Thursday, April 4, 2019

When playoff matchups nobody is all that excited about turn out to be great

With​ just a few days​ left​ in​ the​ regular​ season,​ we’re starting​ to get some​ clarity around the​ first-round​ playoff pairings. We’re​​ going to get to see some of the matchups we were hoping for, like the Sharks facing the Golden Knights, another rematch between the Maple Leafs and Bruins, and probably also the Penguins squaring off with the Islanders. On paper, each of those looks like it should be great.

Of course, there will also be a handful of matchups that don’t seem to have quite as much going for them. Flames vs. Avalanche? That should be fine. Lightning vs. Blue Jackets? I guess. Stars at Jets or Predators? Why not, sure. Those are all good teams, and those matchups should be worth watching. There just won’t be much in the way of history or obvious storylines to get excited about.

That’s the thing about NHL playoff matchups. Sometimes you get two longtime rivals or star-studded contenders on a collision course, and all the hype just writes itself. But sometimes you get two teams where you just kind of go “sure, that will be OK.”

Then again, we’ve been down this road before. Every season brings at least a few matchups that, at least in the lead-up, don’t generate much more than a shrug emoji. But sometimes, at least one of those series ends up being among the very best we see.

So today, let’s get set for the postseason by remembering some of the times that a playoff series that didn’t necessarily seem to have much going for it turned out to be great, or at least memorable. This isn’t the full list, of course, and you’re welcome to chime in with your own picks in the comments. But these picks all serve as reminders that sometimes, a matchup that seems underwhelming can turn out to be something more than you were expecting.

1997: Oilers vs. Stars

The matchup: The Stars had finished tied for the league’s second-best record with 104 points. Despite finishing under .500, the Oilers snuck into the West’s final playoff spot.

Why it was underwhelming: Dallas had only recently made the leap from also-ran to powerhouse, while the Oilers hadn’t even made the playoffs in four years. This was going to be your typical speed bump matchup between a legitimate Cup contender gearing up for a long run and a mediocre team that was just happy to be there.

But then…: Game 1 mostly followed the script, with the Stars holding on for the expected win. But an Oilers shutout in Game 2 signaled that we might have a series on our hands, and the next five games were all one-goal nail-biters. The Oilers won three of them in overtime, including a 1-0 double OT thriller in Game 5. And of course, the series ended with one of the most stunning Game 7 overtime sequences in recent memory:

In a case of diminishing returns, the two teams would meet again in five of the next six postseasons, with the Stars winning each and every one. But just because the sequels were bad doesn’t mean the original was any less of a classic.

2010: Canadiens vs. Capitals

The matchup: The Capitals had run away with the Presidents’ Trophy. The Canadiens had barely made the playoffs with 88 points.

Why it was underwhelming: In the first (and still only) playoff meeting between the two teams, the only question was whether Montreal would manage to win a game before Washington moved on to their inevitable showdown with the Penguins.

But then…: Montreal did indeed win a game, taking the opener on the road. But then Alexander Ovechkin and the high-flying Capitals settled in, pumping home 17 goals over the next three games to take a 3-1 series lead back to Washington.

And then, Jaroslav Halak showed up.

Halak went on to steal three straight games as the Canadiens pulled off the stunning upset despite the Capitals largely dominating all three games. To this day, it remains perhaps the greatest example of a hot goalie derailing a powerhouse. Halak and the Habs would go on to surprise the Penguins too before finally falling to the Flyers. Meanwhile, the Capitals’ reputation as playoff chokers had been cemented, and the loss sent the organization through a half-decade of self-doubt and bad decisions.

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