Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Ranking the ten best first-round matchups we might realistically see

We’re​ down to less​ than​ two​ weeks​ left​ in​ the regular​ season, and for​ a handful of teams​ still​ jockeying for wild-card​​ positions, there’s plenty left to play for. But for most fans, our teams are either locked into a playoff spot or already eliminated. There’s still seeding and home ice to play for, sure, but for the most part, we know whether our team is in or out.

And that means it’s time to start looking ahead to the single best time to be a hockey fan: The first round of the playoffs. It’s the best, just two straight weeks of non-stop hockey between teams that either already hate each other or are about to.

Let’s start the hype. But we have to do it responsibly. After all, there’s no point getting all worked up over a matchup that’s almost definitely not going to happen. I’d love to see the Jets face the Predators or Leafs vs. Habs as much as the next guy, but it would take a near-miracle to make those happen in the first round. We need to figure out which pairings actually have a shot at happening.

Luckily, our pal Dom Luszczyszyn has done that work for us. His projections page now includes a section for most likely playoff matchups. Today, let’s pick an arbitrary cutoff – let’s say 30 percent based on the March 26 update – and count down the ten best first-round matchups that we have a realistic shot at seeing. We’re looking for the total package: good teams that are legitimate contenders, an established rivalry, as much star power as possible and some interesting storylines.

With that in mind, here are the ten best matchups that look like they might actually happen.

10. Avalanche vs. Flames (47 percent likelihood)

Contender status: Not bad on the Flames side. The Avalanche are a major longshot.

Rivalry factor: Low. They’re not in the same division and they’ve never met in the playoffs. Aside from the whole Ian Cole/Sam Bennett incident back in November, there hasn’t been all that much bad blood between the two teams that didn’t involve poorly thought-out offers sheets.

Potential storylines: Only one of these teams made the playoffs last year and it was the Avalanche. That makes it kind of tough to call this some sort of classic underdog battle, even though it would probably feature a one-seed against a second wildcard. Instead, let’s focus on all the offensive firepower and questionable goaltending and hope we’d get some shootouts. (No, not those, the good kind.)

Random clip to get you fired up: The Flames score five straight in the third period to roar back to win that November game.

Bottom line: Calgary is one of those teams that’s going to make the playoffs but doesn’t yet have a clear opponent emerging, although the Avalanche are getting close. Personally, I’d probably rather see them face the Coyotes, but they don’t meet our 30 percent threshold. Still, the Avs at least bring some star power and it’s not like the Flames and their shaky goaltending are exactly looking upset-proof.

9. Hurricanes vs. Capitals (35 percent)

Contender status: The Caps are the defending champs. The Hurricanes haven’t made the playoffs in nine years, although that won’t stop all the analytics types from picking them to win this series anyway.

Rivalry factor: Who has fond memories of the Southeast Division? (Scans room.) Right, nobody. Still, they’ve at least been division rivals for two decades, even though they’ve never met in the playoffs.

Potential storylines: Celebrations. Last year, the Capitals took post-Cup hijinks to a new level. This year, it’s the Hurricanes and their Storm Surge. Does that prove that having a bit of fun is OK? Or are the Capitals still the counter-example, because they waited until they’d actually won something to get goofy? Get ready to hear all about it, whether you want to or not.

Once we get that out of the way, this sets up nicely for the well-worn storyline of the young up-and-comers running into the grizzled veterans who aren’t ready to give up the throne quite yet. Having a respected veteran like Justin Williams face his old team adds a bit of intrigue.

Random clip to get you fired up: OK, “fired up” may be overselling it a bit, but how about Alexander Ovechkin scoring a hat trick in a 6-5 win?

Bottom line: There’s no real history here to speak of. But the present features two good teams who could make for an intriguing matchup. We could do worse.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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