With just six days left in the regular season, it’s getting tough to not look ahead to the playoffs. So today, let’s do exactly that, with a ranking of the 10 best realistic first-round matchups that we could be on the verge of seeing.
Of course, your definition of “realistic” might vary, but let’s draw a line in the sand at 10 per cent (based on the odds as calculated by Sports Club Stats). That means that some matchups won’t make the cut, even if they’re still technically possible and would be completely amazing. And yes, I’m talking about the Islanders and Rangers. Look, I’m still not over the way that all fell apart on us over the last few weeks.
Just give me a minute.
For the rest of the candidates, we’ll be considering a variety of factors. We’ll of course be looking for great hockey between two elite teams. A compelling storyline or two always helps. And any sort of rivalry or bad blood, recent or long-term, is a major bonus.
Granted, if you're a fan of a team headed to the post-season (hello, Americans!), you'd probably just prefer the easiest matchup possible and be done with it. But for the rest of us, here are the 10 best matchups to root for over the season's final week.
10. Detroit Red Wings vs. Tampa Bay Lightning – 38.2%
Contender status: Up until a few days ago, the Lightning looked like an Eastern favourite, but injuries to Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman have devastated those expectations. Meanwhile, the Red Wings have their hands full just making it to the post-season.
Potential storylines: Can a team that went all the way to the final last year be considered a scrappy underdog this time around? Given the Lightning's injuries, they might have to be. Meanwhile, the Wings would have the sentimental story of trying to make a run in what could be Pavel Datsyuk's last season.
Rivalry factor: The two teams faced each other for the first time last year, in what turned out to be an excellent series in which the Wings nearly pulled off the upset. As an added bonus, there's always the Steve Yzerman factor.
Bottom line: It would be a matchup between two teams that a lot of us are writing off this week, one of which would be moving on to the division final.
9. Boston Bruins vs. Florida Panthers – 11.8%
Contender status: Um… well… anything can happen in the playoffs, right?
Potential storylines: Both teams have more likely matchups – the Panthers are at 43.9 per cent to face the Islanders, while the Bruins would be 38.9 per cent to get the Lightning. But we'll pair them together here because
we want to get them both out of the way of some intriguing storylines. There's the Shawn Thornton factor, as the veteran enforcer faces the team he won a Cup with five years ago. Jaromir Jagr is a former Bruin, although that's not all that exciting because at this point he's a former almost-everyone. And maybe most intriguing, you get Roberto Luongo's rematch with the Bruins from the 2011 final.
Rivalry factor: Minimal, although there was some minor bad blood in a game a few weeks ago. They also met back in the 1996 playoffs, making the Bruins the only team the Panthers have ever beaten in the opening round.
Bottom line: Whoever they play, the Panthers are looking like a fun bandwagon team. Matching them up against a team that embraces the villain role as effortlessly as the Bruins would be a perfect fit.
Random clip to get you fired up: Can you feel that, Bruins? Can you feel it coming in the air tonight?