Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Plotting out the ideal 2018 playoffs

It’s too early to start thinking ahead to how the 2018 playoffs could play out. It’s always too early. Even when you’re down to the final week of the season, it’s too early. As soon as you start looking forward to a matchup that’s all but locked in, the hockey gods will notice your happiness and reach down to smite it.

Remember a few years ago when we were all but assured of the first Toronto/Montreal matchup in 34 years, and then it all fell apart on the season’s final day? That’s because somebody out there got excited and ruined it. (That was me. I did that.)

So if your knee-jerk reaction to the premise of this post is “It’s too early, dummy,” then yes, you’re right. But we’re doing it anyway, if only so we can squeeze some enjoyment out of what might happen before we’re hit with the inevitable letdown of what actually does.

Because here’s the thing: The 2018 playoffs are shaping up to be fantastic. With a break here or there, we could get some truly amazing matchups. And not just in the first round, but all the way through. So today, let’s go through the realistic scenarios and try to settle on the best possible way that the entire tournament could play out.

We’re coming at this from the perspective of a neutral fan — obviously, your ideal playoffs would be the one where your team wins the Cup by going 16-0. And the matchups have to be plausible, so we can’t move anybody up or down too many spots in the standings just to create a dream pairing. But as we’ll see, we don’t really have to. With just a few tweaks to the current standings, things get really interesting in a big hurry.


The matchup: #3 Maple Leafs vs. #2 Bruins

Let’s start with an easy one, since this matchup has felt like it was inevitable for most of the season. There’s plenty to like here. It’s an Original Six matchup, it’s two good teams who’ve had some entertaining games recently, and there would be some fun matchup questions, like Auston Matthews vs. Patrice Bergeron.

And of course, the ghost of 2013 would hang over everything. The Maple Leafs’ legendary collapse in that series would be front and centre, even though most of the current roster wasn’t around for it and Mitch Marner doesn’t even look like he was born yet. Toronto fans will get sick of hearing about “It was 4–1” pretty much immediately, but it will add plenty of extra drama for everyone else.

Ideal outcome: This is a little trickier. If you’re someone who doesn’t like the Maple Leafs — and lord knows, there are plenty of you — then your ideal outcome here is a seventh game in which Toronto blows a 5–1 lead, followed by all their fans abandoning society forever and going off to live in the woods. But we’re trying to build the best possible tournament, so we’ll give the Maple Leafs a redemptive win.

The matchup: #WC2 Panthers vs. #1 Lightning

Florida’s late-season charge to an unlikely playoff berth rolls on. They were a dozen points out in January, but have stormed back to make things interesting. They’re a fun underdog story, led by the ageless Roberto Luongo. And if they go on a run, we all get to throw rats at people.

But here’s the best part. If they sneak into the last wild-card spot, look what’s waiting for them in the first round: The first ever Battle of Florida. The two teams have been in the same division for nearly a quarter of a century and have never met in the playoffs. Our ideal post-season makes it happen.

Ideal outcome: Underdog stories are great. Also great: the Lightning, who should win the series easily. Sorry, Panthers.

The matchup: #2 Penguins vs. #3 Flyers

This is a good rivalry that could use some rekindling, and there’s no better way to do that than with a first-round matchup.

These two teams have met in the playoffs three times during the cap era, but not since 2012. You might remember that as one of the crazier playoff rounds in recent memory, featuring games that ended with finals like 8–4, 8–5 and 10–3, and plenty of bad blood along the way.

A repeat performance is too much to ask for, but anything that even came close would be fantastic.

Ideal outcome: As much as the Flyers would love to be the ones to end the Penguins’ reign, we’re going to send the defending champs a little deeper into this bracket. Pittsburgh wins.

The matchup: #WC1 Devils vs. #1 Capitals

Look, they can’t all be dream matchups. But Devils/Caps would give us a nice old-school Patrick Division pairing, not to mention a fun Taylor Hall vs. Alex Ovechkin head-to-head, which would lead to a bunch of “best left winger in hockey” takes that would make Johnny Gaudreau fans really mad.

But if you wanted to swap in the Blue Jackets or Hurricanes here, go ahead. It won’t really matter, because…

Ideal outcome: The Capitals have to advance for the second-round matchup we all know is coming.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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