Monday, February 11, 2019

Weekend rankings: Leafs vs. Habs is the playoff matchup we all deserve (even if you hate them)

One​ good rule of​ thumb​ for​ the​ NHL​ (and​ life) is​ that when absolutely​ everybody agrees on​ something,​ they’re probably wrong.​​ Well, these days, it seems like everybody agrees that a Toronto/Montreal first-round matchup would be awesome.

You know what? They’re not wrong.

Saturday’s matchup in Montreal was all sort of fun, featuring plenty of speed, three lead changes, a great crowd and a beautiful overtime winner. It was a great game, the kind you’d show to someone you were trying to talk into becoming a hockey fan.

And by the end of it, the Leafs and Habs were holding down the second and third spots in the Atlantic, respectively. Which means you could play the “if the playoffs started today” card and dream of the first postseason matchup between the two teams in four decades.

Here’s hoping you did, because the Bruins went and ruined it with yesterday’s win. That moved them back into the third spot, which would set up yet another Toronto/Boston matchup that represents just about the worst-case scenario for Leaf fans. But the playoffs aren’t starting today, because we still have two months to go, which means two months to get this right.

We’ve been down this road before, of course. Back in 2013 some of us got way too excited about a Toronto/Montreal matchup – OK, fine, I got way too excited – and then the Senators screwed it up for everybody on the season’s final night, setting up a series between the Leafs and Bruins instead. I don’t remember how that one ended. I’m sure it wasn’t important.

The point is that a Toronto/Montreal matchup would be amazing. If you’re a fan of either team, it would be a once-in-a-generation chance to beat your oldest rival. And if you’re not, it would be a chance to watch two fan bases that take themselves way too seriously have a weeks-long meltdown. Either way, you win! Or, you know, suffer a soul-crushing defeat from which you may never recover. One of those two things.

It’s somewhat amazing that we haven’t seen the Leafs and Habs play against each other in the playoffs since that matchup way back in 1979. They were in different conferences for some of that, but they’ve been division rivals since 1998 and have still managed to avoid each other. The lesson, as always: the hockey gods hate us.

There’s another all-Canadian rivalry matchup that’s still in play, although barely. The Flames and Oilers somehow haven’t met since 1991 but could pair off this year if Edmonton could climb back into a wildcard spot. That’s looking less likely by the day, which is as good a reason as any to enjoy the idea now.

But if you’re a Canadian fan who’s already given up on the Oilers, there’s always the Canucks. They’ve hanging in that wildcard race, sitting just two points back heading into tonight’s action and could play the Flames or the Jets if they made it. Either of those would be a nice Smythe Division callback, not to mention an intriguing underdog story. Let’s do one of those.

Actually, screw it – if Canadian fans are going to dream here, let’s go big. Let’s have Leafs vs. Habs, Canucks vs. Jets, and Oilers vs. Flames. That might be mathematically unlikely, but it would make for an April that the entire country could enjoy. (Looks over and notices Senators fans sitting sadly by themselves watching Jack Hughes highlights with trembling chins.) That would make for an April that almost the entire country could enjoy. Look, we’re doing our best here.

In the meantime, I’m told there are also teams in the United States and that some of them might have been playing this weekend. A few of them might show up in this week’s rankings. Let’s find out.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a summer of keg stands and fountain pool parties.

We haven’t had much of a chance to talk about the Rangers in this section this year, and depending on how long the rebuild takes, it could be a while before we get the chance again. But we’ll do it this week, thanks to Friday’s ceremony that honored the 1994 team that snapped a 54-year championship drought.

We can get caught up in wins and losses and xGF and PDO and whatever else, but that clip is a nice reminder of what’s really at stake for the teams in the top five and the others fighting to get in. This is, after all, about the Road To The Cup. Win it, and fans will still be celebrating a quarter-century later. Flags really do fly forever.

Oh hey, speaking of New York …

5. New York Islanders (33-16-6, +29 true goals differential*) – It’s time.

Yes, fine, maybe it was time weeks ago. I hear you, Islander fans. But we’re here now. You win.

I’m still not convinced that the Islanders are necessarily a better team top-to-bottom than others that could make a claim for this spot, like the Predators or the Maple Leafs. But after a pair of weekend wins to open up a five-point lead over the Capitals on top of the Metro, and with the Blue Jackets and Penguins in turmoil, the Islanders unquestionably have a much easier path out of the first two rounds than those teams. And if we’re trying to predict a Cup winner, that matters.

I’m going against some of the Stanley Cup models out there, like this one and (especially) this one, and the oddsmakers still haven’t caught up to what the Islanders are doing. And maybe a team like Nashville or Boston goes out and makes the sort of big-time deadline acquisition that pushes them back up the list.

If they do, we’ll adjust accordingly. But at this point, the Islanders have as good a case as anyone and a better case than most. And they’ve certainly waited their turn. They’re in.

4. Winnipeg Jets (35-18-3, +33) – The focus in Winnipeg is on holding off the Predators to win the Central. But their pending RFAs are a looming story, especially now that Auston Matthews has set the top of the market. Murat Ates took a look at the possibilities earlier this week.

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