two of the last four years. Meanwhile, Anaheim was inches away from at least making an appearance in the Final last year — and looked like the best team in hockey for long stretches of the postseason.
Coming off their deep run in 2014-15, the Ducks came out of the gate extremely flat this season. But they’ve righted the ship lately and, while the Kings are most likely focused on how to beat the Blackhawks above anyone else, they’d probably prefer an opponent other than Bruce Boudreau’s group in the opening round. Few clubs can match LA’s size and physicality, but Anaheim comes close. And though the Ducks don’t quite have the playoff pedigree the Kings have, they are a team with plenty of big-game experience of their own.
Oh yeah, they’re also bitter rivals located 30 miles apart who have somehow only met in the postseason just once ever (a seven-game marathon in 2014).
3. Dallas Stars (second, Central) vs St. Louis Blues (third, Central)
There’s an interesting dynamic developing in the West, where the Blackhawks and Kings have more than established themselves as the clear-cut favorites over the last four years. If you’re a team on the cusp of contending, is it worth trading away future assets for rental players to try to make a run right now? It’s a sizable risk, because any path to representing the conference in the Stanley Cup likely goes through both Chicago and LA.
Dallas and St. Louis are in the very next tier, and they’re both likely willing to take that risk — for different reasons. The Stars have the third-best record in the NHL, and can score with anyone (3.21 goals per game, No. 2 overall). With the firepower they have up front, they need to do everything they can to push for a deep run. And the offseason acquisitions of Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya and Antti Niemi — all of whom bring a wealth of playoff experience to a relatively inexperienced locker room — only drives that point home.
Meanwhile, the Blues have won exactly one playoff series since 2002. They need to win. Like, now.
4. New York Rangers (second, Metro) vs New York Islanders (third, Metro)
The Islanders aren’t under quite the same amount of pressure to perform in the playoffs as St. Louis is at the moment, but they haven’t advanced past the opening round since 1993. They’d like to rectify that as soon as possible, and what better way to do so than by ousting their much more celebrated cross-town rivals?
The club from Brooklyn has the offensive talent, which was abundantly evident in their eight-goal outburst against Edmonton on Sunday. But the Rangers have had much more postseason success in recent years, having won eight best-of-seven series in their past four campaigns. On the one hand, they don’t look nearly as intimidating this time around as they have over the last few seasons. And it’s entirely possible that all those deep runs without actually winning it all are catching up with them, both mentally and physically. Then again, not many clubs are going to be ecstatic about staring down Henrik Lundqvist with the season on the line.