The Washington Capitals will face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the playoffs, and hockey fans have some mixed feelings about the matchup. On the one hand, it should make for a fantastic series, one that pits the regular season's two best teams against each other. But on the other, something seems off about a playoff format that serves up a matchup like this in the second round, while also giving us a Senators/Rangers series featuring two teams who finished well behind.
Let's put the playoff format debate aside for today, and focus on the positive: We may be about to see one of the best second-round matchups in NHL history.
That's a tougher list to put together than you might think, since the NHL has a long history of odd playoff formats. For the Original Six era, of course, the "second round" was the Stanley Cup final, so that doesn't really seem to fit what we're looking for. And for most of the 1970s, there was a best-of-three preliminary round that nobody was sure actually counted.
But in 1980, the league switched over to a four-round format that was close enough to what we have today that we can start our search there. So as the Caps and Pens get ready to face off, let's look back on the best second-round matchups of the last 37 years. (We're looking for the best matchups on paper here; we'll save a post on the ones that actually turned out to be the best seriesfor down the line.)<;
1988: Flames vs. Oilers
You could take your pick of four different Oilers/Flames matchups between 1983 and 1988; this is probably the greatest second-round rivalry in NHL history (although Canadiens/Nordiques might have something to say there). We'll go with the last of the group, since by 1988 it had been clearly established that the Battle of Alberta was the unofficial Stanley Cup final.
The matchup: The Oilers had won three of the last four Cups and had put up 99 points. But the Flames won the division (and the Presidents' Trophy) with a 105-point campaign. The series featured two of the league's three best regular season records.
The series: Ironically, the best of the Flames/Oilers matchups on paper produced the worst series. While their 1984 and 1986 matchups were both seven-game classics and gave us one of the most memorable moments of the decade, this one was a bust. While all the games were reasonably close, the Oilers swept the Flames aside in four games en route to one of the most impressive Stanley Cup runs ever -- they lost just two games in the entire playoffs.