We’re now down to 10 days left in the NHL schedule, which means we can start looking ahead to the postseason. Sure, we’ve all secretly been doing that since mid-January, but now we can admit it. The playoffs are almost here. And it’s time to start figuring out which matchups to root for.
That’s going to be a little bit challenging, since unlike in years past, there’s no absolute sure thing looming. This time last year, we were already 99 percent locked into matchups like Montreal–Tampa Bay and Los Angeles–San Jose. This year doesn’t bring anything even close to that level of certainty.
Still, it’s important to start preparing early, since some of these matchups are better than others and we need to know what to root for. So here’s our list of the 10 most likely first-round matchups heading into last night’s action, as provided by the number crunchers over at hockeystats.ca, and ranked in increasing order of potential awesomeness.
10. Canucks vs. Kings: 48.2 percent
While this would be only an OK matchup on its own merits, it holds one key selling point: It’s by far the most likely matchup that involves the Kings actually making the playoffs.
You may or may not view that as a good thing. After all, the Kings have won two recent Cups, and have a nasty habit of barely squeezing into the playoffs before transforming into an unbeatable powerhouse. Maybe you’re tired of that act and would prefer to see somebody else get a shot.
But maybe the defending champions deserve a chance to go out on their shield, and that means they have to make the playoffs first. Besides, Kings playoff runs tend to be fun. Remember, the last team they beat in the first round was so crushed by the loss that it went completely insane and provided us with a good year’s worth of entertainment. And a long run could even get us a rematch of last year’s Hawks-Kings conference final. So even though this wouldn’t be an especially great matchup, there’s still good reason to root for it to happen.
As for Vancouver, the Canucks have had a surprisingly strong season and probably want no part of a first-round meeting with the defending champs. And that’s fine, because there’s a better matchup looming for Vancouver that we’ll get to down below.
Random old YouTube clip to get you fired up: Jarret Stoll scores in overtime in 2012, eliminating the no. 1–seeded Canucks and starting the Kings’ first Cup run.
9. Canadiens vs. Red Wings: 32.6 percent
This one would certainly have some appeal for history buffs. You’ve got a meeting of two Original Six teams, with all the nostalgia those matchups come preloaded with. And in this case, the pairing is a relatively unique one: These two teams haven’t met in the playoffs since 1978. It’s also two great hockey markets, with lots of championships between them.
You’ll notice I’m not really saying anything about the actual teams. That’s because, on paper, this doesn’t feel like a great fit as far as matchups go. For example, the Canadiens have the best goalie in the league in Carey Price, who’s going to win the MVP. The Red Wings don’t even seem quite sure who their starter is right now. Your gut tells you that that edge alone would be enough to turn this into an easy Habs win.
Your gut is probably wrong, though, since goaltending is voodoo, as this year has taught us. In the year of Devan Dubnyk and Cam Talbot and the Hamburglar, “Carey Price gets badly outplayed by Petr Mrazek” would fit right in as a story line. And there would be more to this series than goaltending, with plenty of star power to go around and the whole “Is this the end of Mike Babcock in Detroit?” subplot.
It’s an OK matchup. I’m sure it would be fine. But there are better possible opponents lurking for both of these teams. The Wings one is coming up a few spots down our list. As for Montreal, the matchup we all want to see is clearly the Boston Bruins — the two teams hate each other, and just about every series between them ends up being memorable. Unfortunately, that matchup isn’t looking likely, thanks in part to the NHL’s weird double-crossover system, which makes it possible for the Bruins to finish fourth in the Atlantic but get shipped off to the Metro instead. Hockeystats.ca has the Habs’ chances of playing the Bruins at only 17.2 percent, just a little better than their odds of getting the Islanders. You suck, crossover.
Random old YouTube clip to get you fired up: A vintage highlight reel of the 1954 “World Series of hockey” between the Wings and Habs.