We’re down to five days left in the regular season, and it’s starting to look like we could be in for an anticlimactic finish. Most of the playoff spots are spoken for, the individual scoring races are pretty much set, and only one division title is really still in play.
But for fans, there’s still something important to keep an eye on: the first-round matchups. Let’s face it: The opening round of the playoffs is pretty much the best time of the entire year, as we get a firehose of high-intensity hockey for two straight weeks.
That’s especially true when we get great matchups. So today, let’s look at the best first-round pairings that are still realistically in play. We’ll define “realistic” as 25 per cent or better, using the odds as calculated by Sports Club Stats.
Unfortunately, that rules out series like Leafs/Habs or Capitals/Penguins, which will have to wait for round two. But it still leaves us with plenty of potential matchups to get excited about, and we’ll break them down here.
No. 10: Capitals vs. Bruins (37.5%)
Contender status: Excellent on one side, as the Capitals will probably win the Presidents' Trophy. The Bruins, not so much, although there are still some numbers-oriented types who think they're underrated.
Rivalry factor: Minimal, although they did meet in the playoffs five years ago in what turned out to be a great series.
Potential storylines: With apologies to whoever the Caps end up playing, most of the focus in their opening round will be on Washington. Is this the year they can finally shake off all that baggage and win a Cup? Or is there another heart-breaking collapse right around the corner?
Bottom line: None of the potential Capitals matchups really jump out at you; they'll almost certainly end up getting the second wild card, which will be an Atlantic crossover team. That could still make for a decent series, but if you're looking for a can't-miss Capitals matchup, you'll probably have to wait for round two.
Random clip to get you fired up: Joel Ward's game-seven winner knocks out the defending-champion Bruins in 2012. If this goal happened today, the replay review for goalie interference would last roughly three days.
No. 9: Sharks vs. Oilers (52.6%)
Contender status: Not bad. The Sharks looked like the Pacific favourite a month ago, but they've been fading ever since. On the other hand, the Oilers are red hot, and have entered sneaky dark-horse territory.
Rivalry factor: Minimal. They've met in the playoffs once before, but that was 11 years ago.
Potential storylines: This would be the classic matchup between two good teams headed in opposite directions. The Sharks are the valiant veterans, trying to claw their way to one more run at the Cup after falling just short last year. They'd be facing a young Oilers team that'll do plenty of winning over the next decade, but may not be quite ready yet. Given where each team is at, the sight of a baby-faced Connor McDavid taking the opening faceoff against Joe Thornton's anthropomorphic beard might be a little too on-the-nose.
On top of that, there's also the Todd McLellan factor, as the Oilers coach would be facing the team that fired him in 2015.
Bottom line: Remember in the 1980s, when the young Oilers had to face the grizzled Islanders to truly learn what it took to win a Stanley Cup? This would be like a watered-down reboot of that concept.
Random clip to get you fired up: Like all great rivalries, this one features a Mike Vernon fight. Sort of. OK, not really. Like I said, the history here isn't all that rich, so we take what we can get.