Playoff hockey is great. In fact, let’s just be honest here – the NHL postseason is the best postseason in any sport. Maybe I’m biased (I am), but even most neutral sports fans will agree that playoff hockey takes the game to an entirely new level. And overtime in the postseason? Don’t even get me started.
The playoffs are also still about a month and a half away though. But the list of teams that will likely be making an appearance is starting to come into focus, and the possibilities are intriguing. This year’s race for the Stanley Cup might be even more wide open than usual, and a number of rivalries – both longstanding and fresh – could be renewed with the season on the line. With that in mind, here are five potential first round matchups that could change the world. Of hockey…
5. New York Rangers vs New York Islanders
Season Series: 3-1 Islanders.
Playoff History: Islanders have 5-3 edge in series wins.
Storylines to Watch: Of the eight playoff series between the two New York clubs, the winner has gone on to hoist the Stanley Cup four times. Not saying that happens this year but, if last week’s 6-5 barn burner on Long Island is any indication, this could really be an epic showdown. The last time the Isles had the upper hand in New York, Van Halen and Duran Duran were popular.
But, with John Tavares and Jaroslav Halak leading the way while an under-the-radar supporting cast fills the holes, they’ve looked formidable at times this season. Of course, the Rangers have one of the top goal scorers in all of hockey on their roster. And just think how much fans of the blueshirts would enjoy ending the Islanders’ final campaign on Long Island. You know, if New Yorkers were mean to each other like that.
4. Los Angeles Kings vs Anaheim Ducks
Season Series: 2-0-1 Ducks.
Playoff History: 1-0 Kings.
Storylines to Watch: At some point, one of the other California teams has to step up and dethrone the Kings, right? The Ducks nearly did it last year, pushing LA to seven games before falling 6-2 on home ice. That came on the heels of the Kings spotting San Jose a 3-0 series lead before surging back to rip the Sharks’ hearts out again, so we’re going with Anaheim as the team with the best shot right now. Last year’s Round 2 matchup was the first ever playoff meeting between the two clubs, and it didn’t disappoint. This season, all three games have gone to overtime.
The two arenas are just 30 miles apart, yet anyone who has been to Southern California will tell you there’s quite a divide between the two fanbases. And with the sport growing exponentially in the state, what better way for the Ducks to reassert their place among the league’s elite than by ousting the defending Cup champs?
3. Boston Bruins vs Montreal Canadiens
Season Series: 4-0 Canadiens.
Playoff History: 25-9 Canadiens.
Storylines to Watch: Well, for one thing, these two teams have played 34 playoff series against each other. Half the teams on this list haven’t even been in 34 playoff series total over the duration of their franchise’s existence. So history is on the side of this matchup, as is a healthy hatred that has been built up over about 85 years.
These two clubs go way back, meeting in the playoffs as early as 1929, eliminating each other nine consecutive years from 1984-92 and even going seven games in the second round just last season. Which takes us back to the hatred. Remember Zdeno Chara and Max Pacioretty? Milan Lucic and Dale Weise? P.K. Subban and the Boston fans? Those were all just within the last half decade. I could go on, but I’m running out of room.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins vs Washington Capitals
Season Series: 3-0 Capitals.
Playoff History: 6-1 Penguins.
Storylines to Watch: Pittsburgh has the distinct advantage in terms of playoff history, but Washington has held the Pens to just one goal in three games so far this season. They have one more matchup (this Wednesday), then they won’t see each other until the postseason. Thing is, that postseason matchup could absolutely happen. All four of the top teams in the Metro are separated by just a couple points, and a Sidney Crosby-Alex Ovechkin reunion would be just about perfect for the NHL.
Believe it or not, the two have only met once in the postseason, and it was one of the best series in recent memory. The Caps went up 2-0, the Penguins rallied to win three straight and ultimately took down the series in seven games before going on to win the Cup. And just for fun, Crosby and Ovechkin delivered matching hat tricks in Game 2. Pittsburgh definitely brings out the best in Ovie, who has only won two playoff series since that showdown in 2009.
This could be Washington’s best shot at a deep playoff run in years. The Penguins have plenty of motivation this year as well though, after coming up short of that elusive second Cup and making plenty of offseason moves. This looked like it would be an annual rivalry in the playoffs. It’s time to renew it.
1. Chicago Blackhawks vs St. Louis Blues
Season Series: 2-1 Blackhawks.
Playoff History: 4-3 Blackhawks.
Storylines to Watch: For pure entertainment value and excitement, this series might be the best. These two met in the postseason just last year, half the Blues were hurt or out of the lineup and they still went six games – with four of those games going to OT. Until proven otherwise, the Blackhawks are the team to beat out of the Central, and they know what it takes to win in the playoffs. But St. Louis plays them closely, and the emergence of Vladimir Tarasenko as a bona fide star – on top of the key pieces they already had in place – makes this arguably the best Blues team in recent memory.
Now imagine seven games of Tarasenko doing Tarasenko things, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane countering for Chicago and an ensemble cast of David Backes, Patrick Sharp, T.J. Oshie and, like, nine other All-Stars chiming in as well. Go ahead, just sit there and imagine it.
We can wait.