Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The 12 matchups you meet in the first round

With just over two weeks left until the start of the playoffs, there’s still plenty of time for the matchups to change. But you’re probably checking them anyway, at least if you root for a team that has a good chance at a spot. You can’t help it. Every fan wants to know who their favourite team will end up facing in the first round.

We can’t tell you which specific team you might end up with. But chances are, it’s going to be one of these dozen classic matchups that a hockey fan tends to meet in the first round.

No. 1: The good team that everyone’s picking

The team: They’re really, really good. They’ve got a great record, home-ice advantage, and a roster full of guys with Cup rings. This year, everyone seems to assume that they’ll win it all yet again.

This year's examples: The Blackhawks and Penguins.

How you feel about it: This is pretty close to the worst possible matchup you can draw in the opening round, since it offers little in the way of hope. If these guys show up to face your favourite team, you can go ahead and start penciling in other plans for late April, because your playoff run is probably ending early.

That said, if you work hard enough you can probably talk yourself into some vague sense of optimism. Hey, you'd have to go through these guys eventually if you want to win a Cup, so you might as well get it out of the way early, right? Maybe they'll take your team too lightly, or get caught looking ahead to tougher matchups down the line. Or maybe this is just the start of one of those epic underdog runs. This could happen. Why not us? Why not now?

Later, you'll deny ever believing any of those things when your team loses in five games.

No. 2: The good team nobody's picking

The team: They're good. At least, that's what their record says. They have lots of points and finished near the top of the standings. In theory, they should be right up there with the Stanley Cup favourites.

And yet...

Maybe it's because they weren't expected to be this good, or maybe it's because they haven't had any big playoff runs lately. But for whatever reason, nobody's really feeling it.

This year's examples: The Blue Jackets, for sure. Probably also the Wild and Senators, and maybe even the Canadiens.

How you feel about it: Great, at first. If you're a fan of a lower seed and you have to go up against a top team, this is the one you want. You get a decent shot at winning, plus all that fun underdog credibility.

But then the predictions start coming out, and everyone is taking your team as their mandatory upset pick. Suddenly, you don't feel like underdogs anymore. Wait, now the other team is rallying around the whole "nobody believes in us" thing. Are they allowed to do that? They finished ahead of us in the standings and have home ice, why is all the pressure on us all of a sudden?

Next thing you know, your team has lost the first two games on the road and you're wishing you'd drawn anyone else.

No. 3: The good team with a history of choking

The team: They had a great season and finished high in the standings. But they do that every year, and it always ends badly.

This year's examples: The Capitals are the obvious pick. The Blues. The Ducks. The Sharks are still there, too, although they shook some of that reputation with last season's run to the final.

How you feel about it: You understand that, in theory, the past shouldn't matter. Something that happened to Peter Bondra or Roman Turek a generation ago shouldn't have any impact on today. But we all know that's not quite true – hockey ghosts have a way of haunting teams for decades, and they tend to show up right when they can do the most damage to a fanbase's psyche.

That doesn't mean it will happen in the first round, and in fact there's something to be said for lulling everyone into a false sense of security. So you're not thrilled to see these guys in the opener. But you'll take it, because you know you'll always have a chance, even if you fall behind in the series. Maybe even especially if you fall behind.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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