Monday, May 3, 2021

Weekend rankings: Predators up, Jets down, and getting excited about potential matchups

So about those furious playoff races down the stretch. Uh, never mind.

As far back as the final rankings of March, we worried about whether most of the races would be already decided by now. And sure enough, that’s pretty much what’s happened. Ten teams have mathematically clinched, and a few more are solidly in “unless there’s a miracle” territory. The East is done, with four teams locked in and only seeding to play for. The Blues’ surge combined with a Coyotes cold streak has all but ended the West race. In the North, the Habs’ late-season wobble opened the door, but the Flames and Canucks said “No thanks, we’re fine”, meaning we’re pretty much set there too.

If you enjoy a good late-season bubble watch, you’re down to the Stars and Predators in the Central. That’s pretty much it. And even that race could be done within days.

Ah well. This is hockey, and all we can do is adjust on the fly. So let’s do that, by turning our attention to the matchups we might get in round one. There’s some good news there, because man, the first round might be amazing.

Emphasis on “might”, because if you’ve been a fan long enough you know how this goes. A matchup looks like a sure thing, you let yourself get hyped for it, and then something weird happens on the season’s final week that blows it. We’ve all been there. I’ve sure been there. And I am ready to get hurt again, so let’s do this.

We covered a few of the matchups we should be rooting for last week, including the potential for the first-ever Battle of Florida. That one’s looking more likely, as the Hurricanes are in good shape to run out the clock on the division title. That would give us a Florida/Tampa matchup that would be all sorts of fun, not to mention pairing Carolina with either Dallas or Nashville, both of which would be sneaky cool matchups of non-traditional markets that we normally couldn’t get in a conference-based format. The Central looks good.

The West seeding might come down to the wire, and there’s a temptation to view their first round as the undercard to an inevitable Knights/Avs showdown in round two. Maybe it works out that way, but we know enough not to get ahead of ourselves, so let’s focus on the appetizer of one of those powerhouses facing a very good Wild team while the other tries to figure out a Blues team that looked awful for most of the season but has recently flipped the switch. By the way, the Blues have never played the Knights in the playoffs and somehow haven’t faced the Avalanche in 20 years, so if you’re a “fresh matchup” sort of fan, you’ll get your wish.

The East matchups remain up in the air, but there really aren’t any bad ones in play. We’re rooting for that Pens/Caps matchup, although that’s looking a little less likely now than it did a few days ago. No worries, though, because even if it doesn’t happen, we’ll get something cool. Caps/Bruins? It’s the Zdeno Chara revenge series. Penguins/Islanders? All sorts of Patrick Division baggage, plus some cap era bad blood. Penguins/Bruins? One of the most underrated rivalries in modern history. You can do this for just about any series that’s in play. OK, maybe Bruins/Islanders doesn’t have a ton of history, but we could at least make fun of Mike Milbury. The East should be great.

And then we get to the North, and the big one: the first Leafs/Canadiens matchup in over 40 years. We’re not locked in yet, because the Jets have decided to put third place back in play (and honestly, having the one team nobody in Canada hates be the one to blow a Toronto/Montreal series would be a great heel turn). But at this point, it’s at least likely that we’ll finally get the first Leafs/Habs series in a generation, which will splinter families and end friendships, the way all great hockey rivalries should. Mix in an Oilers/Jets reunion three decades after their one-sided Smythe rivalry, as we get to see if Connor McDavid can break the postseason scoring record in one series, and the North will be must-see TV unless they figure out a way to blow this.

I mean, just about all of that sounds pretty great. And sure, some of it might fall through, or end up being pushed back to the second round. Like we said, don’t get too invested. But it’s OK to start looking forward a little, if only because outside of Dallas and Nashville, we don’t have much to get excited about over the final two weeks.

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