Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Ranking the best playoff openers of the cap era

Among hockey fans, it’s become almost cliché to say that the first round of the postseason is the best time of the year. It’s also indisputably true. With 16 teams in action and hockey on pretty much all the time, you can be virtually guaranteed that something wild will happen somewhere. The first round is pretty great.

In fact, I’ll go one further: My favorite time to be a hockey fan is during the first 48 hours of the playoffs. Every series is a blank canvas at that point, and it feels like anything can happen. You don’t know which of the favorites are for real, and which are about to be exposed. You don’t know which of the underdogs might be starting their miracle run. It’s early enough that nothing feels like a total disaster for anyone, but everything is important. Add on to that, the several-day waiting period between the end of the regular season and playoff puck drop, which increases the demand. It’s so much fun.

This year’s postseason is going to be unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, and there’s no guarantee we’ll even get to see it finish. But we’re going to get an opening 48 hours that has the potential to be absolutely amazing. In just two days next weekend, on (man this feels weird to write) Aug. 1 and 2, we’ll see all eight play-in openers, plus two bonus games as part of the round-robin, with the action starting early in the afternoon and going all day long. There’s still confusion over whether any of this formally counts as the “playoffs” or postseason or something else, but I’m not sure that’s going to matter to fans once the puck drops. Mix in more uncertainty than we’ve ever had heading into a postseason, and the seemingly endless drought of four months without hockey suddenly coming to an end via a firehose, and next weekend might end up being just about the best thing ever.

Or maybe it will be a bust. You never know, especially these days. As we count down the days to the NHL’s return, let’s get into the right mindset with a ranking of the best opening 48 hours of playoff action in the cap era.

To qualify for this list, there are a few factors that I’m looking for to be considered a great first 48. You want to have every series starting, without any weird stragglers that show up a few days late and throw off the rhythm. I want to be surprised by a few upsets. It goes without saying that you want as much overtime as possible. And ideally, you’ll have a few intriguing storylines pop up that will pay off down the road, even if you don’t quite know it yet.

Give me all of that, and I won’t regret the fact that I didn’t leave my couch or speak to my family for two straight days. Of course, some years have been better than others, so let’s dive into the ranking.

14. 2009

The Bruins and Sharks went in as the top seeds, with the Wings and Caps also looking strong, and young teams in Chicago and Pittsburgh lurking. The playoffs started on April 15 and 16 with all eight series openers.

Upsets: Maybe none? Home teams won six of the eight openers, and the only two who lost were the Capitals (to the Rangers) and Sharks (to the Ducks). Remember, this was back in 2009, so seeing the Caps or Sharks choke wasn’t really anything you’d consider a surprise.

Overtime: Just one game, and it only lasted 12 seconds thanks to Martin Havlat’s quick winner for the Hawks over the Flames.

Emerging story: That Hawks win was their first in a playoff game since 2002 and just their second since 1997, and served as a signal that this young team might be for real. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh and Detroit both posted impressive 4-1 wins to start their road to a Stanley Cup final rematch that eventually happened.

Overall: No real upsets and just 12 seconds overtime? Pass. The only good thing about this opener was that they gave us eight games. Then again, how can you screw up something as simple as having every series open over the first two nights? Let me take a big sip of water as we scroll to the next entry …

13. 2013

The playoffs start late due to the lockout, with games on April 30 and May 1. Even worse, the first two nights saw just six games, as Sens/Habs and Rangers/Caps had to wait on the sidelines. Six games! This was, it goes without saying, completely unacceptable.

Upsets: Only one, and it barely counted, with the visiting Sharks beating a Canucks team that finished two points ahead of them.

Overtime: A pair of games on opening night, with the Hawks beating the Wild on a Bryan Bickell goal and the Blues beating the Kings on a rare overtime shorthanded goal by Alex Steen that Jonathan Quick would like to forget.

Emerging story: The Maple Leafs made their return to the playoffs after nearly a decade, but they lost to the Bruins by a final score of 4-1 because that is an insurmountable lead.

Overall: Some of the moments were fun, but come on, only six games over the first two nights of action? Don’t ever do this again, NHL.

12. 2008

The playoffs began on April 9 and 10 with four games each night, but there was a twist: the Flames and Sharks double-dipped with two games, while the Flyers and Capitals sat out.

Upsets: Visitors took three of four on opening night, with only the Penguins holding serve against the Senators. The favorites did better on night two, with only the Stars pulling off the only road win with a 4-0 decision over the Ducks.

Overtime: Just one, with the Avs beating the Wild on a Joe Sakic winner.

Emerging story: The openers featured three shutouts, and none of the games had more than five goals. Wait, I thought we fixed scoring back in 2006?

Overall: Another weird schedule, low-scoring games and only one overtime add up to a pretty lackluster start.

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